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It is a common line of argumentation against religion that it includes dogmatic claims without evidence and that the resistance to change that is peculiar to religion and stems from its dogmatism forestalls all progress towards truth. Religion is, according to some, by its very definition, a set of fixed, immutable claims it regards as revealed truths, paired with the requirement that all adherents (or even all people on Earth) uphold these claims. But if religion is wrong, it can never correct itself.

My aunt, who is a deeply religious person, rejects the above vehemently. She upholds that this is a very fundamental misunderstanding of religion. She says that religion cannot be considered as a way to explain the world or as any set of claims or propositions, whether opposed to science or not. Religion, according to her, indeed cannot be falsified or verified, but this is not because its propositions are ill-posed or in any other way unsound, but rather because religion is not a set of propositions in the first place.

Religion, according to her, is the personal relationship between God and a believer. It is the invitation sent by God to all people to enter a personal relationship with Him, and the will of some people to enter that relationship. To attempt to 'falsify' religion, therefore, is as absurd as to ask a child to falsify their relationship with their mom. To condemn religious people for their irrationality and dogmatism is as absurd as to condemn a child for their irrationality and dogmatism when that child cuddles with their mom and says "Mom, I love you".

Is the above position defensible?

Religions, especially those like Catholicism, do indeed seem to contain a set of propositions, don't they?

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    If one's religious practice is limited to having conversations with their imaginary friend without involving any other person no claim is indeed made. But as soon as the believer tries to involve other people or derogate from the common rule it becomes a political matter. "I won't pay my taxes because God told me so" is a claim and becomes unnacceptable. So yes, people are entitled to have as much of a relationship with God as they want but it's very rare that religious practice is limited to this.
    – armand
    Dec 13, 2023 at 0:46
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    The question of if some claim is “defensible” is open-ended, and a weaker variant of the question of if it is true or false. This question could be improved by reformulating it as such. But that question would be essentially asking “What is religion? Is it this, or that?” Dec 13, 2023 at 23:19
  • 3
    But I believe this is a common fallacy in which people a priori assume some thing exists, because there is a word for it; and then debate about what it really is. There is no debate if we simply do not assume there is a thing called “religion”. This post motivated the question asked here. Dec 13, 2023 at 23:19
  • 1
    Am I missing something? The very way the question is phrased seems to acknowledge that this is indeed a claim? "Is it defensible to claim"... Dec 15, 2023 at 16:39
  • 2
    @JohnMadden I think there is a potentially interesting treatment of the question using modal logic. “X claims that proposition Y does not entail any claims.” If the previous sentence is part of proposition Y, we may have a contradiction. Dec 21, 2023 at 22:33

10 Answers 10

34

This is a striking example of a question that boils down to the ambiguous meaning of a word. Yes, if you mean religion in the sense intended by your aunt, you can say it need not involve any other claims. No, if you mean a religion such as Catholicism, it would evidently wrong to say it makes no claims.

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    As some other answers allude, there is a hidden claim in seeing religion as "a personal relationship between God and a believer", namely the existence of said deity. This is different from "it is purely personal beliefs", even when allowing for religious formulations.
    – Chieron
    Dec 13, 2023 at 10:28
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    @JimmyJames agreed. That's why I said 'any other claims', as obviously there is the claimed relationship and its implicit properties. Dec 13, 2023 at 20:35
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    @MarcoOcram I see. The last sentence could use the same 'other' qualification, perhaps.
    – JimmyJames
    Dec 13, 2023 at 20:46
  • @MarcoOcram 1. Why is it a “striking” example? Is it a particularly interesting example, or is it stark and clear that it is the type of example you described? 2. You wrote in your answer that the aunt’s claims about religion are true by definition, but agree in the comments that “a personal relationship with a deity” implicitly makes claims, such as that the deity exists. But then this is a contradiction, since the aunt explicitly says that her definition of religion “makes no claims”. If a “personal relationship with a deity” implies claims, then the aunt’s claim is false. Dec 14, 2023 at 19:45
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    @JuliusH. It is stark and clear, to me at least- the author is confusing two meanings of the word religion. I think you are arguing at cross purposes too. I give the aunt some latitude- when she says religion make no claims, I interpret that charitably as meaning that it makes no claims other than the implicit properties of a relationship between a god and a believer. She is an aunt, after all, not professional philosopher, so we ought to make allowances for some degree of imprecision in her use of language, just as, I hope, you will make allowances for mine! Dec 14, 2023 at 20:05
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No, it is not defensible

