Sherlock’s illogical defence of religion in Australia.

The place of religion in society is a sensitive issue that trickles down into education. The Howard government’s School Chaplains program was the centre of a lot of criticism and only ensured that the issues of scripture and religion in supposedly secular public education would continue for the foreseeable future.

While there are plenty of prominent critics of religion, there are also plenty of people with access to a public platform who are willing to jump to the defence of their beliefs. Sadly, because all religions are based on the need for belief grounded in faith, rather than evidence, the arguments in defence of religion are similarly lacking in evidence and it is not uncommon to hear otherwise intelligent people offering up illogical, inexcusable non-sense as justification for why we should all submit to the authority of the institutionalised authority of a supreme being.

So when Peter Sherlock, Vice-Dean of MCD University of Divinity (MCD stands for Melbourne College of Divnity!) posted a piece on The Conversation entitled “Don’t stop believing: religion has a place in Australia’s future” my expectations were of another logical-fallacy laden defence of religion by a believer with not only personal motivations for believing, but professional and financial motivations as well. I was not disappointed. Given that the most famous Sherlock in English literature was renowned for his near-infallible skills of logical deduction, by the end of this piece I hope that it should be pretty clear how this Sherlock’s name is somewhat at odds, if not an affront to, the customary associations of the name. Here goes…

It begins with 6 paragraphs of fairly bland observations about the decline of religion in Australian society, acknowledging the Royal Commission into institutional child sex abuse, before posing the question:

So what is religion? How does it manifest in contemporary Australia? And why does anyone bother with it any more?

Oooh – big question. Does the author offer an answer?

Well… not exactly. He offers up census data that highlights a ‘slow in the decline’ of people identifying a religious affiliation before pointing out that such data does not translate to actual belief or participation in religious practices (so if the data is invalid, why bring it up?). He then goes on to identify the ways that a turn-of-the-century French sociologist attempted to define religion, and said sociologists research involving indigenous Australians. He then makes two vague statements about how Indigenous Australians ‘continue to challenge the modern European tendency to separate the sacred form the secular…”.

So… here we are. 16 short paragraphs into this article (some paragraphs consisting of single lines, the rest of only 2 short sentences) and this author has actually said… nothing.

No single claim has been made that hasn’t been heavily qualified or outright discredited by the author himself, and if we were to take this as the long introduction to his argument, then the closest thing to a thesis is the aforementioned question to which no answer is actually offered, yet we have had census data, references to the century-old ideas of a French sociologist, and observations that invoke indigenous Australians.

This is a tactic that I like to refer to as ‘muddying the waters’ (and which I’m sure has another, more formal and latinised name) in which an author brings up a range of interesting, somewhat related, but ultimately meaningless information that might seem to suggest a claim is being made, but in reality, isn’t. It’s a popular tactic of conspiracy theorists and other paranoids who, rather than make an actual claim, bring up evidence that might seem to support a claim, even though they haven’t actually made one.

After this long set up, we then find the sub-heading ‘Belonging’ before giving us our first truly fallacious statement of the piece.

It seems clear that Australians still believe. Two-thirds of us tick a religious identity box on the census. Australians are also well imbued with non-institutional beliefs: the fair-go, mateship, the dream of owning home and land, the belief that “our golden soil has wealth for toil”.

First of all, he has already pointed out that ticking the census box doesn’t equate to belief, so by the admission of his own argument, this is a false statement. The second half of the paragraph attempts to create a link between religious belief and things that might be described as traditional Aussie values. No specific link is identified or explained, they are literally just thrown together in the same paragraph in the hope of creating an association in the mind of the reader. This is an example of the fallacy known as the Associative Fallacy (the cause of ‘guilt by association’) in which a common or shared trait is used as the basis behind a fallacious conclusion.

In this case, the fallacy goes something like this:

  • – a majority of Aussies identify as religious, and religion is based on beliefs.
  • – Aussies also hold other positive beliefs
  • – Therefore, all Aussies with beliefs must be religious (implied).

He then goes on to state that Aussie’s have a wide range of ritualised behaviours (like religion, right? right?!?) before invoking visits to the gym, football, grocery shopping, & ANZAC day(!) and funerals.

It’s the same logical fallacy:

  • – Religion is ritualised
  • – Aussies have other ritualised behaviours
  • – Therefore, Aussies must be religious at heart!

He then goes on to set up what has to be one of the most bizarre and twisted non-sequiturs that I have seen in a while.

He identifies that membership in churches has declined, but says that memberships in community clubs and unions has also declined (no data is offered, BTW). Do we live in a secular society? he asks. Yes, because religion is open to criticism (not what ‘Secular’ means – does MCD University of Divinity not have dictionaries?) but no, he says, because Australians engage in ritual behaviours including ‘no-religionism’.

