Friday, 1 December 2017
In which we counter a certain claim about the value of religion, and end up on a road journey
This is an older draught of a piece that I've used variously before, but it's useful to get an overview of my approach for Dissent of Man.
In an October article in Aeon Magazine (2015/6?), accompanied by a précis piece in The Guardian’s online Comment is Free – "Why Dawkins’ Humanists Remind Me of Religion", Michael Ruse argued for the coexistence of science and religion on the basis that they are, “asking different questions”. I do not agree.
To accept that a religious mindset is appropriate in asking questions about the natural world at all, you are forced to also accept its trappings of revealed wisdom and an untestable premise that there exists an unerring, higher source of knowledge. Without these, religion ceases to be religion. What is left, in its rawest, unadulterated form, is called "philosophy”.
Religion is clothing; a veil. Draped over philosophy, it became theology. Theology draped over geology, zoology and botany became natural theology. That is how christianity developed it’s position in opposition to natural science, by starting from a religious source, emanating from an entirely different school to that of scientific naturalism.
It is no mystery that science and religion have different starting points. For example, the UK’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, who believes that science, “is one of the greatest achievements of humankind, a gift given to us by God” (BBC 2012 Rosh Hashanah: Science vs Religion), defines it as, “science takes things apart, to see how they work”, whilst, “religion puts things together, to see what they mean”. From this dichotomy arises the single most used apology (sensu “argument”) for religion and the one that Ruse forwards, that religion can answer questions that science cannot.
This preconception is an important but often ignored conditioning of people. Their psychological predispositions are the difference that initially established and now perpetuate a polarised science- religion debate. Reasoned arguments are ineffectual because, in the minds of different people, the architecture of reason is constructed differently. Both cannot, by definition, be correct. It is quite clear from bountiful evidence that scientific logic is not only better founded, but will also provide a portal into dissecting irrational psychologies: the science of religion. The obverse cannot be claimed.
A better understanding of the psychology of faith is needed, because the divide will persist until there is sufficient comprehension of the irrational mindset. For this we must again rely upon scientific disassembly. On this point is where Ruse’s article and I do agree; in that same article he quotes from renowned naturalist, E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature,
… we have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. As I have tried to show, sociology can account for the very origin of mythology by the principle of natural selection acting on the genetically evolving material structure of the human brain. If this interpretation is correct, the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competition, as a wholly material phenomenon.
Human brain evolution has produced an inherently curious and intelligent reasoning that from a very early age seeks to identify causes for effects. Coupled with a propensity for patterns and design, it is hardwired into our cognitive faculties to recognise structural design in nature and interpret a purpose for natural phenomena. While reason and logic are adaptions towards problem solving, myths and religions are likely secondary products of our interpretation of the natural world, sometimes known as “spandrels” (sensu Gould & Lewontin: a byproduct of an adaption).
Over the course of human history, civilisations have used metaphors as indirect descriptors of their direct environment, to gloss over where information has been lacking. Prior to the Enlightenment, this has resulted in a host of supernatural explanations for natural dynamics, each associating change with purpose. People continue to be comforted in these explanations and communities strengthened, encouraged that everything happens for a reason and not at the whim of chance. It is no coincidence therefore that there is a close tally between the number of these stories and the number of cultural contexts that bore them.
Analogous to Darwin’s “Tree of Life”, the multitudinous faiths have evolved over time, diversifying, bifurcating and running in parallel, as related yet independent branches of thought. Some have died out and others have persisted. Some are closely related while others are quite alien, but what is consistent is how parochial all these stories were to their original context, how they relied upon reference to their nearby surroundings to construct their narrative, how they only attempted to make sense of their immediate environment. Psychologist and theologian, Justin L. Barrett expresses it in terms of, the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which we are born.
Despite the obvious origins of faiths, and as a footnote to sceptics and atheists, there is a Catch-22 hypocrisy in accepting the scientific evidence that myths and religions have emerged over time as products of our evolutionary history. It’s the having your cake and eating it type: as religion is an evolutionary byproduct, then it’s only nature and reacting against it is, well, in one sense of the word, unnatural.
While a large number of people do apply logic and conclude that religion doesn’t add anything to their world for whatever personal reasons, (usually because it fails to offer any further explanations beyond the laws of biology, chemistry and physics that comprehensively describe our universe), in contrast, most people in the world are religious, following one or other religion or faith system.
This may be mystifying, but it is not surprising. People are genetically programmed to do so. Indeed, it would be more surprising if they were not religious and the reasons given for adhering to religions reflect this innate urge: “I feel it in my bones”, “it comes from within”. While there is no evidence towards proving the existence of deities, there are however many cultural and social mechanisms that act throughout a lifetime to reinforce religion. In response, societal goals of a more rational understanding of the universe and a more rational approach to life, need a better education towards a greater science literacy. Being scientifically informed doesn’t mean that we can understand every aspect of the most technical problem, from particle physics to plate tectonics, but instead provides us with a basic toolkit of knowledge and skills about science and technology, and a way to look at the world. We can use the tools in this kit to better inform everything from living our daily lives to running whole nations.
Any good tool should provide a metric, some measure by which comparisons may be made. The one I feel most ideal is at the heart of the science-religion debate: the dissent over our origins as a dissociation from nature. Thus, to investigate human tendencies towards faith, think of a continuous road that stretches beyond the horizon in both directions. Close at hand we shall place a recognisable marker to identify a point by which all others can be measured in scale. The scale is defined through an ability to explain natural phenomena. Namely, nature in all it’s manifestations.
On the Origin of Species is essentially about the generation of biodiversity in nature. Darwinian evolution also features predominantly in arguments refuting the biblical accounts of human origins.
However, Darwinism has also been stretched far beyond its original scope. It has been applied to a cornucopia of human behaviour, from entrepreneurialism to war crimes, and held up as an answer or a scapegoat in countless situations. To differing degrees, it is an important part of how we understand ourselves, our history and our culture. So, let us place Mr Darwin here as a totem for neo-Darwinism, the most comprehensive acceptance of his ideas, and rank the range of interpretations of Darwinism in order of their loyalty to those original ideas.
Moving away from Darwin we can position each alternative interpretation along our road, measured out in units of “distances from Darwin”. Our journey will take us quite some distance away from Darwin until he is but a dot on the horizon from which we set out. But the order in which we distribute alternative interpretations en route may not accord to a preconceived sequence reinforced by the polemics that usually dominate this debate. Much of what I’ve discovered is surprising and exciting – preconceptions are challenged, antagonists are revealed to be uncomfortable bedfellows, and the extremists aren’t necessarily who you might think they are.
A them-and-us approach has resulted in a stand-off. Clearly there is more complexity involved in the science-religion debate. When we are done with our gradient, we will be able to look back along our journey and recognise the true diversity of understanding that really describes a continuum spelled out by individuals standing shoulder-to-shoulder along our road. Nonetheless, we will have our path running from one extreme to the other and between them a Distance-from-Darwin gradient that traverses the rich and fertile landscape of human thought.