Monday, May 14, 2007

Absolutism and Religion

Before you read this post, make sure to scroll down and read Big Daddy's argument against Chris Hitchens' new book, "god is not Great." And now, onto my (initial) response to BD's bromide.

First, let's note just how much common ground there is among all of us. Big Daddy, Hitch, and I all agree that religion is Bad with a capital B. I'd go so far as to label it Evil with a capital E, but that sounds too Bush-like, so let's just agree religion is Bad, Very Bad. We three would also like to replace religion with what Big Daddy describes as a "free, civil and rational secular society." Although this position may be favored by the loyal readership of TPV, I think it's safe to say most Americans disagree that religion should be minimized in daily life. So, to agree or concede these points to Hitch results, in my mind, to conceding 99% of his project in "god is not Great."

So where's the beef? Well, Big Daddy's argument is that religion per se is not the problem, but some inchoate "deep and dark" root horror that manifests itself in all sorts of unpleasant forms, including Nazism and Communism. In Big Daddy's view, the unimaginable pain inflicted by these nominally atheist or nationalistic "Absolutist" ideologies is proof that religion is a symptom -- not a cause -- of whatever flaw in our essential character that allows such suffering. The long, dark teatime of the soul invites religious fundamentalist and secular socialist alike.

Hitch anticipates and responds to this argument by essentially claiming that Nazism and Communism essentially became "state religions" that replaced god with Hitler and Marx. But this concedes the very point Big Daddy is cleverly making. If National Socialism and Communism foster quasi-religious fervor among their populations that result in horrors as unspeakable as those permitted in religious societies, then we still haven't addressed why the human soul is so easily corrupted. Nor can we expect the absence of religion have any longterm benefits for mankind, since we should expect some equally evil -- but potentially atheistic or secular -- society to rise in its place.

My response to Big Daddy's argument proceeds from a different direction. In my view, the fact that Nazism and Socialism were so short-lived is evidence of the primary role religion plays in our social ordering. The rise and fall of Hitler can be measured in years, and Marx in decades, but religion is all-pervasive, and has been for the last 2,000 years. There is no doubt that any Absolutist system can -- and will -- inflict great suffering, but let's make no mistake: much of the pain under secular absolutism was the unhappy and unintended byproduct of what many educated people hoped would make for a better world.

In contrast, the difference is that even on its best days, religion seeks to close our minds. If the goal is a "free, rational and civil" society, we three -- Big Daddy, Hitch, me -- must believe it's possible to structure one such that it will avoid absolutism and lead to the Good Life. But the same cannot be said for religion, or for the idea of god, because even when it is at its most tolerant, its most forgiving, its most understanding, religion still demands that we close our minds and refuse to accept evidence that casts doubts or disproves itself. As Big Daddy notes, religion is a closed and exlcusive system, no matter how tolerant or "open" it professes to be. (This, incidentally, is why I find Buddhism nearly as abhorrent as Christianity).

So religion deserves special mention, and special attack. Its continued existence provides virtually nothing of benefit to society, and with over 4,000 years of experimenting with different flavors, we should realize it's not going to taste any better. "Religion poisons everything."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you note, there is a great deal on which we agree. And, apparently, you and I agree that explaining the crimes of National Socialism and Marxist-Leninism as a form of “state religion” is, well, not quite as sharp an argument as one might expect from Hitchens.

However, I (honestly) don’t understand how duration is germane to this discussion. Yes, religion has been around longer than National Socialism and Marxist-Leninism, but there are examples of secular evils throughout history. My assertion is that there is “nothing special” about religion as a causal agent, that, as a species, we are quite capable of doing very nasty things with or without it being in the name of god. Perhaps I’m missing your point?

-- Big Daddy

6:48 PM  
Blogger Jimmimoose said...

I think his point, BD, is that there are similarities between religion and those particular historical social institutions that cause damage, but there's an important distinction between them.

The Nazis and Soviets were attempting to better shape the world around them, they were meant as positive efforts, an active striving towards a better place for us all to live (ostensibly, anyway). They may not have gotten there, but the hope was good.

Religion doesn't allow for that hope, and doesn't want anything to do with that progression. It's a closed system that allows no new information to be entered into the equation, an end-all be-all solution to the problems of humanity. It's limiting nature is restrictive in a way that secular institutions like a political party or philsophy could never be.

