Quote of the day: Walter Kaufmann #3

As with the last two days, this quote is from Walter Kaufmann’s book The Faith of a Heretic (Doubleday & Co., New York, 1961; quote from page 145). Here Kaufman makes yet another point that I haven’t thought of: the bias incurred by studying only your own faith.  We know from John Loftus’s “outsider test for faith” that the vast majority of people simply adopt the faith of their region without considering other religions, but I hadn’t thought of comparing this to how we view science:

“The rejection of natural and dogmatic theology does not involve any repudiation of the critical, historical, and psychological study of religion. On the contrary, such inquiries are most valuable. Those who want to improve their thinking about the important questions of life and become more conscientious should surely consider the divergent answers given by some of the great religions.

One need not ignore the theologians; but instead of studying theology one should study theologies—as part of the history of religions. The committed study of a single theology—or a single philosophic system, or the views of a single scientist whose theory differs from the theories of many other scientists—is a training in unsound method, partiality, and special pleading.  Instead of being taught how some one theory can be patched up indefinitely if only we allow it privileges that we carefully deny to its competitors, students should be exposed to a variety of views and led to discover what can be said for and against each.”

33 Comments

  1. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    “Instead of being taught how some one theory can be patched up indefinitely if only we allow it privileges that we carefully deny to its competitors, students should be exposed to a variety of views and led to discover what can be said for and against each.”

    Wow. L

    • Achrachno
      Posted January 4, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

      Yes! My reaction is the same.

      • brujofeo
        Posted January 4, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        My only concern about this particular sentence is that I can just see it being latched onto by the Cretinists (not a typo): “Yes! Teach the controversy!”

  2. Mark Fuller Dillon
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    When I read a book, I often leave scraps of note-paper between the pages, to remind myself that I can find an important passage to revisit there.

    My Kaufmann books are filled with scraps — too many to serve any valid purpose. And so I just read the books over again, from cover to cover.

    It’s a small price to pay for work so utterly quotable.

  3. Posted January 4, 2013 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    I love this. My view is that you can still be a christian and believe in evolution. I have a strong desire to study other religions and become educated as to their beliefs.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 4, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      IMO Jean your 25-point bucket list will serve you better :)

      • Posted January 4, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        maybe your right. thanks for the comment

  4. gbjames
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    Great quote.

  5. Posted January 4, 2013 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    If you doubt the truth of the statement, “The rejection of natural and dogmatic theology does not involve any repudiation of the critical, historical, and psychological study of religion,” read the works of another great insider, Bart Ehrman. For example, in “Misquoting Jesus,” he reviews the work of many brilliant but now forgotten Biblical scholars who demonstrated that manuscript versions of the Bible differ in tens of thousands of places, many of them substantially altering the meaning of important passages.

    Of course, no good atheist should fail to read the “Testament” of Jean Meslier, the French cleric who died in 1729, and may be justly regarded as the father of modern atheism. There is little in Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris that isn’t just a reformulation of arguments against religion he wrote down nearly 300 years ago, without the benefit of Darwin.

  6. John K.
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    This is exactly how I started down the road to atheism. I met a child of Jewish heritage in school and wanted to know what the difference was. Then, of course, I wanted to know why there were differences at all. Honestly answering these questions over many years for all manner of religions gave me little coherent option besides atheism.

    • Posted January 5, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      If any religion were true, wouldn’t it be obvious? If the Universe were really made by divine fiat, wouldn’t it be fundamentally different from the one we find ourselves in? (In fact, wouldn’t it be much more like the one the people who dreamed up the divine fiat idea thought they were in – a flat disc with a bowl over it?)

  7. TJR
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Hence, as many people have noted, one of the best weapons against religion is religious education, i.e. proper comparative religious education rather than indoctrination with one particular religion.

  8. coozoe
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Studying all religions should convince anyone of the ridiculousness. It is comical to know they all exist.

  9. MNb
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    “one should study theologies”
    Agreed. The study of the Pastafarianism should be mandatory on any theological faculty.

    venganza.org/forum/

  10. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    It was Dan Dennett who suggested a way to weed out toxic religions from non-toxic ones would be to expose members of all to a rigorous course in comparative religion.

