THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT [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 WITH RESPECT TO THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT, IF JESSE'S WRONG, IT AIN'T OBVIOUS 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 knowledge. 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 knowledge.