Wednesday, January 04, 2006

is religion just one huge mistake?

Sperwer, in a reply to my reply, writes:

If as "Pi tells us ... humans anthropomorphize their surroundings, ascribing human characteristics to the nonhuman, many animals practice 'zoomorphism,' the 'animalizing' of the non-animal," then why isn't the real "moral" of this tale that all this god talk, however pluralistic you want to make it, is all just a massive complex of narcissistic delusions?

Feuerbach made this point a long time ago. I'm not sure that he didn't also make the corollary point that notwithstanding the various ways in which theistic religion in historical fact has contributed to human development, there is no necessary connection between such religion and such development and the accompanying costs of such religions - just in terms of pure numbers exterminated in its name(s) -- far outweighs those benefits. As Sam Harris argues, maybe it's time to chuck the whole bit overboard once and for all - except of course as an object of historical study - the history of errors.

If I recall correctly, Feuerbach's most famous critique of religion (read: theism) was primarily psychological. He felt that God was essentially a repository for all human ideals. By dumping those ideals into the God-construct, one can convince oneself that the ideals are unattainable, which allows eternal frustration to creep into the mix and curdle whatever noble impulses evoked the divine to begin with. Man, forever stymied, is told to strive for what he believes he can never attain.

I think there's a lot of truth to this critique. When you add on the fact that the priestly classes in so many religions tend to act as gatekeepers and wardens who control access to the divine reality, you can see how religion, as a human enterprise, may be poisoned all the way to its roots. It's easy to become cynical about religion.

And I'll grant Sperwer's point that there's no necessary connection between theistic religion and the noble things the adherents of those religions have achieved: it's quite possible to achieve many noble things without ever resorting to religion. Ask any atheist and she'll be happy to list examples of such achievements.

A crucial question is whether humanity can help being religious in some way or other-- in particular, whether theism isn't simply a common, pancultural impulse. Perhaps the impulse is somehow encoded in our genes. I'd love to speculate more on this question (I'm aware of books like The God Gene), but I can't say I've read up on the latest literature.

You might argue that an increasing number of people are nonreligious. I'd agree. My question isn't about raw numbers; it's about proportions. Perhaps it will always be a very small segment of humanity that fully embraces the notion of leaving the religious homestead in search of greener pastures. Given that, even now, over 90% of humanity is arguably theistic in outlook, I'd say a case could be made that theism is the natural outgrowth of the wiring and socializing of human consciousness (let's be clear: this post isn't an attempt to comment on the existence or nonexistence of divine realities). Even purportedly nontheistic or atheistic religious traditions will sprout gods, given enough time. Homo religiosus is a common animal.

So: if we are, to some extent, wired for religion, then calling religion a mistake might be like calling hair a mistake. Love it or hate it, it's gonna happen, and it happens to most people.

While theistic religion has sired both good and ill, it would be incorrect to stop with the claim that the good fruits have no necessary connection to theistic religion. If we're to practice full disclosure, we have to acknowledge more: that the evil done in the name of religion doesn't require religion, either: those evils have no necessary connection to religion, any more than good works done in the name of God do.

Religion is a tool. Science is a tool. Both pursuits have as their goal the rendering-intelligible of the world. Religion has had a much longer time to make a bad name for itself, but science, which has allowed itself to be appropriated by all manner of malevolent interests (corporate, military, cosmetic, etc.), can't claim to have done that much better. The cause of humanity's self-inflicted ills lies far deeper than at the level of "science" and "religion."

But is religion a mistake? I'm not so sure it is. While my own outlook skews heavily toward naturalism and scientific skepticism, I tend to take a more charitable view of religion than Sperwer seems to (to be fair, I shouldn't read too much into what little Sperwer has written). I agree to some extent with the Feuerbachian contention that religion causes alienation, but I know, too, that there's more to religion-- including its theistic strands-- than Feuerbach might have reckoned.

For example, the idea that imperfect humans can attain perfection isn't foreign to Christians; the scriptures make harsh demands of people on the assumption that, with faith and effort, people can in fact meet those demands. Christians are called to be Christs. "Be ye perfect," Jesus said to the masses. One can widen the view and see much the same phenomenon at work in other traditions: the notion that nirvana is samsara, or that tat tvam asi (thou art that; atman is brahman)-- these convictions point to a dimension of spirituality that Feuerbach misses: Man doesn't simply place the divine out of reach and leave it at that. Quite the contrary: Man also sees lowly creation as shot through with the divine-- holiness everywhere, including within himself, sacred and profane as not-two.

While I agree that religion has done incalculable damage, I also tend to think there's a yang for every yin. This implies, to me, that there's more going on in religion than the word "mistake" can account for.



Hecknoman said...

I have heard the claim that almost all people who are unusually successful in life attribute a portion of thier success to 'faith'. It makes me wonder if the mental wiring of the human creature operates in some fashion differently if the individual perceives a higher-order power. For example, might someone who believes that Thor is watching out for him be more inclined to take risks in battle, or that if Ganesh is guiding him he might take more risks at gambling? There is generally a direct correlation between risk taking and business success, for example. There is similarly a correlation between risk-taking and abysmal failure...

