4 April 2014

The weakest point of any religion

Religion is a term which does not have a very good definition. Attempts for it can be found in the literature. For example, the father of sociology, the philosopher Emil Durkheim, defines religion as
a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden - beliefs and practices which unite into a single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.
My fellow blogger Sabio spends quite a bit of blogging energy to elucidate this point. I am not a scholar of religion, neither a philosopher, and certainly not one who would devote time to come up with definitions of religion. (I don't have much time to waste.) Nevertheless, I think I know what religion is when I encounter it.

I am talking in rather vague terms because "religion" is not just a system which calls itself a religion. Example of these systems are Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism (all of which have the common feature of being monotheistic). It is also a system which resembles what one traditionally would call a religion. For example, the North Korean Juche is a religion. When people blindly obey someone else's orders and have reached a point where questioning them is inconceivable, then this is religion.

One can argue, based on what almost all religions proclaim, that the main requirement of every religion is the concept of belief. Now, the word itself can have many meanings. Religious belief, however, can be characterized rather precisely. After all, all religions require belief. They require faith. Have faith and you shall be saved! Have faith in god. Tony Blair established his Blair Faith Foundation in order to teach how religion influenced his politics.

Religion requires belief. Religion requires faith.

Belief is a complex concept. It is a word that can have many meanings. But religious belief has a very important feature making it uniquely distinguishable.
Religious belief about a concept X is an increasing function of the amount of evidence against X.
That is, the more we learn about the ridiculousness about X (say X=miracles), the stronger the religious belief about X is.

But belief is the weakest point of any religion. What religious people cannot get is that any time one is asked to believe without asking, without investigating, then they are possibly being tricked into something untrue. I grew up understanding that the concept of belief is terrible. I can, of course, temporarily accept something in order to go on, but I have to question it at some point.

People believe for various reasons. One is that belief is easy. It is much easier to convince yourself to believe rather than to understand, for example. Because believing takes little work. But understanding often takes a lot of hard work. Any rational person can obviously see the flaw of the (religious) belief concept.

When I teach I ask my students not to believe me. This is tough. Students have been conditioned on the idea to believe their teacher. Again, this is because it makes life easy. A student is tuned to believe that a continuous function, which takes value 1 at the beginning of an interval and 2 at the end, must take any value in between. Sure, the teacher says so. But a proof is needed. Belief is the easy thing. Proof is, typically, the hardest.

In the recent years, a number of so-called apologists (mostly of the Christian kind, but there are Muslim too) have  sprung. See, e.g., here and here and here. There are many examples of that kind. These are people who appear to be intellectual and are typically holders of advanced degrees, awards, have done serious work on some (non-religious) subject but, at some point, go crazy and start arguing that (their particular version of) religion is explained via logic, science, empirical observation. And they have lots of supporters. Sure, people are thirsty to believe; to believe that their religion is explainable because this is what these famous, important, outstanding public "intellectuals" advocate. They become the heroes of the unthinking masses. Despite all their attempts to "scientifically prove" that belief is not the main characteristic of religion, they fail, and fail badly. Religious belief remains religious belief and none of these pseudo-intellectuals have provided a gram of evidence against it.

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” [John, 20:29]

God will test believers to make sure they believe and are afraid. If they fail a second test they will suffer a painful punishment: 
O you who have believed, Allah will surely test you through something of the game that your hands and spears [can] reach, that Allah may make evident those who fear Him unseen. And whoever transgresses after that - for him is a painful punishment. [Quran, Sura 5:94]


  1. @ Takis,

    I think you are wrong at many points here Takis. All you do is tell us what you want religion to mean. You are being a prescriptionist. For almost each thing you demand to qualify as “religion”, I could show you an exception.

    I know Jews, for example, who consider themselves religious but have no supernatural beliefs.

    I know Buddhists who don’t blindly follow.

    Yes, I get that you are angry against blindly following something, and that you want to use “religion” as a word to shout at those who do that. But your anthropology and linguists are inaccurate as you explore the word “religion”, instead, you just want to keep it in your rhetoric toolbox.

    You are one of my careful readers — if I have not got this concept through to you yet, who can I get it through to. I am discouraged.

