Ed Brayton and Jason Rosenhouse have long posts up about the recent dispute between PZ Myers and Ken Miller, the Roman Catholc cell biologist who has been one of the most prominent popular expositors of evolutionary biology in these United States. You can read my 10 questions for Ken Miller to get some sense of him through my own idiosyncratic lens.
Since Jason and Ed are bringing up issues relevant to the broad church of the anti-Creationist movement, I take interest. Though I am a civilian, that is, I leave the fighting to others so I may do other things, there a few general points which I felt might be relevant to the debate.
First, some background. I am an atheist. I also firmly believe that this is my nature, though raised by theists I never personally believed, and I realized upon explicit self-reflection that this was so when I was 8 years old. At that moment I did not know that there were a class of people, “atheists,” who did not believe in God. I found that out later. Over the years I’ve read books like the Summa Theologia (and fear not, I know of Malcolm, Swinburne & Plantiga), Atheism: a philosphical Justification and Mere Christianity (I have also read the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament several times, Genesis dozens in various translations, as well as a fair amount of Biblical criticism & scholarship). Let me be clear, I was never a “seeker,” spirituality had no real interest for me, but like anthropologist Dan Sperber I was curious as to why anyone would be “religious.” I began with the philosophical angle, but later moved onto other models. Rodney Stark forwarded a rational choice understanding of religious belief systems in A Theory of Religion (in contrast to most of his other works this is a dry and deductive treatise which starts with axioms and works through propositions and makes predictions). David Sloan Wilson presented a functionalist narrative strongly suffused with group selective evolutionary logic in Darwin’s Cathedral. Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer presented a cognitive model within an evolutionary context (intersecting with evolutionary psychology) in In Gods We Trust and Religion Explained. Many of these ideas are summarized in Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, though Dennett seems to linger most upon an the cognitive-evolutionary model (perhaps because of his own disciplinary bias as a philosopher with interests in cognition and evolution).
When I posited that people are naturally religious, I am generally speaking of the cognitive-evolutionary model, more precisely, supernaturalism. The rough outline is that humans tend to see agency all around them, and this is due to the necessities of our evolutionary past. In short, better safe than sorry, and so we tend to be aware of possible agents, whether human or inhuman, to a greater extent than non-agents. If we mistake a rustling tree for an enemy we lose a bit of time and induce some fear, but if we ignore an enemy because we assume they are a tree our lives might be forfeit. Some workers (e.g., E. Thomas Lawson) offer that agency-detection is causally necessarily derived from our Theory of Mind and Social Intelligence, so even if the adaptive benefit wasn’t strong we are naturally “pre-wired” to see agency where there might be none, as the occasional paranoid streaks that most humans go through might suggest. Cognitively oriented workers like Atran come close to asserting that religion is simply a cultural byproduct evoked from the intersection of our other natural facilities and the world around us. In other words, one might posit that supernatural belief is like heat from a working engine, though the heat is extraneous and not necessarily beneficial, it is a necessary implication of work. Some posit that the necessary connection between social intelligence and religion explains the cross-cultural tendency for women to hold more supernatural beliefs than men, women tend to also exhibit more sensitive social intelligence.
Moving up from, and tied to, the cognitive foundations of supernatural belief are the functionalist interpretations of the spread of religion. David Sloan Wilson offers that the traditional sociological model that religion serves as a social glue and regulator allows it to spread as a cultural adaptation via group level selection. Those who object to these functionalist narratives point to the fact that religious traditions often imply great cost, whether it be direct in the form of tithes and festivals, or evolutionarily in the form of celibacy or other fitness reducing behaviors. Functionalist models tend be the normal paradigm which those who support religion for the “good of society” (e.g., Straussians) are appealing to. In my opinion a major weakness of functionalism is the often low correlation between social order and theism across various nations. Is Japan, where 40% of individuals admit to atheism, a less stable society than Bangladesh, where fewer than 1% do? Is there less trust? Less charity? Whatever benefits functionalism provides, it seems that these forces are unlikely to be the primary component of variation. Functionalism is problematic in that a particular religion might be sufficient to foster ties, but it is not necessary, and so tracing out patterns can be highly subjective as the parameters are not easily teased apart. Functionalism on a smaller scale might offer that the religious naturally have more children than the non-religious, and so it increases fitness in terms of reproductive value, but, I am not convinced that this would hold if one extracted out other parameters like like income & education which tend to correlate negatively with supernaturalism. Finally, the rate of religious belief has varied greatly over history in many nations, and yet it does not seem that social stability tracks these changes closely. Strongly functionalist narratives imply to me much more homogeneity of custom, belief and ritual than we see today because selection tends to expunge variation over time as the fittest morphs spread and become fixed.
