The Atheist Missionary recently proposed an extraordinary criterion for identifying religious and theological beliefs. They are, according to TAM, identified as metaphysical statements which command certainty. When I challenged this claim and asked for evidence, TAM responded:
A system of belief which asserts metaphysical certainty is the definition of a religion (“there is life after death and this is how you achieve it”).
How many religions do you know of that concede, as an essential part of their dogma: “you know, we could be completely wrong about all of this”?
So what should we think of this response?
For starters, it is viciously circular. I asked TAM what evidence he has that religious and theological claims should be defined as statements of metaphysical certainty. In response he tells me to look at the epistemic attitude of religions. How is this circular? Because we identify a religion in part based on the definition of what constitutes a religious statement. So TAM cannot appeal to religions as support for the way he defines religious statements.
Further, it is deeply confused. Those belief systems that are recognized as religions include truth claims, but do not typically include among those truth claims meta-epistemological statements regarding the degree of epistemic conviction one is required to have in those truth claims in order to be an adherent of the religion. Consider the Apostles’ Creed, for example. It lists a series of doctrines to which one must assent, but nowhere does it include in those doctrines any claim about maximal epistemic conviction in one’s assent. (Even if it did, that wouldn’t mean that a theological or religious statement is defined with respect to epistemological certainty of certain metaphysical claims.)
Finally, it is wacky. If you’re at a political party convention how often do you hear “You know, we could be completely wrong about this”? When people make truth claims they don’t typically go around qualifying them with self-deprecations of personal fallibility. TAM seems to think that if people don’t automatically qualify their truth claims with those kinds of self-deprecations that they believe them with maximal epistemological certainty. That’s crazy. When the meteorologist tells us it will rain tomorrow he is not stating that with the same conviction as Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum.
In summary, TAM has offered a completely idiosyncratic criterion for identifying religious and theological claims. It is a sort of error theory, one that states that the way people typically identify these concepts is deeply errant while providing the “correct” definition. That’s okay in principle. Error theories of this type abound in philosophy. But there has to be something going for an error theory. Unfortunately TAM can offer us no reason to adopt his error theory. And that leaves us with one conclusion: the only error here is that which lies with TAM himself.