[Editor's note:  This column was one of a series I composed
          in response to the controversy generated by Jesse Ventura's
          interview with PLAYBOY.  It originally appeared in THE TWIN-
          PORTS PEOPLE (Holiday Issue 1999), p. 6 and p. 13.]

Non-Random Thoughts


Jim Fetzer                                                        

Perhaps nothing about our Governor's PLAYBOY interview generated more
controversy than his characterization of organized religion as "a sham and
a crutch for weak-minded people".  Anyone who took time to read what Jesse
had to say would find it was said in the context of explaining how the
religious right meddles in our lives and wants to tell everyone else how
to live.  If you read newspapers, you know that's true.

Almost every day, one or another letter to THE NEWS-TRIBUNE complains
about the absence of religion from our public schools, the need for prayer
in our classrooms, posting The Ten Commandments on their walls, teaching
creationism as well as (or instead of) evolution, the intrusion of
atheistic, secular humanism in place of Christian values, on and on.  Just
take a look if you doubt it.

One might think that the public schools were the only place young people
could acquire religious beliefs.  What about the family? the church? the
synagogue? the temple?  When our schools are turned into churches, who
will educate our children?  Those who want them raised within a religious
framework should send them to parochial schools instead.  That's what they
are for.

Jesse is hardly the first person to associate religion with the weak
minded.  Marx considered religion to be "the opiate of the masses",
because those who believe in an afterlife are more tolerant of abuses in
this life.  Nietzsche viewed Christianity as "a slave morality", because
those who are willing to turn the other cheek may not stand up for their
rights.  They are vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation.

The psychology of mass movements has been explored in Eric Hoffer's THE
TRUE BELIEVER.  And, in WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN, Bertrand Russell, the
great British philosopher, has observed that more humans have been
slaughtered in the name of religion than from all other causes combined.
Whether organized religion on balance had done more good than harm remains 
a debatable question.

People may be sensitive about religion because it is such a personal
matter.  But if it's a personal matter, why do religious zealots try to
impose their views upon the rest of us?  It's personal for everyone else
as much as it is for them.  But that is not how they see it.  The
religious right claims to have privileged access to the truth.  They alone
are right and everyone else is wrong.

Unfortunately, none of us has privileged access to the truth in matters of
religion.  When it comes to belief in God, we all appear to be in the same
epistemic quandary, because we have no way to tell whether one or more
divine beings even exist.  No matter what the course of history, it can be
reconciled with the existence or the non-existence of God.  That includes
overpopulation, global pollution, world wars, and genocide.

Traditional conceptions tend to envision God as a transcendent being
completely unlike any natural phenomenon.  Scientific inquiries, alas,
cannot address phenomena that lie beyond the possibility of empiricial
investigation.  Typical beliefs about God are therefore empirically
untestable, which means there are no objective procedures to settle
questions about God.  Answers based upon faith do not qualify as

Jimmy Stewart starred in the movie, "Harvey", playing Elwood P. Dowd, an
affable alcoholic who had an ongoing relationship with a large but
invisible rabbit.  While the film was amusing, few would mistake Elwood's
belief in Harvey for knowledge.  There was no evidence of Harvey's
existence except in Elwood's mind.  God is also an invisible being, but
one that occupies all space and all time.

There are many alternative conceptions, of course, including the existence
of many gods, the identification of God with nature, and the conception of
God as having created the world and then allowing it to run its course, as
well as more traditional alternatives.  The strongest conception envisions
God as an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being, who knows
everything, can do anything, and wants only good.  But the existence of so
much misery then becomes a mystery.

Sensitivity about religion, I suspect, has less to do with its personal
nature than its inherited character.  Most of us simply accept the
doctrines with which we happen to have been raised.  We seldom think about
the available alternatives.  We are uncritical and unreflecting about why
we believe what we believe in this domain.  We spend more time picking out
a new TV than we do choosing our religion.

William Clifford, a 19th century British philosopher, advanced an "ethics
of belief" according to which we are morally entitled to hold a belief
only if we are logically entitled to hold it.  Since there can be no
evidence of God's existence, we are not logically entitled to believe it.
Since there can be no evidence of God's non-existence, however, we are not
logically entitled to believe that either.

According to the ethics of belief, therefore, atheism is just as immoral
as theism.  The only justifiable position is agnosticism.  Those who
believe whatever they want regardless of the evidence contradict
Clifford's maxim.  50% of the population believes in ghosts, 25% believes
in witches, and programs and films about angels are wildly popular.  You
can believe in werewolves, vampires, and leprechauns, if you like.  Just
don't mistake your beliefs for knowledge.

Public schools must be secular out of respect for everyone's right to
personal beliefs.  But they are not therefore bastions of atheism.  The
Ten Commandments, organized prayer, and creationism are out of place in
public schools, which must be agnostic out of impartiality.  Those who
would impose their religious beliefs upon others are not demonstrating
strength of character but weakness of mind.

If anyone noticed that Jesse also affirmed his adherence to The Golden
Rule--in his own words, "Treat others as you'd want them to treat you"--I
haven't read about it.  Few of us would want to take exception to this
principle, which implies that the essence of morality is treating other
persons with respect.  That includes respecting their right to hold
religious beliefs that differ from our own.  Sounds like a pretty good
policy to me.

Jim Fetzer, a professor of philosophy at UMD, is the author of SCIENTIFIC
KNOWLEDGE, PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE, and other works in the theory of




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