Another alternative is the rational choice model which uses the paradigm of neoclassical economics. Rodney Stark and other workers hold that religion offers a bundle of goods & services to individuals, primarily in the form of the afterlife and what not. They assert that the marketplace of religions select for those which satisfy the needs of their clients (e.g., religions which promise an afterlife spread, those that do not tend to decline). I have little to say about this aside from the fact that it seems to fit most easily into the pluralist and competitive religious marketplace of the United States, and is less applicable in other nations or deep into the past (as Stark attempts in The Rise of Christianity). Stark attempts some naive psychologizing, but I think he would benefit from a deeper grounding in cognitive science so as to discern the likely from the unlikely rational choices. Rationality is bounded & biased, and the rational choice models of religion that I have seen do not seem to correct for this very well.
These various “theories of religion” map onto different levels of religious organization and phenomena. The cognitive layer tends to be universal and smokes out the commonalities across all cultures in regards to the nature of the supernatural agents. The functionalist school tends to focus on ritualistic and confessional differences between groups, and their role in maintaining intragroup cohesion and accentuating intergroup differences. The rational choice model tends to be suited to explaining the variation across denominations in the plural market, as different sects cater to variation in tastes of their clientele.
In all this it is important to distinguish between basal supernaturalism and institutional “higher” religion. It is important to distinguish between commonly held religious intuitions about supernatural agents and creedal beliefs that separate religions. Finally, it is essential that we reject the model of a unitary mind. Whether you believe that cognitive modules have biophysical realities or are simply operational entities, there does seem to be a level of encapsulation as beliefs about beliefs vary from the reality of beliefs themselves. That is, when you query religionists about the nature of their beliefs Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians reply with the appropriate formulae, but, when researchers attempt to reconstruct their mental models via various unrehearsed promptings (e.g., a story about their God) they tend to converge upon a rather similar and convential supernatural agent.
Whether one professes the shahada, or the Nicene Creed, or the truth of the Pali Canon, the mental constructs in the minds are generally the same, there seems to be a cognitive optimum which religions will converge toward (strict monotheisms tend to diversify with cults of saints and holy men, non-theistic religions like Buddhism tend to become operationally theistic over time). What does this mean? I think it points to the reality that higher religions are simply organic growths on top of basal religiosity which emerged with the rise of mass societies and institutions. They serve functional purposes within these societies (or they can easily parasitize them), but they are not natural on the psychological level, as obviously we do not have a “monism module,” or an intuitive understanding of the Athanasian formula. The reason philosophy, even religious philosophy, is not common sense is that it is at intuitive remove, insulated by a cordon of inferences derived from often incomprehensible axioms. Higher religion may serve an essential functional purpose in demarcating Us from Them as our societies scale up beyond small personalized clans to transtribal confederacies, and, there may be psychological satisfaction derived from their beliefs, but those beliefs have to pass the cognitive test of plausibility, as we don’t just believe anything. It must be realistically absurd, capture attention but not disorient excessively (‘minimally counter-intuitive’).
Among the higher religions there is a great variation. Many Hindus for example are open to the inclusion of the Carvaka, a materialistic and atheistic movement which resembled in many ways Epicureanism. Jains, Buddhists, Jews and Confucians tend to be rather lax, or apathetic, to the God question. Even though Judaism tends to espouse a limited set of orthodoxies (see the 13 principles of faith for Orthodox Jews), the focus on right practice (orthopraxy) as opposed to right belief (orthodoxy) serves as a contrast to Christianity. Both Christianity and Islam tend to be rather focused on correct belief, though traditionally Islam has shied away from the deep philosophical formalism which Christianity has imbibed from its Classical pagan & Hebrew antecedants.
Within Christianity there is also variation, Biblical fundamentalism tends to be a new phenomenon, most pronounced in the United States, which arose as a respone to the German modernist movement and its various daughters. The older Christian traditions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy tend not to be literalist, and in fact the early Counter-Reformationist polemicists even used the contradictions within the Bible to show the insufficiency of sola scriptura, the refrain of the Protestants. They argued that Church teaching and tradition had to guide Christians because scripture was not sufficient, and they pointed to its manifest inadequacy to the task via its manifold confusions.
