30 July 2007

The purposes of religion

In a secular society such as ours, religion can seem an odd phenomenon. Consider the beliefs that are involved:
- belief in the existence of an invisible deity;
- belief that the wishes of the deity can be ascertained by studying scripture;
- belief that people ought to comply with the deity's wishes.
These things can seem peculiar from the point of view of someone brought up without religion. A number of writers have recently tried to emphasise these peculiarities of religion in order to discredit it.

However, assume for the sake of argument that these beliefs happen to be correct. The question arises, what is the purpose of religion — should it aim to generate conclusions consistent with prevailing secular attitudes? Some who reject religious belief as irrational also criticise it for producing implications about behaviour that lack cogency from a secular perspective. It is not clear that this is a sound line of reasoning.

Consider Catholic objections to the use of condoms and to homosexuality, often linked to arguments about what is 'natural'. Many critics argue that Catholicism is morally wrong to generate advice which, they say, causes suffering, or stops it being prevented. However, the purposes of religion are not the same as those of secular morality.

Philosopher Stephen Law, for example, has recently argued that Catholic doctrine in this area is flawed:
- 'Even if there is a God, the claim that those purposes that we find in nature indicate what God desires is questionable.'
- 'Why not say, "We'd prefer you not to have sex, but if you are going to, please use a condom"? Can I suggest that saying anything else puts you onthesideofthedevil?'
- [responding to commenter] 'You say that the Church's view is: "condoms aren't going to stop you infecting or being infected". I believe medical opinion is that condoms can indeed prevent infection, isn't it? Doesn't this mean the Church's position is wrong?'

It may be appropriate to put pressure on the Church to change its policies, for pragmatic reasons. Church doctrine has changed over the centuries to accommodate changes in public thinking. One can dispute the basic beliefs of a religion, but to say that church policy is irrational because it goes against common sense seems like bad logic.

Other articles
Stephen Law on Thomas Aquinas
Stephen Law on condoms and Catholics
The Guardian on the use of condoms in Africa
Jonathan Tweet on condoms for Catholics
Nourishing Obscurity compares three major religions

1 comment:

Daimyo Higham-Baka-Ohta said...

...However, assume for the sake of argument that these beliefs happen to be correct. The question arises, what is the purpose of religion — should it aim to generate conclusions consistent with prevailing secular attitudes?...

Amazing. You're over here posting on religion and I go and do the same thing at the same time.