  2. Sabio, this has nothing to do with you failing to pass on a concept to me. It has to do with what I have been observing for long time. I do agree that I cannot define religion. And I speak only of a characteristic of it in the sense that the majority of religious people (and let us restrict ourselves to Abrahamic religions) must believe in something for which they have no evidence of. Sure, there are Jews who have no supernatural beliefs and Christians who do not believe in the central dogmas of their religion. (The new Archbishop of the Church of Sweden said she does not believe in the virginity of Mary.) But this does not change the fact that "religion implies belief" is true in a statistical sense. Moreover, I have observed that this belief becomes stronger when the evidence against it increases. Again, this is not a universal statement and, for example, the Catholic Church has to, eventually, change its mind about beliefs they had 500 years ago. But there will always remain something, something central to the religion, that will remain a belief.

    Now, if we are talking of religion as a cultural phenomenon in the sense that some identify themselves as Jews but never bother to go to the Synagogue, do not care about the Sabbath, never think about Yahweh, but just have a get-together with their families for Yom Kippur, then these people are not religious Jews but cultural Jews. I am not talking about them. I am talking about the Texan professor who, upon hearing there is a boss he doesn't like, pounds the table with his fist, and proclaims "I know who maaaaahh Lord is and He is Lord Jesus Christ!" I am talking about Dinesh D'Souza and Ian Hutchinson who, as I wrote in the next posting, claim that belief is a way towards "knowledge". They are educated people and yet they claim that they "learn" certain things because of their Christian belief.

    I agree with many things in your blog and that's why I'm reading it. I know you enjoy, say, visiting a Hindu temple and celebrating with them. I don't mind that either. I used to enjoy attending the Carnival in my hometown (a huge event every year) and, whereas I knew that none of the "rituals" had any meaning, I had fun. I also appreciate the fact that belief helps people deal with suffering, and that the overwhelming majority of people do not have the luxury to have a job like mine which gives me the freedom and time to sit in front of a computer terminal and talk about these things. For many people in the world, this is not an option. But this does not change the fact that belief is central to them. Also, I will avoid bringing these issues up when meeting those people.

    Finally, I am not angry at those who believe, generically. There are two issues with what appears as "anger". First, it is the way I express myself. (All Greeks appear to be angry, my g/f tells me. She knows now and can filter out what appears as anger.) Second, there is a truth to your statement that I am angry. I am not angry at "blind belief" (I didn't use the adjective "blind", by the way) in general, but I am angry at those learned individuals who have the time and luxury to think and yet conclude that belief helps them to gain knowledge. Not only that (that would be fine if they kept it for themselves) but they also try to convince others that belief (in the particular set of things they happen to believe) is great. (William Lane Craig is an example of such an individual. Another is John Lennox.) Most people who have no time to think will then refer to those "luminaries" as a justification for their beliefs. This (anger, that is), however, was not the major part of my posting. I was only trying to show that belief and religion are strongly correlated. Or, rather, let me now say "show" because I didn't prove anything; it was only a report on my observations.

  3. - I will address your comment with points I have made over-and-over on
    my blog:
    - I am not restricting to Abrahamic religions.
    - A theory which only address the majority (“statistics”), and yet
    generalizes, is wrong. You can not ignore outliers just to draw
    your desired conclusion.
    - You don’t get to define what religion is. If a person considers
    themselves religious but you disagree that what they consider
    religion, then you don’t understand language or people.
    - OR, you are trying to be the Lord of Language. Which is what you
    are doing.
    - People, their thoughts about religion, the nature of the word,
    the benefits and cost and so much more are complicated. Atheist
    bloggers who oversimplify about the generalized term “religion”
    just reveal their own projects. They are not being objective.
    They are willing to ignore exceptions to keep a convenient
    theory. — Sounds religious to me! :-)

    Finally, through my blogging I'v stop using the phrase "the religious mind". Instead I see we all do the same things. Sure, there are general religious things you can find only if you carefully narrow the meaning of your word to which group, which group of believers and more. But if you don't do that then you deceive yourself using the word "religion".

  4. Ah! But I'm not trying to create a theory. Yet, I am being objective in making a statement that "religion implies belief" (in a Bayesian sense). Will get back to it later.

  5. Camouflaging "the majority do it so I am right" with a term like "Bayesian Sense" is making a conversation more twisted than I have time for.

