Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon Breaking the Spell discussion


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Open minds lead to peace?

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Tucker Daniel Dennett says that beliefs should not be immune from rational critique simply because they fall under the category of "religion." We should critically examine religious beliefs--our own, and those of others--and hold them up to logical standards.

In today's Boston Globe (Feb. 29, 2008, p. A15), Ellen Goodman's column "Shopping for Religion" made a point that is a nice complement to Dennett's. Goodman was responding to the recently released survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which shows that 44 percent of Americans have changed their affiliation from the religion they were born into. Goodman speculated: "When religion was cast in stone, it seems that we were more likely to cast stones. It may be the new pluralism and the framing of religion as a choice that makes us more accepting."

Why would understanding religion as a choice make us more accepting of other people's religions? After all, don't we often disapprove of other people's choices? It may be, more specifically, the understanding of religion as a choice that one makes for certain reasons and continues to make available for rational debate (as in Dennett's ideal world) that makes us more tolerant of each other. Someone who chooses his or her religion for identifiable reasons, and who might well choose a different religion if given a different set of facts and experiences, is someone with whom we can have a dialogue; whereas someone who holds a particular worldview simply due to the circumstances of his or her birth, and who has no interest in expanding or altering that worldview, is someone who is more difficult to talk to peacefully and constructively.

From that perspective, it isn't changing our entire religious affiliations per se that promotes peace, but rather the willingness to change certain religious beliefs if provided with good reasons to do so. Thoughts?


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A thought well thunk, Tucker. As a convert to Judaism, I chose religion for certain reasons, learned more along the way ... but I also don't think, now that I've committed, that I would completely switch. But Judaism may be the oddball: It is religion, nation, and people. Don't believe the Torah's literal experience? (I never did.) Don't worry! You're still a Jew.


Mark I think that it is a nice idea to believe that "certain religious beliefs" being changed could promote peace, but I cannot help but to think of the Hindu religion, where the accepted thought (this is general) is that all mankind worships the same godhead (Brahman), but simply by different means, and its ongoing factions. With that in mind, I do not think that changing certain religious beliefs will promote peace as much as the injection of rational and prolonged understanding of cultures by one another: which brings me to a second point.
I have not found that people will change any religious belief, creed or opinion "if provided with good reasons to do so." Religious thought is not changed with prolonged understanding, rational decision-making or any other intellectual mean. Rather, I think that people change their religious beliefs because they find that 1) they are happier doing so, 2)the change allows them to live their life in a way that their original viewpoint did not.
Finally, I do not think that any religion truly allows for meaningful change, but only variations on the original doctrines, mostly out of social pressure or embarassment.
I take Ms. Goodman's point ("shopping for a religion") to mean that nowadays people want to be blissfully happy and change (buy something new...) rather than adhere to something that claims absolute and univeral truths and be forced to accept social limitations brought forth by doing so.


Tucker Hi Mark,

My original suggestion was that it is not religious conversion itself, but rather the willingness to change one's beliefs and practices for the right reasons (regardless of whether one actually does change), that might promote peace. Open-mindedness and dialogue, used to understand others, yes, but also applied to culturally analyze oneself and put oneself and one's opinions in a certain humbled perspective among the other mutable, transitory things in the universe.

Your second point is interesting... You seem to be saying that religion fills a mainly pragmatic function of enhancing life, and that most people don't take their religious beliefs literally (or, if they do, are not willing to evaluate them rationally at the potential cost of having to up their preferred religious lifestyle). I might agree. But then, there is a distinction to be made between what people actually do with their religion, and the various pleasant scenarios that might occur if they were to do something different.

I agree that, when you change your beliefs enough, you break the bonds of the original religion. That's why I tend to float in and out of religions! To me, thinking is more important than the labels under which my thoughts briefly land me.


Mark Hi Tucker;
I wonder what a “right reason” would be. Religious belief is not typically based on some understanding but lack of (i.e. it allows one to “explain” something that is deemed unexplainable). Reason (right or not) for religious belief seems clear: fear and the unknown. Changing one’s religious beliefs does not necessarily change the reasons that one believes. In fact, I would propose that if you change the reasons that you have religious beliefs, you in essence destroy any purpose that religion had in the first place.
I certainly agree that “Open-mindedness and dialogue” are helpful to “understand others…analyze oneself”, but only if that dialogue is based on some objective goal or purpose. Without a relation to objective reality, “Open-mindedness and dialogue” become nothing more than a literary but very intellectually empty game. I’m not sure what “mutable, transitory things in the universe” are.
I didn’t mean my second point to allow that “religion fills a mainly pragmatic function of enhancing life”. Rather, I meant that religious belief is nothing more than an emotional response to an objective reality that can be explained without religion. The fact that many people choose to explain objective reality through religious belief is a sign that they base their beliefs not on reasoned out and rational grounds, but on emotional and mostly rationality-free responses to it. This is what I meant with my two points. That being said, I do believe that people take their religious beliefs literally (and very seriously). They are forced to or the emotional appeal (what they deem as their “reasons”) loses its power over them. Rarely do I find a religious person who claims “I believe that there is a God, but I do not know that there is.” Rather, they say tend to propose that their belief is based on some “knowledge” that they have about the truth of their proposition (although they define “knowledge” in such a way that gives it no relationship to any sort of objective reality).







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