Saturday, June 07, 2008

On causes and religion   posted by Razib @ 6/07/2008 03:31:00 PM

Alan Jacobs of The American Scene has a piece in The Wall Street Journal titled Too Much Faith in Faith (also see Ross Douthat). He starts:
If there is one agreed-upon point in the current war of words about religion, it is that religion is a very powerful force. Perhaps you believe, with that vigorous atheist Christopher Hitchens, that "religion poisons everything"; or, with the Christian historian and sociologist Rodney Stark, that religion created modern science and ended slavery. Or, like a significant majority of the British public recently polled by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, that religion is a "social evil," a "cause of conflict and confusion." But in any case you're likely to think that, for good or ill, the sheer impact of religion is enormous.

Is it, though?....

As they say, read the whole thing. Alan, as a Christian, place particular focus on the New Atheists who wish to leave at religion's feet all evil done it in its name but explain away as incidental all the good whose motivation was putatively supernatural. But he does note there are those such as Rodney Stark, an extremely pro-Christian sociologist, who would ascribe to religion all the good in the world while staying relatively silent on the evil enacted in the name of God (or, the usual special pleading that "that's not the real fill-in-the-blank-religion"). Below are a few general responses I have to Alan's piece.

1) Religion means different things at different times and different contexts, and it means a lot. That's a mouthful, but what I mean by this is that there is a lot of debate on what exactly religion entails on the margins. There are particular core traits which people recognize as religious, but the fact that almost every random functionally unrecognizable material remain has been classified as a "religious cult object" by archaeologists illustrates the catchall nature of religion. Additionally, different religions have different emphases; some are more focused on "orthopraxy," and some are more fixated on "orthodoxy."

The distinction is important in Christian cultures because I think it can be argued that Christian religiosity in the modern West, especially the Protestant West, is highly focused on doxy, belief, as opposed to praxy, practice. In most other major world religions one may make a point that praxy is much more emphasized on a relative scale. This contrast lay at the heart of the book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, where the author makes the case that American legal structures are designed to accommodate Protestantesque religions (I think one can make the case that Reform Judaism is Protestantized, and one can also argue that American Catholicism has a fundamentally Protestant character in terms of how believers relate to their church despite what Church teaching might be). These structures are not well prepared to deal with the different needs of orthopraxic traditions. This is not to say that all major religions do not have both dimensions, but I think it is clear that profession of a precise belief plays an outsized role in terms of identity for an evangelical Christian in comparison to those who consider themselves Hindus or Jews.

Multi-dimensionality is also important, religion as a phenomenon bleeds into many aspects of life and draws from a multitude of human propensities. One major failing, in my opinion, of militant atheism is its tendency to overestimate the religiousness of any particular act which is claimed to be religious. I've made this sort of argument most explicitly about Christmas; for some people the season has obvious religious intent and meaning, but it is clear that the main features of Christmas as a cultural festival were co-opted from pre-Christian and non-Christian practices. The Christmas tree, yule log and ginger cookie making all have explicit pre-Christian antecedents and pagan religious significance (the latter is clear when you note that the Christian Church often banned many of these practices). This does not mean that these practices are anti-Christian, or even that they can not be given Christian significance (e.g., the Star of Bethlehem at the top of many Christmas trees), but rather that the religiosity, or lack thereof, of any particular practice is a very complicated issue to ascertain.

If you evaluated a sample space of human characteristics, and then tabulated the number of those characteristics which contribute in some manner to religiosity or the religious phenomenon I would daresay one might note that a substantial subset of the former are contained in the latter. The intersection is most clear in what some scholars might term a political religion, mass social movements often spearheaded by a charismatic figure which posit an eschatology. Obviously political religion intersects substantially with supernatural religion in terms of its parameters. In fact, on many occasions political religion starts to mimic supernatural religion; e.g., the bizarre legends which Kim Jong-Il's regime in North Korea promotes about the miracles attendant upon the day of his birth, such as flowers blooming in winter! The power of political religion is clear to us today in the modern world, but we can see that it lacks the temporal robusticity that supernatural religion has. The god of political religion is a material figure who dies, and the only way to maintain the charisma around his person is to engage in apotheosis and supernaturalize him (note the peculiar preservation of the body of Lenin). Supernatural religions on the other hand persevere beyond the death of their founders and can connect the generations of the past to those of the future through the mediating power of supernatural agents, whose concrete existence is irrelevant to their affect on human cognitive states.

