The Fallacy of Thinking of Religions as *Merely* Social Constructs

Having spent time at a very high level of educational endeavor in regards to religious matters, I’ve noticed that there is a tendency to become calloused and rather dismissive of religions when it comes to studying them in sociological terms.

This is not to say that that they shouldn’t be studied from a purely scientific sociological perspective because religions, or things that act as religions, have a way of polarizing communities and determining how it is that they affect social and even economic arrangement and determine how communities see one another. The inherent problem with seeing religion in this way is that one can become jaded towards religion as a phenomena of culture, thus relativizing them, rather than recognizing them as conveyers of truth claims.

As a philosopher of religion, I am more interested in truth claims and the consistency with which they are lived out. To that end, my personal philosophy has been one determined to be focused on Total Worldview Consistency (TWC), that is living within the boundaries established by ones worldview. It is this principle which lays down foundations necessary to make adjudications about the world and what goes on in it.

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Too often, people want to make assumptions about the world that their worldview cannot provide. For example: a materialist, someone who believes that only matter exists cannot logically argue that point because the validity of argumentation is determined by immaterial laws of logic. The pure objectivist is likewise at a loss because they are merely assuming their position and not proving it. A totally consistent worldview must be able to account for all aspects of reality without assuming things that they have not proven or demanding gimmes. Religions, more specifically the beliefs of religions, form the outlet from which certain assumptions about the nature of reality spring. Religions are the metaphysical hub(s) on which the world turns.

I am a Christian. “Christian” is not my religion, but I belong to a Christian religion, that is I am a Southern Baptist. The Southern Baptist Church, denominationally speaking, provides a certain level of social construction, in that it connects me to members of the community that have similar beliefs and values to myself because those values and beliefs have been derived from what we consider authoritative to define what those beliefs and values should be. I live in a region of the nation that has been utterly infiltrated by the Southern Baptists. I live within a 4-block radius that has 2, very large Southern Baptist congregations,  but attend neither, preferring a somewhat smaller congregation about 4 miles away. However, there are also a couple of Methodist congregations, at least 3 Presbyterian, a Roman Catholic, an Episcopalian, a Church of God, and a number of non-denominationals within a 4 mile radius of my home. We all call ourselves “Christian”, we respect one another as brothers, but then we disagree with one another on worship styles, certain theological considerations, and even social issues. I would almost argue that its our theology that determines the other two.

So, I’ve spent 500 words of this post not saying much about the title of this post and why it’s important. It’s important because of what atheist Neil Carter wrote on his blog on September 29th of 2017, in a post titled, “The Sociology of Belief”.

He begins,

When I was still a Christian, I would often bristle whenever someone tried to analyze my faith from a scientific point of view. The tools of the scientist, I argued, could not reliably detect the things of the spirit because they are only discernible by those with the right organs of perception (see 1 Cor. 2:6-16).

This, just from a reflective point of view, makes me wonder exactly what it is that people are trying to “analyze [the Christian] faith from a scientific point of view” actually means. The point of Paul’s argument is not that the things of the faith cannot be examined, it’s that they cannot be understood or have effect apart from the Spirit of God causing them, which is clearly stated in v14,

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (ESV, emphasis added)

He gives us insight into what he means in the third paragraph,

It seemed an affront to my most cherished beliefs to dissect the Christian faith with the same academic detachment with which one studies chemistry or physics or even psychology and sociology. I would often compare it to a man wanting to do a lab analysis of the spittle that Jesus used to heal a man’s eyesight as if a chemical breakdown of the substances would have yielded any insight into an event that can only be called a miracle.

What exactly would such laboratory examination have revealed? Human saliva. That’s it, because it has nothing to do with the spit itself, but with the one who was doing the spitting and his power. What would the research had shown? A man who was blind, but could now see.

Neil continues,

As you can imagine, I see things differently now that I am outside the Christian faith. Now that I no longer privilege that belief system above all the other religions of the world, I see the value in applying the tools of the social sciences in order to better understand what functions religion serves in the world. I’ve come to appreciate the insights these interpretive grids can give to help us better understand how to relate to people who are still on the inside of these insular ideological enclaves.

