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False vs. Function

June 26, 2010

My previous post reflects an ongoing frustration I have with New Atheists and others. I was recently in a conversation with an old friend who had just discovered I was an atheist; he wondered why, then, I was still interested in religion. In addition, he asked why I wasn’t more interested in philosophy than religion. For instance, wouldn’t I find arguing against the proofs for the existence of gods more interesting than studying the Bible?

My response was that I find the New Atheist view of religion to be boring. They probably look at the Bible and think: “there are a lot of false propositions in here.” I see the Bible and think: “there’s a lot of really interesting propaganda in here.”

The New Atheists don’t have a theory of religion, they have a theory of truth—and the latter doesn’t necessarily shed light on the former. Asking whether something is true or false is a lot less interesting and enlightening than asking what sort of social function something has. Sure, I think ontological claims about supernatural beings are false, but that’s just that’s where we begin analysis, not end it. That’s where we ask: “if these things are false, why might somebody have said them?”

Some Muslims—not all—say that women should wear a burka because men’s libido’s are so strong they couldn’t help themselves. I think that’s obviously false, but saying it’s false doesn’t help us understand anything at all about the burka. We need a functionalist investigation, not an epistemic evaluation.

Let’s set aside “Is it true?” and replace it with “What does it do?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jet Propelled Papa permalink
    June 26, 2010 3:02 pm

    Are you familiar with any of William James’ writings? It seems to me what you’re saying here would be very much in line with what James argues for in, say, “The Will to Believe” [1896] and “What Pragmatism Means” [1907] (what are, I reckon, his two most famous papers). To be a little (but honestly, not very)) flippant: ‘truth’, for James, just is what works for oneself, and to this end we need not concern ourself with some sort of universal truth(s) — indeed, such things do not exist for James — but rather what they do for us in our lived experience.

    I think there are interesting parallels from the Clifford-James debate on the ethics of belief that are recurring immediately as well — with the so-called new atheists being some sort of Cliffordian and accommodationists being some sort of Jamesian pragmatist. Clifford, in “The Ethics of Belief” [1877], argued quite famously that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence”. This, I think, cuts much closer to the current debate than theories of truth do per se. In other words, I see this debate as more a curious — and by no means new! — discussion of evidentialism with respect to (in this case, particularly religious) belief, with Dawkins and Hitchens (and so on) being rather strict belief evidentialists, obviously. This is, of course, messy because discussions of belief and the ethics thereof necessarily involves some comment on the nature (or lack thereof, I suppose) of truth… what I mean to say is that I do not think this debate is concerned primarily with truth as much as it is about belief.

    I have spent far too long writing this up considering I am tired; I hope this is sensible enough and that I’m not just repeating what you already know!

  2. SereniT03 permalink
    June 27, 2010 12:53 am

    Really compelling set of posts. I feel so vindicated! :-)

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 27, 2010 5:11 pm

    Jet Propelled: I am a bit of a fan of Pierce, James, and Dewey, but I like Dewey much more than the first two. However, a pragmatist theory of truth is not really at what I’m trying to get at here. I wouldn’t say that these things are “true” because they “work”; I would say that these evangelical beliefs are almost certainly false, but that they still serve a social function. However, “function” is an ambivalent term; often the social function of something might be to reinforce social domination. For example, the belief that a man doesn’t care about his fiance unless he buys her a big engagement ring is probably a false belief, but it is one that reinforces patriarchy as normative.

    I probably lie with Geertz on that ethics issue—I don’t think people should believe any old nonsense, particularly because nonsense often reproduces relations of domination. My beef with the New Atheists is not that they have high epistemic standards, but that they tend to misunderstand how religions work, what they do, etc., because they see religions as barely more than a series of (false) propositions.

    Although I’ve heard of it, I’ve never read that Geertz essay; I should look it up. Thanks for suggesting it!

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