Rhetoric, Religion, and Secular Humanism. (Op-Ed)

By Burke, Richard | Free Inquiry, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Rhetoric, Religion, and Secular Humanism. (Op-Ed)


Burke, Richard, Free Inquiry


"Rhetoric" is not necessarily high-flown language, and it is not necessarily manipulative language either. Aristotle defined rhetoric as communication in which the "speaker" and the "audience," as well as the form and content of the "speech," are relevant to the understanding of its meaning (Rhetoric, I,i). Politics and advertising are mostly rhetorical by this definition, but science is not: its "speech" (theories based on solid evidence) is determinative, regardless of who says it to whom. And philosophy, ideally at least, is like science in this respect: its arguments are expected to stand on their own merits, without appeal to authority or popularity. This distinction is useful in explaining concepts like rationality (as opposed to rationalization) and knowledge (as opposed to belief).

For many years now, I have been puzzled by the fact that most religious people seem to "believe" things that are just as incredible as Santa Claus: "God" as a wise old man who lives in the sky, "heaven" as a place where people go when they die, "guardian angels," "devils," etc. The explanation, I now think, is the "belief" here has more to do with identity politics than with epistemology. Religion should be understood as a rhetorical stance, a position taken by a "speaker" before an "audience." The relevant consideration is not primarily whether it is true, but what it will do for you if you believe it. Some religion, but not all, is based on the authority of a higher "speaker" called God. Some religion, but not all, expresses an attitude of reverence toward "the sacred." When the major world religions were first formulated, they naturally incorporated the ideas about nature and mankind prevalent at that time. But what all modern religion, including Eastern and "New Age" religion, has in common is a preferenc e for the metaphysical and ethical ideas of yesterday over those of today. Why would anyone want to do this? Because the ideas of today being new and less familiar, may seem to threaten settled human values.

Darwin's theory of evolution seems to threaten human dignity by making us animals; twentieth-century physics seems to threaten the need for a divine intelligence planning the universe; modern historiography seems to threaten human progress; modern theories of mind seem to threaten the immortality of the human soul; modern permissive ideas about healthy sexuality seem to threaten moral values like purity and modesty. …

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