The Myth of Religious Neutrality

[Many thanks to Ioana for her notes!]

Last Tuesday, Ioana and I went to a lecture at WYSOCS by Professor Roy Clouser, author of The Myth of Religious Neutrality. He’s a great speaker, who kept our attention through some pretty heavy stuff (mathematics, logic). Here’s a short summary of what he said.

Every theory we hold is based on a ‘Divinity Belief’. This includes both consciously held and unconscious beliefs. We may disagree on who is divine, but we all know what it means to be divine. Clouser defined the Divine as that reality which is self-existent and everything else that is not divine depends on it. Others have approached the same definition by speaking of ‘the Absolute’, or ‘the Ultimate Reality’, or ‘the Unconditionally Non-dependent’. Thus, such things as worship, or ethics, are not necessary for a belief to be considered religious (not all religions involve worship or ethics, e.g. Theraveda Buddhism) and certain beliefs (e.g. atheism, materialism) not normally considered to be religious beliefs can now be counted as religious beliefs (because even atheists believe that something is self-existent, usually matter, physics or the like). Hence the title: it is a myth that anyone can be religiously neutral, or, put a different way, that secular society represents the base norm and religious beliefs are an essentially unnecessary, but troublesome, add-on.

A Divinity Belief lies at the core of every theory and the outcome of their arguments. This is inescapable. One’s worldview consists of one’s answer to these three questions: 1) what is divine? 2) how does everything else relate to the divine? 3) how should human beings live in order to be in a correct relationship to the divine. The atheist is subject to this just as much as the ‘religious’ person: an atheistic materialist might answer question 1 by saying that matter and physics are that reality which ‘just exists’. Therefore everything else that exists, including us, exists because matter and physics exist. How should human beings live in the light of that? Well, for one, they should stop worrying about any notion of heaven, hell and divine judgement and just live for this life!

Clouser goes further than linking Divinity Beliefs to big, worldview-scale beliefs, but goes on to say that all beliefs are conditioned by one’s Divinity Belief, even ostensibly neutral or trivial ones. The counter argument which is presented against this is that 1+1=2 is the same, regardless of your Divinity Belief. An atheist believes that 1+1=2 just the same as an animist, or a Christian. Clouser addressed this counter argument by asking the question, ‘what is a number?’ Throughout the history of mathematics there have been various answers to this question. Pythagoras, Plato, Leibnitz and others believed that numbers existed in a higher, more perfect world – the number world theory. Thus, Leibnitz would say that 1+1 would =2 even if there were no things to count or people to count them. Numbers are the self-existent reality. The second theory of numbers was that held by Bertrand Russell, namely that there are no numbers; numbers and mathematical laws are simply shorthand for logic. Therefore, the self-existent reality is logic itself. A third theory, held by John Stuart Mill, is that numbers are just our generalisation of what we see. They are based on sensation and observation – sensation is the self-existent reality. John Dewey believed that the marks we call numbers stand for nothing. Asking whether 1+1=2 is true or not is asking the wrong question. Mathematics is a tool: one doesn’t ask if a tool is ‘true’ or not, but what job the tool does. Our beliefs are tools to help us survive and thrive; we are animals who invent tools. Then there are formalists and intuitionists – the latter reject the logical formulation which goes, “either P or Q; it’s not P so it must be Q” and thus reject a whole school of mathematics. Leibnitz believed that negative numbers don’t actually exist – we just make them up, so 4-8=-4 doesn’t have the same status in truth as 1+1=2 (if you believe that numbers derive from quantity you also have to come to this conclusion, because you can’t have -4 apples. You can owe someone 4 apples, but the owed apples don’t actually exist). Some languages don’t have words for numbers over 3. If 1+1=2 is problematic once one starts asking what a number actually ‘is’, then for higher mathematics, which Divinity Belief you hold makes a huge amount of difference.

Addressing the question of how we acquire our Divinity Beliefs, Professor Clouser stated that knowledge is not by faith. It’s the other way round: we have faith because we know who god (or God) is. Fitting it into the Christian framework of the Fall, we were created with knowledge of God. The Fall consisted in our wilfully replacing God with some other object (a cover for our real aim: putting ourselves on the throne). Romans chapter 1, in the Bible, states that mankind suppresses the knowledge of God. We are made with antennae for picking up knowledge of God. With the Fall, these became distorted and now focus on other things and can only be fixed by the intervention of the Holy Spirit. As to why some people latch onto one god and others to a different god, Professor Clouser said that this was something that one could not know (or at least he didn’t). However, he did venture that our Divinity Beliefs chose us rather than the other way round. Certain beliefs just seem self-evidently ‘right’ to us – hence the person brought up to be a devout Jew who encounters a materialistic professor at university and goes, “That’s it! That’s what I’ve always thought!” And the penny drops. To this extent, our beliefs are not under the control of our will (try making yourself believe something that is self-evidently not true).

Lastly, Professor Clouser proposed a thought-experiment for telling whether a Divinity Belief is true or not. Think about some aspect of reality (Clouser’s example was his glass of water) and strip away everything except the self-existent reality (in other words, our ‘fictions’ about that thing). Taking the example of the glass and the belief of materialism, that means stripping away notions like beauty. It also means stripping away quantity. Then shape. Then position in space. And so on. If you strip away everything but matter away from the glass, you end up with nothing, because nothing is exclusively material. (I’m not sure I understood this test – surely something has a particular shape because of the matter it is made of – but this is what he seemed to be saying. Perhaps he’s saying that, in the final analysis, shape doesn’t exist if the ultimate reality is just ‘matter’ in its generality and the particulars of this particular piece of matter are not germane to that. If you strip away everything but matter, you end up actually with nothing. I think he’s saying that nothing but God is adequate as a ground for reality).


After the lecture, Ioana and I cycled down into the centre of Leeds (from Horsforth, where WYSOCS is based). This was really good fun. We passed Kirkstall Abbey. Bits of Leeds reminded me of Glasgow – we passed the ends of a lot of Victorian brick tenements on streets which climbed steeply upwards from the main road. There’s something about the space of those sort of streets that I really like. You could see into the rooms of the flats on the end: people’s intimate lives separated from a busy thoroughfare by nothing but a few inches of brick. The contrast between the intimacy of the rising street, with its front steps, gardens, windows, neighbourhood dogs and trees, and the anonymous rush of the main road.


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