Now, notice the slight of hand that Neil has employed, going from talking about the fact that science is incapable of accessing the reality of God’s power over human experience to heal that was made manifest in Christ to the “functions that religions serve in the world“. He wants to exalt himself above what he calls “interpretive grids” that serve as “insular ideological enclaves“. Neil ignores the fact that he is speaking from inside one as well. More importantly, he fails to question whether that interpretive grid” can satisfy the necessary preconditions of intelligibility that are needed to make any coherent statement about the world. This point becomes even more evident in the last paragraph of his introduction,

With that in mind, I’d like to take a minute to explore the sociology of belief (emphasis original) and consider the possibility that the things we believe and pass on to others serve a few functions in society which are not immediately evident to those whose entire world is defined by those beliefs. In the end I will suggest a few things we can take away from this exercise for the benefit of promoting more humanistic values in our world. (emphasis added)

What about the sociological aspects of your beliefs, Neil? The beliefs that you intend to promote that you believe will give us values, have you placed them under the same microscope and examined them? The Humanist Manifesto III says that,

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Of course, what is ethical is,

[…]derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.

Of course, it seems to forget that it, in the Fifth article of the original Humanist Manifesto said,

Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. (emphasis added)

Humanism, secular humanism that is, essentially asserts that any ethical values are a posteriori conclusions, they’re not based upon what man is, as to his nature, but how man feels about those actions. This runs into the inevitable problem of relativism and how does one determine what is truly right or truly wrong (something I’ve discussed here). But I digress.

Under the heading, “Religion as a Social Construct,” Neil writes,

One explanation for the genesis and prevalence of religions in the world is that they help to organize communities and to codify the values and priorities we intend to pass on to successive generations. Religious beliefs and practices are a means of enculturation, a vehicle for communicating what matters to a community. They are also reliable identity markers by which a group can clearly delineate what puts you in…or out of…the group.

He goes on,

Put differently, religion can be viewed as an outgrowth of tribalism. It is a social tool, a sort of intangible technology that we developed for encapsulating and transmitting whatever matters most to our communities.

That seems like an overly simplistic generalization. Tribalism can be religious in nature, but it can also be ethnic in nature. It is to simply focus on a singular aspect that can make such argumentation fallacious. Not to mention the lack of tribalism that one is partaking of in himself that is of a religious nature. This student essay really picks up on that issue in an insightful way and is worth reading.

Neil continues,

I can think of no better way to keep a culture from changing too much, or too fast, than ascribing divine authority to it. When you think about it this way, a whole lot more things start to make sense. […]

That’s funny, because I can think of no better way to cause a culture to change than by invoking divine authority. It’s one of those things that needs a divine authorization in order to occur because to say that a culture needs to change requires a reason that is not arbitrary nor based upon simple desire. I can think of several arguments that have been used to argue various positions in regards to culture that have not used religious argumentation, but have been rejected, not because they are not good arguments or have sufficient evidence, but simply because people have chosen to believe certain things dogmatically without reflecting upon their position.

Neil then gives us “three things we learn from thinking this way.”

First, that it “[…] makes sense why it’s so hard to change a religious person’s mind.”

The direct approach—critiquing the beliefs themselves—often produces little change in the thinking of the believer because the real strength of the belief system comes from something external to the beliefs themselves. The real strength of our beliefs lies in their ability to hold together the tribal identity. (emphasis original)

This is where being presuppositional pays off: whenever you critique a person’s beliefs, you cannot, must not, bring your assumptions into the consideration. That critique, in order to be meaningful, must operate on the presuppositions of what is being considered. Further, I would never assume that a mere critiquing would cause anyone’s beliefs to change because I believe that it is God that changes people. Second, this argument is circular, it is assuming what it has yet to prove, namely that beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, are what hold a tribal identity together and not the other way around.

Neil continues,

Have you ever tried changing the mind of someone who believes things that are irrational or lacking in evidential support?

The first interaction that I had with Neil on this issue was on the question of evidence and the determination of the standard of evidence for justification of a belief. But this also should make one ask, “what is Neil’s standard for rationality and standard of evidence?” Neil goes on to try to equate this with the nature of Trump supporters, but doesn’t seem to connect that with his own tribalism as he opposes them. I seem to remember someone saying something about “self-reflection” somewhere.

Neil goes on,

That’s why directly critiquing religious beliefs (much like critiquing political policies) so often gets you nowhere. The cognitive dissonance kicks in and suddenly it’s like someone came through and deleted the last five minutes of conversation from the other person’s memory banks. It’s incredibly frustrating. But it makes more sense now.

