Religion and Reason: Letter to My Daughter,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

When my daughter Sasha was about three years old, she began asking questions about religion. She wanted to know if such an entity as a god existed, along with whether other characters, such as Santa Claus, were real. Her little friends talked about a god, and later when she attended pre-school, the question of religion came up almost daily because others—both her peers and her caretakers—couldn’t resist trying to impose their religious beliefs on her. She’d come home and ask what religion we practiced, what god we believed in, and I’d respond, “Well, some people believe this and some people believe that.” She’d persist, “But what does our family believe in?” To which question, she’d get the same answer: “Some people believe this, and some people believe that,” I’d say, describing the different this-and-that options. She never received from me an answer to her central question. Some years after she first began asking that question, I decided to provide an answer—at least to explain to her where I stood on the issue of religion. The essay I wrote for her at that time serves here as an illustration of one way to approach the subject of religion without too much bias—which is not always a personal goal of mine. I treasure my biases; I have chosen them carefully.

David Hume considered monotheism the only form of religion acceptable to the thinking person; polytheism, he thought, was an intellectual absurdity. This attitude is a product of gross ethnocentrism. I cite it to begin my remarks on the subject for several reasons.

First, Hume is one of three philosophers whom I admire most, the other two being Friedrich Nietzsche and Epicurus. Yet even such a powerful intellect as Hume’s is reduced to silliness, unfounded assertion, and muddle-headedness when it comes to the touchy, emotion-filled subject of religion.

Second, all religions, whether polytheistic or monotheistic, when considered objectively and in their sociocultural contexts, are equally sensible or equally absurd, depending on one’s analytic approach. Whether we employ a social, cultural, or psychological approach, the conclusion of equal validity for all religions obtains.

For example, applying a social approach, we see the functional utility of religion. Take the Hopi religion, for example: the only cosmological stance that made sense for this people is one that posited thirteen deities overseeing the society—which, one notes, was correspondingly divided into thirteen clans. Thus, from a social perspective, we recognize that religion, or a people’s conception of the supernatural, reflects, parallels, reinforces, and legitimates the social order. Therefore, a religion that serves this supportive function for any society, regardless of that religion’s specific content, is sensible (and not absurd). What would be absurd for the Hopi, however, would be monotheism, because the society was not unified politically. A predominantly monotheistic ideology is most appropriate in a society manifesting a central political authority, especially one in an advanced state of central consolidation; while a hierarchical polytheism, in which a pantheon of deities is posited as existing under a high god, is appropriate to an imperial state or an incipient state in which one political authority is asserting its supremacy over several lesser political units (other chiefdoms, conquered smaller states, subordinate colonies, etc.).

Applying a cultural approach, we see that all religions, once again, are equally sensible; for the cultural viewpoint treats all religions as closed ideational systems—i.e., as products of the human mind, intellectual systems, each with its own internal logic. Viewing the system only from within and ignoring external influences (e.g., such sociohistorical correlates as time, place, or the larger social structure with which it is associated), one accepts its premises and postulates and the endogenous logic that works from and upon these to elaborate a cosmology (whether simple and vague or complex and detailed), and thus one accepts the legitimacy of the entire religion—indeed, all religions—as a human artifact, a product of humankind’s mental apparatus and its processes of conceptualization. Accordingly, from the cultural perspective, the Herero creation myth, which alleges that the first humans were lowered from the sky by a deity, is neither more nor less absurd than the Judeo-Christian creation myth, whereby a deity is supposed to have created the universe in six stages and, having become lonely despite the existence of a host of good and bad spirits (angels) to keep him company, created human beings, instilled them with faults, tempted them with a talking serpent, then wrought vengeance upon them for succumbing. Both versions must be accepted, culturally, as making equal sense, or both must be dismissed as, ontologically, equally nonsensical. On another front, the Jívaro belief in a superior supernatural reality that can be apprehended only under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs is, from the cultural perspective, no less logical than the Islamic belief in a superior supernatural reality obtainable only after death or the Christian insistence on the reality of certain mystical experiences or demonic possession among the living.