At least, that's what I think Benji's saying. My dinner's about ready either way, I'll catch ya!


9:35 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

The Moose is loose! And summarizing my argument nicely. Another way of putting it is that the existence of secular evils is not sufficient to demonstrate that secular society is as inherently evil as religious societies. Indeed, were that the case, I wouldn't be advocating secularism My claim instead is that all religious societies are bad, very bad, and can never be good, because by their very nature they cannot allow for rationality, reason, and science to flourish. D

9:43 PM  
Blogger Nyan said...

Dear friends of science, secularism, and the like. Dean Hammer, (director of the US National Cancer Institute’s Gene Structure and Regulation Unit), says the presence of gene VMAT2 may explain why some people are more religious than others. Whether or not Hammer’s research is entirely accurate is a matter of continued debate. Surely, some people have more of a predisposition towards becoming religious than others. What isn’t clear is how much so.

If, as Hammer’s research suggests, some people are born with a very powerful “god gene” while others are not…, “Houston we have a problem.” Big Daddy’s perspective, “Religious beliefs are … the tendency of our species to desire and cling to dogmas and submit to authority,” (while partially true) isn’t a model likely to make sense of why there are (as Big Daddy says), “The horrors and stupidity of religious beliefs.”

Instead of clinging onto “worn out hypotheses” about the nature of religious beliefs, we should first consider hypotheses based on the process of human evolution. If Hammer is right and some people have the “god gene” we must naturally ask “why.” As you already know Darwin’s research concluded “survival of the fittest” best explains (as of now) the development of particular genes. It’s not surprising if one concludes that VMAT2 helped our ancestors survive.

To argue that—“Religion is Bad, Very Bad”—isn’t entirely helpful in understanding “why” it developed and how it serves humans. Many books have been written about how various religions came to be, so I will skip spending anytime discussing the development of such religions as Mormonism, Islamism, and Buddhism. (On a side note: It is generally a good idea to say something “tends to be bad” or “tends to be good,” otherwise many academics will likely ignore your work altogether if you argue “extreme” positions. Human knowledge is incomplete; most things tend to have a large factor of uncertainty.)

On the surface, religion may look like a “closed system that allows no new information to be entered into the equation,” but under closer examination this statement doesn’t account for the evolution within religions. Religions evolve just like animals. Nearly any science based book about the history of religion(s) will give a plethora of examples supporting this point.

Religion does not “poison everything.” If this statement were true, we should find that (depending on the use of the word “poison”) everything religion interfuses with turns out to be “very bad.” In fact, we don’t find this to be always true. Many (not nearly all) things religions are intertwined with are “very good.” Visit any religious bookstore (in any country) and you will find hundreds, maybe even thousands, of personal transformation stories explaining how the teachings of Joseph Smith, Muhammad, Buddha, and others turned otherwise “very bad” things into “very good” things for them. “Religion poisons some things,” but it certainly doesn’t poison everything.

Big Daddy desires a "free, civil and rational secular society.” So do I. Apparently some of the main differences between him and me are our perspectives on how to get there. Admittedly, my perspectives are incomplete, but I hope you will find them worth considering.

First, if Hammer is right (which according to his research and Darwinism he probably is), the “god gene” is here to stay. This is something we must live with as of right now. (This is not to say that something like genetic engineering couldn’t get rid of it in the future.) You don’t have to fully agree with me, but you should at least seriously consider this as a possibility. If VMAT2 is here to stay, our hopes and dreams of having a “free, civil and rational secular society” are just wishes (not an actual achievable destination).

Second, Darwinism seems to suggest religion helps people survive. If this is true, without an alternative metaphysical structure that provides people with comfort, hope, and mental fulfillment they might unnecessarily suffer. Another way to look at this is if religion really is a Band-Aid for those who need it, what happens if we rip it off? For many (especially older people) religion makes their last 10-20 years or so alive more pleasant. For those in the know, their “invisible friend” doesn’t exist, but who wants to convince them of this and will it help them survive better knowing this? A friend of mine wrote to me:

The power of prayer and faith can heal and bring happiness. The real tragedy is that the people that are helped by this don’t realize that this power is really coming from within.

