Sunday, January 02, 2005

On the Persistence of Religion, part I

I recently saw The Polar Express (in IMAX 3D, which well worth the extra ticket price). Although I generally liked the movie, I was a bit disturbed that it fairly overt message that advocated that merits of faith over reason. As someone who is convinced that faith can easily lead one to perils and who considers reason one of the pinnacle achievements of the human species, I found myself more than a little bothered by the movie's central message. As I left the theater, I found myself considering an essay on the subject.

The first idea I had was to write a snarky little piece that I was going to call "The Three Santas". I was going to suggest that there are three kinds of Santa belief. Some people believe in a literal Santa who resides up in the North Pole using a labor force of elves to build toys for deserving boys and girls (and, presumably, to mine coal for the bad ones) which are then dispensed on Christmas Eve via the deployment of transonic reindeer. I was then going to suggest that other people believe in a Santa Clause that is more metaphorical. Rather than a literal, flesh and blood entity, this liberalized version would be more of a totem to represent the good aspects of people. In this view, Santa would still have a reality, but it would be the reality described in the "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa" essay. Finally, there would be those who would insist that Santa is a fiction and that no amount of warm metaphoricalization or wishful faithfulness would serve to move Santa out of the category of unreal things.

The obvious intention of this essay was draw some rather unsubtle comparisons to the kinds of religious beliefs that people have, all the way from fundamentalist literalism, through the "spiritualism" of more liberal theologies and, finally, to atheism. I did not, however, write that essay. Even as I was drafting it in my mind, I found that it simply did not ring true. The more I thought about it, the less I became convinced that belief in gods is substantially the same and belief in Santa. By that, I do not mean to say that I have come to believe that God, unlike Santa, is real. If you are hoping that this is the essay where I finally renounce my own atheism, I must disappoint you. I remain an unbeliever. However, beyond the question of whether or not there are any gods (and I won't pretend that I have the skills to settle that matter) is the question of how and why we believe as we do.

There are two primary things that distinguish religious beliefs from belief in jolly old elves: persistence. Now, you may suppose that you caught me in a grammatical blunder, but by persistence I mean two different sorts of persistence. There is the personal persistence whereby a belief in maintained over a lifetime and there is cultural persistence whereby a belief (or, more precisely for this discussion, a category of beliefs) persists for historically significant durations.

The first sort – persistence of personal belief – is the most obvious sort of distinction that we can draw between Santa-belief and god-belief. To put it bluntly, the vast majority of people stop believing in Santa at a fairly early age. Although a lot of atheists that god-belief is just as juvenile, the fact remains that the observations and interactions that tend to dissuade most people from believing in Santa are insufficient to do so for religious beliefs. Although there are, indeed, people who grow out of believing in gods, the fact of the matter is that such people are in the minority. Although it may be tempting for someone, such as myself, who doesn't hold with gods to suppose that this simply means that the majority of people are deluded, smug assumptions can not negate the fact that this is a difference and that it ought to be accounted for.

Before we examine the question (and I'll admit, in advance, that I'm not going to promise a solution), I think that we need to consider how people come to stop believing in Santa Clause. Sometimes a child is simply told that Santa doesn't exist and that often suffices to, at the very least, plant the fatal seeds of doubt in the child's mind, especially such a revelation comes from the parents. Typically, though, parents and their community will go to fairly convoluted lengths to try and maintain Santa-belief (at least up to a certain point – I doubt that such belief by a thirteen year old would continue to receive much support). Peer groups are often more influential than parental groups, of course (a fact that often plagues immigrant families struggling to maintain a sense of cultural identity), but many children stop believing in Santa before the rest of their friends do. Beyond that, pointing to peer groups is, itself, question begging. What causes the peer group to shift from endorsing belief to denying belief and why doesn't the same thing happen with religious belief? The observation that children stop believing in Santa can not be used to explain the transition.

We must also note that whether or not a child is told there is no Santa, there must come a point where the child accepts the conclusion. I suspect that most children employ reasoning in reaching that point. Perhaps they note that there seem to be an awful lot of Santas ("Ah, but those are just his helpers," says the community). Perhaps they wonder how Santa manages to deliver toys to kids without chimneys ("His magic isn't limited to chimneys… they just help"). There are a lot of problems with naïve Santa-belief and it is our inquisitive nature to ask them. Yet the same is true of naïve god-belief (I'll leave the question of sophisticated god-belief for another time). What child hasn't wondered whether God could create a rock so heavy that he couldn't lift it, or why it is that bad things happen to good people? For whatever reason, we eventually reach a point where the rationales that justify Santa-belief come to seem like transparent excuses used to shore up an untenable belief. The same, however, does not tend to happen with god-belief. I can assure you that the difference is not in the quality of the answers. Although I have a fair amount of respect of serious theology, the typical sorts of answers advanced by lay theologians is rather dismal (which is typical of philosophical contemplations as a whole).

