Saturday, February 6, 2010

Religion: the new Homeopathy?

In relation to the recent homeopathy thread[1], a parallel was drawn between supporting homeopathy and following religion. This seemingly appropriate parallel was employed by several ‘allopaths’ to demonstrate that people will indeed believe any old crap, without rhyme or reason. It was also employed, off-thread, to call for a less combative approach towards the ‘homeopaths’ (both groups named purely for convenience).

I do not believe that the parallel is accurate. Those who have noticed that my woolly-minded Methodism combines with an antipathy towards homeopathy will no doubt be thinking “well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?”, but bear with me.

It is probably more accurate to say that the parallel is not wholly accurate, but there may be some mutually applicable principles.

Firstly, faith does not require payment. Payment is often involved, certainly, but this is, normally, voluntary (I should give), or, at most, a moral imperative (you should give), rather than ‘a price’ (you must give).

Secondly, faith does not require a rejection of commonly accepted science relating to the material world.

In relation to the former, of course, there are religious organisations that set a price for receiving a spiritual benefit. There are also strands of religion that reject science, whether this is faith healing or young-earth creationism. Both of these give strength to the parallel but neither are, as large numbers of religious people, including me, demonstrate, necessary requirements of faith.

Also, religious faith can touch every area of the person’s life, whereas homeopathy is limited in scope. Thus, if homeopathy is a ‘faith’, it is a very specific one, which can run in conjunction with a more general worldview (whether religious or not).

One point made in relation to homeopathy is “if it works for you, fine – but don’t go making claims for it beyond your own experience”, and the same approach can be taken in relation to religious faith. Those of us who consider faith to be a personal and private matter, a matter of belief rather than knowledge, should perhaps think on how we feel when our faith is condemned, blanket-fashion, when responding to homeopaths, creationists, geocentrics, etc – and, before anyone cites any of my contributions to the homeopathy thread, yes, I did frequently forget the injunction of a wiser person[2] than I to ‘hate the game, not the player’ – but there is another difference here, relating to the applicability of scientific proof.

On many a CIFBelief thread, the question of proving or disproving the existence of God comes up. One side says that as you can’t prove God exists, believing in him/her is irrational. The other says that ‘absence of proof not being proof of absence’. At which point someone mentions a giant teapot orbiting the earth, or unicorns, and it can all get a bit snarky.

The problem seems to me to be an assumption that scientific proof is relevant to the debate. Now, if a religious person is seeking to ‘move’ their belief on others, claiming it as indubitably true, and extrapolating from this to creationism, geocentrism, or other such immutable views touching on the material world, then this is worthy of challenge. But if they are simply saying ‘this is what I believe, it holds for me’, that is, I think, different. It is a question of belief rather than knowledge – it is subjective rather than objective. It is only where religion is claimed as an objective truth that there is a problem.

Similarly with homeopathy. One could discern, on the thread, two types of ‘homeopath’ – those saying ‘it worked for me’ without seeking to make wider claims (sometimes specifically recognising the placebo effect), and those seeking to prove that it works scientifically. Now, even the ‘quiet believer’ who does not seek to evangelise can be challenged on a personal level for rejecting science, as this belief necessarily involves some rejection of science, but it seems more important for the ‘allopaths’ to focus on the latter group.

Because when any belief system moves outside its sphere into the material world, and seeks to prove things, and those things are contrary to the weight of proof furnished to us by science, then science gets to say ‘oi, neck in’, and prove its point.

One can of course say that of the creationists – but there is another element of religion being ‘moved’ from the personal to the general, which relates to ethics. Here, there may be science, but there is more often simply more subjectivity – on homosexuality, abortion, the death penalty, faith itself. That is a separate debate (or debates) – and while both sides may claim objectivity, or at the very least, to be ‘more right’ than the other side, that inherent subjectivity should not be forgotten. The different views on these moral issues taken, for example, by different denominations of Christianity, and by different persons of no faith, demonstrates this.

So, when people castigate homeopathy as ‘a religion’, they may be right in that they are addressing a belief system that, in their eyes, says black is white in relation to scientifically provable matters, but they are wrong both in that this is not a necessary part of faith, and also as homeopathy does not act as a driving force for the believer in areas where science and evidence and proof are not relevant.

I have attempted to explain the subjectivity of faith as akin to liking a particular piece of music best, being moved most by a particular painting, even, supporting a particular football team. But there I also am grasping for apparently helpful analogies that are not appropriate. None of those preferences constitute a belief that touches every part of one’s life. More appropriate, maybe, to liken faith to a political standpoint? A supporter of communism, might be challenged with the world’s experience of it in the same way that a supporter of a particular religion might be challenged with the practices of their coreligionists, as one must pay heed to the effect that a belief system has had on the world when set out there as objectively true, and again, however, both can argue, “but that is not a necessary part of it!”

But maybe not – while some part of our political affiliations may result from a feeling that X-ism is ‘unfair / wrong’ and Y-ism ‘fair / right’, this is more likely reached by a more objective process of considering the evidence than relying solely on personal experience. While culture and experience can play its part in the ‘choice’ of religion, this is again not a necessary part of it – it is personal experience that may not involve ‘choice’, in that objective sense, at all.

So what is there that is truly analogous to religious faith? What other belief or feeling can permeate every part of one’s life? Is it love for another person ? – one can argue that chemicals and culture play their part. Love for one’s children? – again, there are biological imperatives at play. So, one might conclude, that religion is a thing unto itself, different from all other beliefs or feelings that we may have. In that case, to call anything other than a religion, whether homeopathy, atheism, environmentalism or the belief in or rejection of anthropogenic climate change ‘a new religion’ is misleading, brings up a multitude of strawmen, and, inevitably, both cheapens and restricts debate.

[2] JohYardDog’s comment on the previous WDYWTTA thread, which I now cannot access...