This is the third installment of a series of postings I’ve titled “Mending Fences.” You’ll find the first installment here.
It’s time to call a truce.
Until recently, I didn’t think of atheism as a political movement; it didn’t occur to me that I was being systematically victimized. Rather, I commonly thought of a long personal history of rude, arrogant, and exclusionary behavior directed at individual atheists by individual theists. More recently, though, it has become apparent that atheists are victims of rampant bigotry. How else could you describe a situation where 15% of American adults are atheists, yet only one member of Congress (Pete Stark of California) has ever admitted to being an atheist?
Thanks to the new atheists, atheists are now part of something that is akin to a civil rights movement. Based on historical precedent, though, civil rights movements don’t become successful when they encourage their members to be angry and to call the the aggressors “stupid,” at least not in the long run. Nor is it productive to frame what we want to accomplish as a “war” on ignorance, or any other type of war, because “wars” (on drugs, terrorism) usually polarize opposing camps indefinitely. To stop discrimination against non-believers, we should borrow the successful methods used by women, blacks, gays and other oppressed minorities.
In short, we need to add a strong educational component to our movement. Most of the people who make derogatory comments do so without examining the roots of their aggressive impulses. I agree with Hannah Arendt who, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, argued that most damage is not done by people trying to cause damage, but by normal people who fail to think things through—that is the nature of what Arendt termed “the banality of evil.” How do we counteract deep unexamined prejudices against atheists?
We need to be savvy about our PR. We should patiently show others who we are. We need to show believers that we don’t threaten their way of life except to the extent that they must stop slandering non-believers. I doubt that theists lay awake at night worrying about happy atheists; rather, in my experience, theists are far more haunted by images of snarly know-it-all in-your-face atheists. We need to promulgate images of friendly faces of real atheist Americans. After all, functional atheists have lives the stretch far beyond sitting around fretting about people who believe in “God.” We must also become visible.
If all of the atheist Americans glowed as dots on a national map, everyone flying overhead would see tens of millions of law-abiding atheists from coast to coast. We are taxpayers. We fight in the military. We are actors, housewives, musicians, business people, parents, police officers, scientists and teachers. We are inextricably socially connected to believers. We are their brothers, daughters, co-workers and neighbors. We give to charity too, including prominent atheists who give billions to help the poor (e.g., Bill Gates and Warren Buffett). We spend disproportionately less time in prison than those who believe in God. Doubtless, there will sometimes be sharp words, especially whenever fundamentalists push hard to turn our governments into their churches. For those moments, Dawkins, Harris and Christopher Hitchens might well continue to serve well as our version of the young Malcolm X. But anger and biting back can’t be our long-term solution.
Most civil rights begin with a period marked by strife which, if successful, gives way to a mainstreaming process where substantially more social progress is made. With regard to the gay rights movement, for instance, the periods of intense strife centered around the Stonewall era of the 60’s and Act Up in the 80’s. Gays are now making far more progress by mainstreaming, including major recent victories in various state appellate courts and legislatures. Gays aren’t making these impressive strides by presenting themselves as angry or and threatening; rather, they are working hard (through organizations like GLAAD) to holding the media accountable when they promulgate warped and unfair images of gays. Strife often gets the process going, but it can’t sustain a civil rights movement in the long run. Psychological research shows that high stress narrows our ability to think creatively. To get to where we really need to go, we need non-violent, non-aggressive, compassionate, clear-headed persuasion.
In short, we need to use the strategies employed by Martin Luther King. The media loves conflict, though, and will take every opportunity to magnify any conflict that occurs regarding atheists and attempt to make cartoons out of complex situations. Even though many believers make cartoons of atheists—they don’t take the time to get to know who we are before judging us—we should resist the temptation to reciprocate by painting all believers with a broad brush. We shouldn’t stoop to their tactics. We need to be careful whenever we use the pronouns “they” and “them,” which are often the unwitting precursors of bigotry.
It is critically important to remember that huge numbers of believers are good-hearted people who judge atheists by the content of their character. Many believers have been standing up for our rights, even when they didn’t understand us and even while they didn’t agree with us. We need to show at least as much patience and tolerance as millions of religious moderates have shown to us.
None of what I am writing implies that we can’t vigorously disagree with believers. Everything that can be said, though, can and should be said with precision, patience and compassion. Let us show all believers that we can vigorously disagree without condescendingly calling each other stupid or immoral. We can acknowledge our differences without dwelling on them and without ruining valuable working relationships. But even more important, we must take extra care when disagreeing because we have so incredibly much in common. Most of us aren’t nearly as different as we are often encouraged to believe by reckless line-drawers on both extremes.