Religion, according to her, is the personal relationship between God and a believer.

If so, then according to her...

  • Hinduism it not a religion
  • Buddhism is not a religion
  • Shintoism is not a religion
  • Scientology is not a religion

...and so on.

By her definition, any denomination that does not involve belief in the Christian deity, is not a religion.

I disagree, all of the denominations enumerated above are religions, therefore she is wrong, by contradiction.

Also, I disagree with her, in that I hold that personal faith does not equate religion. Religion, is when you organise around your faith.

Personally, I go by the following definitions...

  • A belief is an assumption about reality

  • Fact is belief with evidence for its veracity

  • Faith is belief without evidence for its veracity

  • Science is the organised and methodical pursuit of facts

  • Religion is the organised and methodical pursuit of faith

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When the meaning of a word like "religion" is ambiguous, I like to make up new words to distinguish each of the ways someone may use the term. :P

Personally, I do think the term "religion" is most proper to the relationship with the divine, either personal (like your Aunt suggests) or communal (like worship in a church). In this sense, I agree with your Aunt that "religion", properly understood, is an experience, rather than a logical framework with axioms and truth claims, and I don't suppose it can be falsified.

Meanwhile, we might use the term "theology" for the science of the divine. This refers to the body of knowledge (ie. a set of propositions), and also the tools for gaining that knowledge, including but not limited to Sacred Scripture and philosophical reasoning. Like any science, it can be done well or poorly: the conclusions one makes about reality may be well-supported or not, they may be falsifiable or not, and they may be correct or not. And, like any science, there may not be as much correlation between these as we'd like to think. I think criticisms in the vein of "dogmatic claims without evidence" are proper to theology, rather than religion.

But of course, we need at least one more term, let's say "Church", to refer to an institution oriented to the divine, which among other things gives guidance on what constitutes proper religion (ie. a proper relationship with the divine) and proper theology (ie. a set of endorsed truth claims). Arguments against, say, Catholicism as a "religion" are, in this framework, probably usually criticisms against the theology endorsed by the Catholic Church, and may not have much to do with religion at all. This is probably your Aunt's point of view. Note that arguments against religion generically are probably just not well formulated, since it's rather too vague a term to mean anything.

Of course it is very difficult, if not impossible, to be religious and not theological, at least to some degree. But some relationships just don't depend on knowing things about the other person all that much. So I do think your Aunt's position is defensible.

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    I just noticed an alternate distinction of terms in this link, which is equally helpful to the question at hand: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/105659/…
    – jecado
    Dec 13, 2023 at 2:56
  • This answer could be improved with editing, by making it more polished, refined, structured, and succinct. It has a slightly blog-post-like tone. Dec 21, 2023 at 22:21
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Religion is on one hand an attempt to understand the world. Religion provides a series of answers to important question about the real world. Giving explanations is always connected with the claim or at least the conjecture that the answer is true. Insofar religion makes truth claims.

On the other hand, religion also offers a way of salvation to its believers. In this context Christian religion invites to live in relation with the Christian god and with the saviour Jesus Christ. This component of religion is illustrated by the personal example from the OP's question. Here religion does not emphasize an explanation but makes an offer in form of a promise. Nevertheless the content of the promise is a truth claim too.

To restrict a religion to its salvific component I would call spiritually. Here you have the free choice to paint the relationship as you like most.