What does this have to do with Alan's post? Obviously men such as Richard Dawkins are opposed to the evils of religion, but they are often accused of not paying proper attention to atheistic Communism and Nazism. Let's sidestep the fact that Nazism had at least a Deistic core, Communism was avowedly an atheist ideology. The New Atheists might claim that the evil of Communism was not committed in the name of, or because of, atheism, but rather due to collectivist and totalitarian political ideology. But, I would hold that these are exactly the aspects of religion which the New Atheists use as a cudgel against religion! If you read Dawkins' The God Delusion he obviously has contempt for the hypothesis of God itself as infantile, but his most trenchant critiques hinge upon the material consequences of religion, the irrationality of behavior and policy (from his perspective) which are rooted in religious ideology. But the homophobia, patriarchy and Puritanism which were extant in the former Communist countries strongly suggests that social characteristics which secular liberal elites decry because of their associations with religion will not be mysteriously banished with the death of the gods. It is to me somewhat ironic that the New Atheists often invert the concepts of religionists, whereas the latter might posit a utopia under the aegis of their god the former seem to project a godless future where the dark hand of the divine has been removed and so the lion may now lay with the lamb! It seems they forgot to remember that His Dark Materials was fiction.

2) The previous point attempted to emphasize that because religion is so broad, and so interconnected with various other aspects of human sociality, it is very difficult to adduce that religion as such is the causal factor underlying a particular dynamic. I think that the missteps by scholars such as Max Weber in overemphasizing the importance of religious ideas in driving the nature of a society or culture illustrate this. Weber famously suggested that a Calvinist ethic drive the rise of modern capitalism, using Germany as an example. Though there are debates as to the validity of Weber's assertions (the majority seem to believe the idea falsified, though there is a revisionist minority), his assumption that East Asian societies would never modernize economically because of their Confucian/Buddhist religious sensibilities shows the weakness of this sort of black-box approach to religion.

One point which Alan suggests is that those who accept the claims of religionists in terms of their rationale for a given behavior needs to be treated with skepticism. Humans are incredibly fluent fabulists, and not only can we lie to others with relative ease, that ease comes more easily when we lie to ourselves. This is a general observation; in extreme cases one would assume that those who destroy the lives of others in their own self-interest engage in self-deception as to assuage their own guilt. Obviously a woman who kills her own child because she believes that he is Satan incarnate is insane and delusional, that's not the sort of normal cognition which I'm talking about. Rather, humans have a tendency to attribute cause to the random, virtuous ultimate intent behind short term gratification via vice. Consider the psychology of a serial killer such as Jeffery Dahmer who converted to Christianity before his death. Dahmer may sincerely have believed his conversion was due to his personal experience with God, but I assume many would wonder if part of his mind was very intent on absolving himself of his sins, and that the Christian God was the avenue toward such absolution. These dynamics are not limited to religion, consider a man who cheats on his wife because such behavior is "natural," or a capitalist who exploits his employees and cheats his consumers justifying it somehow via the natural workings of a free market. Human psychology is complex, and our decision making process is not driven by a unitary rational agent. Most importantly, we do not have easy access to our own subconscious mental processes which shape the course of our decisions, though we freely manufacture explanations which give us a sense of the reasoning behind our decisions.

3) In point #1 I tried to suggested that religion is such an expansive phenomenon, intercalated with other social processes, that we need to be very careful in ascribing any particular good or evil to religion as such. In point #2 I try to point out that the psychology of religion is also rather complex, and how people relate to their religion, and the explanations they offer about how they relate, should be taken with a grain of salt. These are generally negative points, expressions of skepticism and agnosticism about the assertions which religionists and anti-religionists regularly make. In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason Sam Harris naively explores the irrationality of religion by taking at face value the assertions of religionists. To me this is like making inferences about mantle geophysics by examining what you see from satellite photographs in terms of surface topography.

But this negation of positive assertions does not mean that one can not make generalizations about religion. Muslims tend not to drink alcohol, Jews tend not to eat pork, and Christians tend not make distinctions of kind among believers. These are generalizations which capture particular trends. Jews who adhere to halakah and Muslims who follow sharia, or Hindus who follow prescribed customs & traditions deviate from expectation unless you know their religious identity. But does this make a difference in the shape of the world around us? To some extent, yes. On the other hand, how much does it matter?

I approach issues from the perspective of an atheist. I don't think there are transcendent supernatural truths in the universe, or, more precisely I don't know what terms like "transcendent supernatural truths" are supposed to mean, nor do I feel that the claims made by any religion I've encountered are coherent. For most religionists this is not true, claims of a supernatural grounding to the universe are plausible to them. I suspect this is in large part a function of human propensity toward detecting and assuming agency in the universe around us. The world has purpose, and behind purpose must be agency, and an intelligent agent. The baroque theologies and institutional scaffolding which we attribute to religion are built upon this foundation, and no matter the cathedral that you construct with your mortar the necessary precondition and ultimate constraint are resident within the essence of your building material.

