Of Cookie Crumbs and Religion’s True Nature

I have two questions. Here’s my first: if a crumb from a cookie falls to the kitchen table and breaks into four pieces, do you now have one cookie crumb divided by four, or four cookie crumbs?

Here’s my second question: is the first question merely an artifact of imprecise language, or does it also conceal an important philosophical dilemma?

With regard to the first question, I think it’s not answerable in any ultimate sense. With regard to the second question, I think it’s the latter. There’s a philosophical issue at stake: essentialism. What is essential about a thing?

A cookie crumb falling to a table and breaking into pieces seems to me a good analogy for the birth of any idea that falls from a human mind. It’s never clear how someone’s original idea will impact the world, but when it leaves a person’s brain and comes in contact with its contingent environment—and is then picked up by others—over time it becomes increasingly difficult to say what, exactly, was (or is) essential about it.

And this brings me to religion. After Pat Robertson said that Haiti’s earthquake occurred because Haiti had made a pact with the devil, other Christians distanced themselves from his statement and had a different reaction: don’t worry so much about the question of theodicy, but help those in need and see God’s hand in those offering assistance. But this response from some Christians so irritated atheist Richard Dawkins that he declared himself with Pat Robertson (in his interpretation of what Christianity is really all about):

Loathsome as Robertson’s views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. . . . It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.

I think that Dawkins is in error. If Christianity was first birthed from the mind of, say, Jesus—or one of his first followers, like St. Paul—it is difficult to say which response to the Haitian earthquake constitutes the true and genuine “Christian” response. Religions, like cookies, crumble, and given enough time, it is almost meaningless to ask the question, “Which existing crumb retains the essence of the first crumb?”

This is why I think it’s problematic to speak of particular religions as characteristically evil or good or violent. Religions, like other ideologies, do not exist in a vacuum, but are contingent phenomena. This is not to say that we can make no generalizations about specific religions, but it is to say this: we should show a good deal of caution in our generalizing about religion (and irreligion, for that matter). Otherwise we are likely to find prejudice substituting for clarity and precision of thought.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Of Cookie Crumbs and Religion’s True Nature

  1. Matt says:

    Hi Santi,
    I agree with you that religions are contingent phenomena, but the point Dawkins was making (which I also agree with) is that most Christians don’t see it that way.
    The vast majority of Christians will, if pressed, claim that there is some sort of absolute moral standard that exists independently of the way the religion is practised. This argument is regularly used as a defence when the noxious parts of their religion (e.g. the Crusades and priestly pedophilia) are pointed out.
    This argument is used selectively, though. When someone like Robertson takes it to its logical conclusion, then suddenly they’re all a lot more philosophical.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Matt:

    You said: “This argument is used selectively, though. When someone like Robertson takes it to its logical conclusion, then suddenly they’re all a lot more philosophical.”

    In other words, most people who call themselves Christians are not in the grip of as many reductio ad absurdums as atheists would like to place upon them. This frustrates atheists because they think that the true Christian should follow the implications of their beliefs to the absurdities that they obviously contain.

    By contrast, I am deeply relieved that there are lots and lots of Christians and Muslims and Jews and Hindus and atheists in the world who do not draw out the full implications of the logic of what they profess to believe. Yes, it shows incoherence at the heart of their belief systems. But it also shows an opportunity for change and moderation in good directions. I don’t think that those of us who profess to be atheists or agnostics should be encouraging religionists to follow reductio ad absurdums. We should praise those who have the good common sense to stop. GK Chesterton wrote that the madman is not the one who has lost his reason, but one who has lost everything but his reason.

    Let me give you another example: atheism. There are more than a few people (me included) who have tried to point out to atheists that there is a slippery slope to Nietzschean nihilism and the will to power in atheism, but almost no atheist goes there. Why? Because they have the good sense to stop the line of reasoning short of this (even though they could, if they looked at what they believed closely enough, land there). Likewise, a Christian that doesn’t sell all he has, and doesn’t read in the Bible a vindictive god, and thinks the Earth is old and not young, and doesn’t believe in hell except for the worst people—and still calls himself a Christian—is okay by me. I want a world of moderate people who reality test their ideas, and exercise a bit of common sense, and don’t just put them down upon the world like wind-up toys and let them run roughshod to their logical conclusions.

    The truth is that all belief systems contain paradoxes and absurdities and ethical outrages if taken, in a certain way, to their logical conclusions. We want less people who are willing to go through the world like a talk radio host or like Pat Robertson, blasting away (rhetorically or otherwise) at other people with relentless and narrow “rational” syllogisms. It turns Obama into a communist and Haiti into a cursed nation. As Lear says, “This way lies madness.”

    And here’s where I feel sorry for Dawkins: he is, by wanting Christians to fall into the grip of their own reductio ad absurdums, getting possessed by them himself. He is making the argument for the fundamentalist and thus falling under the spell of his own “demonic-projection” syllogism: religion is evil because if you follow the reductio ad absurdums in it you arrive at great evils. But this is also true of atheism—and any other idea set into practice by a maniac. Pat Robertson and Osama Bin Laden and Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are all ideological zealots in the grip of reductio ad absurdums. It’s sad when Dawkins, as he ages, starts to—out of impatience—fall in with them to make his points.

    —Santi

  3. Matt says:

    The important difference is that atheism doesn’t have the potential for reductio ad absurdum in the same way that religion does, because atheism isn’t a positive statement about the nature of things. It’s a rejection of one particular statement about the nature of things.
    To argue that this leads to any specific conclusion is fallacious, and any such argument is really driven by the particular worldview of the arguer.
    So Dawkins isn’t “in the grip of reductio ad absurdum”. He’s just pointing out that Robertson is in its grip, and in doing so Dawkins is pointing out the inherent absurdity of the religious worldview.
    This isn’t to challenge believers to be more fundamentalist, but to highlight the fact that a religious worldview isn’t necessarily worthy of automatic respect, as is so often the case.

  4. Pingback: Sherry Marquez Bait: a Man from Catholic Brazil Decapitates His Mother « Prometheus Unbound

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