TIA Tuesday: Evolutionary reasons for religionAugust 12, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
The subtitle for The Irrational Atheist is “Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens”. This week, we start Chapter 10 of TIA, in which Vox turns his attention to the fourth member of the “Unholy Trinity,” Daniel Dennett.
This book did not proceed exactly according to plan. Originally inspired by a trilogy of columns entitled “The Clowns of Reason,” it was supposed to be devoted to dissecting the anti-theistic arguments of Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, and Sam Harris. However, when Christopher Hitchens appeared on the scene and began wreaking such a wide path of intellectual devastation by trouncing noted theologians such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Chris Hedges, the author of The Christian Right and the Rise of American Fascism, it became clear that Hitchens was an atheist tour de force that must be addressed at all costs!
And thus was Dennett bumped down to fourth place. Let’s see if Vox has any more luck with Dennett than he did with Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins.
Alas, Vox’s ostensibly favorable impression of Dennett’s works does not keep him from resorting to the same sort of ad hominem polemic as has been his wont thus far.
Despite being every bit as ignorant of the theological, historical, and demographical basics as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, Dennett’s book is far from a polemic, even if he can’t quite resist giving in to the customary atheist chest-thumping. I suppose if one shouldn’t condemn a man who believes he descended from apes for behaving like one; at least the feces-flinging is kept to a minimum.
Yes, one shouldn’t, especially if the condemnation would becoming from a man who routinely thumps his own chest, gleefully flings feces or whatever else lays ready to hand, and ignorantly mocks others for having a clearer understanding of the scientific evidence for evolution than he does. Nevertheless, Vox insists that he is greatly impressed by Dennett’s writing, even if he cannot resist the temptation to make Dennett’s good writing into a criticism of the writing of others.
Whereas the Unholy Trinity attempt to browbeat the unthinking reader into unquestioningly accepting their assertion that Man is on the verge of vanishing in nuclear fire unless billions of idiots can be forcibly stripped of their belief in non-existent sky fairies, Dennett calmly asks the thoughtful reader to consider why religious faith exists in the first place, why it persists so stubbornly, and why so many individuals place such a high value upon it.
Unfortunately, Vox forgot to mention which page, and which book(s) of the other New Atheists proposed “forcibly” stripping “billions of idiots” of their beliefs, let alone browbeating anyone into unquestioning acceptance of their conclusions. But we get the point: Vox likes the way Dennett asks questions without arguing in favor of any particular answer.
And while Dennett’s declaration of unabashed atheism leaves no doubt about his personal opinion regarding the existence of the supernatural, which he equates with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, he is at least open to the possibility that there are numerous aspects of religion that neither he nor anyone else truly understands. It is this recognition of the near-complete scientific ignorance on the matter that inspires Dennett to propose that scientists make a serious effort at investigating religion instead of merely insulting it. His confidence that the evidence collected will eventually support his hypothesis appears to ebb and flow throughout the book, but it is to his credit that he never asks his reader to accept it at face value or on the strength of his rhetoric.
Gotta love the way Vox sneaks in that little jab about “near-complete scientific ignorance” regarding religion. Vox would like to imply that science knows virtually nothing about whether religion is true or not, even though that’s hardly Dennett’s point. Dennett’s curiosity concerns questions about the mechanisms of religion, and how it sustains itself in the face of so many real-world inconsistencies and obvious superstitions—quite a different sort of ignorance than what Vox would like to attribute to science! But Vox plants his little seeds anyway. Meanwhile, Dennett explores some of the more scientific possibilities concerning the mechanisms that keep religion afloat.
His first suggestion is to consider the way it can bring out the best in individuals. Religion may not be the only phenomenon to do so, but Dennett does not question that it does. While he suggests that it could be possible to design a synthetic replacement that would do so even more efficiently, the suggestion is weakened by his incorrect insistence that atheists are more law-abiding, more sensitive to the needs of others, and more ethical than others. While this may be true if one cherry-picks the data and looks only at the High Church atheist, there is a plethora of evidence that a comparison of all atheists to all Christians will not favor the former, whether one looks at crime rates, divorce rates, birth rates, democratic participation, or charitable giving.
We’ve looked at Vox’s statistics before, and if I were him, I wouldn’t go around drawing too much attention to the problem of “cherry picking” and other questionable statistical practices.
His second suggestion is that religion could be a memetic symbiont or parasite, which benefits itself at the expense of humanity. This is an intriguing concept, but largely a pointless one since there is absolutely no evidence that memes even exist and the idea smacks of confusing metaphor with reality.