Therefore, I believe laws that are presumed to emanate from God on High have more power and hold on human psychology than laws which are derived from man. But the reality is also that by and large gods don't walk amongst us, and believers must rely upon priesthoods or personal judgement to interpret the will of God. And this is a critical point: the power of divine law lay in its origins on the ultimate Ground of Being, but how we implement the law is highly contingent upon personal circumstance. For me the clearest example was of a Muslim ruler in Africa who had enslaved all non-Muslims within his domains and so perceived a deficit of revenue. His solution was simple, he imposed a very high tax upon his Muslim subjects, and when they were not able to pay the tax he obtained from a religious scholar a ruling that those who disobey their ruler are apostates and non-Muslims, and since his subjects could no longer pay their tax they were now available for enslavement. This is an extreme case, but I mention it to show the ingenuity of human interpretation. Islamic banking is a more prosaic illustration of how one can satisfy the letter of the law to one's own sincere satisfaction and yet remain transparently self-interested to outside observers.

This is not to deny that a particular religious dispensation might ensure and encourage particular changes, but the rationales for those changes, and their permanence, should be questioned. For example, in parts of Southeast Asia some individuals in pagan communities have converted to Islam or Christianity and praised the frugality which their new religion enabled. The explanation is that particular feasts which the village would throw to placate ancestors and tribal gods were a severe economic burden, and those who converted to a world religion would obviously have opted out of the collections for these pagan events. Over time these communities will almost certainly become uniformly Christian or Muslim. At that point does one suppose that the economic expenditures of the community would be reduced permanently because of the lack of servicing of tribal gods and ancestors? I doubt it, rather, the extant evidence from Christian and Muslim communities suggests that these religious traditions have festivals and institutions which require funds from all believers who are capable of paying (i.e., those who are not destitute). Early converts of course would receive a windfall benefit during the transition between the old and new religion, because they would have opted out of the institutional system of the old before that of the new had arisen. I use the above example to show how one must focus on dynamics and epiphenomenal details when examining social and historical questions. The early Protestants accused the Roman Catholic church of being debased and pagan, and looked back to the primitive Christians as their exemplars, but I suspect that the nature of the Roman Catholic church resembled Roman state paganism because universal religions which depend upon state patronage develop particular characteristics. Additionally, sectarian dissenters as a self-selected minority have their own peculiar characteristics which might make some critiques inevitable byproducts of the structural relations of the social and political system.

4) Though I do think it is likely that there are differences between the world religions on the margins in terms of how they habituate their believers, I think we need to be cautious of generalizations because there is often a sharp deviation between ideals and practice, and humans are given toward conflating their own circumstance with broad causes. It maybe that Islam is by its nature or historical development a more masculine religion than Christianity in terms of its appeal and methods, but I believe a more fruitful and easy to establish pattern is the general importance of religion in generating outgroup vs. ingroup dynamics. In other words, the sharp ritualistic differences between Rabbinical Jews and high caste Hindus in Kerala were less important in their judgement of each other than the fact that both adhered to strict rules in regards to ritual purity. To me the fundamental importance of obligate vegetarianism among many high caste Hindus is not the functional role this might play in terms of shifting nutritional intakes, but the fact that those on nutritional margins could not emulate this "costly signaller." It is notable that some low caste groups are scavengers upon meat because if they did not engage in these practices they might starve. The details of the hundreds of commandments which Orthodox Jews follow and the multitudinous interpretations of the implementation of these commandments is less important than the fact that the ritual lifestyle entails separation from those who do not adhere to said rituals. The details of the Nicene Creed are less important than the fact that some accept it, and some do not.

The ingroup-outgroup dynamics in world religions lead to the emergence of fictive kinship. Anthropologists and sociologists have done a great deal of work about the functional importance of religious groups for individuals in terms of generating social networks and undergirding civil society. Social networks and the emergence of civil society are not necessarily features of religion, but religion is sufficient to generate both, so its utility is rather clear. Japan is a society where religious belief and practice are far less salient features of mass culture than the United States, and yet it seems to have a robust civil society. So what's going on? Well, the Japanese are an extremely homogeneous people, their fictive kinship is based upon national identity. When New Atheists assert that the Japanese do not need religion to create a society which is characterized by low levels of social pathology as defined by little interpersonal violence they do not elucidate exactly the mechanisms and parameters which exist in the vacuum of powerful institutional religion.

I think that's about it for now. I think Alan's piece was a serious attempt to grapple with a lived reality which both the New Atheists and many religious thinkers don't seem to acknowledge. One would assume that if you were an empiricist that this would matter, but that doesn't sell books does it?