Here is a diagram of what I have in mind when it comes to the structure of religion:
Each layer is nested within the other, to some extent the diagram is fundamentalist-atheist-centric. That is, I am “leading up” to Christian fundamentalists, because they are our bête noires. Depending on who you believe between 90 and 99% of Indians are theists, but their first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was an agnostic. We atheists do not tend to live in fear of the judgements of Congregationalists or Buddhists. Certainly there is some contempt and opprobrium from other directions, but it is from modern American fundamentalists that the snakes come forth toward we who do not believe. The point I’m trying to make is that religion is not the problem in a sufficient sense, even if it is a necessary condition. A subset of religionists are highly dangerous from the perspective of those of us who are not demon-haunted because they attempt to enforce their mythology on the rest of the world, and believe strongly that others should conform to their orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In the Muslim world hostility toward atheism is nearly universal, but by and large the Christian nations have been gelded so that atheists like Francois Mitterand and Alexander Kwasniewski could be presidents of ostensibly Roman Catholic nations (France and Poland). Only in the USA is religious heterodoxy an operational disqualifier for a leadership role in the modern world (though not in the past, as Thomas Jefferson, or even Unitarians like William H. Taft, ascended to the presidency).
Atheists have ascended to leadership positions, and not been ostracized, in societies which are religious (France has a long tradition of secularism, but Poland is a relatively devout nation). That is a crucial point insofar as that suggests that religiosity is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the persecution that many unbelievers fear. Why does this matter? As I said, because I believe that humans have a powerful psychological attraction to supernaturalism. Even in societies like Japan where organized religion is a weak force and large numbers of atheists exist supernaturalism is still abundant and the majority. Where supernaturalism exists it seems that religions will emerge because of the nature of human cultures. In other words, religion is an evoked trait of our species due to the intersection of our psychology and sociology. This does not mean that religion is determined in some fixed manner, rather, the die is powerfully loaded.
The central limit theorem holds that numerous random variables will tend to converge upon an normal (bell curved) distribution. I do not believe there is a god gene, but, I do believe it seems like that a composite of numerous vectors tend to result in the modal religiosity we tend to see around us. Modulating the parameters can shift the nature of the distribution so a greater or lesser number lay behond the “atheist threshold,” so that during the Soviet period a greater proportion of Russians expressed atheism, and some of these converted to Christianity after the fall of Communism (e.g., Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin). The parameters shifted and so the distribution shifted, though the number of atheists remains high, it has dropped as the sociological context changed. Whether one is an atheist or a theist is dependent on many things. Obviously parents matter, as do social expectations, capricious quriks of personal history, but, I also hold that psychological variables are important. If E. Thomas Lawson and others are correct a weak theory of mind tends to dampen “agency-detection” mechanisms, in other words, some people (I include myself in this) don’t see “faces in the clouds.” Arguments for supernatural agents aren’t plausible to me because I don’t intuit them all around me a priori.
Where I am getting at? Many people make much of the fact that there is no rational reason to believe in religion. There are two primary counter-responses:
- There may be non-rational reasons
- Thomists and other intellectual theists offer reasoned arguments for the existence of God
The second argument I will hit first: for every rational proof there is a rational disproof. Examining the various proofs, deductive and inductive, scholastic and analytic, and their inverses, I think much of this gets into logic chopping and presuppositions. I am an atheist, and I tend to find the proofs unconvincing. I will not address the atheist disproofs because I found the proofs unconvincing even before I read works like Atheism: The Case Against God. Outside of philosophy, history and anthropology tend to offer glimpses into the etiology of religious movements. And modern disciplines like psychology offer models of how and what people believe, and it turns out that supernaturalism is predominantly non-reflective and implicit. It does not emerge out of the world of words and explicitly modeled conceptual structures, rather, implicit supernaturalism seems to rise up from the intersection of the world around us and our intuitive heuristics. This is where agency-detection comes into play: if you have a powerful hunch that something is “out there,” you have the necessary precondition for acceptance into a religious institution which builds upon these initial concepts. I never had a powerful hunch that something was “out there,” so the psychological appeal of religion was minimal. There was a “rational choice” motive insofar as many religious women are rather smokin’, and skeptics like Michael Shermer have admitted that this was a motivation in their initial conversion to Christianity (I was a member of InterVarsity and The Korean American Christian Fellowship to meet girls). I only bring this specific example up to offer that there are non-psychological and socially opportunistic reasons why one becomes religious. Sometimes nominal religiosity eventually evolves into a sincere belief, as is common among many of those who initially convert to a religion to marry someone of that religion (this phenomenon is found among Zoroastrians forced to convert to Islam in the religio-ethnographic literature as well). It may be that there are individuals out there who reason their way to the God Hypothesis, but I will offer that these are a small and trivial minority. Rather, it is usually an emotively powerful experience or an intuitive mystical insight which hurtles them toward theism.