You may or may not agree with her, but it is a difficult position to adequately defend if you claim that religion is entirely worthless. (Darwinism, experience, personal testimonies, and common sense suggest otherwise.) This is not to say religion is “very good,” it is just to say that it is at least “very good for some people.”

Third, religions evolve just like animals. Many case studies of countries across the world seem to suggest that it is nearly impossible to get rid of major religions. Trying to eradicate the big religions like Mormonism, Islamism, Buddhism, and the like is similar to trying to get rid of Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and company. It is only when McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and others evolve into health food restaurants (or something similar) by public demand (and/or by government demand) that we will no longer recognize them as what they are now. Similarly, we will no longer recognize Mormonism as it is today when it incorporates the scientific process into its belief system (this is just a theoretical example of radical internal change). (Figuratively), it would take something with the size and impact of the asteroid that created the Gulf of Mexico to destroy the major world religions overnight.

“The point of religion is not god; the point is social cohesion. Religions evolved in every surviving culture because those that didn’t develop a religion were destroyed by the others.” - Harlen Campbell

The point is, (the same point I made earlier), “Religion may look like a ‘closed system that allows no new information to be entered into the equation,’ but under closer examination this statement doesn’t account for the evolution within religions.”

So, how do we get to a “free, civil and rational secular society?” Well…

First, the “god gene” is probably here to stay. Which means a certain percentage of the earth’s population will always be religious. Just like a certain percentage of the earth’s population will probably always be fat, drug addicted, or suicidal.

Second, religion helps many people survive. For those who might give up religion, they will need something else to have faith in and to pray for. The belief in Humanism (and the like) alone probably won’t do the trick for most religious people.

Third, religions evolve just like animals. We may never be able to fully destroy religion; it is the foundation of our social development. We most likely need to “evolve it” into something much more consistent with science, humanism, and secular society idealisms (all the while keeping in mind that some people will need something to believe in and/or pray for or to).

2:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent and thoughtful post, nyan.

The “god gene” hypothesis is interesting and we will have to see what comes of it. Even without it, there’s a great deal from comparative ethology and evolutionary theory that is most likely relevant. Even without a “god gene” we have a species that is remarkably curious and finds itself aware of both personal extinction and “the mystery of it all” and trying to make sense of it. And the quote about “group cohesion” is especially relevant.

There is a fairly strong consensus among those who study human evolution that “social relationships” was a major vector in the evolution of the human brain. This makes sense; we are not just social animals for fun – it is the way that a rather flimsy and vulnerable species survived and thrived; and, as we all know first-hand, social relationships are exceedingly complex so that ability is a major selection factor for smarter and more complex brains. Along with this biological baggage comes a tendency (though not nearly as hard-wired as in other species) to form hierarchical social organizations, especially under stress. This makes good Darwinian sense: if you are a social species and the social group is threatened, the last thing you want is self-doubt.

I’m not as pessimistic about what we are stuck with. One of the distinguishing features of our species is that we seem to be adapted to be adaptable (hence our ability to fill in every niche available rather than being adapted to any specific configuration). Also, social evolution has become a stronger vector than biological evolution. Science may not be incompatible with a type of religious or spiritual view of the universe (and most definitely can enhance our sense of wonder and awe), it can and does have a major impact on specific religious beliefs. Christianity had/has a very hard time coming to terms with evolution (having just gotten over heliocentricism) but that clash is due to parallel studies (science was studying how living systems work and the results had implications for religion). Now we are seeing science study specific religious questions. For those holding some specific beliefs, the results aren’t pretty. Archeology has found (conclusively) that much, if not most, of history of Judaism is mythological, which impacts Christianity and Islam as well. Genetic studies have falsified the claim of the Book of Mormon that there was an influx of “lost tribes” from the Middle East into the New World. And the list goes on and on. Impossible to say what will happen eventually and it is a clash that will last longer than we will, but, eventually something’s got to give.

We can only hope that religious leaders and believers have an attitude similar to the Dali Lama. When he was asked, what would you say if science proved that one of the tenants of Buddhism was wrong, he replied, “I would say that Buddhism is wrong.”

-- Big Daddy

7:25 AM  
Blogger John said...

Without faith, how are we left to deal with the mind-crippling realization that humans are a virus on the planet that deserve extermination.

If we are left alone to wallow in self-doubt, our astonishing misery would overwhelm us. We desperately need community, leadership and faith that we're doing the right thing. Religion provides that extremely well (as do cult-of-personality figures like Reagan, Hitler, etc.)

