George Santayana, in Reason in Religion, makes the argument that religion serves the same sort of purposes that poetry does and that, while not literally true,* is nonetheless elevating. William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience, makes a pragmatic argument for religion, saying that what matters is not its literal truth** (on that he agrees with Santayana) but, rather, the consequences of belief, which he considers to be mostly positive. He points out that when you look at the teachings and actions of a saint in any of the world’s major religions, these are similar and life-affirming: Be kind and generous to other people. Don’t hurt them. Be humble. Care for the infirm and needy. Don’t be greedy. And so on. Aldus Huxley makes the same ecumenical point, at length, in his book The Perennial Philosophy. Kurt Vonnegut had a soft spot for religion and made the claim that when Marx called religion “the opiate of the people,” he didn’t mean that that was a bad thing. Life is hard, Vonnegut tells us, and people need pain relievers. His were his Pall Malls.
My own inclination is to say, look, religions make empirical claims about us, the world, the universe, ultimate matters, for which there is not a scintilla, not a jot, of evidence, and it simply doesn’t make any sense–it just isn’t reasonable–to believe things for which there is no evidence. Consider this statement: There is an intelligent species in the Proxima Centauri star system that communicates with hyphae and reproduces via spores, like mushrooms on Earth. What is the truth value of that proposition? Well, clearly, there is no reason whatsoever to think it true. It COULD BE true, but there is no reason to believe that it IS true. There simply is no relevant evidence for the truth of this specific claim (though there is ample evidence that life is abundant beyond our fragile blue planet).
My take: Speculation is fine, but do the adult thing, when you are speculating, and admit that like a science fiction writer, you are simply trying on possibilities. Don’t take wild-ass speculations all that seriously, though, because the truth matters. It really does. It matters, for example, that undocumented immigrants to the United States have very low crime rates and are not “hordes of rapists and murderers.”
In general, I have been inclined, like Vonnegut, throughout most of my life, to a live-and-let-live attitude about people’s religious beliefs, but as I witness the quotidian reality that right-wing extremists like Ted Cruz and Tucker Carlson can barely open their mouths without claiming that God is on their side, I am becoming more and more inclined to say, look, grow up. Throw off the superstition. You might have a lot of knowledge about what your religion thinks about God, for example, but you don’t have ANY actual knowledge about God. You just don’t. And you certainly don’t know that He (or whatever) wants people to vote for Donald Trump and to ship asylum seekers to Mexico and to keep women from controlling their own bodies. If you claim that you have such knowledge, actual knowledge, then you are just lying, and ironically, most religions tell us that lying is a bad thing indeed.
Increasingly, our politics seems to me to be driven by ignorance and superstition, and so, increasingly, I’ve become allergic to both.
That said, there is much, much that we do not understand about ultimate realities. We are MOSTLY ignorant, and that’s built into our perceptual and cognitive makeup, into the limitations that our perceptual and cognitive apparatus imposes on what we have access to and what we can understand. So, I’m also equally impatient with dogmatic materialist determinists, and my blood boils when people like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett refer to themselves as “the Brights.” No, they are practitioners of the religion of Scientism, and Scientism isn’t science.
In short, in this time of “alternative facts” from the right, it’s important, I think, for saner, wiser people to insist on actual facts and to stand up against worldviews in which empirical propositions for which there is no empirical evidence whatsoever are claimed to be true. Open that door, and anything goes. What’s true becomes a matter of who has the power to enforce it. That’s the world of alternative facts, and in that direction lies the fascism that I think we are precipitously sliding into.
*Santayana is wrong about poetry. Sometimes it is quite literally true, and sometimes a writer thinks a poem true, even if it isn’t. For example, Hesiod and the poets whom we collectively refer to as Homer doubtless thought that while they were taking liberties–poetic license we now call it–the general outlines of what they were saying were factual.
**In fact, James wants us to redefine truth as the following attribute of some propositions: that believing them has positive consequences for us. That’s a pretty radical notion, but I’m not here going to go into why I reject it except as a sometimes workable but sometimes extremely misleading rule of thumb.
I would like to commend you highly on composing this excellent essay. I would like to add that both religious and non-religious folks have had a great deal of struggles with “grow[ing] up”, to use your own words, even though you and I can agree that the god-fearing ones tend to be more “stunted”. Indeed, the overall situation and trajectory of humanity seem to be rather bleak, and even science and politics can provide little comfort in reducing the severity and frequency of some of those outstanding issues, for there are two major Achilles’ heels: Viral Falsity and Paleolithic Emotions. In addition, my own multidisciplinary perspective proposes that four of the most insidious and corrosive conditions have exacerbated these issues dramatically:
(1) The prevailing anti-intellectualism
(2) The cult of anti-expertise sentiment
(3) The politicization of science
(4) The prevalent manifestation of populism
You are welcome to find out much more about these four conditions at my extensive and analytical post entitled “Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity“, which has been revamped and which you can easily locate from the Home page of my blog. The post deals with untruth-oriented epistemology, social epistemology, the media landscape and information ecosystem, as well as a large series of detailed discussions and analyses (distributed over twelve sections, each of which is instantly accessible via a navigational menu) in the domains of Behavioural Science, Cognitive Science, Critical Thinking, Cultural Studies, Environmentalism, Epistemology, Ethics, Evolutionary Biology, Evolutionary Psychology, History, Human Nature, Information Science, Journalism, Logic, Media Studies, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Social Media and Social Science. I welcome your feedback there, as I am certainly very keen and curious about what you will make of my said post.
Gathering all the diverse and important strands together in the grand finale of the said post, I have attempted to sum up and reflect deeply the state of affairs with hard truths, especially in the twelfth and last section named “Denouement: Democracy, Education, Legislation & Sustainability“, which even gives a very dire warning of what humanity is heading towards if there is still no concerted, meaningful and large-scale change for the better.
Now, regarding the aforementioned Paleolithic Emotions, it pertains to one of the most important and crucial life lessons involving the awareness of and willingness in availing oneself to explore and understand as much as possible the complex issues that We have Paleolithic Emotions; Medieval Institutions; and God-like Technology, as discussed in great detail in my other expansive post available at
I welcome your input and feedback there. Please enjoy!
We have Paleolithic Emotions; Medieval Institutions; and God-like Technology
I read this piece before, SoundEagle, and it’s superb! But I will go reread it, and these others you mention, again. Warm regards, and thank you.
LikeLiked by 1 person
This piece has also been extended and improved.
I look forward to it! I am weary this evening, however, and would not do it justice, so I will reread it (and these others) tomorrow. Making a note to myself, now, to do that! Warm regards to you and yours!
LikeLiked by 1 person