What about the science?
Many atheists proclaim that the proper response to religion is science, as if science already has all the answers. I agree that it’s better to have as much good science as we can, but I don’t agree that present-day science offers all of the answers to life’s most pressing questions. For instance, what science book should people consult to decide whom to marry or whether to turn down a job offer?
Perhaps my questions bring to mind what Stephen Jay Gould had in mind when he argued that religion and science consisted of “non-overlapping magisteria.” I think Gould takes it too far in the other direction, however. Maybe it’s true that certain frames of meaning don’t overlap, but numerous religious “facts” do conflict head-on with indisputable scientific findings (e.g., the age of the Earth and the claims that dead people can return to life). It seems obvious to me that an extraordinarily large number of “facts” claimed by many religions overlap with and conflict with scientific demonstrable facts. We must not over-extrapolate, however.
Just because science often produces spectacular results doesn’t mean that science can yet provide the moral guidance religion attempts (and pretends) to provide. Far from it. And see here for what really is needed for comprehensive moral education. From some of the new atheists, we have heard that the faith of all religious moderates results from dysfunctional cognition, as if millions of highly intelligent religious people are insisting the intellectual equivalent of 2 + 2 = 5 when they assert their “faith” that Jesus walked on the water. But this is a stunted explanation of religion because it ignores the emotional/evolutionary impetus for making assertions of religious faith in the first place.
It also ignores Nobel Prize winner Niko Tinbergen’s caveat that “why” questions break into four separate “why” questions that address the behavior’s A) history (how did it evolve), B) ontogeny (how it developed over the animal’s life), C) function (how it enhances the animal’s success at survival and reproduction) and D) proximate cause (which addresses the animal’s biological mechanism engaged in that behavior). Why do religious people insist on the literal truth of miraculous stories? Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris give short shrift to most of these scientific “why” questions when they forge ahead with their conclusions that all religions are social viruses, summarily ruling out that religion might be an evolutionary adaptation. Despite their oftentimes electrifying intellectual rigor, Dawkins and Harris have downplayed important scientific questions on the issue of the cause and function of religion. Instead, they have engaged in name-calling (e.g., calling religion as a “virus”). By comparison, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell implores us to spend the time to do the necessary science before jumping to scientific conclusions.
Numerous other researchers have been working hard to carefully apply science to religion without prematurely calling for the elimination of all religion. For example, see Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained (2002). Here’s more on Boyer’s work. And see here. Isn’t it possible that religious groupishness might be an adaptation? Religious rituals appear to be such n commonplace and resilient set of behaviors in our species that it might tempt us to call religious loyalty “innate.” It would be baldly unscientific to claim that any behavior is “innate,” however, unless that claim has been unpacked neurologically, and that has not yet been done with religion. Regardless, we clearly need to do more science before writing off religion as an aberration or summarily rejecting that evolution has honed many of us to be religious (not that anyone is claiming that humans evolved to join any particular religion).
David Sloan Wilson has repeatedly warned that we shouldn’t simply write off religion as a dangerous malfunction. [See Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives (2007) and Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (2003).] He urges that religion might yet be proven to be an adaptation and that we need to do the research to figure this out. In Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson wrote that our species “is the primate equivalent of a beehive or a single organism.” This claim should resonate with anyone who has seen the intense social cohesiveness of many church congregations. Whatever the origin of the various stories regarding gods and miracles, perhaps humans have evolved the ability to exapt religious beliefs into impressive methods of social coordination and control. [Note: An exaptation is a trait that evolved to serve one particular function, but was co-opted by the organism to serve another purpose. ] David Sloan Wilson suggests that religions appear to facilitate group selection, allowing large groups of people to function as super-organisms. He repeatedly warns that the research is only getting started, and that we must not jump the gun by writing off religion as maladaptive. Wilson argues that even if there are no supernatural beings, we still need to answer three important questions:
1. Can we explain the phenomenon of religion in naturalistic terms? 2. What are the impacts of religion, good or bad, on human welfare? and 3. How can we use our understanding of religion to advance the goals of a stable and peaceful society? See this discussion at Edge.org
E.O. Wilson (no relation) is another prominent scientist who suggests that religions might be products of evolution. With regard to Tinbergen’s question of proximate cause, there are many tempting reasons for going to church, even if the supernatural claims aren’t true. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar reminds us that religious people in general do suffer less frequently than non-religious folk from both physical and mental disease; moreover, when they come down with something, religious people recover more rapidly from both the disease and any invasive treatment (such as a surgical operation or chemotherapy). Dunbar also recognizes that the practice of religion “undoubtedly introduces a profound sense of comfort in the face of adversity.” To what, then, does he attribute the participation in religious rituals? Endorphins. See The Human Story: A New History of Mankind’s Evolution (2004), Robin Dunbar (p. 172).