Consider this developmental narrative:
- A child is born with a mind, that mind sees agents in the universe around them where perhaps there are none, as for evolution a false positive is better than a false negative
- A child is told by their parents that these agents are beings whose rules must be followed for reward
- A teenager is attracted to a group of followers of a supernatural entity which is transgressive and novel
- An adult “shops” for a church to raise their children in and serve as an outlet for their altruistic energies
This cascade of development can be short-circuited by the child simply not being prone to seeing agents around them. They may avow a religion, but they may never truly believe, and at the first opportunity they revert to their “natural” godless state. In some circumstances, for example an Islamic society which prescribes capital punishment for atheism, the variables might constrain them to remain publically religious to save their skins. In some societies, like Japan, there is no pressure to be religious. In some subcultures, like the natural sciences, there is some mild pressure (in my experience) toward atheism because that is normative and what a “good scientist” believes.
The point is that there is no “magic bullet” which will wake the human race up to “godless reason,” because much of the human race is intuitively predisposed to believe in gods. Additionally, the universal acid of Darwinian reason, or alternatively the detachment of affluence, is not within the reach of most of the human race. There is a negative correlation between religion and intelligence likely because the power of skeptical acid is more pronounced for those for whom analysis and decomposition come more easily. If someone has weak reasoning powers it seems plausible that they will be unlikely to dismiss their intuitive hunches. This parameter does not always move in the direction you expect, in South Korea religious affiliation tends to correlate with education. One must keep in mind that in much of East Asia confessional and exclusive religions are a new feature of the social landscape, and in South Korea the period after World War II witnessed a rise in Westernization and religionization. The unaffiliated tend to be poor peasants who have not been caught up in Westernization. My point here is that these generalizations must be interpreted in their proper sociological context, religion is highly textured and variable.
What does this have to do with what Ed Brayton and Jason Rosenhouse discussed in their exchange?
First, atheists must be cautious about making a caricature of religious folk, two wrongs does not make a right, hate the sin, not the sinner. On the one hand, the majority of believers might avow a particular creed, yet their faith is predominantly implicit and unreflective. The literalism and the Bible and the Athanasian formula, the philosophical incoherency of theology, such things are totally irrelevant to most believers, who operate outside of logic much of the time. Secondly, there are many intelligent believers. Donald Knuth is a theist, and arguably one of the most intelligent men alive. The majority of people in the world with an IQ above 130 are likely believers, though the probability that one is an atheist seems to increase sharply as IQ and education, and affluence, increase. This suggests that there are many parameters which can modulate the expectation of theism, but some of these can be shifted only so much (e.g., it seems unlikely that the median human IQ is going to be 150 in the next few generations). The belief in the paranormal and supernatural is widespread and always serves as fertile soil for the meme-fires of institutional and organized religions which sweep over this landscape.
But what about the very intelligent who believe, why do they believe? Some of them might be Thomists, who claim to follow the Way of Aquinas, or some other sort of rationalistic religionist. I don’t find these arguments persuasive. I hold that even at high IQs the psychological parameters can be strongly tilted toward religion and supernatural belief. Gregory R. Smith received his M.S. in mathematics from the University of Virigina at the age of 16. He is a child prodigy, and reportedly a theist. He has extremely empathetic, and refuses to eat meat, and convinced his parents of the ethical nature of this position so that they also gave up meat. No matter the power of the universal acid of reason in Gregory R. Smith’s mind, his empathy and agency-detection mechanism might make religious belief overwhelmingly powerful in its likelihood for him. It is all well and good to demand that people are rational, but the psychological costs and the weights of the various parameters might differ from person to person so that the burden varies, and so should our expectation that individuals may shift out of belief if the evidence and logic warrants.
The post up to this point is an exposition of why religion is ubiquitous, and why it will likely remain ubiquitous. What does this mean for atheists like myself? It means that minoritarianism seems to be guaranteed, and it will be impossible to reason our way to majority. We must keep this in mind when we ask ourselves, “But is it good for the atheists?” One issue I suggested above is that not all religionists are equally hostile to atheism. Hindus tend to be less hostile because their own tradition sanctions some godlessness as legitimate aspects of the discourse, God is One and we are all manifestations of Him, even those who engage is self-negation. India has a vital atheist and rationalist movement which serves as a counterpoint to the demon-haunted nature of the society, with its astrological gurus and God-Men. Indian shows that we can flourish in a milieu of the grossest superstition. Nations with far lower rates of God belief than the USA are more likely to accept astrology, showing the magnetic attraction of supernaturalism even without priests stuffing it down the throats of the captive masses.