People also seem to use the existence of a higher-order power as a way of mitigate undesirable tendencies in themselves, of placing value on themselves above others when there is clearly no (other) evidence of superiority, or of explaining away or coping with the harsh unpleasantness that occasionally reaches out and floors you.

A couple of random questions:
Is there any evidence for the existence of god, gods, similar beings?
Is there any evidence AGAINST the existence of said beings?
Is there any proof or even reason to believe that, assuming the existence of such beings, they would have any interest whatsoever in mankind, let alone a single individual thereof?

Sperwer said...


Thanks for reminding me of the alienation motif in Feuerbach. I'd forgotten that (rather important) part of of his brief against religion, which is odd since I read Feuerbach as part of a course regarding the "early Marx", one of the academic fads of the 60s and early 70s. I was even nuts enough to struggle through F in German. But that was 35 years ago. Interesting, what has stuck with me and waht hasn't.

As for the rest, wells let's start at the end.

Of course, "there's more going on in religion than the word 'mistake' can account for." The same was/is true of Ptolemaic astronomy too. But that astronomy was fundamentally wrong. There neverthless may be individual concepts in it that are correct and/or productive of real knowledge. So, and especially to the extent that it's lasting insights (if any) haven't been incoporated in the current paradigms of Copernician astronomy, it may still be a fit subject of academic historical interest - albeit largely as a catalogue of error. But if one were to rely on it in any practical sense, e.g., charting trajectories for space voyages, one would discover PDQ that is/was FUNDAMENTALLY wrong.

As for the supposed "god gene" and other cognate theories, the most charitable thing that can be said is "unproven". For a roadmap to the field by a not unsympathetic reporter, see John Horgan's "Rational Mysiticism".

There are much more plausible theories for the emergence and persistence of both theistic and other forms of religious belief that demand adherence to both unproven and unprovable metaphysical theories and truly preposterous claims about what happens and is possible in the natural world. They start, as Feuerbach noted, with the fear that we experience in the face of the mystery of existence and its suffering, and proceed through the ways in which those fears and the tentative palliatives forthem are manipulated by organized groups and their leaders, later states and religious-political elites, for their own purposes. The explanatory power of such analyses are generally accepted when we are talking about phenomenon other than religion, e.g., the use of neo-confucian ideology by the nascent Choseon dynasty to transform Korean society from a matriarchal to a patriachal one and to enforce the result - a development that was quite violent and coercive, both in the sense that it used physical force and control over the allocation of natural resources to effect the change - and then use of the educational system to further propagate and preserve the new order, usually also suppressing alternate forms of discourse. The result: massive social amnesia coupled with more or less uncritical acceptance of the dominant social ideology, i.e., what Marx, building on Feuerbach's notion of alienation, labelled "false consciousness"- I don't remember, but maybe F. himself used the term.

And, ah, the tool argument. Ouiji boards and aura-googles are tools too. When I was in university, I knew a granddaughter of the Russian composer Scriabin. She was exotically gorgeous and a big fan of ouiji boards and aura-goggles. I was too while I was interested in getting into her pants. The problem with the tool of religion is that its working is never subject to falsification. Science can be misused, but its misuses are subject to falsification and can be outed, pace "They knew it was Hwang, but it felt so right!"

Sperwer said...

A couple of other thoughts. [I meant to include these earlier, but forgot after I had to rewrite my comment from scratch after I misread the **** code one has to input to post a comment and your blogging program ate my post.]

First, I have no quarrel with your critique of the incompleteness of the picture Feuerbach draws of religion from a sociological or phenomenological perspective. My purpose wasn't to defend him, just to use an idea I first ran across in his work as a point of departure.

More importantly, you say that in the interest of "full disclosure, we have to acknowledge more: that the evil done in the name of religion doesn't require religion, either: those evils have no necessary connection to religion." I agree that there is no logically necessary link between theistic religion and the atrocities that have been perpetrated in the name(s) of the actual exemplars thereof. But that seems spectacularly besides the point, even obtuse. The problem is that the actual exemplars thereof are replete with injunctions - purportedly the word of god himself - to go out and exterminate the unbelievers, heretics, etc., etc. If anyone wants to pass that -- and the millions killed over the ages in the name of [name your deity] -- off as simply a matter of "ying and yang", then perhaps you'll also pardon my not responding to the bleating when the sword of islam comes for them.

Kevin Kim said...

Too many points to address in these comments!! Let's try the Unsatisfactorily Short Version:

Tam Gu Ja and Sperwer re: religious wiring--

I can think of biological and psychological reasons for religious behavior, too. My own feeling is that the brain's pattern-recognition abilities go overboard and often create something when they fail to discern anything. E.g., seeing faces in clouds, or the Virgin Mary in the burn pattern of a piece of toast. These patterns are culturally conditioned, too, which is why Hindus don't see Mary in toast.