Just pause and reflect.

He is actually arguing that one of the reasons that Australia is not a secular country (meaning that it is religious) is the rise of non-religious people.

So by being less religious, we’re actually more religious?

He has used the vague notion of ritualised behaviours identified earlier to try and bridge the gap between people who do and don’t claim to be religious on the census, and claim that we are all effectively religious anyway.

Wow. Just, wow.

Before the reader gets a chance to think about it too closely, however, he whisks us off on another train of thought by invoking the concept of detraditionalisation.

Once again, he tries to invoke an associative fallacy by linking decline in religious participation with decline in participation in music, literature, fine arts and philosophy, before going on to actually claim that there is a parallel between decline in religious participation and the decline in the participation of individuals in the political process.

Worse than that, if you read the following paragraph carefully, you’ll see that he’s actually arguing that decline in participation in the traditionally ‘dominant religious groups )of a century ago’ it at the core.

A loss of institutional attachment to what were the dominant religious groups a century ago, the growth of “no religion”, and the pluralisation of religious participation across a wide range of faiths can therefore be seen as parallel to the decline in political-party membership, the rise of minor parties, and the alienation of many voters from politics.

He actually identifies the pluralisation of religious participation as the direct parallel to the decline in political participation without offering any explanation of the mechanism that leads one to the other. The implication is that the participatory democracy of our system of government is at risk because of a ‘loss of institutional attachment to what were the dominant religious groups a century ago’. How much do you want to bet that he sees *his* religion as the traditionally dominant religious group of a century ago? (His profile does identify him as a member of the Anglican church).

This is another associative fallacy with the implied interpretation that decline in religious participation has some sort of causal relationship with decline in political participation. He doesn’t actually come out and say it, as such a statement would be a non-sequitur and impossible to defend without rigorous research and evidence, so he just leaves it hanging, expecting us to come to the non-sequitur conclusion on our own.

He does, however, claim that such ‘destraditionalisation’ provokes culture wars, and highlights Abbot and Pyne’s comments over the national history curriculum as an example of such culture wars. It seems that the author doesn’t realise that correlation does not equal causation, and once again is hoping that we will draw our own conclusion from the general jumble of ideas being thrown at us that because religion is in decline, we are seeing greater conflict. What is lacking is an explanation of how one leads to the other.

He then offers up the following about why traditions are important:

For traditions help us to answer the ultimate questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here? Are we alone?

The loss of tradition, of an elite canon of key truths, documents, rituals, can separate us from each other, leaving us bereft of identity, or it can allow new traditions and truths to emerge. The experience of loss, however, is traumatic, as the ultimate questions still remain.

He then goes on to argue that religion shares the mission of answering these questions with Science, Politics, The Arts & Sport.

There is so much wrong with this Q & A that I find it hard to know where to begin. Sherlock offers no reasonable explanation as to the alleged similarities between religion and… almost every other aspect of human endeavour. Instead, just more vague associations that he seems to hope we will use to draw more non-sequitur conclusions of our own.

In response to his claims, here’s the best summation I can offer: Religion does not seek to answer questions like science, it instead supplies answers with little regard for evidence or reason. Religion does not seek to allow humans to govern themselves like politics, instead religion claims authority and insists that humans should follow its singular authority with a distinct lack of any democratic process. Religion does not seek to represent beliefs through beauty, performance and physical achievement. There’s not even an alternative, that last statement is just absurd. Religion has been expressed through art, but religion is not a form of art or expression. if Sherlock wants to make these claims, significantly more detail is needed. And perhaps something that might at least be confused with evidence.

After all of these efforts to create vague associations between religion and other meaningful aspects of human achievement, Sherlock then delivers his conclusion, and I find it stunning.

Whether based on dogma and superstition, irrational fears and dreams, bonds of affection and hatred, located in institutional frameworks or private piety, religion is part of the ways in which humans try to answer our biggest questions.

Religion undoubtedly has a place in Australia’s future. It is nothing more and nothing less than a body of beliefs, behaviours, and identities through which we attempt to answer, or even just live with, our deepest questions.

No, Sherlock, no. Just, no.

Dogma, superstition, irrational fears and emotional ties are not simply excused in the name of tradition. They are, in fact, some of the very reasons why people are slowly moving beyond religion. Dogma is not a good thing. Superstition is not a good thing. Irrational fears are not a good thing and may actually be symptoms of a mental health problem. Emotional bonds can be both good and bad, but when they are used as a tool of manipulation and control they are a bad thing, regardless of whether it is coming from an abusive spouse or an abusive institution desperately trying to state its relevance in a world that increasingly doesn’t need it any more.