How many kids do your atheist friends have? How many kids do typically religious people have? If your experience is like mine, you can't help but see that secular humanism isn't very good at repopulating itself. Maybe all the well-meaning atheists (like myself) just can't bring themselves to bring more human beings into the world... and when we look around and look at the state of humanity, we put our heads in our hands, weep, and feel like committing suicide.

Evolution makes pretty damn sure that religion will continue to thrive... and that self-doubting, self-isolating critics and iconoclasts suffer a sorry, alcoholic fate.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Question and flippant remark:

1. Nyan, ok with you if I move your post to the main blog (and then respond to it)?

2. The Dalai Lama talks a lot of crap. Here's a synopsis on Buddhism I yanked from

Karma plays out in the Buddhism cycle of rebirth. There are six separate planes into which any living being can be reborn -- three fortunate realms, and three unfortunate realms. Those with favorable, positive karma are reborn into one of the fortunate realms: the realm of demigods, the realm of gods, and the realm of men. While the demigods and gods enjoy gratification unknown to men, they also suffer unceasing jealousy and envy. The realm of man is considered the highest realm of rebirth. Humanity lacks some of the extravagances of the demigods and gods, but is also free from their relentless conflict. Similarly, while inhabitants of the three unfortunate realms -- of animals, ghosts and hell -- suffer untold suffering, the suffering of the realm of man is far less.

Do I really need to "disprove" this nonsense to demonstrate the stupidity of it? The notions of demigods and "realms" are as antithetical to science as is hell, 27 virgins in paradise, and so on. For some reason, people tend to get all mystical with the religions of the east but they are just as foolish as any others.

3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Flippant indeed. Perhaps you missed the point of the quote from the Dali Lama; he was saying that if science proved Buddhism was wrong, he would accept science over Buddhism. Exactly how is that bad, especially in terms of the topic? I would think that we’d appreciate that point of view.

Also, I am not a Buddhist and I am not going to “defend” some of the bizarre versions that have evolved (Tibetan Buddhism being one of the stranger versions, which, I believe, is what the quotation refers to). However, I’m a little annoyed when Hitchens refers to “the god Buddha” and the quotation you cite as being an accurate representation of Buddhism in general.

Buddha denied that he was a god and denied that he had ANY supernatural powers. And he refused to get into metaphysical speculation of the kind your quotation cites.

-- Big Daddy

4:22 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

But the Dalai Lama is clearly full of it -- he (and Buddhists generally) are making claims about the Universe that are either patently false or else unfalsifiable. Hence, he can make the wise-sounding-until-you-really-think-about-it remark about Buddhism that he knows will never come to pass.

I do not profess to be any expert on Buddhism. But certainly many, if not most, Buddhists make claims about the nature of the universe that are grounded in something less than scientific rigor and analysis. (To read the Lama's bizarre take on sex, go here.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Here's Hitchens' attack on the Lama. Good stuff.

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For goodness sakes....

All I did was quote a religious leader who said that he would accept scientific proof over religous dogma and wouldn't it be nice if other religious leaders had a similar view.

-- Big Daddy

7:18 PM  
Blogger John said...

Mythology has a use. Its use is that it contains metaphorical wisdom. Obviously people get all weird about interpreting it literally. This happens in every religion. Anxious people who want to be "good" Christians interpret the Bible literally. This kind of orthodoxy almost always leads to bigotry, hatred, mistrust, etc.

But within every religion, there also seem to be those who see metaphorical wisdom in their particular mythology, seek harmony and peaceful enlightenment, and are not "closed systems" that reject science.

Condemning all religions seems pointless. I gotta agree with Big Daddy... it's not religion per se, it's some sad anxious quality within the human character that seeks orthodoxy within religion.

12:53 PM  
Blogger John said...

PS after reading your link to the Dali Lama's remarks on human sexuality, I didn't find his take "bizzare" at all. Though certainly there are some translation problems. It appears as though he is saying that there are layers of sexuality, and how people embrace it, or try to control it.

He suggests (I think accurately) that Western society pushes and distorts sexuality through the media so much that it becomes intermingled with violence and anger. The Dali Lama makes the point that maybe a gentler, kinder approach to sexual union is better.