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  • This answer has a few typos and could be improved with a little editing to maximize its clarity. Dec 21, 2023 at 22:26
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The answer by @JoWehler was excellent. This answer should be viewed as expanding on that. Religion, first and foremost, is an attempt to answer a set of fundamental questions that plague mankind. Among these questions are

  1. Where did the world come from?
  2. Where did I come from?
  3. Is there anyone in charge?
  4. What is going to become of us?
  5. Is this it? When I die, do I just end or is there something more?
  6. Why is life so hard/painful/full of misery?
  7. Why do I do things that I later regret?
  8. What is the right thing to do?
  9. Why is there injustice?
  10. What is the purpose for me to go on living?

The Christian answers to these questions revolve around a creator God, an intelligent being who is self-existent, who exists outside of space and time, who knows all and can do all, and who cares about us. Many other religions in the West have the same God or a similar one to help answer the questions, although the answers are often different. Since religion in the West has resolved around God, God has come to be closely associated with religion in the West, although I maintain that ultimately religion is not about God but about the questions.

If I'm right about what religion is, then your aunt is necessarily wrong. Religion is all about answering questions, so it is all about propositions. The notion of a personal relationship with God is a consequence of a certain set of answers to those questions.

The Enlightenment attack on Christianity consisted primarily of three prongs:

A. An attempt to answer the questions via a materialist pseudo-religion we might call scientism. (The main characters in this prong were Marx, Freud, and Darwin. Many people today don't realize Marxism and Freudianism were once considered sciences.)

B. An attack on the Christian answer by demanding that God and the various tenants of Christian answers be held to the same sort of demands for evidence that is used in (an idealized view of) science.

C. An attack on Christian culture by criticizing failures of Christians to live up to their own principles and by going beyond Christian ethics so that the critics could claim to be more ethical than Christians who were at one time admired for their ethics.

Your aunt's position is a variation on one of the Christian responses to attack B. There is no direct response to attack B because God is an immaterial being outside of space and time, and so cannot possibly be investigated by methods designed to investigate material objects in space and time. However, there are some oblique responses; among them are:

  1. Attempt to show that the scientistic answers to the questions equally fail to meet these standards demanded for propositions about God. (The ID movement can be seen as a part of this effort)
  2. Deny that knowledge about God and his actions requires the same sort of evidence that scientific theories do (this is my approach).
  3. Opt out of the argument by declining to defend any propositions against the critique (this is your aunt's approach, and probably the most common one by a wide margin).
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My aunt, who is a deeply religious person, rejects the above vehemently. She upholds that this is a very fundamental misunderstanding of religion. She says that religion cannot be considered as a way to explain the world or as any set of claims or propositions, whether opposed to science or not. Religion, according to her, indeed cannot be falsified or verified, but this is not because its propositions are ill-posed or in any other way unsound, but rather because religion is not a set of propositions in the first place.

Religion, according to her, is the personal relationship between God and a believer. It is the invitation sent by God to all people to enter a personal relationship with Him, and the will of some people to enter that relationship.

The claim that X and Y are in a relationship is, of course, a claim. In fact, if we were to press your aunt to provide more concrete details about her purported relationship with God, she will most certainly end up making her claim more specific and complex, which would allow us to break it down into a more detailed set of claims. So it is not the case that no claims about reality are being made.

On the contrary, examples of obvious claims that come to mind include:

  • God exists
  • Your aunt exists
  • God has some characteristics [your aunt would need to provide these]
  • Your aunt has some characteristics [these can be provided by you, I guess]
  • God and your aunt interact in some specific ways [can be made more specific by your aunt]
  • God affects reality in some specific ways and under some specific conditions/circumstances [can be clarified/made more specific by your aunt]
  • Etc.

To attempt to 'falsify' religion, therefore, is as absurd as to ask a child to falsify their relationship with their mom. To condemn religious people for their irrationality and dogmatism is as absurd as to condemn a child for their irrationality and dogmatism when that child cuddles with their mom and says "Mom, I love you".