    Of course, after doing that some religious folk fall into a kind of post-modernist subjectivist relativism, which I find troubling but less so than the American religious right

  11. Jaime Ospina
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    From Kaufmann:
    “Those who want to improve their thinking about the important questions of life and become more conscientious should surely consider the divergent answers given by some of the great religions.”

    As an atheist for five decades, I disagree. Such inquiry may be useful, in some instances even necessary, to abandon religion. It seems to me, however, that for people brought up without religion and for those who have long abandoned it, it does not add much to the understanding of “the important questions of life”. Just as the study of ancient peoples’ cosmologies does not add much to our present-day understanding of the universe.

    In my opinion, the author gives too much credit to the value of false, ancient beliefs.

    • Posted January 4, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      I think I’m with you.

      The only use in studying religions is as an exercise in anthropology, sociology, psychology, and the like. Anything good that just happens to be found within them they either stole from somewhere else or has already been incorporated into secular values.

      If an outsider’s perspective on other religions helps you step outside of your own religion and see it for what it is, fantastic. But now we’re talking about therapy, not education.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Jaime Ospina
        Posted January 4, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        “Anything good… has already been incorporated into secular values.” And many bad things have been expunged from some religions via the enforcement of new secular values.

        “…therapy, not education.” A very amusing way to refer to “deconversion” (or should I say detoxication?)

        Cheers

    • marycanada FCD
      Posted January 4, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      Fully agree.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 4, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Well surely it depends on what “the important questions of life” are.

      One might think that answering the following would help to better understand the universe:

      “How does religion operate in human society?”

      It is a most important question, IMO, which requires some degree of understanding of the great (and the lessor) religions.

      The beliefs are false and ancient, but that doesn’t mean they are unimportant. We similarly need to understand the life cycles of Trichinella spiralis and other parasites, how they evolve, and how to eradicate them.

      • Jaime Ospina
        Posted January 4, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        Indeed, as Ben Goren says, studying religions is useful “as an exercise in anthropology, sociology, psychology, and the like.” All the more, I would add, if used for the purpose of “eradicating parasites” as per your analogy.

        As for the personal understanding of the “important questions of life”, I find godless discussions on how we can lead meaningful lives more interesting.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 4, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Yes, it seems to me the value of studying many religions, for the believer, is not the content but the realization that they are contradictory.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 4, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

        This. And grasping how truly circumstantial one’s born-to religion is.

    • Ougaseon
      Posted January 4, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      I don’t think he’s saying that you should study religions in order to understand “important questions of life.”

      Instead, he’s making the same point Jerry often makes, which is that religions do not agree at all on the answers to “important questions” and are therefore an unreliable guide. Explicitly thinking about the divergent answers from different religions clarifies that point.

      • Ougaseon
        Posted January 4, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        Nevermind, I think you’re right. I neglected the context preceding that quote.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted January 4, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      I’d be more in agreement with Kaufmann if he had said individual great religious thinkers than religions. But that’s because some religious philosophers are better than their theology.

  12. Rod
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Years ago Dawkins commented on Ayatollah Khomeni, saying that you can’t consider yourself educated if you have only read one book.

    True dat!

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 4, 2013 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      Perfect!

  13. @eightyc
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    lol.

    If it is the case that theologians of one religion have to account for the theology of all the other religions, then I wonder if it will turn into a sort of fairy-tale arms race.

    The theologians that make stuff up to explain “incompatible” religious theologies will have to keep pace with the rate at which other theologians from other religions making stuff up as they go along.

    I guess after a while, you actually won’t be able to tell which of the theologians are doing the explaining and which are ones are making shit up.

    • beyondbelief007
      Posted January 4, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      “I guess after a while, you actually won’t be able to tell which of the theologians are doing the explaining and which are ones are making shit up.”

      There are TWO kinds of theologian? I thought you were just being redundant!

      • @eightyc
        Posted January 4, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        lol it’s the chicken and the egg!

        it’s a perpetual motion machine!

        You can generate more and more shit that need explaining by explaining shit that you just explained! haha

  14. marksolock
    Posted January 5, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.


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  1. [...] Partially inspired by Jerry Coyne’s recent thoughts about theology, which were inspired by another great thinker, Walter Kaufmann. [...]

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