Again, leaving aside the question of whether or not gods exist, which really is a separate issue, the logic that most people employ to maintain their belief is often riddled with holes. The difference between the problems that confront Santa-belief and god-belief isn't that people tend to find better reasons to believe in god but, rather, that they are more apt to accept reasons to believe in gods. Sometimes, not even that much is required. Most religious traditions (especially the Abrahamic religions that dominate the Western world) make of faith a virtue. One is encouraged to believe in one's god even if one can't think of any good reasons to. Again, this is a point where a lot of atheists are tempted to have smug thoughts concerning the gullibility of the religious; however, I think that such smugness is misplaced. Children are often encouraged to just believe in Santa, too (as emphasized by The Polar Express) but, ultimately, most children find that faith is simply impossible to sustain. Sooner or later skepticism creeps in and once it takes root it becomes impossible to dislodge. In my own case, the crowning proof of Santa's non-existence was an experiment where I told Santa I wanted one thing and my parents another in order to see which gift I would get; however, the very fact that I conducted the experiment indicates that I already was suspicious of the whole Santa story. It is true that people sometimes test their faith (or have it tested for them) but whereas we tend to accept negative evidence for the existence of Santa at face value, people will typically either rationalize or discard equivalent results when it comes to evaluating their gods. As a last resort, many will accept the conjecture that their god isn't willing to be tested -- but who would accept such an excuse on behalf of Santa?

So, what should we propose to explain the discrepancy? Perhaps it may be that Santa just isn't as plausible as god. Even if the rationales used to get past thorny theological conundrums may be typically weak, perhaps the central idea of a god is stronger. I once tried to conduct an informal survey where I asked people how they would behave differently if they could, somehow, be convinced that their god didn't exist. When I posed the question to a Jewish group, one person kindly, but firmly, informed me that I was asking him to consider an impossibility because God was the "ground of all being" and that it would be absurd to suppose that he could be convinced otherwise. Although I've rarely seen this view expressed so poetically, a lot of theists do believe that their god is such an obvious truth that not only does it not require any special effort to accept it, but that it must take a certain effort (indeed, arrogance) to deny it. As an explanation for the persistence of personal belief, though, I find it problematic. If there were one specific god-belief that had this characteristic, it would be one thing, but people tend to be certain of their gods regardless of which gods they believe in. As Robert Heinlein irreverently put it, one man's god is another man's belly-laugh. This undercuts the notion of some inherent plausibility.

I have already raised the notion of communal enforcement of religious belief. As I've noted, Santa belief enjoys communal enforcement as well. Perhaps, though, it isn't as strong. After all, adults don't really believe in Santa and, perhaps, children cue off of this. If there is one constant of childhood it is that children want to become adults (while all too many adults wish they could recapture their childhood). It isn't as though the truth of Santa Clause is a very well kept secret. It may simply be that it's the sort of deception that can only fool children and that the eventual disillusionment is simply a consequence of older children becoming more perceptive of their parents and the world at large. Although I admonished against question begging, is it possible that religion persists through adulthood because adults persist in believing in religion?

One facet of religion that can not be ignored is that it is communal. More exactly, religion tends to be entwined throughout a communities traditions. Birth, rites of adulthood, marriage and death are all traditionally associated with religion. The identification of religion with ones community. This association is exemplified by the phenomenon of Jewish atheists who consider themselves to remain Jews in spite of their atheism because they do not wish to abandon the broader culture that is inextricably associated with the religion of Judaism. One can find similar examples in the community of "lapsed" Catholics (and even more extremely in "Death of God" Catholic theologians).

Unfortunately, these very examples point to a problem with the notion of religion as an extension of communal identity and authority. It is possible for someone to reject God while never the less maintaining a sense of connection to their community. It is true that some religiously identified communities make this more difficult (e.g., the Jehovah's Witness practices of disfellowshipping and the Roman Catholic practice of excommunication). However, even in those cases where apostasy may result in segregation from the community, one could always resort to being a closet atheist… or deciding that the communal bonds aren't worth maintaining.

That said, I do not think that it is a coincidence that most religions have traditions whereby belief is periodically reinforced (e.g., via weekly worship), nor do I think that it is coincidental that religions tend to organize themselves into hierarchical arrangements (regardless of their origins). Many primates (including, certainly, that branch known as Homo sapiens) have a natural tendency to utilize social hierarchies in order to organize and maintain the social structure. We have a natural response to such rankings and tend to confer more automatic respect to a given individual based on how many individuals are below him. If religion were simply a matter of personal preference where people maintained their own convictions without any need for external reinforcement, such arrangements would be redundant. On the other hand, however, we can not ignore the fact that many religious people either choose not to identify would a given religious organization or, conversely, will identify with in name but not in doctrine (which is why heresy and schism are such an issue for established religions).

Ultimately, I suspect that the answer to the question of personal religious persistence does, in fact, require us to examine the second and more enduring form of religious persistence. This is the subject that I will address in the second installment of this essay.

No comments:

what is this?

Tell me when this blog is updated. . .