So too if we employ a psychological approach, which states that religion provides the individual believer with a sense of emotional satisfaction; a feeling of security in the face of life’s uncertainties, vicissitudes, griefs, and trials; and a (basically mystical) way of “explaining” what we usually refer to as the “unknown” (i.e., that which is unknowable or as yet unknown, empirically). The Native People of the American Great Plains believe in an individual guardian spirit. This spirit serves a function comparable to that performed by the Christian notion of a guardian angel.

But the picture changes when we apply a rational approach—that is, when we use our reason to determine whether religion in general or any religious system in particular is “true” (i.e., ontologically valid). Here reason dictates only one tenable conclusion: all religions, from this perspective, are absurd (to return to our friend Hume). If, on rational grounds, one maintains that the Australian Aboriginal belief that a woman is impregnated by a giant water snake is an absurdity, then one is compelled to admit the equal absurdity of the Christian belief that a virgin teenager was impregnated by a ghost, considered a god, and gave birth to a son, also considered a god, while “paternity” is attributed to yet a third divine manifestation called “God the Father.” On top of all this, these three distinct personages are held to be the same identical deity—i.e., they all partake of and are embodiments of the same force or “nature,” a concept reminiscent of the impersonal supernatural power that the Algonkians called Manitou, that the Polynesians called mana, and that under the rubric of “vitalism” or “dynamism” is viewed by orthodox Christianity as heretical.

This last point underscores the third reason I began this essay with a reference to Hume’s remark about the intellectual superiority of monotheism over polytheism. There have been few, if any, truly monotheistic religions. Most, if not all, religions posit (as Christianity does) the existence of more than a single deity or supernatural being; there are gods, angels, demons, devils, ghosts, spirits, or an impersonal supernatural force at work in the universe. Or a society, such as that of the Mosaic Hebrews, may recognize only one god for itself while acknowledging the existence of several other deities concerned with other societies.

Thus, I come to my personal position on the matter of religion—and a direct answer to your question when you were a toddler. It is my opinion that there is no middle ground; reason precludes religion, and religion precludes full use of reason. (This, in effect, is precisely what the so-called Great Religions themselves teach: one must suspend reason, they say, and have faith; one must believe against or in spite of reason.) In the face of Zeno’s paradoxes, which illustrate the frailty of human reason, and as undeniably faulty as my reason may be, as limited in capacity as it (or the data it has to work with) may be, as naive and ultimately futile it may be to rely upon it, and as frustrating as it may be to cling to reason in the face of the unreasoning run of humanity—in short, as doomed to failure as such a strategy may be—it is the mainstay of my individuality. Were I to abandon reason and place blind faith in the mythical inventions of others (which is what all organized religion, orthodox or no, requires), I would be abandoning myself. I, my unique self, would cease to exist.

It is my opinion, therefore, that anyone who claims to be both a person of reason and a person of religion is (a) a liar or (b) a hypocrite or (c) genuinely self-deceived or (d) lacking in intelligence.

Harsh words, these, but it is time I spoke out to you. From the age of about three years, you began asking questions about religion and God. I didn’t want to influence you unduly by my belief or lack of it, so I always replied with some sort of explanation concerning comparative religion, a brief disquisition on variety of religious belief, which, I know, you never found fully satisfying.

My presentation—which, each time it was made, I tried to gear toward your age and my estimate of your ability to comprehend—went something like this: “There are a lot of different kinds of religions or things people believe about gods and spirits and ghosts; about how people first came to exist; about what happens after death; about the existence of unseen worlds and places, like heaven, or spiritual entities, like souls”—and so on, to your consternation. Special consideration was given to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam because, as a Westerner, you were fated to encounter these belief systems most directly and frequently. But I did not neglect non-Western religion and tried to present all variations, whether formally polytheistic or monotheistic, in an equal light. (That is, I would not, even if I could, play David Hume.)

