Sunday, July 26, 2009

The danger of simplicity

In his contribution to Philosophers Without Gods, Georges Ray, Professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, argues that the most dangerous aspect of traditional religion is that it provides simplistic answers to societal problems that we face today. On page 264:

But too much of traditional religion seems to be based on dangerously simplistic conceptions of human life and its troubles, leading people to see conflicts not in terms of the complex conflicting interests and situations of the different parties, but rather as a war between "good" and "evil", "virtue" and "sin", good guys and bad guys . . . It’s the temptation to disregard the complexities in these and other domains that strikes me as one of the most frightening risks of standard religious thinking.

There is a danger that, instead of acknowledging the complexities of ethical problems that face in society, many religious groups often only provide – and sometimes try and force – ridged, uncompromising solutions. For example, religious groups often regard their idea of moral behaviour as being more important than the general well-being and health of people. Examples include the Catholic church's ban on contraception; the resistance against legalising prostitution; the lobbying for abstinence-only sex education; and the recent religious protest against calls to vaccinate young girls against cervical cancer.

I still often wonder if a two thousand year old manuscript is actually equipped to provide absolute answers to all the ethical dilemmas that we face today. Advances in technology have introduced new problems that the writers of the Bible could not have anticipated in their wildest dreams. Stem cell research, assisted suicide, cloning and abortion are examples of very tricky issues for which
there are no easy answers. Religion can certainly play a part in finding answers, but when it insists that it has some form of monopoly over morality and ethics, it hinders our ability to think of creative solutions.


Marika said...

Is it particularly a feature of traditional religion, or is it a feature of human nature? Personally, I've found that grappling with the text of the Bible and recognising its complexities and ambiguities has really helped me to understand the world as complex: sure, there are bits in there that might encourage you to divide everything into good and evil, but there's a lot that challenges and subverts that approach as well.

Isn't it just as much because we all prefer to see the world in terms of black and white certainties; in terms of who's in and who's out, who's like us and who isn't? Thinking otherwise requires hard work, uncomfortable uncertainties, relinquishing control of what goes on around us: isn't the willingness to accept those as the consequences of really engaging the world at least as much to do with background and education as it is to do with religion?

Anonymous said...


Perhaps, but I think the point Kevin raised is that, at a minium, certain religious segments actively reinforce the black-and-white thinking you discuss. No doubt background and education play a part, but religion can be such a pervasive part of one's life that background and education are easily entwined with religion.

It's not too hard to think of various other groups, for example, in the scientific, historical, or philosophical realms that can fall victim to black-or-white thinking. Religion occupies a unique role, though, it shaping the attitudes of groups, whole communities, or even governments. While not a mechanical one-two punch, one can't dismiss the impact that certian religious segments choose to put forth, even on a national stage.


Marika said...

I just don't see that it's helpful to talk about that aspect of human behaviour as specifically found in religion. Especially not 'traditional religion', whatever that means: quite apart from the huge differences between individual religions, there's incredible variety even within religion, which has, at different moments in history, both been absolutely complicit in black-and-white views of the world, and been at the forefront of challenging those attitudes. I can see how Georges Ray's comment could annoy a lot of religious people and confirm the prejudices of some non-religious people; I don't see how it furthers the conversation about why people want to see the world in black and white and how to discourage that.

Sarah said...

I have to agree at least a little bit with Marika. Human nature very understandably would crave something simple to get rid of the complex problems. It helps calm the mind. In human relationships, it can be overwhelmingly helpful for example. You don't want to hear all the little complex things that lead to your divorce, you want to hear that he's a jerk-off not worthy to live. Simple, makes you happy.

But, I do agree with Kevin that there is a danger in persuading people to settle for the simple. No, "Satan" did not simply "make you do it". Even if some magical supernatural hidden omnipresent diabolical creature did persuade you to do something, it's still not that simple. Life isn't simple, and we shouldn't settle for simplicity in everything. We shouldn't just say "God made the Earth" and not explore every little corner, find out how, explore the gaps in the Bible. Settling is the worst thing a human being can be persuaded to do.

However! There is a problem, also, in assuming complex things can not be explained with a simple reason. Why not? Certainly it's not good as I said to settle, but what if it is true? Sometimes your husband really is just an ass. Maybe God did snap everything into being the way it is. Don't know. It's possible. Philosophy should be careful in ignoring possibilities and taking sides.

Laughing Boy said...

In October 1985, Bob Dylan was interviewed on television, and among the questions posed was this: "There have been times when born-again Christianity, orthodox Judaism, both of those were important to you? Or is it a broader thing for you?" Dylan replied courteously, "No. I want to figure out what’s happening, you know, so I did look into it all." The journalist probed for a reason for this narrowness of belief. "Did it make life easier?" he asked with some sympathy. Dylan responded, "Not necessarily".

–Sean Curnyn, in his review of Dylan's Vision of Sin at

Being a religious person myself, I have found very few instances where my faith has made things simpler. Even where a doctrine is black and white on an issue, as a person I have to struggle with acting according to that doctrine—and that's only after I've struggled with whether or not I want to! The idea that Christians don't see complexity or shades of grey, or that they can sweep away their failures by saying that "the Devil made me do it" is both mistaken and itself oversimplification. Likewise, could Mr. Ray's comments be subject to the very criticism he levels at religion? That's a complex question, I guess.

Jenyar said...

Like any human rational exercise, simplification has good and bad applications. The human condition itself certainly isn't a simple one. So in order to come to grips with things, people have to break them down - simplify them. Everywhere, we start out as children with the basics, and these equip us to make sense of the nuances of life as we mature.

Reality isn't simple, and religion is another a paradigm of thinking in which people attempt to come to terms with it. Faith traditionally deals with some of the most complex questions humankind has ever faced. And as in life, some find it too hard to deal with these complexities, so they simply refuse to grow up and deal with them intelligently. This is a problem for every worldview.

Perhaps the real concern is that these people don't otherwise congregate together in large numbers, or try organise their simplifications consistently :)