I don't think he is saying that HE believes that homosexuality is unnatural and wrong, so much as that there are different types of people who see it that way, and others who see any sexuality at all as forbidden.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Nyan said...

Welcome to another day that cosmic chance has made possible (along with many other things, I’m relatively sure, we know nothing about).

Nice posts “Big Daddy,” Ben, and John. All of you are very brilliant.

(“Big Daddy,” thank you for the nice comments.)

(Ben you are always welcome to do whatever you’d like with any of my last posts, you can even delete them if they’re too ridiculous.)

(John) I tend to agree with you that atheists generally seem have fewer children than religious folks. But, the good news is that atheists and religious fundamentalists are genetically very similar. Sure it’s provable that some people are more prone than others to be religious, but “good ideas” are usually passed on to future generations through various media forms that can be preserved and mass produced (i.e. scrolls, books, videos, blogs, etc.). So, you do not need offspring to pass on your intelligence to future generations. In fact, having children would likely deprive you of the actual ‘massive amount of time’ needed in order for you to develop “world-changing-ideas.” Diotima told Socrates many times… (Paraphrasing his mentor), “intelligent men live on through there works for thousands of years; while ignorant men ‘vainly’ attempt to live on through their children, but ultimately end up forgotten by our species.”

(Ben) The Dalai Lama does talk a lot of “crap.” I’m sure you already know the “four fundamental truths,” (#1. Everything is a form of suffering. #2. Suffering is caused by our desires. #3. To desire is to suffer. #4. The way to avoid as much suffering as possible is to follow the “eightfold path.”), which are all ‘unscientific.’

Like the Islamic preacher Dr. Zakir Naik who praises science in order to support the legitimacy of the Koran, the Dalai Lama apparently got the same message as Dr. Naik that he must praise science in order to support the legitimacy of Buddhism. Because most of science is solidly supported, most religious leaders claim that ‘if science proved their religion to be wrong they would immediately say their religion is wrong.’ But, like Dr. Naik and the Dalai Lama, most religious leaders claim that science “actually perfectly proves their religion to be true.”

My dear friend Casey Meyering has this to say about religious people (specifically those of the Christian faith):

First, whatever you do, don't be pugilistic or aggressive with the Christian. This will only hurt your cause. Christians want to be attacked. They want to be martyred. Their staunch willingness to fight and die for what they believe is perhaps one of the greatest factors in their survival. The more you confront their irrationalities, the more they will embrace them. In fact, one of the greatest feelings a fundamentalist Christian can experience is seeing a rational person's confounded looks in response to their viciously circular predicates of belief. This is a very important point that we must embrace. The feeling of transcendent wisdom that comes over them is similar to what you and I feel when we try to explain calculus to a layman. We know it makes no sense to them, but we continue in our vain attempt to bestow our knowledge to them, meanwhile reveling in our feelings of superior intellect.

Since most Christians can not experience this through building an integrated, coherent worldview that is accessible to logic and reason, and amendable through the same, they take the greatest shortcut of all time. They embrace doublespeak. They find wisdom in ignorance. To put it simply, they find euphoric bliss in knowing nothing about the world. They are simply unwilling, or unable to use their logical faculties to examine what is at the core of their belief. They are unable because there is nothing there, and unwilling because they are afraid of coming to terms with this fact.

Meyering’s explanation for why Christians embrace ignorance and only use “scientific-half-truths” for their own ends can also be used to explain why the people of Islam, Buddhism, and other religions do the same. Even though the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) once said, “We must conduct research and then accept the results. If they don't stand up to experimentation, Buddha's own words must be rejected,” we can assume (as Meyering suggests) it’s only a form of doublespeak. The Dalai Lama and Dr. Zaik are seemingly just as hypocritical and ignorant as most Christians.

To wrap up this post about the hypocrisy found in all religions (including Buddhism), I ask you to please consider the following quote by Casey Meyering:

Becoming an atheist is a huge change for someone. It requires a level of intellectual and rational courage that the vast majority … [is] simply not used to. It requires addressing major philosophical vacancies that arise from letting go of a belief…. One must replace the fellowship that will now be missing from life, the aesthetic symmetry of life after death, the feeling of completeness that comes from such a worldview, and other important things. Also the de-converted must confront the fact that building a base of knowledge takes time and effort.

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