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what can we learn from religion?

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atheists

 

Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises, Covenants and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist.

John Locke, ‘A letter concerning toleration’, 1689

In my last post I referred to some aspects of religious belief that I think are worth focusing on if we want to get past the rational/irrational, or even the true/false debates. Alain de Botton created quite a stir recently when he claimed that arguments about the truth/falsity of religion were boring and without much value – or something like that. Typically, I both agree and disagree. There are essential empirical questions at stake, as I argued in my critique of Stephen Jay Gould here, but they’re hardly key to getting a handle on religion’s enormous popularity and endurance. That requires a deeper understanding of the psychological underpinnings of religious belief.

First, I’ve already written of the fact that, for all very young children, adults are supernatural beings. They’ve yet to learn about human mortality and limitations. They certainly learn quickly about their own pain and discomfort, but it comes as a shock when they first observe that all these competent, powerful, protective giants can be hurt, angry and frustrated just like them. These findings should hardly surprise us – children at this stage are entirely dependent on adults for their survival. These adults, they observe, can throw them up in the air and hopefully catch them, they can walk across a room in three seconds flat, they can transport them by car or plane to a completely different world, they’re not afraid of anything, and they miraculously provide all sustenance and succour.

While non-believers mostly understand such basic childhood beliefs, many are highly impatient of those who haven’t, at an appropriate age, abandoned this ‘theory of mind’ and replaced it with a more rational or sophisticated scientific worldview. The response of many psychologists in the field would be that, yes, we do change, but the idea of the supernatural, of transcending the usual limitations, has a long, lingering effect. The popularity of fairies, Harry Potter and Spiderman, which take us through early childhood into adolescence and beyond, attests to this. It’s worth noting that the nerdiest atheists are avid Trekkies and Whovians.

But none of this is really disturbing or unhealthy in the way that religious belief seems to be in the eyes of many non-believers – such as myself. The world’s most secular polities – in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and in many European countries, are also the most law-abiding, secure and contented, as countless surveys show. As a regular dipper into history, I can’t help but note that social life in god-obsessed pre-Enlightenment Europe was far more volatile, cruel and corrupt than it is today in the era of democracy, human rights and secularism. Locke’s remarks above, have been throughly refuted by modern experience – though I suspect this is due to having a more regularised legal framework and a functioning police force than to the greater moral virtue of non-believers.

So for many of us, the point is not to understand religion, but to change it. Or rather, to neutralise it by understanding it and then applying that understanding within a more secular framework. For example, one of the themes of the religious is that you can’t be good without god x, y or z. Atheists rarely concede that theists might have a point here. The stock response is a personal one ‘I don’t need a supernatural fantasy-figure to frighten me into being good, I’m good because I have respect for others and for my environment’, etc. Psychological study, however, tells us a different story.

The Lebanese-born social psychologist Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia, points out that many of the gods of small societies have little interest in morality. Instead, ‘being good’ in these small societies is enforced by their very size, and their inescapability. Kin altruism and reciprocity, being the subject of gossip, the fear of ostracism, these are what keep society members on the right track. As numbers increase, though, a sense of anonymity engenders a greater tendency towards cheating and self-serving behaviours. Studies show that even wearing dark glasses, like the Tontons Macoutes, makes it easier to engage in anti-social behaviour. People behave much better when watched, by an audience, by a camera, and even by a large drawing of an eye in the corner of a shop.

The idea that non-believers can be ‘tricked’ into behaving better by the picture of an eye watching them should make us think again, not about gods, but about being watched. And about how we still over-determine for agency in our thinking. Civil libertarians get their backs up about CC-TV cameras on every street corner, but there’s no doubt they’ve been a success in catching robbers and muggers and king-hitters in the act, or just before or after. Even those of us with no urge to steal or who, like me, have left that urge behind long ago, tend to notice when a shop does or doesn’t feature an electronic scanning device, and if they’re like me they’ll wonder about the shop’s vulnerability or otherwise, and the trustworthiness or desperation of the customers around them. As to the painted eye, I presume it doesn’t have the deterrent effect of cameras and scanners, but the fact that it works at all should make us think again about our basic beliefs. Or does it only work on the religious?