Tam Gu Ja re: evidence/proof

The sticky epistemological question! What, exactly, are "evidence" and "proof"? I consider biological evolution to be a proven fact of physical existence; others look at the same evidence and conclude otherwise. I think the mind arises epiphenomenally from matter and that functionalist theories of mind have merit; others vehemently deny this. I fear we're doomed never to arrive at universally agreed-upon answers to any of the really important questions. We can't even agree on what would constitute evidence in support of our arguments.

Sperwer re: religion

I think it's simplistic to pass black/white judgment on religion. I'm also confused by what you're arguing. At first, you were saying that there's no logical connection between religion and the good fruits that bloom in its name. I agreed, and added that the same goes for the connection between religion and the bad fruits. Your reply, above, seems to be saying, "Oh, come on, Kevin-- there might not be a logical connection, but there's a huge historical connection (i.e., via scriptural injunctions) between religion and the atrocities committed in its name."

And there's the rub: historical connections are less impressive than logical ones. Logical connections, at least, can establish that there's something inevitable about the move from Cause A to Effect B. If we can establish that evil acts in the name of religion are necessarily sourced in religion itself, we can claim that religion is fundamentally flawed and should be done away with. If, however, we deny any logical connection from the outset, then no amount of nastiness associated with religion will serve as evidence that religion itself is the problem. That nastiness might alert us to the need to improve religion, but by no means does it imply we should get rid of religion entirely.

But let's go back to the "historical connection" argument. If it's true that religion and its atrocities bear a long and deep historical connection-- and I think you're right to contend the above, because the evidence is undeniable-- we still can't condemn religion by that route. Why? Because the untold number of undocumented kindnesses performed in the name of religion over the millennia also amount to a huge historical connection between religion and its good fruits.

I'll never deny that religion is the source (whether logically or historically) of a shamefully huge number of evil, abhorrent events. I'm merely making the obvious point that "religion" is a label for a human phenomenon that is so vastly complex and ill-understood that it would be hilariously facile simply to condemn "it" (as if it were a solitary, monolithic "it") outright in a single, sweeping judgment. So I reject any argument that renders in black and white what is actually quite Technicolored.

As for the sword of Islam... the black-and-white view won't beat this problem, either. Absolutism is brittle-- it breaks instead of bending. Islam as a whole will discover this in time.


Sperwer said...

"If it's true that religion and its atrocities bear a long and deep historical connection-- and I think you're right to contend the above, because the evidence is undeniable-- we still can't condemn religion by that route. Why? Because the untold number of undocumented kindnesses performed in the name of religion over the millennia also amount to a huge historical connection between religion and its good fruits."

Why not? We don't let murderers off the hook just because they occasionally helped old ladies cross the street. The point is that you don't need to demonstrate the logical connection between the theistic religions we know and love and murder to condemn them for the murders they have committed and by their scriptures condone and authorize. Whether one could confabulate one that didn't inlcude these deficiencies might be an interesting exercise, but then of course there's still the problem of proof.

Kevin Kim said...


I'd have to agree: condemn away! I happily join in the condemnation: the various religions have much to answer for. But condemnation isn't the same as advocating the abandonment and/or elimination of religion.

So perhaps therein lies our impasse: you see religion as a horse with a broken leg, in need of shooting. I see it as that same horse, but feel it can be rehabilitated. For me, that's one of the main reasons why I continue to chip away at exclusivism: it's an attitude (sourced in the scriptures you're referring to) that has no place in the 21st century.


Sperwer said...

How do you "chip away" at the divinely-mandated exclusivism of Judaism, Christinaity, Islam, etc., etc. By their own terms, it's all or nothing.

Kevin Kim said...


I'm not sure, but you may be assuming that (theistic) religions are reducible to their scriptures. If so, I'd disagree. In my opinion, all religions are as they are practiced-- nothing more, nothing less. They aren't "inherently" one thing or another-- not inherently violent, or inherently intolerant, or inherently scripture-beholden.

Scriptures are infinitely interpretable, and I think one of the best things we can do is encourage interpretations that lead to truly charitable, compassionate action, away from violence and intolerance.

Religious exclusivism often relies on "strict constructionist" views of scripture. Exclusivism is still the prevalent orientation in all the major religious traditions, including the most tolerant and ecumenical. This is unfortunate, but not unchangeable. And thus I "chip away."

We have to have faith, man! "...that the universe will unfold as it should," as Mr. Spock said in "Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country."


Sperwer said...


I'm not assuming that they are reducible to thier scriptures, simply taking them on their own terms to the effect that their bases are in their scriptures. And, as you say, notwithstanding various heterdox tendencies, "exclusivism is still the prevalent orientation in all the major religious traditions, including the most tolerant and ecumenical." Moroever, if you trash the scriptures, then you are in effect also trashing the truth claims of these religions. And then, there's not much left of them.

Kevin Kim said...


True enough. I don't think trashing the scriptures is called for, though; compassionate reinterpretation is good enough for me. Whether the more radical reinterpretations will ever prove acceptable to "the fat part of the bell curve," as opposed to just the theologically liberal fringe, is another matter.

One can always hope, right? Hope is a cardinal Christian virtue.


Sperwer said...

I'll try to still respect you in the morning. ;))