The issue is not whether religion is good for the atheists, the reality is that religion is like the sky or the earth, supernaturalism is a fact of life in regards to the mental universe of our fellow citizens. The issue is what religionists dominate the scene. Some on Ed & Jason’s threads argue for a strategic vision which reserves the most powerful salvos only for the fundamentalists, because this group is the one which serves as the bulwark of the demon hordes which threaten to topple the cult of science. Philosophically moderate and liberal religionists, let alone the believers in the paranormal, are not less ludicrous, but sociologically and culturally they are far less of a threat to atheists. When I was vice president of an atheist organization as an undergraduate some of us mooted this issue and agreed that our focus must remain on fundamentalists in terms of our primary energies of outreach and rebuttal. Yes, if we banished superstition this would be a moot point, but I offer that that is not a war where victory will ever be within reach. Religion can be changed and reshaped, one of the insights of cognitive science is that text and doctrine are malleable and not causative. The New Testament reserves a great deal of censure for those who divorce, and little for homosexuals, but fundamentalist Christians focus on the latter while apologizing for their own broken marriages. Humans are cognitively adaptable, and they can shift their beliefs so long as the core supernaturalism remains, for that is intuitively compelling.
This does not mean that I believe “militant” atheists should keep their mouths shut. My issues with Richard Dawkins is not the force of his jeremiad against religion, it is simply that I do not believe he is always up on the latest research literature in this area. I believe men like Dawkins are bracing and essential cogs in the public discourse. Too often liberal and moderate theists tend to give the normative barbarism of Islam a pass, but aggressive atheists like Sam Harris pull no punches. There is an essential role in the ecology of ideas for the Voltaires, Humes and Diderots. But the key is to foster a mixed strategy, not a monolithic one. The Greek phalanx was superseded by the Roman legion because the latter was more flexible, and during the battles against the later Macedonian Empire the legions of the Roman Republic simply sliced the immobile phalanxes to pieces through the dexterity of their maniples and centuries. A diversity of roles and ideas are essential, because a multifaceted attack and assault is the only way that the religious mindspace can slowly be reshaped to be good for Us. For each bad cop there must be a good cop, and after the cops have taken care of their tasks the civilians can continue to lead their lives.
And quality of life, enjoyment of the world around us, that is the ultimate goal. Some of you might have googled Hesychasm by now. I use that term because roughly it was the sentiment toward mysticism and otherworldiness that became dominant in Byzantium during the last few centuries as the Turks advanced on Constantinople (and outflanked it to the north). The Orthodox clergy and the populace of the Queen of Cities rejected union with the Roman Catholics even though that was their only slim hope of staving off conquest by the Turks. “Better the turban of the Sultan than the tiara of the Pope” so the saying went. It was the Other World after that mattered. For we atheists I think we need to be careful of falling into the Hesychasist trap, looking toward philosophical purity when our profane existence in this world is contingent upon the alliances we as a minority make with the majority. Some (most) theists imbue their mythological beliefs with ontological significance, but we must be careful not to ape them by sacralizing the importance of the negation of their belief in the God Hypothesis. There is often a sentiment among atheists that fundamentalists are “pure” and “honest” in that they take the Bible to its “logical” conclusion, while more nuanced Christians are simply delusional and denying the true implications their adherence their scriptures and gods. There are two points, first, a) the fundamentalists are fundamentalists for more simplistic cognitive and social reasons than any sincere adherence to text, as their modernism in regards to divorce attests, b) fundamentalism is a relatively new phenomenon in Christianity, so it is peculiar when some atheists imply that this is “true Christianity” (the fundamentalists would agree). When it comes to religion I am a philosophical nominalist, I do not believe that religious truth claims contain any true sense, or any ontological import, but so long as they leave me unmolested I shall leave to the populace to dazzle themselves with charms, incense and the multitudinous gods of their inclination. There is no Other World to reward our philosophical purity, let us eat the joys of an unprincipled life and not begrudge the happiness of those who we consider foolish so long as they leave us to our damned fate.
Addendum: For my religious readers, I assume some of you might find the tone above condescending and offensive, but let me offer that I hold no ill will toward you if you believe I am going to burn in hell, and I would be willing to share a beer, good food and evil tales with you all the same. I often offend religious people precisely because I am dismissive, but if you are of the sort to take joy in it I do not begrudge you any glee you might take from knowing that you hold the Truth in your heart while I dwell in darkness. You may believe I will go to hell or what not, but I believe that my future is that of dust and ashes, and I plan on making the most of this short life and enjoying it all I can. I have willed to banish the severity and gravity from my mind with which some people live their lives, in particular the religious who believe in plans and fates. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but my utility function is geared toward maximizing joy and equanimity.