Setting aside Religion?

photo of a stone crossI was asked on Formspring.me: “Do you think it’s possible for a religious politician to put aside the teachings of their religious institution, and make decisions purely on evidence and for the benefit of the population as a whole?”

What follows is an edited version of the answer I gave there.

My immediate reaction was simply: “Not any more than anyone else can put aside their own experience, philosophy, intuition, insight and individual knowledge or understanding when making decisions.”

Surely, when you make a particular decision you bring to bear a vast collection of understanding. Not all of this is “evidence-based” in the strict terms I believe you’re probably referring to. The same is true for a religious person and a non-religious person, because both have brains that work like people’s brains should, right? Unless you’re suggesting that the religious are somehow less than human?

And, why would they or anyone else want to? Is it always bad for a person to base a decision on their own experience with morals, teachings, understandings and even faith? I’m personally delighted when someone I distrust makes a decision based on something bigger than himself. It, at the very least, shows an ability to consider multiple perspectives.

But I began to think more about the question, and what it suggests. It seems more or less bigoted to suggest that a minority of people in the world have a monopoly on sense because they have chosen—based on their own experiences, morals, understandings, intuitions and the rest—to reject religious teaching.

And I know that many people who read this will immediately become cross. They’ll accuse me of saying that people who reject religion have no sense. I may get more angry comments about thinking of some atheists as religious people, and thinking of some Christians (and, indeed, people of other moral traditions) as not really religious at all. I hope that people will read the whole paragraph above, however. It’s quite a statement to suggest that anyone with a professed faith should set aside that faith whenever a political decision is made. Most people in the world do profess some form of faith, and suggesting that most of humanity is incapable of making trustworthy decisions is dangerous ground. It’s potentially elitest ground.

I agree—I think—that there are times when the idea of having a decision made by someone whose understanding of a situation may be compromised by their idiosyncratic state is preposterous or unpleasant. I’d find sexual tips and marriage advice from a celibate priest harder to trust than from a friend celebrating his 25th anniversary, for example. But, political decisions are, by definition, decisions involving many people, and a minister for homes and families (or whatever they’d fall under) who happens to be a celibate priest might not be a bad thing. Political decisions would demand skills like being able to see the fullest picture possible, to balance the needs of an important minority with the majority, and the ability to think clearly and take advice.

Then we come to “evidence”. Do you always base every decision on “evidence”? Do you double-blind, placebo-control, clinically trial every decision you make?

“Blimey, I need to choose one toothpaste over another, Fred. You squirt a bit of each on these sixty identical toothbrushes, and we’ll find randomly-selected volunteers to brush their teeth with one or the other, and one group using a toothbrush full of jam, and follow their progress for a year…”

Of course not. You bring a shared, social and cultural understanding to every decision. OK, maybe toothpaste isn’t the best example, because it is possible to gather evidence anyway. What about deciding which colour shirt to wear, or how to tie your tie? Part of this will include an individual’s convictions, faith, teachings and understandings. Can you set them aside?

Can you set aside your nationality, gender, culture, intuition or “gut feeling” when making any decision at all?

Also, how do you make a decision on a topic where “evidence” is contradictory, difficult to interpret, or simply lacking?

I’m a huge fan of the whole notion of “evidence-based ” policy and medicine. I think a minister for health who believes vehemently in homeopathy or spirit-healing would be unlikely to receive my vote. But I think we’re in danger of over-stretching the meme of “evidence-based” as an adjective. It’s a cultural token amongst the moderately-well educated to indicate a trust in scientific method over tradition, marketing or simple bullshit. But that’s what it should be. It shouldn’t be stretched to include a life-style, a culture, or a token for an atheistic life.

I believe in evidence in every area of life where it’s possible to apply it. It’s important to make informed decisions. But I also believe that there are areas of life where “evidence” is lacking, difficult to interpret, or simply inapplicable. There is no evidence-based conclusion to why I should prefer a certain song to another, to why I may be drawn to a particular form of beauty which may bore or disgust you, to why I find solace in sunsets and fear sleeping.

Don’t over-stretch the idea of “evidence”. It’ll lose its meaning, and eventually, it’s significance.

2 Thoughts

  1. The following anonymous comment was left on formspring, following is also my reply.“Does your previous answer imply you’d be happy with a Catholic PM pushing through laws to outlaw homosexuality and contraception? This PM may believe they are absolutely right, but is it serving the best interests of society?”/me sighs.No, nothing in my previous answer aligned my own perspective with the perspectives of any particular religion. I even said there were situations where the professions of a particular group (I even implied catholics with reference to celibate priests) would or could be suspect.It’s a hell of a logical jump from: “Can/should someone set aside their religion to be a politician?” (my inferred thesis from the previous question) to: “So, you’d be happy with a theocratic dictator ruining our sex lives?” (That’s my hyperbolic inference.)No, I would not be happy for someone in a position of authority to make decisions about community health not based on evidence. I think health is one of the clearest areas for this to be applied. I expect people to think for themselves, and I’m troubled by “religiosity” myself. (see my previous answers here for a fuller context)I have a problem with people who profess sense over bullshit going all senseless when it comes to someone having spiritual aspect to their lives.I don’t think people can easily set aside their convictions when making decisions. Should they?

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  2. And another:

    “Is it right for someone to make a decision which affects other people when that decision is based on the teaching of a religious institution? Is it any more or less right than making decisions based on current scientific consensus?”

    It depends on the decision, surely.

    Anyone making decisions needs to take into account everything they can. Can you not think of a single decision in which thousands of years of human knowledge can help inform?

    I don’t think people with faith are diametrically opposed to scientific “consensus”. Also, which consensus? You also can’t tell me that scientists all agree about everything, can you?

    I don’t believe that a person making important decisions should do so without thinking for herself. Important decisions shouldn’t be based on “the teachings of a religious institution” (unless, of course, the religious institution is elected as a political party, right?).

    I believe that tradition, faith and personal conviction can inform and assist in decisions. And I believe “science” which is after all a process (scientific method) and a collection of amassed human knowledge, is simply the grist for the decision mill.

    I would not defend the teachings of a religious institution over scientific finding, but I don’t think that the default is a diametric opposition.

    Also, the tone of this line of questions feels like a sort of assumed evil in every religious person; as if every single individual with religious beliefs is opposed to science, and incapable of making decisions. It feels elitist, and that is; in my opinion, the opposite of scientific reason—which should be indifferent, objective, and… reasonable.

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