A Popular Fallacy

Tibor R. Machan

It looks like both the postmodern literary theorist Stanley Fish and the German neo-Marxist Jürgen Habermas have concluded that human communities cannot cut it without religion or—at least in Fish’s view—that something is missing from the view that human communities could do quite well without it, that a secular culture can be just fine all around. (See Fish’s “Does Reason Know What It Is Missing?,” The New York Times, April 12, 2010.) I say “looks like” because reading Fish and Habermas is always a challenge—they tend to be systematically ambiguous. But the idea surfaces also in other places from many sources eager to try buttressing religion even while it is becoming less and less credible to do so.

Why would anyone believe this proposition? Mostly because religion is indeed a part of most human communities and because people seem eager to keep their faith even in the midst of a substantially secular, scientific culture. So they conclude that something is missing from a secular view of human community life. But this is a non sequitur. Fish wrote recently that Habermas

now believes that religion is not going away and that it will continue to play a large and indispensable part in many societies and social movements. And second, he believes that in a post-secular age—an age that recognizes the inability of the secular to go it alone—some form of interaction with religion is necessary: “Among the modern societies, only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human.”

I do not get this at all. For one thing, while religion has been with us from time immemorial, so have murder, theft, superstition, impoliteness, bad restaurants, and all kinds of lamentable stuff. Does that make them indispensable? Not a bit. People are free to make all sorts of lousy choices, and maybe one of the most persistent of these is their stubborn belief in a supernatural dimension. And why not? It is not always an unattractive idea that one may be around for much longer than evidence suggests. Is that any more bizarre than, say, UFOs? Or the doctrine of original sin? Or the practice of knocking on wood? Or the belief that the next time you visit Las Vegas you surely will make back all the money you lost the time before?

None of these features of human communities proves anything about whether such communities could function or even flourish quite nicely, thank you, without them. Persistent fallacious thinking won’t establish such thinking as anything but fallacious. So, it isn’t that bad ideas are necessary, only that they stay with us courtesy of the human capacity to go “out to lunch” in innumerable spheres of mental life.

It is no argument for or against religion—or any of its doctrines and versions—that it has been with us for a very long time. So have many other things we could easily do without. Maybe there are enough people of the sort who like religion to ensure that it will be humanity’s constant companion. But, again, this doesn’t make it indispensable. The important questions about religions are not how old they are, how widely they are believed, or how nice they make some believers feel. The important question about religions is whether they are true.

Even while much that people believe is beyond the pale, their confused beliefs do often serve as a starting point for something important and even true. Even though the supernaturalist aspects of religion are untrue, there may still be something worthwhile in religious belief to be paid attention to. Socrates realized that from falsehood and partial truth real knowledge can develop. So it may well make sense to pay a bit of attention even to some of the most absurd ideas people put forth. Still, just because there is a possibility of some value to these beliefs, it doesn’t follow that such a bare possibility amounts to anything real, much less that we should adjust our actions and institutions to them.

I remember that in his book Animal Farm the secular thinker George Orwell had a crow flying about all the time, no matter what political arrangement was afoot. It seems like he noticed the constant presence of religion, too, but didn’t take it as a sign of its truth. Nor should you.

Tibor R. Machan

Tibor R. Machan is a Hoover research fellow, a fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, a professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University, and holds the R.C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University


It looks like both the postmodern literary theorist Stanley Fish and the German neo-Marxist Jürgen Habermas have concluded that human communities cannot cut it without religion or—at least in Fish’s view—that something is missing from the view that human communities could do quite well without it, that a secular culture can be just fine all …

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