That was a joke.

So how do more secular societies utilise the idea that someone knowing if you’ve been bad or good makes for a more moral, or at least law-abiding society? Well, it appears from the statistics that either they’ve already done so, or they’ve found other ways of being good. I suspect it’s been a complex mix of substitute gods, comprehensive education and community expectations. Large scale society has naturally subdivided into smaller groups based on family, business, sport, academic or professional interest and so on, so the age-old stabilisers of kinship, reciprocity and reputation within the group are still there, and these are bolstered by a greater set of ‘watched’ networks. Trade and travel, international relations, the internet, all of these things are always in process of being regulated to reflect community concepts of fairness. We are our own Big Brother (another supernatural agent). Modern liberal education teaches kids from an early age about human rights and environmental responsibility, so much so that they’re often happy to lecture their parents about it. The Freudian concept of the superego is a kind of internalised supernatural parental figure, finger-wagging at us during our weaker moments. The declaration of human rights, accepted by most countries today, though criticised as artificial and without teeth, surely presents a better framework for moral behaviour in the modern world than the often obscure and contradictory stories and proverbs found in the Bible and other religious texts.    In short, there are many ways we’ve worked out for behaving well and generally flourishing in a secular society.

So I’m basically saying there isn’t much we can learn from religion, with respect to moral policing, that we haven’t learned already. But what about community and social bonding? In the USA and in other highly religious societies, the populace seems to be very united in its religion – especially against the irreligious. Some non-believers are concerned to replicate religion’s success in this area, and I’ve heard that there’s an atheist church, or I think they call it an atheist assembly – meeting on Sunday – somewhere in my area. I’m not particularly inclined to attend. Non-believers don’t necessarily have much in common apart from a lack of interest in religion, and I’m wary of in-group thinking anyway. I’m wary of just the kind of bonding above-mentioned, a bonding that might depend upon mutual congratulations and mocking or belittling, or despising, believers.

Non-believers are of course no less community-minded than the religious. Business, sporting, scientific and small-town communities, these attract us as social animals regardless of our views on the supernatural, and I don’t think we need a top-down ‘alternative’ to religious congregations or community spirit as advocated by de Botton.

Many of the religious point out that they’re more involved in charitable works than selfish unbelievers. Where are the atheist alternatives to Centacare and Anglicare, the welfare and social services arms of the Catholic and Anglican denominations? But these organisations have built up their considerable infrastructure and expertise under extremely favourable tax circumstances which have been a part of Australia’s religious history for a couple of centuries, so they’re always more favourably placed to win government and other contracts for social and educational services. I’ve experienced personally the frustrations of humanist organisations trying to attain the same tax-exempt status for charitable purposes. They’re not given a look-in. Nevertheless there are many powerful and effective NGOs such as Oxfam and MSF, and important human rights bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose impetus comes directly from the secular human rights movement.

I would also argue, as a former employee of Centacare (as an educator) and of Anglicare  (as a foster-carer) that one result of their having cornered so much of the education and social services market is that they’ve become more secularised. They no longer require their workers to share their supernatural beliefs, and this has enabled them to reach a wider market which they’ve been able to expand largely by downplaying or eliminating the proselytising. I’ve never heard any god-talk from Centacare or Anglicare employers, and this would surely not have been the case fifty years ago. It’s the same in Catholic schools I suspect, with so many non-Catholics sending their kids there due to doubts about under-funded state schools.

This is all to the good, as too-exclusive Christian or religious communities – as well as non-religious communities – lead to us-them problems. We need to be secure in our position on the supernatural without being dismissive.

So, what in the end do we have to learn from religion? My answer, frankly, is nothing much. We have far more to learn from history and from clear-minded examination of the evidence we uncover about ourselves and our fellow organisms in this shared biosphere.

 

 

 

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Written by stewart henderson

April 25, 2014 at 8:16 am

One Response

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  1. Like++ Very well said.

    myatheistlife

    April 25, 2014 at 9:00 am


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