Sunday, January 09, 2005

On The Persistence of Religion, part II

This is the second part of a multi-part essay on the persistence of religion. In the previous installment of the essay, I raised the question of the persistence of religion in individuals and sought to demonstrate that this persistence was not, as many unbelievers would like to think, genuinely akin to belief in such entities as Santa Clause. I explored a number of possibilities to account for the difference, without reaching any conclusions, and ended by suggesting that in order to explain the individual persistence of religion, we may need to consider its cultural persistence.

The cognitive scientist Donald E. Brown has been compiling a list of human universals. The list includes such entries as the existence of taboos, body adornment, nouns, and units of time. The reason that lists such as Dr. Brown's are important is that human cultures have such wide degrees of variation between them that it is often tempting to think that every element of human culture is an arbitrary development that is the product of historical contingencies. Some have gone so far as to suggest that there is no such thing as human nature and that we are only blank slates which are written upon by our various cultures (see Pinker's The Blank Slate for an eloquent refutation of this theory). The identification of human universal's cuts through the cultural "noise" in order to reveal the core elements of our shared humanity.

It should come as no surprise that religious beliefs are a member of Brown's list. Religion is, indeed, a human norm. That said, we must be cautious to use the term "norm" in its generic sense without assigning emotional or moral attachments to it. Atheists are, indeed, abnormal in the sense that we are, and have always been, in the minority. This does not mean that we are morally aberrant nor can this observation, by itself, be used to suggest that we are mentally defective. To provide a simple point of comparison (one that I'll use again because it is so relevant) consider handedness. Right handedness is the norm in our species. In times past, some have taken the rarity of left handedness as an indication that left-handers were defective. Many believed that this "defect" was, in fact, evidence of a deeper moral defect and used that as a pretext of either persecuting left-handers or trying to "correct" them into "normal" right-handedness.

That said, the universality of theism across cultures and across times demands explanation. It is insufficient to simply dismiss it as an anachronistic infantilism that will, invariably, be dispelled by the dawning light of reason and rationalism, Nietzsche's hopefulness to the contrary. The most obvious explanation for a trait that is found to be a universal is that it is, in fact, part of our genetic heritage. I must note that there was a point, not too far in the past, when the mere suggestion would be considered anathema by most academics, ripe with overtones of racism and eugenics. It is not the place of this essay to document the Sociobiology controversy, however. I will merely note that, although the suggestion that culture can, in any sense, be tied to biology remains controversial although it has gained favor in the field of Evolutionary Psychology. It is not my goal to endorse Evolutionary Psychology (although I do believe that the field has merit); however, I think that I would be remiss if I did not explore the possibility. Suffice it to say that I would encourage my readers to research the subject on their own and to draw their own conclusions.

Supposing, for the moment, that religion is the product of our biology, the obvious question is why do we have a biological predisposition towards theism. The simplest answer is that we have a religious sense because there is, in fact, something that we are sensing. In other words, our god-beliefs are the product of our god-awareness. No less a cognitive expert than V.S. Ramachandran has suggested this in order to account for the fact that we have learned to artificially simulate a sense of religious experience via a specially designed magnetic helmet, developed by Dr. Persinger, that stimulates certain areas of the brain's frontal lobe. Ramachandran argues that when one finds an area of the brain dedicated to experiencing a certain perception, it is most likely because it is, in fact, interpreting something that is actually being perceived by some sensory organ. We would be surprised, for instance, to find that the visual centers of our brain weren't actually interpreting the data that the brain is receiving from the eyes.

