Sunday, October 26, 2008

'Religion'

John Wilkins points to this essay by Pascal Boyer on religion as a natural phenomenon. It's quite an interesting essay, although to some extent I have the same issues with it that Razib does: 'religion' is not a univocal term, nor (I would say) even a very useful one. It used to have a very clear use; it was a moral virtue, i.e., a disposition relating to will, allied to justice, in which one attempts to pay due honor to the divine. It was a matter of being disposed to a certain sort of stable practice. As such it would make little sense to talk of particular beliefs, for instance, as 'religious', except in the loose sense that they might have something to do with the performance of religious actions (which would cast a very wide net indeed); institutions would be 'religious' only in the sense that they were in some way specially devoted to this sort of practice (as in the phrase 'religious orders', which are bound by special vows to certain features of a life devoted to religious practice); and so on and so forth. But as time has gone on the term has bloated to massive scope, so that the only thing that keeps it from being purely useless is the fact that we associate certain things with it as paradigmatic examples. Ande ven these are quite diverse: beliefs, practices, feelings, and more are all jumbled together. Thus I don't think there is any sort of generalization about 'religion' that will stand serious examination, although (of course) there are many sorts of generalization that are true of particular things that we might call 'religious'. Talking about 'religion' without any clarification is like talking about 'respectability' or 'custom' without any clarification; it's an extraordinarily sloppy mental habit that we should all fight.

I think it's also important to recognize (and tends to be overlooked by people who favor the claim that religion will always be with us) that this doesn't automatically mean that the sort of 'religion' (however it is understood in context) that we're stuck with is a good thing. There are plenty of things that appear to be 'always with us' that are not good: slavery, for instance, which goes on every day even in countries like the United States. And there are certainly plenty of things that go by the name 'religion' that, we can all agree, are hard to stamp out and are dubious by their very nature. What is needed, here as elsewhere, is clear-headed rational thought, not people jumping in and trying to push the conclusion to one that they like.

It's interesting reading some of the comments to the Evolving Thoughts post, though; to take just one for-instance, some of the comments bring home clearly just how far a certain type of atheist is willing to go toward simply rigging the argument from the get-go in favor of his preferred conclusion. Of course religion (left undefined, of course) will be stamped out, they say, of course it's thoroughly superfluous and due entirely to irrationality; and to support it they will give some extraordinarily implausible analogy, or cherry-pick examples, or some other absurdity. It's a common enough failing, of course; but it's salutary to be reminded (since most* atheists will not remember themselves) that atheists are not immune to it.

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* I say 'most' because there are some thoughtful exceptions. One of the most misquoted passages on this sort of subject that I've come across is Richard Lewontin's "divine foot in the door" passage:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.


I have seen this quoted as if Lewontin were giving his own view of materialism here; but, of course, he is not. He is reviewing Carl Sagan, and his point is not that this is the way materialism really is, but that this is how Sagan argues against 'religious' views -- and that this type of argument is so indiscriminate that it would be extremely difficult to defend, to the standard of argument to which Sagan holds such views, even Sagan's own materialism against it. All the charges Sagan brings against religion and the like are charges that can be (and have been) brought against science and materialism. And so when we appreciate just how much effort has to be put into arguing against this type of argument, regardless of the position against which it is applied, we realize that the deployment of this argument against a position tells us very little about whether that position is rational or not; it's the kind of argument that even a moderately clever sophist can easily deploy against any position, thus tangling up proponents of that position in endless slippery little quibbles. Or in other words, Lewontin's argument is not that this is what materialism is, and certainly not what his own materialist position is, but that materialists should see the futility of trying to rig the argument in their favor by using reasoning like this (whatever truth it may contain) against the positions they oppose. It's the type of argument people use to rig any argument in favor of any position they support.

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