You can certainly interview a child and develop a theory about how the child interacts with their mother, and then put this theory to the test. For example, if the child claims that they meet their mother everyday, you can have a detective follow the child everyday for a whole month and track down every single adult woman that they get in contact with and gather statistics about all the interactions. You can also run DNA tests with the most likely candidates to verify if anyone of them is the mother. Assuming that the child claims to live with their mom, and provided that you know their address, you could also place hidden cameras to record their private interactions and have a psychologist see the videos to provide their opinion on whether the relationship appears to be loving (assuming the child claimed that their relationship with their mother was loving). Etcetera.

Applying this analogy to your aunt's claim of relationship with God, this would require separating the aspects that are testable from the aspects that are not, depending on the degree of granularity of the description of the relationship that your aunt provides. Vague descriptions are less verifiable than more concrete and specific descriptions. This reminds of the accepted answer to Is Christianity testable?

Consider, for example, if your aunt claims to be a vessel for God's miracles, healings, and revelations. At a minimum, you should be able to approach the situation with an investigative journalist mindset, conducting interviews with numerous individuals who have experienced the effects of her spiritual gifts, in order to gather corroborating testimonial data. If you fail to encounter this, or if the testimonial data is very inconsistent, that would be a failed prediction in my estimation. In fact, there have been people who have tried to do this. Two books that come to mind:

Is the above position defensible?

I don't think so, since it's very easy to come up with claims being made that serve as counterexamples.

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Suppose that my aunt claims to have a lifelong imaginary friend, and also claims that her personal relationship with her imaginary friend is a personal relationship which makes no claims about reality. Then she still makes two claims: that the imaginary friend is perceivable to her, and that the imaginary friend communicates with her somehow.

Isomorphically, your aunt has made two claims.

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  • She cannot prove that God exists, and you cannot prove that God is imaginary. And I can come up with "evidence" either way, though not with proof. Corbin and the aunt apparently have mutually exclusive opinions; thus at least one of them is wrong. And though I suspect the aunt's view includes those "two claims," neither you nor I can be certain of that without further questioning.
    – WGroleau
    Dec 14, 2023 at 15:43
  • @WGroleau: I have shown that all-powerful beings don't exist and also that all-knowing/all-seeing beings don't exist. If the aunt claims that God is either all-powerful or all-knowing, then it follows that she is deluded.
    – Corbin
    Dec 14, 2023 at 19:11
  • Sorry, each of those answers is followed by comments revealing their weaknesses. And since we haven't been told whether the aunt made either of those claims, they can't be a premise of your alleged proof.
    – WGroleau
    Dec 15, 2023 at 4:45
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Is it defensible to claim that religion is a personal relationship with God and therefore contains no claims?

No.

If you argue that ...

[religion] includes dogmatic claims without evidence and that the resistance to change that is peculiar to religion and stems from its dogmatism forestalls all progress towards truth.

... then interpreting that argument in terms of a significantly different definition of "religion" than you mean, in order to argue against that, is an example of the straw man fallacy.

Perhaps your aunt feels the need to argue against the negatives you are attributing to "religion" applying to her, personally. In that case, she might have said something along the lines of "I would claim to be religious, but I don't accept that my personal beliefs are dogmatic, that I am peculiarly resistant to change, or that my beliefs and others like mine impede progress toward discovering truth. My essential religious beliefs are [...]."

I do note that her description of religion, as presented by you, does contain some claims, including:

  • that God exists and it is possible to have a personal relationship with him
  • that God invites all people to such a relationship, and that some people form such a relationship by accepting that invitation.

These are fundamentally unverifiable claims, but also unfalsifiable ones. It is indeed absurd to try to falsify them. And it is equally unverifiable and unfalsifiable that anyone is wrong or should be condemned for accepting claims that are neither verifiable nor falsifiable.

Religions, especially those like Catholicism, do indeed seem to contain a set of propositions, don't they?