  6. Wooaoo! I didn't mean to offend you. I did not claim any authority. I, simply, observe that religion and belief (in the sense that I tried to define) are very strongly correlated. The overwhelming majority of religious people say so themselves and take pride in it. As I said, I'll get back to it later, but don't waste your time if you don't feel like it.

  7. "In the sense that I tried to define"

    Ah, so you are using a SENSE of religion -- in particular, a Takis sense. Well then don't call it "religion". Instead, do the following two things:

    (1) Give it a simple like "religion-takis" to avoid overgeneralizing

    (2) Then, explicitly set forth your prescriptive sense/definition. From what I gather, religion-takis would be defined like this:

    "The group of people who identify with one of the Abrahamic religions, and whose identity is largely a fixed on belief on doctrinal stances of that religion."

    Then, the circularity of your claim/hypothesis/theory may become clear where you say: "religion implies belief". But if you say "religion-takis implies belief", you will be speaking truthful but it is a boring "truism".

    Now, if you want to talk about religion-takis, I imagine some interesting things could be said, especially since you have narrowed the focus. It still may be too broad but certain more managable.

    1. Sabio, you are trying (I think unconsciously) to give different meanings to my sentences. I wrote

      I, simply, observe that religion and belief (in the sense that I tried to define) are very strongly correlated.

      The phrase "in the sense that" is supposed to mean "according to". However, you interpreted it as

      you are using a SENSE of religion.

      It will now appear that I'm trying to be a stickler. But I'm not. What I tried to convey with the posting has nothing to do with creating a theory, defining religion, claiming authority, claiming that I can explain all the meanings of the word "belief"--nothing of all that. It has to do with a simple observation. I will reply to you, and you may read if you wish, when I find some time. I can't deal with this before the end of the week.


    2. Sure, let’s wait until the weekend.

      My point: correlation is just that, it is a statistic. Many religions don’t center on belief. So you don’t want to ignore that just become many religions center on belief. So, when you state, “Religion requires belief.” You are just plain wrong unless you tell us exactly what sort of religion your are talking about. “Religion is correlated with belief with an r-value of ….” is much less sexy, much less useful in rhetoric, I know.

      Meanwhile, the last two posts: one was an answer to your meditation question, the other is related to this post.

  8. note, you said "ANY RELIGION" in your title. I guess you meant any religion-takis.

  9. Interestingly, I just got an email two minutes ago of Cris' (an anthropologist) recent post on "Geneology of Religion". Take a look at it, it touches exactly on this issue.

  10. Hi Sabio,
    Weekend came and went away and then I had to travel. Back in town for a few days and back to a little blogging.

    When philosophers (who are worth their salt--I'm not talking of idiots like William Lane Craig) define religion they focus on belief in the supernatural. It is not me who says that, but lots of other people who have taken the time to actually study lots of religions. I haven't. All I have done is observe those religions which I am aware of and have been in touch with, in one sense or another. These include various flavors of Christianity, some flavors of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism. And I have read about other religions too.

    You are right when you claim that "religion" in my posting should be substituted by "religion-takis" as (i) I am mostly talking about those religions I am aware of and (ii) I read some authors' treatises on the subject.

    However, I should add that, although, e.g., I agree with Dennett on his definition of religion (which requires fatith), I expand the term to include other kinds of systems, as I briefly tried to explain in my posting. In this sense, you are even more right to say that "religion" should be "religion-takis" because the latter is broader.

    At the minimum, however, religion includes, say, Catholicism. Which is not to be ignored. (How many billions of Catholics exist?)
    Had I titled my posting
    "The weakest point of Catholicism"
    and continued in pointing out that it is belief in all kinds of weird things, I would have probably achieved your approval; because it is an obvious thing that Catholicism requires belief of weird kind. And so, all I'm saying is that the weakest point of Catholicism is this weird belief.

    Of course, I used the term "any religion" instead of "Catholicism and Zoroastrianism and Pastafafarianism and ... and .. and... " and you got upset. Quite right. I have no way to prove that any religion suffers from this weak point (belief of weird kind), but the truth of the matter is that if you pick an person at random who claims to be religious of one kind or another then, the overwhelming probability is that he or she will be a member of those religions which require belief (of a weird, idiotic, irrational kind).

    Besides, if there is a religion which does not require belief then is it a religion?

