The four ways to defend religion
Dec 1, 2011

The four ways to defend religion

Sam Harris
A year or so ago, I was exposed to prominent atheist Sam Harris' outline of the three basic ways in which religion is commonly defended. It seemed like a reasonable classification at the time, but I was hesitant to immediately agree that it was a complete classification. Since then, I have kept it often in the back of my mind as I read or watch religious apologetics and engage in religious debate personally. In that time, the classification has proven to be very robust with an almost effortless ability to classify religious arguments in one of these three ways. I would, however, add a fourth category which I find ends up making the categorization completely representative without a counterexample I can think of.

The three ways religion can be defended, more or less along the lines that Harris presents them, are as follows. Firstly, one can argue that religion is true. That is, that there is evidence, or reason, or an appeal to faith that suggests that the claims made by religion are indeed correct. This includes everything from the cosmological argument for the existence of God to personal revelation that god exists.

Secondly, one can argue that religion is in various ways beneficial or good for society. One might argue it makes us more moral, happier, self actualized, loving, charitable, etc. One might argue that it discourages wars, provides health benefits, or is the reason for western civilization's success. All things that are beneficial about religion regardless of whether it is or is not true.

Thirdly, one can attack atheism. One could argue that atheism is itself dogmatic, intolerant, and faith based. One might argue, as a converse to the second category, that secular or atheist influence in society is very bad and makes us worse people, causes wars and suffering, and the like.

Pause for a moment and see if you can think of another way to defend religion outside of these three ways.

It is worth noting that neither of the second two categories gets us at all closer to the first category that religion is true. It could be just objectively true that religion has all sorts of social benefits and that atheists are horrible people who cause horrible consequences, and this would not at all lead us to conclude that religion was true. For example, it might be able to demonstrate scientifically that grief over the loss of a loved one was lessened for those that believed in an afterlife. But that does not demonstrate that the afterlife exists, merely that this is a comforting thing to believe. Further, it is often quite ironic that the very fixtures of religious belief - such as faith based not evidential based justifications - that atheists condemn are leveled at atheists themselves; surely using these as negatives for atheists demonstrates that they are indeed negative traits.

The aesthetic category of religious debate:
The fourth category that I believe ought to be added is regarding the aesthetics of religion. Religious people and atheists will often debate what is essentially variants of whether religious ideas are nice ideas that we find to be aesthetically appealing or compelling. Perhaps the debate would be over whether certain religious moral claims seem to an appealing or abhorrent moral claims.

Take the central biblical message of vicarious redemption for sin through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, for example. Christians often view this message as a very beautiful and loving story which indicates how compelling the story of Christ is. Some atheists, myself I think included, take the view that this is aesthetically quite a repugnant story. What qualifies as bad, such as sin, should be based on our own thoughts and actions and not condemned to it based on the actions of our ancient predecessors. Likewise, the consequences for our mistakes must be taken on ourselves and the same way we would never allow someone else to do jail time for another's mistakes it is not at all appealing that Jesus absolves us of a sin we never committed in the first place. One can elaborate on this at some length, but the central point is that this is a debate over the aesthetics of this message.

As in, it is not a discussion of whether the story is true, or whether the story helps or harms society, but whether we do do do not like the story. And in the same way one might disagree aesthetically over whether Romeo and Juliet is a beautifully touching love story or a disgusting massacre (or both), one can disagree aesthetically over religion. It is thus a separate category from the previous three. It is also a very common category that seems to take up a lot of time in prominent religious debates that I have watched or discussions I have been involved in.

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens is particularly guilty of spending time on this aesthetic appeal category. He doesn't just argue that religion is wrong, detrimental to society, and supported by people with various flaws (although he does all three of these) but further that the central ideas of religion are quite disgusting and unappetizing views. He makes frequent comparisons between the ideas of religion and that of George Orwell or North Korea. I find there to be some merit to these comparisons, but they must be realized as firmly in the domain of an aesthetic argument. While some may not believe that religion is true or even that it has a net positive effect on society, many might wish it were true; Hitchens is one who finds on an aesthetic level that he is very glad there is no reason to suspect it might be true.

I think the reason that this fourth category is not included is that it, a priori, is equally bad for both religious and atheist arguments. With the previous three categories, the atheist can claim to simply be correcting wrong statements. They point out that the evidence and arguments for religion being true are spurious, that the claims that religion is beneficial are unsubstantiated or simply wrong, and that atheism is being incorrectly mischaracterized. It is almost as if the default ought to be atheism and the atheists debates religious people only to point out the errors of religion.

But in the aesthetics of religion, there is a much less compelling case for objective validity. I am not sure it is objectively true that vicarious redemption as described in the bible is objectively a pleasant story or an abhorrent one, however I may personally feel about it. One can make some progress by perhaps showing how one's aesthetic beliefs need to be consistent with other claims, and the like, but there is a certain underlying subjectivity to it. I generally aim to refrain from such aesthetic considerations of religion.

Personally, I find the best arguments to be in the second category. I don't find there to be any remotely compelling evidence or reason to suppose that religion is true. One can even subdivide this first category further into quite a small set of possible ways conventionally used to argue that religion is true, each with pretty basic refutations. When religious people try to attack atheism and atheists, it is almost always quite an empty ad hominem and misrepresents how atheists themselves are arguing or viewing the world. I don't maintain any fundamental difference between groups of people, and find such arguments (in either direction, atheists on religious or religious on atheists) to be largely spurious. And I have already mentioned my dislike of the aesthetic category.

The second category is the most interesting by far; that is, the question of what is the effect on society of religion. This is not easily answered. There are many good and bad sides in both directions. It also draws a lot on history, sociology, politics, psychology, and many other fields in the various ways it can be addressed. While there is only a small number of ways ever presented as to why religion is true, there are innumerable ways to demonstrate that it is alternatively good to bad in its effect on society. Furthermore, I think this is a debate worth having that is informative and helps to understand society better.

What I find most interesting about this categorization is how effective it actually is. If one keeps it in the back of one's mind, as people argue in defense of religion or against religion their arguments can almost effortlessly be slotted into the categories. Particularly when, as often happens, people shift back and forth between these categories, seeing this really demonstrates the triviality of a lot of the arguments.

Finally, I would note that the above categorization really applies to the kinds of debates between religious and secular people where each is trying to convince the other (or at least the audience) of their respective views. Most religious experience, however, is entirely outside this context and the categorization doesn't apply. People experience relationships with their religious community, their religious leader, and will operate their lives under the tacit assumption of God's existence. As I have written previously, this aspect of religion - and there are still others - is usually left out of religious debates.

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