I beg to differ. Especially if you do it accurately and presuppositionally. But here’s the thing: he never justifies his claim. This is not a meaningful conclusion to his point, it’s just an assertion of “cognitive dissonance“.

In point 2, Neil says that it, “[…]also helps to explain why people take it so personally when they learn you no longer believe the same things they believe.

This is all built upon defining what is meant by the “same things they believe”, to that Neil writes,

How many of you had to break it to your parents that you no longer believe the central tenets of their religion? Did they react charitably, with sympathy, understanding, and grace?

Imagine having to tell your parents that you’re leaving the religion that you were raised in. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Not that it was a big, bold move going from a Presbyterian to a Baptist church, but it was rather hard to tell them, and they were understanding. We have to define some terms here. But Neil continues,

Or did they explode in anger, remorse, attempts at coercion, or possibly even a verbal assault because “How could you do this to us?!

He says,

Wait, what? What do you mean “do this to us?” From your perspective, this wasn’t some kind of personal slight to them. It was an individual matter, an unavoidable consequence of following your own thought processes, your own search for truth, wherever it leads you. But that’s not how they experience it at all. To them, this was a personal slap in the face.

Again, this goes to my earlier response, but indeed, there is a bonding aspect in regards to religious beliefs. But let’s just flip this script: what if it was an atheist who had to tell his atheist parents that he now believed in Christ. How do we categorize that reaction. Do we do it by the same standards, or another?

Neil says,

That doesn’t make any sense until you realize that religious beliefs are social constructs—they are the scaffolding around which communities organize themselves such that your departure from their belief system means you are undermining the social fabric through which their entire identity is woven. What will everyone think of them now?

Um, no. Religious beliefs are not social constructs. They do, and can, form the scaffolding upon which a society constructs itself. They become the lens through which we see the world and define the way we look at the world. The atheist assumes that he is not looking at the world in any different way than the theist does, he’s just no adding anything extraneous to it, but this is simply false. This is where TWC plays a pivotal role in exposing such arguments as false. Remember,

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Neil’s third point is that it, “[…]also explains how positions on issues that are non-essential to a religion (like same-sex attraction) can become the hill they are ready to die on.

To this, Neil writes,

I’ve personally taken part in quite a number of discussions through the years about which beliefs are truly essential to the historic Christian faith—what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”—and yet I cannot recall a single one of those discussions including “fighting the gays” as a key component to the gospel.

Well, Neil, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but “Mere Christianity” is not definitional of the gospel. C.S. Lewis himself did not mean for his series of lectures that compose the classic of Christian philosophical literature to become definitional of its theology, but was meant to be something of a summary statement, a primer on the faith. Much of the opening of Lewis’ book is spent speaking on a “moral law”. Part of that law is how human beings a to behave towards one another, that would include how humans are to behave sexually towards one another.

Neil continues,

And yet. Disapproving of same-sex attraction has become a litmus test for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians the world over. Scrolling through your newsfeed, you could be forgiven for concluding that this is why Jesus came to earth—to rid the world of homosexuality—despite the fact that the man never said a single word about the subject. I guess it never came up. But still, you would think someone with a direct line to Heaven would have included at least one quick mention for future reference.

Um, Neil, when you were miming the Christian faith, I’m sure that you heard sermons on texts where Christ was addressing the issue of sexual immorality. That’s where homosexuality is cast, along with adultery and fornication. More that that, Neil, I’m sure that you heard that Christians believe that Christ is the incarnate God of very God, the very same God who gave the law to Moses on Sinai, and called it an “abomination“. So, uh, he definitely said something about it. And then there’s this post directly addressing the issue from Scripture.

Neil goes on,

For the life of me, I cannot explain theologically how disagreeing on this single issue could equal a betrayal of the entire Christian faith. It doesn’t really add up in my mind. Except that it does once you realize that at some point in the recent past it was decided that this would be an identity marker for the tribe itself, and that was the end of the discussion. Once that association was made, the battle lines were drawn and now they’re willing to go down fighting over this.

Well, theologically, it demonstrates a weakness in theology, namely in regards to the authority of scripture and the applicability of Scripture, and is clearly demonstrated in this “debate” between Dr. Robert Gagnon, formerly of Pittsburg Theological Seminary, and Dr. Daniel Kirk. It can also be seen in this public debate between Graeme Coddrington and Dr. James White,

 

I find the one between Robert Gagnon and Daniel Kirk a little more telling because Kirk throws the Bible under the bus as soon as he realizes that he doesn’t have a leg to stand on exegetically. It has nothing to do with tribalism.

Neil continues,

One could argue that the key issue with this particular point is really family structure itself. Modern American churches are built around meeting the needs of the traditional American family, which means one man married to one woman with at least two or three kids needing entertainment, character formation, and good friends to play with. That’s the target audience for the evangelical and fundamentalist church (too bad if you’re single and way worse if you’re gay). That is the family structure they will fight to the death in order to preserve. Their survival depends on it.

I think that is a good observation from a secular perspective, but then again, what comprises a “family” and how do you know it. I will point out that he does touch on a legitimate shortfall in ministry in general to those who are single, and how to serve them. But here’s the linchpin to any argument: if the atheist will admit that there is a way that human beings are supposed to behave sexually, that is that they take a negative position, that they agree that there are certain things that humans ought not do sexually to one another, they have to be able to define what those things are 1) without appealing to consensus, 2) without being arbitrary, and 3) that justifies the entire system top-to-bottom, without regard to time, location, or culture. Neil wants to make this an issue of control, I want to make this an issue of what’s best and who decides what that is and upon what basis.

What’s really interesting in this whole piece is what Neil says in his concluding section, “What We’ve Learned from This“, where he asks to those atheists who are out there,

What alternative culture do we have to offer those who we want to see leave their old beliefs behind?

Didn’t Neil just spend an entire blog post dismissing religious beliefs as a “social construct”, and now he’s saying that atheists have to have something to offer to replace them? Wouldn’t those also be religious beliefs that are a “social construct”?

Ladies and gentlemen, here we see the atheist hoist himself by his own petard. He fully admits that he needs what he’s trying to destroy.

Remember what I said about self-reflection? Yeah, he’s not doing it. That fallacy is called “being a hypocrite”.

TWC everyone, T-W-C.

 

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27 comments

  1. To run this through again
    (1) Double standards are not fallacies.
    (2) Religions are not identical to cultures, so requirements for either to not need to be the same, so there isn’t any evidence of a double standard there, anyway.
    (3) Hypocrisy is also not a fallacy.

    If there was a fallacy in the idea of looking at religions only as social structures, then that fallacy would be there regardless of why one was doing it or what their views were on other things. But you are trying to make the fallacy contingent on motivations and other views.

    Fallacies are not identified by the results of believing in them, but by what the actual claims are.

  2. Okay, we’ll have to go back a step. What is the double standard?

    Religion and culture are not synonymous. Religion is a subset of culture. Unlike culture in general (music and art and theatre) religion makes specific claims about reality.
    Neil makes no claims about religion that he also denies about culture in general.
    Even if I accepted your logic, it doesn’t make thinking of religion as only a social construct a fallacy.

      • None of that was an opinion. I am right or wrong. Except for the bit that was a question, but that’s not an opinion either.

        So, do you care to spell out the double standard for me? What claim has he made for religion that he denies for culture (or denies for religion that he accepts for culture)?

      • Actually, it really was. I took a reading comprehension test at interview recently and scored in the 95th percentile. There’s a good chance I understand the quotes you presented better than you. But, I’m not here to compare qualification. I’m here to understand your point.
        It should be simple to explain in 200 words or less.
        We’ll try again. Can you complete the following sentence? the claim or value that Neil accepts for religion but not fir culture is ___________.

      • Not something that he dealt with in his original article. I was interacting with the claims that he was making, responding to particular points that I thought were relevant. I was merely interested in exposing his hypocrisy in making the claim. Which I did.

      • Funny that you think that, because now that you’re being asked to make the point more explicit, you’re dodging.
        You can’t seem to actually just type out the two contradictory ideas that Neil holds.

        And even if you could, it doesn’t make thinking of religions as only social constructs a fallacy. At best — if you are right — it makes viewing religions as only social constructs AND holding whatever other view it is your worried about a fallacy.

      • Why do you think I was pointing out his hypocrisy? He wanted to assert that religion was “merely” a social construct, then demonstrated the exact opposite position in the closing of his argument. It’s anthropology 101, and his anthropology refuted itself in his use of double standards. I’m not “worried” about anything but demonstrating the fact that his reasoning was invalid.

      • Nowhere does violate the claim that religions are merely social constructs. And the fact that you can’t now type out the sentence that demonstrates I’m wrong is all the reason I need to not accept your claim that he does violate that assumption.

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