  11. By your last paragraph, we are all religious. We all have weird, idiotic, irrational beliefs.

  12. Come on, you know well that what you're saying is not true. Religious beliefs are the stupidest of all. You know that! Many Italians, especially in the city of Napoli, believe that a glass container containing a solid reddish substance turns, once a year, into the blood of a person, Mr. St. Gennaro, lived in the third century CE, and hold a very pompous celebration of this "event".

    That crap can be dismissed immediately, but, nevertheless, it has also been dismissed by experiments. And yet, believers will keep believing that the blood of a man lived 1800 years ago appears miraculously every September.

  13. Love is the most important thing
    Forgiveness is a valuable virture
    Service of others is our calling

    These are all "religious beliefs" -- you are trying to turn "religion" into something far simpler and not understanding how it works. "Religion" is not just doctrines about supernatural cosmology -- to think so, is to not understand how religion functions. Religion can be the family get togethers a holidays with set songs, rituals and customs. When we say "religion" to people, things like these are primary to them. You may want to make the word mean different, but you are not the Master of all Words.

    1. Come on Sabio, I obviously (mostly) agree with
      Love is the most important thing
      Forgiveness is a valuable virture
      Service of others is our calling

      and you know that these beliefs are not at all at the same level as St Gennaro's blood liquefaction miracle.

      Let me be a bit more explicit about the specific beliefs you mentioned. First, love is important, but not unconditional and one should be prepared to stop loving if love hurts. Second, forgiveness is valuable, but often one shouldn't forgive (I know assholes in the university who keep acting as such and will not being forgiven for trying to destroy, say, they way we teach because they themselves are stupid.) Third, service for others is our calling only to a certain degree.

      I'm prepared to change any of these "beliefs" if need arises, and will exercise a lot of thinking before applying them.

      And, finally, maybe you will not agree, there seems to be more and more evidence (coming from neuro-science, evolutionary biology) about altruism, love, forgiveness, etc.

      I admit: I'm not the best in defining things. You pointed out to me some time ago about the need to define things correctly. And I keep thinking about it. Your words are wise.

  14. Takis,
    You may love this post:


    You will probably love the author. Like you, he is very committed to saying all religion is stupid. When I criticize his thinking, the other hyper-rationalist atheist jump out and attack me with personal insults on the thread there. Those atheists are very attached to their generalizations.

    I am just the stupid fool they all say I am.

    1. I think I've seen this blog before. Or, at least, the picture on top rings a bell.

      You know, I agree with a lot of what you say. E.g., "Religion can be the family get togethers a holidays with set songs, rituals and customs. "

      Sure. Even St. Gennaro's blood liquefaction belief is probably followed by a feast. I would gladly go. And discuss and mingle. And I would not try to insult people.

      However, if an academic, a scientist, a philosopher, a mathematician, ... tried to justify that belied in St. Gennaro's blood liquefaction is true because of, say, quantum mechanics, then I would attack him or her. Likewise, I would say the same thing to the archbishop of Napoli.

      It's not people's fault for believing in these things. But it is dishonest for those who should know better to keep propagating irrationality.

      I don't just say that religious belief is stupid. I say that any belief which has the properties of religious belief is stupid. And this is why I tried (OK, I failed) to define "religion" in different terms.

      Alas, my time for these thoughts and blogs is limited. Unlike, say, Dennett, I won't get fulfill my job's obligations by thinking about religion and belief systems too much. I wish there was more time within 24 hours. If I were retired, I would do more searching too.

      Incidentally, I don't say you're a stupid fool because I keep reading what you're writing and find it interesting. Sure, I disagree with you on many issues. But I don't personally insult you--I think--and didn't call you a stupid fool, or did I???

  15. "I'm prepared to change any of these "beliefs" if need arises, and will exercise a lot of thinking before applying them."

    Yep, and I think most religious folks would agree with your here. It is just that they use their "religion" to package all that.

    Like you, I am highly critical of ridiculous beliefs propagated as a MUST for people to believe or they go to hell or they won't be healed. But that is not all of what religion is about. But I repeat myself over and over.

    Yeah, I know you did not insult me, of course -- you are a gentle man. But you may actually resonate with the other fellas on that blog. Like you, I have little time for the blogging. And I am much more picky now about those I want to talk to in the comments.



What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant