Tuesday, April 26, 2016

10. Religion is like Football

Almost done with Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind. I've blogged on:

1. Introduction
2. Intuitive Dogs and Rational Tails
3. Elephants Rule
4. Three Domains of Morality
5. Taste Buds of the Righteous Mind
6. The Moral Foundations of Politics
7. The Conservative Advantage
8. Morality an Evolutionary Advantage
9. The "Chimp to Bee" Switch

The second to last chapter, chapter 11 is titled, "Religion is a Team Sport."

1. Haidt's basic claim in this chapter is that religion has played and continues to play a positive role in human society. He connects it to the "hive switch" that helps us to "suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible" (314). Particularly enjoyable in the chapter was his roasting of the New Atheists (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens).

2. A good bit of the chapter, as many of the chapters, is evolutionary debate. So Dawkins and others basically see religion as an evolutionary accident and misfire. They see it as a parasite of evolution, a "time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking" waste of human energy. To him it's "anti-factual, counterproductive" and full of fantasies. So Dawkins, tell us what you really think.

The problem with the four horseman of new atheism is that their analysis focuses on lone believers and it does so from an almost purely cognitive perspective. Unlike Durkheim, these thinkers have failed to see the reality of "social facts." Here are some of Haidt's responses:
  • "Trying to understand the persistence and passion of religion by studying beliefs about God is like trying to understand the persistence and passion of college football by studying the movements of the ball. You've got to broaden the inquiry" (290).
  • "The function of those beliefs and practices is ultimately to create a community. Often our beliefs are post hoc constructions designed to justify what we've just done, or to support the groups we belong to."
Let me just say how completely obvious this is and has long been to me. Christians who think it's all about getting our ideas straight so our lives can follow suit are so far off it's embarrassing, and the atheists who have tried to dismiss religion on this basis look just as stupid.

In Haidt's language, it is not believing that leads to doing, but belonging that leads to both believing and doing. This is sometimes just as true of scholarship, unfortunately, as it is of other thinking. Much of the stuff in New Testament studies right now is little more than intelligent, sentimental self-justification.

3.  In the middle of this chapter, Haidt presents three evolutionary models. The first is that of Dawkins and the new atheists. They see morality as having evolved in a two step process: a) hypersensitive agency detective devices helped animals detect the presence of potentially dangerous "agents" in their midst, like predators wanting to eat them. So we see faces in clouds but we don't see clouds in faces. Accordingly, we see gods in the thunder.

The second step for Dawkins is then b) cultural evolution. The most interesting god stories win. Dawkins and others see these stories as parasitic. Religions for him are like viruses.

A second evolutionary perspective recognizes that religion helped homo sapiens survive but denies any genetic component to it. Atran and Henrich found that communities with a religious component survived better than "secular" communes in the nineteenth century, and irrational requirements only helped them survive longer (like prohibitions on dancing and drinking). This is because religion makes groups more cohesive and cooperative.

"Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice" (299). "Gods really do help groups cohere, succeed, and outcompete other groups."

Haidt goes one step further. He suggests that our genes may actually contribute to our religiousness as a species, even with genetic developments that have taken place in the last 10,000 years. Accordingly, "we cannot expect people to abandon religion so easily" as the new atheists may think (307).

4. He goes on to make other claims on the basis of research as the chapter ends. "Putnam and Campbell found that the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board" (310). "Religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans." How about this quote: "The highest levels of wealth, therefore, would be created when religious people get to play a trust game with other religious people" (309).

"It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing" (311).

Haidt suggests that it remains to be seen whether a secular world will economically prosper. Atheistic societies "are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources... into offspring" (313). "Gods were helpful in creating moral matrices within which Glauconian creatures have strong incentives to conform." He has an aside on terrorism, arguing that religion is only a handmaiden to nationalism as a cause in such cases. Group fervor is the primary force, which religion only reinforcing it. In this claim, again, he seems to be stating the bloody obvious.

5. He finally gets to a definition of a moral system: "interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible" (314). He is being descriptive here. Virtue ethics, he argues, fits human nature best as an ethical approach in terms of how we are hard wired (versus utilitarianism or deontology).

However, if this is a descriptive definition, he suggests Durkheimian utilitarianism as the best system for a society, a sort of "rule" utilitarianism that seeks the greatest benefit for a society as a whole, including its minorities. Meanwhile, any effort to define morality only by isolating a few (Western) issues like "justice, rights, and welfare" is bound to go parochial (315).

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