Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Molestation of Pachyderms

I was recently offered an old Indian parable by a theist as an attempt to befuddle me into accepting that different religions are all part of the same god.  You know the one about the three blind me (or men in the dark) who are asked to describe what an elephant looked like by feeling it.  The first man feels the leg and says an elephant is like a tree.  The second man feels the tail and proclaims it to be a length of rope.  The third feels the tusk and decides this long and sharp object must be a spear.  You've probably heard it differently; there's many forms of the story.  But the point is that this argument was presented to me as an attempt to show how we all see the same thing in reality, just from different perspectives.  This particular theist was using it to further illustrate how science is just another blind man feeling around in the dark.  The analogy may sound flowery, philosophical and convincing, but it is fundamentally flawed.

Religion is Blind
The point that was lost on my theistic friend was that religion is like those blind men.  It feels around for something and immediately sticks to it's interpretation of what it finds (demons cause disease, anyone?).  But science keeps going.  It doesn't just proclaim "it's a spear" or "it's a tree trunk".  It says, "well, this part resembles a tree trunk, but we need more data".  Religion gives up.  It has no reason to continue searching or to keep asking questions because it thinks (nay, knows) it has all the answers.

Another point the analogy makes is that the blind men are all wrong. Not only do they get the description of the elephant wrong, but they get the animal itself wrong as well (if you follow the version that is asking the men to describe what they're feeling).  Religion says, "yep, it's a spear alright".  Science says, "it might be a spear, or spear-like, but we don't yet know".

My theist friend failed to realize that the parable was not meant to be about how religions are the same, but instead about how religion knows nothing.  As John Godfrey Sax's poem about it ends:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen! 

Not The Same
Further points can be made against the New Age view that all religions are parts of the same whole.  While this view is relatively harmless, I don't see it as intellectually honest, and would rather argue on the side of religion for the sake of religious integrity (however frail that may be).  As my friend Todd Allen Gates points out in his book, Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer, the reasons for thinking "all religions are one" fall into five categories.

First, perhaps different religions fill different needs.  God made all the world's religions, but he modified them to suite the needs of different regions.  This might sound at first to be well and good, but flaws appear after a few moments pf thought.  Does this mean that people who, say, travel to India, should observe the caste system? What about people whose divine directives say they should kill all who practice witchcraft?  What happens when they travel to a country where the practice of witchcraft is believed to be a commandment from god?  The bigger point here is: where do you go for guidelines?  Who writes the standards for which doctrine gets observed when overlaps or contradictions occur?

Second is the "corrupted message" view that we see conflict in religions because God's original True Word(TM) has been corrupted by humans.  This boils down to, as Gates says, something of a CEO who is too inept to keep unauthorized subordinates from editing the text and -- even worse -- a CEO who stands by idly when the corrupted messages are forged and spread even more widely than the original, true message.  This give a contradictory view of God; he's powerful enough to create the universe, but can't seem to keep his mission statement from being tampered with.

Third is the "paradox hypothesis".  God made different religions to confuse us on purpose, because those bewildered by conflicting doctrines will reap the benefits of expanded spiritual perceptions.  This idea that God purposefully confused us might be supported by a small number of people who feel their spiritual lives have benefited, but when we look at the history of violence and bloodshed caused by this confusion, it makes a caring Creator who wishes such bloody disorder look inept and not so caring.  As Gates so eloquently puts it, "it makes little since to believe that such a deity who could so successfully calculate the different respiratory needs of gills versus lungs, would have so badly calculated and miscalculated the effects of inspiring consecrated contradictions".

Fourth is the "emanation hypothesis", that the Creator of the universe didn't set out to inspire any religion, but holy truth simply emanates from it, and different humans in different time periods tap into these emanations.  The idea is that there's one divine source, people just pick up on that source in different ways depending on their culture.  This too falls into the same basic contradiction-quagmire as the previous two categories: that an all-powerful, all-loving being cares enough about us to want us to be delivered, but offers no way of preventing us from making up our own mind about which is the True(TM) way, however wrong it turns out to be.  This deity continues to emanate truths without care as to how those truths are being interpreted and what violence it begets.  This position may not exclude a deistic god, but it certainly discredits a personal one.

The fifth and final way in which New Agers claim "all religions are one" is that even though we humans perceive differences and contradictions in religions, that's only due to our limited, finite, or broken human understanding.  But this cop-out answer is not the sole property of New Age spiritualists; fundamentalists will use this same rationalization to nonbelievers in their religion.  Any difficulty can be explained away by it, but how is it that "we don't know" something can turn into "therefore we know"?

Can't We All Just Get Along?
It would be nice if religions were all parts of the same elephant.  Even though they're not, those who wish peace between religions can only want a good thing.  The bigger point is this: we don't need religion -- any religion -- to have a peaceful, loving, and productive coexistence.  We're better off putting aside religion, or at least cutting out the "love your neighbor" bits and throwing away the rest.  One thing is for sure: we're all in this boat together, and we're all a little blind.


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