Saturday, May 5, 2012

Religion is and isn't special

Passerotti, God the Father
The primary reason, it seems, that people are now telling Dan Savage that he shouldn't have apologized-- even in as qualified and precise terms as he did-- is because it gives the impression that one should not criticize religious beliefs. And if one does so, and it offends, the appropriate thing to do is to relent and express sincere regret. The basic impression of someone who hasn't dug into the details and/or prefers not to consider them is that Dan Savage insulted Christianity, Christian students were offended, and so Savage apologized to them. Examining the situation beyond that very superficial level reveals all three of these statements to be inaccurate, but people who are just fine with the idea of insulting religious beliefs are concerned to see Savage, ordinarily very much just fine with doing such himself, suddenly appear to acquiesce to those he disturbed. It looks like appeasement, like giving up legitimacy and rhetorical ground.

The "spell" referenced in the title of philosopher Dan Dennett's book Breaking the Spell is not religion itself, but the protective aura of deference surrounding discussion of it. Dennett argues that if we aim to properly discuss the origins and effects of religion, we can't be held back by barricades of etiquette which allow the description of religious beliefs and practices as true and/or moral, but not false and/or immoral. Further, we must reject the proposition that religion is a sui generis pursuit, noncontinuous with other kinds of human thought and behavior or even with other kinds of non-human animal thought and behavior. Does this mean saying religion is just like all other kinds of basic things humans-- and even other animals-- do? No, of course not. The fact that it has a name, constitutes a category, suggests that there are reasons for saying that some things people do, say, and believe are religious whereas others aren't. However it's also true that religious speech is a kind of human speech, religious behavior is a kind of human behavior, and religious beliefs are kinds of human beliefs. These are all things that humans conceive, live, and do with their human brains and their human bodies in their human societies and cultures. Studying the cognition of religion-- the production and perpetuation of it in terms of how minds produce and perpetuate all other kinds of human activity-- means starting with this recognition.

It sounds pretty basic and non-controversial, except when you consider that there are believers who are so certain of the one-of-a-kind, completely separate and special nature of their beliefs that they won't even call them religion. Instead you get "I'm spiritual; not religious" or "Other people have religion; I have a personal relationship with Jesus." To them, "religion" is the category of all of the failed, false, misguided attempts of humanity to reach the divine, whereas they have the real thing. To say otherwise is not only mistaken but offensive, precisely because this body of beliefs has been declared so very personal. You wouldn't question out loud whether someone loves his mother, and for that same reason you shouldn't question whether he loves his Lord-- or how he knows he has a Lord in the first place. The problem is, of course, that loving someone is a highly subjective and emotional matter, whereas gods, spirits, ghosts, demons, souls, and any other entities which are supernatural but asserted to exist objectively are not. Whether God exists as creator of the universe and answerer of prayers, performer of miracles, and possible hater of gays is an objective proposition whose truth or falsity matters. The truth or falsity of the objective existence of all things matter, of course, but you'd think especially that of the supposed origin of life, the universe, and everything.

So claims of empirical truth that come from religion are just like all other empirical truth claims in terms of being subject to the same demands for evidence and justification. Atheists by definition are just people who don't believe in any gods, but atheists who are also skeptics will point out that they disbelieve because they have searched for such evidence and justification and found them to be lacking. The case for God did not convince them. This is obviously not the entire story, however...atheists are not rational androids who simply  applied logic to the proposition that gods or the entirety of supernatural agents existing and then concluded that they don't. Being human, atheists are subject to the same intuitions and biases that affect everyone else-- and that's where things get interesting.

See, there's reason to believe that religion is intuitive....that we suspect and come to believe in the existence of "spiritual beings" because of ordinary features that come with being human. We are social animals, particularly keen to detect and discern the motivations of other creatures with agency. We anthropomorphize at the drop of a hat. We have an existential sense that makes questions like "What's it all about, anyway? Why are we here?" seem not only sensical but important-- especially in the face of crisis. We are incapable of knowing what it's like to be dead, because there is no way to be conscious of complete non-consciousness (no, sleeping does not count), so accounts of life after death seem compelling and we speculate about what Grandma must be thinking and feeling or even doing right now, even though she passed on years ago. Participating in religious rituals makes other participants feel like family, even if they aren't actually kin, and being willing to expend resources to do so presents a powerful signal to others of our commitment to the group. We tend to believe in a just universe-- the idea that immoral acts must be punished and good ones rewarded, somehow in the fabric of existence if not through the justice systems humans have created. There is just all of this stuff that human brains are prone to do that makes belief in supernatural entities and moral codes likely, if by no means determined. And of course there's the fact that each individual human born into the world doesn't have to take on the responsibility of creating a religion from scratch-- there is almost certainly one available for him or her, handed down from his or her parents virtually from birth.