I never expressed a personal preference to you. You knew, however, that, though both your mother and I were raised as Christians (albeit of different sects), neither of us subscribed to any body of preformed religious belief. In that respect, then, since we were your parents, we undoubtedly did influence you. That, I think, could not be helped, though it was not my objective: I did not desire or hope that you would adopt a position similar to mine. What I did try to do, however, was influence you to use your head; I hoped you would rely on reason, weigh all the information, and then draw your own conclusions.

This wasn’t easy for you. Independence of mind is always a burden; at age three it must have been especially hard to bear. But you did well.

You really wanted something to believe in. Apart from our unqualified love, support, and acceptance of you, we gave you nothing tangible in which to place your credence except yourself.

For example, about the same time that you raised the question of religion, you also asked about Santa Claus. “Is there really a Santa Claus?” you wanted to know. You never received a simple yes or no. What you always got in reply was another question: “What do you think?”

That question always brought a reasoned response from you. You’d sit on my knee or beside me on the sofa, and you thought your way through your own question, weighing aloud the pros and cons, until you came to the conclusion with which, for that particular year, you were most comfortable. Whatever your conclusion was, I went along with it. “Fine,” I’d say, “that sounds good to me if that’s what you think.” Except for a few months when you were four, you chose to believe in Santa Claus. By the time you were six, you had abandoned the belief entirely, considering the Claus character mythical but part of a “nice story” that represented the spirit of Christmas.

You were innately considerate enough of others’ feelings, however, never to proclaim your disbelief to other children nor to attempt to puncture their belief—even though we never guided you one way or another in this. You would come home from school or from playing outside and tell us that Jennifer or Alyssa still believed in Santa Claus, but “I didn’t say anything because it would make her feel sad.”

Your ability to accept the nonexistence of Santa Claus, once you came to this conclusion, was in large part made possible by your mother’s response to your inquiries. She never gave you a definitive yes or no either. She responded by telling you the origins of St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Noel, Babushka, and so on. She read you books on the subject—its source, history, and cross-cultural variations, as well as its associations with the Christian nativity episode. (We also tried to explain non-Christian precursors of Christian holidays—e.g., the Roman Saturnalia’s relation to Christmas, as well as the establishment of December 25 as the birthday of the Roman god Sol Invictus, or the analogies between spring fertility ceremonies and Easter.)

Needless to say, we set a good deal on your young shoulders. But you were capable. I remember an incident that occurred when you were just about six years old. Having heard several times the perennial question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” you asked quite seriously which had really come first.

That was a tough one. Since you were already familiar with some basic concepts in astronomy and biological evolution (planets and dinosaurs, along with sexual reproduction, having been special interests of yours since before the age of two—and concerning which, by the way, you had always received straight answers), I responded by beginning with the formation of the Earth, the seas, the first life forms, and ran the gamut of evolution up to the present time, explaining the need for the egg to produce a chicken and the need for the chicken to produce an egg. I also tried, of course, to introduce the concept of mutation to suggest how the egg from “one sort of animal” might produce a somewhat “different sort of animal” so that gradually a chicken emerged from something that, at some time, was not a chicken.

It seems now that it took me nearly an hour to get through all this, during which time you listened patiently and occasionally asked questions. When I finished, enunciating my opinion that a recognizable chicken probably came first, you were silent a few moments. Finally, you said, “Well, that may not be true, but it certainly is a good idea.” (With that statement, I very nearly expanded my list of most-admired philosophers to four.) Then you added, “I think the egg had to be first.”

“Fine,” I said. “That sounds good to me if that’s what you think.”

The matter thus settled, you went off to bed.

When my daughter Sasha was about three years old, she began asking questions about religion. She wanted to know if such an entity as a god existed, along with whether other characters, such as Santa Claus, were real. Her little friends talked about a god, and later when she attended pre-school, the question of religion …