Recent findings put a cloud over the argument style of the anti-religious atheists. Numerous recent findings from the fields of cognitive science substantiate that most human belief-formation and decision-making does not originate in the consciousness. The urge to make utterly perplexing religious claims might be naturally rooted in the subconscious. For example, Antonio Damasio has demonstrated that, far from being a limitation or distraction, emotion is an indispensible part of rational cognition; humans can’t be rational without being emotional. See Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, by Antonio Damasio (1994). Damasio’s findings mesh well with David Hume’s conclusion that “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” From A Treatise of Human Nature, (2nd Ed.), Book II, Part I, Section III (“Of the Influencing Motives of the Will”) (1739).
Other cognitive scientists have demonstrated that cognition is thoroughly embodied, with virtually all of cognition being subconscious. See, for example, Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1999). Consider, also, Jonathan Haidt’s discussion of the weakness of conscious will, illustrating human cognition with the allegory of a lawyer riding an elephant. Therefore, it appears to be a mismatch of levels to argue facts to a person who didn’t consciously rely on facts while becoming religious in the first place. In fact, believers already know that the objects of their faith don’t make sense; that’s why they attribute their beliefs to “faith.” That is why Christians implicitly admit (although they outwardly deny) that they have no such proof of their supernatural claims. Their admission is their need to make reference to “faith,” which is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. Instead of assuming that religious beliefs are triggered by mental deficiency, we should also consider
Gregory Paul’s meticulous research findings that religion is not “some strange mental enchantment that requires dedicated effort to exorcise from the human mind.” “The Big Religion Questions Finally Solved,” Free Inquiry, Dec 2008/Jan 2009, pp. 24-36. Paul’s research suggests that religion tends to melt away whenever the majority of citizens “enjoy democratic governance and a secure, comfortable, middle-class lifestyle in the context of a corporate-consumer popular culture that is shaped by the influence of modern science.” We also need better science before accusing religious moderates of encouraging religious fanatics. We can do much better than blaming, taunting and lecturing all believers, especially where we lack credible scientific data establishing that religious moderates are actually to blame for the damage wreaked by extremists.
Based on my own experiences (including my visits to fundamentalist churches and many hours monitoring fundamentalist talk radio), religious extremists seethe at religious moderates, commonly declaring that religious moderates will share the hottest parts of hell with atheists and gays. Instead of lashing out all religions, we should carefully draw upon science for the most proper and effective political responses. We must never use the cachet of science where our conclusions are not actually based on science. We must not assume that an assertion is scientific just because it was spoken by a scientist, even by a world-class scientist. All atheists can benefit from daily doses of patience and humility when working to explain religiosity. Even though it doesn’t yet offer all of the ultimate answers, I will continue to put my chips on the scientific method over any sort of supernatural “explanation.”
On the other hand, I’m not yet convinced that we even know how to even ask all the right scientific questions. Nietzsche pointed out the need to be humble, even when while we are driving forward as rigorous scientists:
Just beyond experience!– Even great spirits have only their five fingers breadth of experience – just beyond it their thinking ceases and their endless empty space and stupidity begins.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, §564.
Perhaps there’s a word more appropriate than “humility,” such as a term coined by philosopher Walter Kaufmann, “humbition,” meaning “humility winged by ambition.” From The Faith of a Heretic (1978). Kaufmann adds that “[A]mbition and humility are not two virtues: taken separately, they are not admirable. Fused, they represent the first cardinal virtue.” For me, “humbition” triggers images of the Hubble telescope’s ultra deep field image. Yes, we must follow good science everywhere it leads us, but we must also recognize that good science is limited by human ingenuity; it is not omniscient. It doesn’t yet offer all of the guidance we seek as conscious living breathing human animals.
While we’re waiting for the science to catch up with our social needs, how should we deal with people who make seemingly crazy claims (e.g., that there is supposedly life after death) when there isn’t a shred of evidence in support? My personal approach is to sketch out and rely on my personal scientifically-informed but not scientifically-determined rule of thumb—my heuristic—regarding religion. Does that sound sufficiently convoluted? My heuristic is born of my need to constantly make decisions in a predominantly religious world, every day, even though I find myself (and all other honest people find themselves) in a state of notable ignorance. My heuristic invites me to (tentatively) “translate” the strange claims and conduct of believers into terms that I can better understand—it allows me to secularize religion on a personal level. My heuristic allows me to operate on the assumption that believers aren’t crazy, not entirely crazy, which lowers the temperature of the debate and gives me an incentive to engage with believers. The rest of this section sets out my personal heuristic.