Religions, in the sense in which Catholicism is an exemplar, absolutely do make many claims, some of them in the category of those that are neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Indeed, that is the category of claims that I am personally inclined identify as "religious", regardless of the contents of those claims.

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    Maybe if something is unverifiable and unfalsifiable we should not call it a claim? What would it be 'claiming' exactly? The wind?
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 13, 2023 at 19:28
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    @ScottRowe, that a claim is unverifiable and unflasifiable does not mean that it is neither true nor false. "God exists" is a claim. If God does exist then it is true. Otherwise it is false. That is not changed if we can neither establish nor refute it by observation and reason. Dec 13, 2023 at 19:44
  • But if you can't tell whether something is true or false, how does it matter that it is true or false? Isn't this what is behind all the comparisons to invisible unicorns and teapots and so on? Something can be as true as 1+1=2, but if we can't tell, why even talk about it?
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 13, 2023 at 19:54
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    Is this statement true or false? "If I order a pizza, I will receive a pizza."
    – barbecue
    Dec 13, 2023 at 23:19
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    In even a superficial study of comparative religions, it will be easy to find mutually exclusive beliefs that cannot be proven true or false. If you select a dozen such, then eleven of them (and maybe all twelve) are false. But many of them are worth considering. For example, one cannot prove "If you do ___, you eventually will have an eternity of unpleasantness that we call hell." But a lot of people make decisions based on believing that or not believing it, and rightly so. youtube.com/watch?v=6md638smQd8
    – WGroleau
    Dec 14, 2023 at 15:55
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Your aunt can claim whatsoever she wishes about her internal mental state (which includes, amongst others, believes about religion, God, or anything else she cares about).

With our current technology, as well as philosophical and scientific understanding, there is no way whatsoever to find out anything more about the internal workings of her brain than what she tells us, with the usual communication problems that entails (i.e., different implied definitions of terms, and so on and forth). So her statements about her beliefs cannot be challenged, cannot be falsified, and it also would make little sense to do so. In German we have the quip "Die Gedanken sind frei" (literally, "thoughts are free") - everyone of us is free to think whatever they wish to.

So, one thing you can do is to add an implied "I believe that ..." in front of every one of her sentences; and in this case all questions are moot. You gain little from trying to change her believes, and it is very hard to do so, so it is perfectly fine to allow her to believe what she will. After all, you very likely are claiming the same right for yourself.

Adding "I believe that..." or "In my worldview..." or something like that to each of her statements is exactly what it means that the whole is a personal thing, and not up for falsification.

Up to here, this is all perfectly defensible. From experience, it is eminently clear that the worldview, lacking a better word, of a person, has immense influence on their behaviour and well-being; having a very clear-cut and profound religious base (no matter which religion it is) can clearly make a person very "grounded" and stable, emotionally. Especially if the person themselves considers this "personal", for example by including interactions with their God as an important part. Obviously, as always, this does not mean that everyone should be religious or believe in anything, but obviously for many people religion does in fact have that beneficial role. This also does not say anything about whether those beliefs are "good" or "true" or anything along those lines.

It becomes more interesting as soon as she starts to make claims that would influence your reality in a measurable way. I.e., if she starts making rules how you have to behave to conform to her believes. Case in point - when she starts telling you to go to church on Sunday, or that you must conform to some yearly fasting period, or that you must clothe in a particular manner, or that you must not use make-up as a woman, or whatever it is. Especially if she has power over you and forces you to do this against your will.

Or it becomes problematic if she starts behaving herself in a way that clashes with non-religious society. I.e., if she starts breaking laws or important customs; if she starts denouncing or killing people who do not profess her believes; and so on and forth.

TLDR: treating religion as something personal, not up for falsification and not based on "propositions" is perfectly defensible, valid and a very healthy way to approach this issue. In fact it is the only way to handle this - simply based on the fact that not a single religion has ever brought up any scientifically falsifiable propositions. As long as the religious person claims this for herself only, and does not then go on to use their religion to enforce your circumstances.