But that last paragraph, oh that last paragraph…

If religion’s place in Australia’s future was ’undoubted’, then Sherlock wouldn’t feel the need to write this defence of religion’s place in Australia’s future. But to then try and say that religion is ‘nothing more than, and nothing less than, a body of beliefs, behaviours and identities’… I don’t even need to bring in additional evidence to highlight the lie of this one. Remember earlier in the piece where Sherlock identified the Royal Commission into institutionalised child abuse, with particular attention to religious institutions? How does that fit within a view of religion that is just a ‘body of beliefs’? Are we to accept that because religious authority figures have been abusing children for… well… we don’t know exactly for how long… for a long time, that we should accept that as part of the ‘tradition’ of Religion?

A reasonable person might argue that religious beliefs and religions institutions, while highly entangled, are distinct and separate from each other, but Sherlock makes no such distinction. In fact, he has spent the entire article offering vague associations of religion, tradition, religious institutions, and other social and cultural institutions that wold make it seem that there IS no meaningful distinction between religious belief and the authority of a religious institution.

Sherlock has completely failed to actually give a reasoned explanation as to the relevance of religion in Australia, which was his stated goal (remember those grand questions fomr the beginning?), and instead gave us several good reasons to consider religion as no longer relevant OR positive.

So is Sherlock unreasonable? Possibly. Illogical? Definitely.

What I think we see here is a classic case of motivated reasoning, where Sherlock is so desperate to prove his point, that he probably doesn’t even realise that he has failed to actually prove his point, and probably thinks that his attempts at arguments are actually reasonable. 

I wonder if that’s an acceptable standard for essays submitted by students of the MCD UoD?

I certainly wouldn’t accept it from a year 10 English student.



Filed under Just Add Logic; Won't Hold Water

4 responses to “Sherlock’s illogical defence of religion in Australia.

  1. Expanded tweet.
    Ah, I now see your point. Well some of them anyway. I didn’t pick up on some of the threads in the original article because as you said, they weren’t real threads of thought to begin with.

    1. “It is nothing more and nothing less than a body of beliefs, behaviours, and identities through which we attempt to answer, or even just live with, our deepest questions…”

    You say no, but I do agree with this as a statement about the likely origins of religion, not necessarily their current state. I would follow on with … which have been co opted as any other effective tool would be as a means to gain power and control over a population (Murdoch anyone?). Religions have over time consolidated other methods to control human response into one neat unquestionable package.

    2. Religions came into being and continued to exist for a reason, one that maybe the truly jaded can no longer understand. Something innate in the human psyche was satisfied by them, caused them to come into being. It allowed them to continue to be used to align communities. Maybe the author didn’t mean to say it (and meant the opposite) but to me I came away with the idea that basic human traits do not go away, and we find many ways in which to express them (religion does not have the exclusive privilege of fulfilling them). Some are (thankfully) dying as we evolve, and some may just be being born. Which state religion is in is obvious to me, but I don’t mind if Sherlock agrees or not. It does not anger me. He certainly did not offer sufficient evidence to support his position, as you pointed out.

    One the ranty paragraphs involving superstition etc. I’m not sure how I feel about militant atheism as yet, especially when I observe similar traits in the movement as I saw from within practicing religion. A position of attack rather than attempts to peel back the layers to a place of understanding and shared humanity will result in tougher defense and may even prolong organised religions inevitable demise. Will probably change my mind, but hey – it’s mine to change now!

    Maybe this post was more about deconstructing a poor argument, which you have done on the whole admirably.

    • Your last sentence is absolutely correct – I try to keep the focus on deconstructing a poor argument. I consciously try to avoid making a statement or a counterclaim when writing posts like this because they only invite narrow-minded responses that ignore the majority of the content of my deconstruction.

      For point one, you may well be right, and I attempted to address that point – or its absence, and in fact deliberate confusion – in Sherlock’s writing.

      For point two, I won’t deny that religions have served a purpose in the past, but like using mercury fillings in dentistry, once something more effective and better for people comes along, you replace it. Remember that Sherlock’s article, and my response, was under the guise of the argument that religion has a place in the future (other than as a historical object). Because something DID have a purpose, or USED TO BE the only option, or dominant way of achieving a goal, does not mean that it must CONTINUE TO BE the only way of doing that thing. It’s the ‘argument from antiquity’ logical fallacy, and if it were valid as a reason for keeping religion around, then consider the implications for slavery, capital punishment, and the subjugation of women.

      Am I a militant atheist… maybe. I don’t know. I would think a militant atheist actively pursues the chance to promote their values, while I find I am more reactionary (though certainly I have a fairly aggressive tone in my reactions…).

  2. Chris

    “Melbourne College of Divinity University of Divinity” … says it all really.

    • Yes, it absolutely does! But yet the conversation are willing to credit them as a University and give their ‘academics’ free reign to post on the site, so I will hold them accountable to expectations of academic rigour.

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