Most religious moderates look uncomfortable and embarrassed when I ask them about the things they say they believe in church. Over the years, many Christians have admitted to me that they know very little about the Bible and they don’t often think about religion outside of their churches. My own experience comports with the results of polls. Many dozens of religious moderates have admitted to me that they don’t know whether the stories they hear in church are historically true. Yet many of them continue to attend church services . . . well . . . religiously. They uniformly insist that the puzzling claims of their churches are important to them, even when they can’t say with any certainty that they are literally true. These sorts of phenomena cause me to agree with Daniel Dennett that most believers believe in belief, not in the teachings themselves. Believers feel that it’s important to say they believe in their religious teachings, whether or not they actually believe them. But why? Again, what follows is my scientifically informed personal heuristic. I suspect that religious teachings (and the other aural and visual aspects of religious rituals) collectively serve as a locus, a “flag” around which believers gather, self-identify and socially collaborate. Flags themselves don’t need to mean anything in particular, yet they can be critically important to groups in that they seed the self-organization of the group. In my understanding, the crucifix functions as a flag. The crucifix can thus be important, even if Jesus didn’t come back from the dead.
[Note: As I was originally writing this section, a vocal group of political conservatives was claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, despite the facts that the State of Hawaii has produced Obama’s official birth certificate and Obama’s birth was announced in a Hawaiian paper when he was born. According to a July, 2009 poll, only 42% of Republicans believe that Obama is a natural born American. In short, these “birthers” are claiming that despite the existence of Obama’s official birth certificate, he has no American birth certificate. This flag (“lack of” a birth certificate) is anchoring the political coordination of the birthers, who are rallying around the “lack” of a birth certificate to anchor their collective beliefs that Barack Obama is allegedly a terrible President. I believe that this birther movement illustrates how religions might come into existence. The salient symbol (whether a crucifix or the "lack" of a birth certificate) does not need to make any literal sense, but these sorts of sacred beliefs are nonetheless symbolically important to the group. ]
In my understanding, the crucifix also seems to serve to mark the site of something akin to a lek, given the rampant social displays at churches (clothes, cars, singing, and commitment of time to the group). Church is a place where believers learn who’s who, much like leks, gatherings where non-human animals put on extravagant visual or auditory displays such as dances, plumage displays, vocalizations, etc.). By making this comparison, I’m not attempting demean religious gatherings. As with all other animals, however, the displays by human animals are critically important in terms of social status and mate selection; they can often be historically rooted in matters of life and death. Church services need not be seen as craziness if we focus on the expensive, intense and reliable signalings that dominate religious gatherings. From the perspective of individual believers, public displays, even coupled with the proclamation of apparent absurdities, can send a strong signal that one is loyal to one’s church group. [See also Richard Soser’s “The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual Rituals,” in which he argues that rituals are public displays that promote loyalty and group cohesion American Scientist, Volume 92 (2004). ]
In fact, it would appear that the more absurd the claim, the more powerful the signal of loyalty. When church members loudly sing claims that are literally absurd, they are nonetheless sending powerful signals of commitment to everyone else in the church. This dynamic fits the logic of Zahavi’s “handicap principle,” in that making facially absurd claims (e.g., pregnant virgins or dead people coming alive) appears to inflict damage on the claimant’s reputation as an accurate and honest person. See The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle, by Amotz Zahavi, et al, (1997).
But what if believers are (subconsciously) choosing to take this hit on Sundays in order to simultaneously deliver a potent display of loyalty? Atheists might think: “Sacrifice literal truth for a display of loyalty? That’s a deal I’d never make.” Wouldn’t we, though? Consider, for example, the ubiquity of white lies. When I make my personal translation, my heuristic, somewhat along the lines I have sketched above, an “absurd” church service can be seen as something I think I can begin to understand. Perhaps Christianity is not really about the claims represented by the crucifix, claims that don’t make literal sense, even to believers. Among believers, unsubstantiated religious claims serve as social super-glue. As evidence, consider at the pained faces of believers when they are urged to discuss their faith outside of the friendly confines of a church, where there is no loyalty payback for uttering such factual absurdities.
There certainly appears to be a strong connection between the supernatural claims and the in-group dynamic. The fact that a group is well-knit, however, doesn’t inform us about the kinds of things they will attempt as a group. Once they are highly socially coordinated under a crucifix (for example), good-hearted people can do large scale good-hearted things and aggressive and spiteful groups of people often do large-scale terrible things.