Some recent research has indicated that more intuitive thinkers tend to be more likely to also believe in a personal god. An intuitive thinker is a person who tends to think with his or her "gut," allowing feelings to guide conclusions about the rightness or wrongness or even truth or falsity of different propositions. Intuitive thinking is reflexive and quick, and-- let's be honest-- how most of us think, most of the time. It's not a bad thing; in fact without intuitions we would be utterly lost. We just don't have the time to make all of the thousands of decisions we make in a day by taking a time out, sitting down, and pondering what to do while taking every possible factor into consideration, weighing the pros and cons, and making an inductively or deductively reasonable conclusion...which charitably but falsely assumes that that's what we are inclined to do in the first place.

"The human mind is designed to reason adaptively, not truthfully or even necessarily rationally."

It would be far too cut and dry to say that intuitive thinking is affective, feeling-based, whereas counter-intuitive thinking is...well, thinking-based, but let's say that counter-intuitive thinking is more reflective. It's slower and requires a little more effort. Well, a little effort, period, as opposed to simply allowing your first emotionally-laden conclusion to rule the day. It's intuitive for a religious person to think about God as behaving more or less like a super-human-- having amazing powers and knowledge, but still doing things like focusing on one thing at a time and using the most direct physical means to cause events. Having a gender, opinions, and emotions. That's the "personal god" the most intuitive person is most likely to believe in. I like to say that religion is intuitive but theology is counter-intuitive-- theology is where you will find descriptions of God as a genderless amorphous "ground of being" whose behavior (if you can call it that) is complex and ubiquitous. This god is ultimate, and by that I don't mean "super awesome" but rather "distant and removed." This is not a god who intervenes directly in human endeavors by means of causing either catastrophes or miracles in order to influence our behavior. That is a proximate, personal god, the kind of being Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell would describe as punishing liberals every time a natural disaster or terrorist attack occurs. This is the god Rick Perry ordered Texans to pray to for relief from drought and threats to property rights, and who he, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain all believe told them to run for president. The god George W. Bush says told him to go to war.

You can probably guess the dangers I see in making God that personal, that proximate. But thoughtful theists generally recoil from it. They recognize the problems in claiming that God subverts human choices ("free will") to specially punish or reward politicians, the enemies of fundamentalists, or football teams, not to mention directly cause or inhibit natural events such as tornadoes, tsunamis, or the processes of natural selection. Evolution is not a threat to a person who doesn't demand that God be proximate. The plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover were mostly Christian, a couple of them even Sunday school teachers, but nevertheless they were branded atheists for supporting the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools unqualified by disclaimers questioning its validity. From the perspective of someone who believes in proximate, personal, In-Your-Face God, everyone who isn't might as well be a nonbeliever. And nonbelievers are the enemy.

This is the type of person who views critique of his or her religion as bullying or blasphemy, who places matters of faith off limits to critical discussion while simultaneously holding that God intercedes directly in world events in a perceptible ways on a regular basis-- that is, that God's existence, nature, and behavior are easily empirical matters. This is the type of person who, while virtually ubiquitous, must not be allowed to dictate the rules of the conversation. If they are, the definition of "respect" becomes "behave as though my beliefs are true," when in actual fact a) it is possible to maintain that a belief-- any belief-- is false respectfully, and b) respect can and often should be abandoned when considering beliefs that are ridiculous and/or obviously harmful. It's not a choice between understanding these beliefs and openly forming opinions about their truth or falsity, how morally acceptable or objectionable they are-- we can and should strive to do all of the above. With these as a simultaneous goal, it becomes easier to identify when being critical crosses over into being an asshole and when being empathetic and understanding crosses over into being a doormat.

Religion is special.
And it isn't.

1 comment:

  1. So many great insights in the post. Far too many to mention and comment on specifically, so I will just underscore one observation you made:

    "The human mind is designed to reason adaptively, not truthfully or even necessarily rationally."

    Most discussions that would benefit from this framework for thinking about the mind completely neglect this critical insight. Coincidentally, I visited one implication of this point of view on Friday.