Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Too Much Religion?

A few days ago in the Wall Street Journal Alan Jacobs had an interesting piece where he raised the question about how much of a role religion really plays in all that is good and bad in our world. Jacobs is a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois and a self-described serious Christian. Yet he says:
The books I read, the food I eat, the music I listen to, my hobbies and interests, the thoughts that occupy my mind throughout the greater part of every day -- these are, if truth be told, far less indebted to my Christianity than to my status as a middle-aged, middle-class American man.
He wonders if religion really is the powerful force it is cracked up to be by believers and detracters alike. He wonders, too, if the new athiests, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., aren't over-eager to accect at face value claims by religious people that religion motives cause them to do the good or, mostly, evil they do:

Card-carrying members of the intelligentsia like Mr. Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would surely be doubtful, even incredulous, if a politician who had illegally seized power claimed that his motives for doing so were purely patriotic; or if a CEO of a drug company explained a sudden drop in prices by professing her undying compassion for those unable to afford her company's products. Discerning a difference between people's professed aims and their real aims is just what intellectuals do.

Yet when someone does something nasty and claims to have done it in the name of religion, our leading atheists suddenly become paragons of credulity: If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It's not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it?

And while we're at it, the thinking continues, let's not look too closely at the many other statements by Osama that link his program to ethnic rather than religious shame -- to his sense that the Arab people have declined in the world and need to have their pride and power restored. After all, surely if religious sentiment were erased from the world, ethnic prejudice would instantly evaporate as well -- wouldn't it? Mr. Dawkins certainly thinks so: He is on record as saying that if we simply ceased to teach religion to our children we would soon have "a paradise on earth."

I think the definition of sarcasm can be found somewhere in this post. But the question Jacobs raises is a good one: how important is religion, really, as a motivating factor in our lives? As someone who also takes his religion seriously, I can confess with Jacobs that religion is still only one of many personal and social factors that influences my life moment by moment. I am not simply chanelling the unfiltered voice of God in my life. At any given moment I am being influenced by a multitude of internal and external "voices," only some of which I am aware of.

It is also the case with Jewish and Christian scriptures, and I would assume with the Qur'an too although I don't know it as well, that you can find there justification for doing good deeds or bad deeds. The scriptures mirror the human condition because they were written by humans, although they attribute to God the source of their inspiration. But what we get out of them and what we do with them is influenced by our psyche, our genetics, our upbringing, our social circumstances, and a host of other factors. Jacobs is right to suggest that taking religion out of the equation would hardly lead to nirvana.

Jacobs' post drew a thoughtful reply from razib at the blog Gene Expression. Razib fleshes out Jacobs' post by making several additional points. First, attributing religious motivations to actions is difficult because it isn't easy to define what we mean by religion. While the new athiests think belief in God is silly, it is the religious attributes of zeal and unquestioning devotion and acts of bigotry and prejudice that really get them riled. Yet these are religious attributes shared by Nazis and godless Communists and some modern-day atheists. We are all religious in one manner or another.

His second point is that we really don't know enough about ourselves and our motivations to simply claim religion or any other factor as a primary cause:
Human psychology is complex, and our decision making process is not driven by a unitary rational agent. Most importantly, we do not have easy access to our own subconscious mental processes which shape the course of our decisions, though we freely manufacture explanations which give us a sense of the reasoning behind our decisions.
His third point is that the same religious tradition can lead to vastly different implementations of faith and practice among different groups of followers at the same time or over different periods of history. This suggests, again, that there is much more at work here than mere religion. Personal and social factors and our moment in history influence our take on religious texts.

Finally, he thinks that if religion broadly defined has one "purpose" that crosses sectarian and theological divides, it is the way it helps us define ourselves as part of a common group:
...The details of the hundreds of commandments which Orthodox Jews follow and the multitudinous interpretations of the implementation of these commandments is less important than the fact that the ritual lifestyle entails separation from those who do not adhere to said rituals. The details of the Nicene Creed are less important than the fact that some accept it, and some do not.

The ingroup-outgroup dynamics in world religions lead to the emergence of fictive kinship. Anthropologists and sociologists have done a great deal of work about the functional importance of religious groups for individuals in terms of generating social networks and undergirding civil society. Social networks and the emergence of civil society are not necessarily features of religion, but religion is sufficient to generate both, so its utility is rather clear.
Point(s) taken. I get up on Sunday morning and go to the church of my choosing because I want to be among people who share the same basic values. Those values are important to me; they influence the way I use my time, spend my money, and think about a host of problems and issues at home and in the world. And yet... why do I really do the things I do? There are so many other factors besides the values that I have chosen to internalize that play a role in my thinking and decision-making. It is a vast over-simplification to attribute to religion alone the good or bad I do.

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