That’s an interesting argument, considering that a meme is just an idea that can be passed from one individual to another. No evidence that ideas exist? I wonder what sort of evidence he’s looking for?
His third suggestion is that if religion benefits any human group, the important question would be to determine whom. He suggests three possibilities: all the individuals in society, the members of the controlling elite, or societies as a whole, and while he doesn’t answer the question himself, he expresses a certain skepticism of the last one due to his doubts about evolutionary group selection. The evidence, however, suggests that his first and third options are the strongest here. The idea that religion exists to benefit the elite is weakened by the fact that the ranking members of one of the eldest and most powerful religious elites, the Catholic Church, are neither allowed to have genetic heirs or enjoy many material benefits from their elite status, whereas the competing concept of societal benefit is supported by the evidence that irreligious individuals and societies do not show much enthusiasm for propagation.
You can always count on good old Vox to say stuff like this with a straight face. Here he is, mocking the idea that evolution might be true, while at the same time claiming that religion has evolutionary advantages because religious people out-breed (he says) non-religious people, in the same sentence as he points out the priestly celibacy of the Roman Catholic Church (as though priests don’t have sex).
Where to begin? Does religion benefit the elite? Vox seems to think that the answer must be “no” unless the elite that receive the benefits are the religious leaders. But religion is a set of beliefs that influence (or attempt to influence) social behavior, so we’re not looking for benefits that are strictly biological here. If religion creates an environment that keeps the ruling elite in power, and thus produces social stability in place of anarchy and conflict, the result could indeed be beneficial, biologically, for the religious society, the religious leaders, and the ruling elite. One would think Vox himself would be in favor of such an argument, since it would make religion a good influence on society. But no, he wants to call this the weakest of the three possibilities. Perhaps he just hasn’t thought things through?
Besides, there are other ways to create “heirs” for a religion without direct procreation. Priests and bishops do not need to directly father children in order to generate their own successors. The memetic influence of religion, coupled with the availability of married believers (not to mention ecclesiastical prohibitions against birth control), is more than sufficient to create a cycle that benefits the clergy directly and sustainably. When was the last time you saw the Pope go begging for a handout because he didn’t have a family to support him in his old age?
If you can excuse me for indulging in a bit of a tangent, I have my own idea about the question Dennett poses: religion thrives because it’s the brain’s natural response to the sensory overload we would experience if we tried to understand the world through reason alone. Analysis works well for the details, and for finding definitive answers to specific questions. Reality as a whole, however, is too complex and too full of uncertainties. The human mind is never going to be able to complete a detailed analysis of the whole thing, because once you’ve completely analyzed one part, something else has changed.
What we need is the ability to quickly detect broad patterns in large amounts of data, to perceive trends, hints, and approximations, in a way that’s reasonably meaningful and reasonably reliable. And we’ve got it: our social instincts let us recognize moods, intentions, and attitudes, from a million and one subtle hints, like the arch of an eyebrow, or the slightest tightening of the lips. It’s not always reliable of course, not 100% anyway, but it works well enough often enough that we can form cooperative societies that benefit us all, protecting us from harm and from want, extending our lifespans, and promoting the survival of our species.
What religion does is to take the pattern-processing power of our social instincts, and apply them to the larger problem of “reading the signs” of the world around us. The very earliest humans had no meteorology or medicine or vulcanology, but they lived in a world with storms and diseases and volcanoes. So what did they do? They mentally created spirits to personify these forces so that they could use social instincts to warn themselves about changes in the spirits’ “moods.” They learned the moods and habits of the “spirits” the same way we learn any person’s moods and habits: by experience, using our social instincts as a guide. Fallible? Sure, but it doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to work well enough, often enough, that it benefits the believer.
Even if all it does is give the believer some sense of reassurance, so that he can get up and face the world instead of cowering in a den somewhere, it has provided a benefit. It has tamed the unknowable, harnessed the unpredictable, putting it behind a personal face that may be stern and may even be terrifying, but can at least be given a name. The alternative—complete and utter chaos—won’t even let you grovel.
Science tends to displace this function of religion by reducing the incomprehensibility and unpredictability of the world around us. That’s why atheism tends to be more prevalent among the more scientific and/or more highly educated individuals. And even then, let some personal tragedy shatter your confidence in how much we know, let some sudden vision remind you of how much more there is to life than what we really understand, and the pull of religion can be felt again, the mind’s natural and instinctive reaction to the complexities and uncertainties of life. Social instincts are there, and work well enough often enough to be a net benefit, so why not use them? (But if you must be religious, worship Alethea!)
Well, I’ve wandered off a bit. Let’s pick up where we left off next time.