Sigal: Religious beliefs should not have place in intellectual discourse

Director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theory and DePaul University professor of Catholic studies William T. Cavanaugh gave Geneseo’s 2015 MacVittie Lecture on Tuesday Nov. 10 examining whether or not religion causes violence.

Cavanaugh began his talk by briefly laying out what his argument was. He posited that there was no essential difference between that which is called religious and that which is called secular. Consequently, there was no reason to suppose that "religious" ideas were more violent than "secular" ideas and practices. He argued that to say that religion causes violence is to miss the larger point and to create a distinction where there shouldn't be one.

This is false. Cavanaugh claimed that there was no distinction on the grounds of the failure to define that which is religious and his failure to do so is indicative of larger societal ailments that impede human progress.

The lecture began with an attempt to render religion as indefinable to the audience. To do this, Cavanaugh cited multiple scholars from across the social sciences, all of whom were attempting to pin down what exactly a religion is.

Key to his point was the assertion that the actions of the United States government—largely considered a secular organization—were hardly distinguishable from those of the groups that are considered religious by conventional wisdom. Cavanaugh played upon the classification of the structure of the American government as secular with its separation of church and state. At the same time, however, he called it a religion by pinning it to the concept that America can do no wrong, is correct in everything it has done and that all countries should strive to be more like America in all respects. This fallacious equivocation of the structure of a free society to a belief in the infallibility of it is precisely what renders the religious-secular equivalence false.

During the question period at the end of the lecture, I inquired whether the professor’s failed attempts to come up with a definition of religion as a concept were perhaps not indicative of a lack of definition of religion, but rather indicative that he had used the wrong method. Instead of trying to specifically label what religion was, he could have ascertained what religion was not.

I proffered that religion was essentially faith and that faith is an intellectual failure indicative of the lack of rigor in subjecting all beliefs, values and opinions to scientific and rational scrutiny. In the words of Portland State University assistant professor of philosophy Peter Boghossian, to have faith is to "pretend to know things that you don't know."

Cavanaugh claimed that the definition I had set forth of being religious didn't bring us any further than before. He went on to say that he believed that his Catholic faith was rational for him. I was a little bit stunned to hear from an intellectual that he had, in no uncertain terms, baptized reason, science, rationality and logic. I'm confident, however, that if I had said that the theory of gravity wasn't rational for me, he would have rightly laughed me off the stage. But it seems by some societal construct, faith has been deemed to be off limits to examination. That much was evident, as not a single subsequent questioner dared challenge him on it when he laid bare his reasoning.

The insidious effects of allowing faith to shamelessly permeate unchallenged through our intellectual discourse reach far beyond a talk given by a visiting lecturer. There are real consequences to pandering to what would normally be brushed off as nonsense. To borrow the words of philosopher Bertrand Russell, "The substitution of emotion for evidence is apt to lead to strife.” It is time that we shame the use of faith as an intellectual tool out of public discourse.