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  • Right. My thought was that children shouldn't be exposed to religion until they can make up their own minds, so age 18 or something. Of course, 95% of people won't choose religion at that point. But they can still have an internal sense of things like you describe, and many people do.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 14, 2023 at 11:09
  • Plenty of religions have put forward falsifiable claims, mostly about archeology, astronomy, biology, and physics.
    – Corbin
    Dec 14, 2023 at 19:15
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Just so it's said, your aunt (though I don't know what religion she adheres to) seems to be echoing Transcendentalism, a form of Protestant mysticism developed in the US. It's worth looking into for more information…

But to the question, we should keep in mind that religion is inherently a matter of relationship, not facticity. When a religion specifies 'rules' or 'truths' these are invariably statements about how one ought to relate to the world, leading to a hermeneutic process in which one tries to understand the true essence of that relationship beneath the given text. It's effectively a development of trust. One cannot falsify or verify trust, because the very act of questioning trust implies trust does not exist.

Without putting too fine a point on it, if we had access to an actual, verifiable, observable god, it would not change the essence of religion. It would merely give us a concrete, visible being (as opposed to an abstract, unseen one) which whom we would have to develop the same relationship of trust. God could hang out at your local pub turning water into cocktails, and there'd still be plenty of atheists bellying up to the bar.

Now, it is worth noting that claiming a personal relationship with God and developing a personal relationship with God are very different things. The first is name-dropping meant to satisfy one's ego, the second is an arduous process of becoming the sort of person an ideal being would have a relationship with. Many 'personal relationship' Christians don't put in the effort to truly be better people. They expect God to forgive them for every wrong they do (given enough begging and pleading) and just go right on behaving badly. Such people would benefit from a more structured faith, but that's as may be; the point is that there's no sense trying to analyze faith the way we would analyze material objects because it's an inherently social, interpretive process.

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    Interesting perspective. I also read another one of your answers: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/105692 I am not sure if I understand you correctly... You seem to say that Christian God, as an immaterial being, cannot be factually described. The choice whether to believe in Christian God is a purely moral choice. Whether Christian God has created the world, whether He even exists, etc, are all ill-posed questions since they attempt to factually describe what is immaterial. Is that right?
    – gaazkam
    Dec 14, 2023 at 23:25
  • Or, to be more precise: Christian God obviously exists as an immaterial moral value, people may chose to place Him as the principal value of their lives, or they may chose not to follow the values He represents, or they may lie saying that they worship him even though in reality they don't follow the moral values He represents. But by the same token, in the very same way Ares exists. Again, Ares exists as a moral value, namely violence and bloodshed. Ares is, therefore, an immaterial being, might be understood as a supernatural person and as such cannot be further described factually. (cont)
    – gaazkam
    Dec 14, 2023 at 23:31
  • Similarly Tao exists, karma exists, etc, etc. Asking whether it was Yahweh who created the world, or whether the world spontaneously arose from primordial chaos, or whether Mohammad was a true prophet or a false prophet, or whether Mary gave birth to Jesus despite remaining a virgin, etc, etc - in general to ask which God or god is the true one, which religion is the true one, or maybe no religion is true, but physisicalism is true? - all are ill-posed questions as they confuse the material (which can be factually described) with the immaterial (which cannot).
    – gaazkam
    Dec 14, 2023 at 23:41
  • The choice of religion is not the choice of which deity we believe to be the true, real one, but rather the choice of which moral value we will follow. That moral value will be our God. All deities, all moral values are all just as real and, at the same time, just as not real, because they are not material beings whose existence we may test and establish, but rather immaterial values.
    – gaazkam
    Dec 14, 2023 at 23:44
  • OK, I may have seamlessly jumped from referring your views as I understand them to attempting to draw conclusions from them... even though I'm not yet certain that I even understand your views correctly. Err... Do I?
    – gaazkam
    Dec 14, 2023 at 23:49

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