Saturday, November 30, 2002

And you shall be as the gods.... Send this entry to: Spurl Ma.gnolia Digg Newsvine Reddit

Over at Randall Parker's Future Pundit blog-he comments on my post on religion and scientists. He broaches the topic of genetically engineering someone toward religiosity. Two questions I'd like to address: Will genetic engineering result in the withering of religion? [1] If it does not, how will religion change? What are the implications for modern religions? On the first question, I think religiosity has many factors. Germans have the same genetic background, but there is a spectrum of religiosity from southern Catholics, to northern Protestants, to secular easterners [2]. National and familial history are crucial, and well known. But people often do not wonder at their own propensities that might be hard-wired. Religious scholar Rodney Stark of the University of Washington believes that the reason that men are more religious than women cross-culturally is that there are biological underpinnings, for instance risk-taking men are possibly less likely to embrace religious concepts like delayed self-gratification. There can be many explanations for this discrepancy, but we should not discard a biological explanation out of hand. I have also wondered as to whether human biodiversity could explain religious differences, as religiosity tends to follow Rushton's Rule-Asians are the most secular, Africans the most religious (you can see if on a world-wide scale, or at the ethnic groups in the United States). On a more physiological level, neuroscientists have recently been finding clues that there are could possibly be a god module in the brain, just as psycholinguists have long asserted that there is a "language instinct" to use a Pinkerism. Though I think increased IQ (religious people would probably say hubris) and material success will be factors in diminishing religiosity, there is an opposing factor we often don't talk about: most parents want their children to be more religiously observant and show greater fidelity to their faith tradition than they do themselves. If there is a god module, religious people would surely want to load the die in their child's favor. Each generation might beget more religious people. Conversely, secular people might want their children to be less inclined to need "a crutch." So one might see a future that is even more polarized than today. But one thing that religious people might not want face up to is that genetic alternation might very well in the process make us almost god-like in our potentialities. This is certainly the long term prognosis-if humanity does not destroy itself, some of us will achieve god-like status. Speculating on the psychology of a post-human future is perilous at best, but I think it is reasonable that it will entail a greater change in spirituality than that of the "axial age" between 600 BCE and 600 CE (almost all modern great religious started in this time frame). In a world where lives are inexorably extended, criminal tendencies are eliminated, and virtue is pre-programmed into our genes, it seems much of the raison detre of religion would be gone. The allegorical power of the phrase "and you shall be as gods" takes on a whole new meaning. But the post-human future and its implications on theism has been mooted at length in science fiction. On the other hand, an analysis of genetic engineering on specific faiths and tenets has been less thoroughly explored. For instance, what of free will in a world where some might be naturally inclined toward religious belief because their parents "enhanced" their god module? Conversely, would it be just to damn those who might have had parents who genetically engineered them to have little interest and understanding of spiritual transcendence? Some religions (Islam, Calvinism for instance) accept predestination, so perhaps this would be more congenial to them, but what about religions such as Baptism or Catholicism that place more emphasis on free will (may Protestants out of the nonconformist tradition emphasize that choice is important, explaining late the baptism practiced by Baptists)? As human beings become progressively more intelligent, devotional religion might also decrease in popularity, while more rationalistic faiths ascend. By rationalistic, I do not mean tolerant or liberal, but rather more concerned with first principles, rules, etc. rather than experiential aspects of the faith. By this criteria-the Reformed and High Church Christian traditions (traditional Catholicism, Orthodoxy or the national Protestant churches of Europe as well as Calvinism) are rationalistic, while the nonconformist traditions and pietistic strains are more emotional. Aquinas asserted that there are two paths to Christianity, by reason and faith. While only the elite were able to access reason, the particular doctrinal disputes had less saliency for the masses. In a world of hyperintelligent people, doctrinal disputes might come to the fore once more as sincere believers follow theological issues much more closely than they do today. Highly intelligent people of faith often have rather sophisticated rationales for their beliefs, and increased education and intellectualism among religious people would no doubt change the tone of apologia. A rationalistic approach would certainly impact hierarchical structures such as that of Roman Catholicism more than than the decentralized denominations such as the Presbyterian. Priests might have to spend time disputing points of theology with parishioners, who though god-intoxicated might not be inculcated with the same sort of reverence for their betters (this might explain of the liberalism of the American Catholic Church as opposed to the traditionalism dominant in the Third World where priests are still more educated and wealthy than their flock). Of course genetic engineering is not guaranteed, religious bans might be imposed in many countries. But, the possibility that religiosity can have a genetic component brings up an interesting (and peculiar possibility): biological proselytization. For instance, suppose religion x employs a geneticist to create a virus that serves as a vector for gene therapy that eventually alters proteins that are involved in certain biochemical processes that make an individual more prone to hallucinations or have feelings of transcendence. Conversely, anti-religious activists (I am skeptical that most non-religious people care this much, but some might) might attempt the reverse. This of course presupposes that said biochemical processes are so amenable to gene therapy. In the former case, unwitting gene therapies could serve as seeding actions in the territory for missionaries who might know ahead of time the sort of hallucinations or feelings their targets are experiencing, adding to their credibility. In any case, this topic is a fertile one. [1] Religion as we know it, defined by some level of supernaturalism, transcendentally justified rituals and group cohesion. [2] I have read that German Protestants who are affiliated with the state subsidized church (as opposed to the Free Churches that exist without state succor) have attendance rates of 5%.

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