Perhaps some people would think it crazy to assume that oxymoronic claims and symbols (e.g., death = life) can facilitate social organizing. Consider, though, that many non-believers do comparable things when Americans publicly venerate their flag, or when they proclaim the importance of their Constitution, the greatest secular document that almost no American reads. If you listen carefully to religious moderates, most of them carefully distinguish between literal truth and their stories of “faith.” With their expressions, their voices, their choice of words, and their compulsion to make their religious claims primarily in the presence of their in-group, they seem to be advertising that they don’t actually “know” that Jesus walked on water in the same way that they know that the sun will come up tomorrow. And if you listen patiently, in the context of a genuine friendship, most believers will plainly tell you that they have serious doubts about the literal truth of the miracles taught by their churches. Believers themselves struggle with the concept of “faith” because they damn-well know how to be skeptical (they are skeptical about most things in their lives), but they viscerally feel that it is somehow important to publicly cling to their articles of faith.
Therefore, viewing religion through my personal heuristic, I don’t feel I’m being “lied” to by religious moderates, even though they are straight-faced telling me absurd things. During such times, believers seem to be giving expression to a deeply ineffable emotional/social need, co-opting language in the process. After all, words can do many things in addition to conveying literal truth. There are many other computational uses of language. See Andy Clark’s “Magic Words: How Language Augments Human Computation.” We can also use words to navigate complex social state spaces. Robin Dunbar makes a convincing argument that even speech that has worthless content–gossip–is critically important for enabling us to navigate complex social spaces. I would extrapolate: even oxymoronic statements (“A virgin had a baby”) can be useful for navigating social spaces. Such statements serve as radar pings, allowing us (by watching facial expressions and responsive conduct, as well as listing to responsive words) to determine who is friend or foe. The words that convey religious “truths” can be important even when they are not literally true. They serve as flags around which believers gather and coordinate. A flag does not intrinsically “mean” anything, but it serves as a locus for coordinating individual people into social groupings that can accomplish far more than individuals working on their own. In my tentative understanding, religious articles of faith have a similar purpose. Such claims, even when nonsensical and even oxymoronic, serve as loci and shibboleths, enabling individuals to work together by giving them tools for testing and navigating loyalty to each other.
It is my assumption that when believers tell me absurd things (such as the claim I’ve heard many times that I will live forever in hell after I’m dead), they are sputtering a platitude at me that, especially in the confines of a religious gatherings, help them to navigate a complex social space. Saying these things allows them to see that I’m not buying that “truth,” and they are broadcasting to other members of their religion that they are loyal to the group by publicly harpooning an infidel.
I find the above ideas to be both tantalizing and calming. To me, it seems implausible that believers are actually fools or that they are playing atheists as fools with their fantastic stories. The explanation for religiosity simply has to be much richer than the version promulgated by the anti-religion atheists. The full scientific explanation might end up needing a causal cocktail, not something singular such as “fear.”
As I suggested at the top, a patient scientific investigation of religion might demonstrate that the creative denial of mortality by believers functions as an evolutionary adaptation. [“Terror Management Theory” offers also offers what I believe to be tantalizing clues. See “Fleeing the body: a terror management perspective on the problem of human corporeality.” by Jamie Goldenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, Jeff Greenberg, and Sheldon Solomon. It was published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 4, No. 3, 200-218 (2000).] What drives believers does appear to be deeply emotional, not abstract or logical. Thus any attempt to persuade would need to be deeply emotional; I suspect that any type of conversion involves establishing one or more social connections. I suspect that it’s a rare day when a person who lives alone starts reading a purported holy book without anyone else around and suddenly converts. On the other hand, conversions are common when one is surrounded by a big group of friendly people who have already converted. And we need to keep in mind that something is not irrational just because it is emotional. Consider also, Robert Wright’s characterization of emotions as “evolution’s executioners.” [From Robert Wright’s, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (1995).]
It is my operating assumption that most believers are not crazy like chronic schizophrenics are crazy, except, perhaps, for even one hour per week on Sunday. The disconnect between atheists and believers might be due to perceptual differences, in addition to emotional drives. This might take a lot of effort for atheists, but imagine believing, really believing, that God is your father, but that he acts like an abusive parent, threatening you with hell if you stop going to church. Maybe that’s how it seems to believers internally and that’s certainly the bizarre story they often seem to be telling atheists (when they warn us of hell).
But what if a critically important social function of religion, one that might have been carefully honed by evolution, is completely rational in this sense? To the extent that I am able to entertain this idea that believers are not generally crazy but, rather, that they are subconsciously striving for something completely rational—attempting to knit the social fabric of their in-group—I am far better prepared to deal with their publicly-proclaimed oxymorons, folded hands and all.
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.
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