And then of course, there are the cross-religious boundary conflicts. For instance, Christians don’t understand how Muslims can believe that Muhammad was the final prophet of God or that Jews don’t accept Jesus as their savior.
Yet over 3.6 billion people belong to the Abrahamic religions and subscribe to all or some of these beliefs. That’s half the population on the planet; a fact I can’t simply ignore. So I’ve come to the more balanced perspective of being an instrumentalist. Now this might be a stretch but indulge me for a moment longer.
From Wikipedia, “In the philosophy of science, instrumentalism is the view that a scientific theory is a useful instrument in understanding the world. A concept or theory should be evaluated by how effectively it explains and predicts phenomena, as opposed to how accurately it describes objective reality.”
Although this definition applies to science where evidence is paramount, I’m using it on religion because it takes us out of the realm of describing objective reality and into the realm of “predicting phenomena.”
We can argue for an eternity about the truth of a religious proposition and never reach agreement . We’ve been doing it for thousands of years and have produced a cornucopia of new religions, sects and cults as a result. But if we argue about how that proposition predicts behavior we might find some common ground.
In this case, instrumentalism is about the practicality of a belief. I.e., its usefulness. In other words, I can forgo the need to reach a conclusion on the truth of a religious proposition and look to its capacity to predict phenomena, for instance “help believers.” And I cannot argue against the reality that religious belief does help believers.
Of course the next question that looms into view is, “what does this kind of help look like?” Or to be more precise, “help to do what.”
Ironically, I think the atheist author, Sam Harris has the best proposal for a moral absolute: “help humankind to flourish.” This means help all humankind to flourish in this lifetime. And this is where the theists and atheists might split. The theists believe it also helps in an afterlife.
In this instance, I am focusing on predicting behavior in this lifetime. To be even more precise, religious beliefs provide meaning to the lives of believers, give them purpose and a set of guidelines for living in this lifetime. Whether they follow them or not is an individual matter. And to this instrumentalist, whether the beliefs are true or not, isn’t important.
But I must admit, my argument, like many, is a hall of mirrors. If we apply the work of Jacques Derrida, the French postmodernist philosopher, when we deconstruct meaning far enough down to its origins, we find nothing there but what other human beings put there. And when we deconstruct that, we find aporia; a confusion in establishing the truth of any proposition.
Think of it this way: If we don’t know the meaning of a word, we can go to a dictionary. The word in question is defined using other words from the same dictionary. If we don’t know the meanings of those words, we use more words from the same dictionary to explain. But we are always referring to a human dictionary; a closed lexicon being used self-referentially to validate its own words.
You see, our faith in the truth of all propositions depends on how firmly we believe in the truth of supporting propositions. In the end, they’re all human propositions. Do they help or hinder the people who believe them and the people they influence? To me that’s the only question worth asking.
When it comes to answering that question for 3.6 billion Abrahamic religious believers, it’s anyone’s guess.