As tempting as this thought it, there are two problems with it. The first is that simply because we perceive something does not automatically guarantee that the perception is real. We are all familiar with optical illusions. Almost universally (there's that word again!) if you show a person a pair of identical lines with of the lines bracketed by inward pointing angles and the other by outward pointing outward, we will perceive the first line to be shorter than the second. This is not because our eyes are feeding us erroneous data – the length of the two lines on our retinas are pretty much identical (correcting, of course, for the angle of observation). The problem is that the brain, although it is a truly magnificent organ, is forced to take a number of short-cuts in order to provide us information in real time (a brain that provided us perfect sensory interpretations would be of no use if the information was always processed too late to react to, say, an incoming rock). Sometimes those shortcuts result in anomalous data… i.e., illusions. Optical illusions aren't the only ones we experience. In adition to the optical variety are tactile, olfactory and, yes, cognitive illusions (Rudiger Pohl has a good book on the topic called, appropriately enough, Cognitive Illusions). Such illusions persist because they don't have enough of an adaptive deficit (compared to the advantage of being able to process information in real time) for natural selection to remove them from the population. Does this mean that religion is a cognitive illusion? No. It does, however, mean that the possibility can not be discounted. Religious experience can not be used to validate religious belief.

There is another problem with the theory that religion is the product of some undiscovered sensory organ, which is the nonuniformity of religious experiences. If I were to draw a picture of a circle, a square and a triangle and show this picture to a variety of people across the world and (via my amazing time travel device) across history, the vast majority (baring those with visual and cognitive impairments) would describe them in a way that another random person would be able to reproduce them from their descriptions. Our sense of visual perception, in other worlds, is homologous (a fancy word that, essentially means that two things share common characteristics). There is, of course, the niggling question as to whether the world I see really resembles the world that you see. Most lay philosophers (and quite a few professional ones) have often pondered the question of whether or not the red I see is the same as the red you see. Might it not be that my red is what you would call purple? This question (which, in technical terms, pertains to something that philosophers call "qualia") is, for the most part irresolvable. It is also, for the most part, irrelevant. Whether or not our qualia are distinct, they are isomorphic, which means that even if my red is different from yours, so long as we can agree to apply the label "red" to a agreed upon color ("It's this part of the rainbow") we will tend to agree what objects to apply the color to (stop lights, blood, crab shells, etc). Religion does not share this characteristic.

In recent years (meaning the last few centuries!) there has been a trend towards ecumenicalism among certain groups of theologians and religious movements. Ecumenicalism can be defined as a Christian movement whereby the goal is to unite all of the disparate Christian churches under the banner of a single doctrine.1 Informally, however, some have taken the goal of ecumenicalism to be the unification of all religions. Proponents of the view that all religions ultimately point to the same god (often God with a capital G) tend to view religions in terms of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The problem is that the any attempt to reconcile the diverse theologies of the world is that most of them have legitimately irreconcilable points. To offer a simple example, the majority of Christian churches (with the exception of such outliers as the Unitarian-Universalists) have, as a core aspect of their theology, the proposition that the only way to be saved is to accept the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. Such a proposition is specifically blasphemous within the context of Islam (again, noting the existence of such outliers as Sufism). In order to reconcile the two as part of a greater meta-religion would require core elements within one or both theologies to be rejected. As such, even if we posit a meta-religion that Christianity and Islam are, in some sense, part of, it would follow that neither (or either) Christianity and Islam are not, in fact, members of that meta-belief. The problem grows with each additional religion that we attempt to incorporate in our theoretical meta-religion (consider the divergence between monotheism and genuine polytheism2).

So, discounting ecumenical ambitions, for the moment, we are left with the observation that although religion is common, religious consensus is not. In fact, one can make the apparently paradoxical observation that no matter which religion one embraces, the majority of people in the world will disagree with you! This is even more apparent if we include historical religions (which we really ought to, otherwise falling into the fallacy that our own slice of history is privileged). This indicates that any hypothetical spiritual sense most not be very well developed. The poor quality of such a hypothetical sense is emphasized by the observation that the greatest predictor of a given person's religious beliefs are the beliefs of that person's parents and that the second greatest predictor is the beliefs of that person's culture. The web-comic Tom The Dancing Bug did a good job of satirizing this with a parody news account of a protestant couple who had somehow managed to give birth to a Hindu baby.

The grand upshot of this is that any supposed sense of this nature would not only have to be a poor discriminator but that our interpretation of the sensory data we got would be very sensitive to subjective contaminations. Does this mean that such a sense is entirely ruled out? No. Nature has examples of sensory organs that aren't well developed. Some versions of animal eyes, for instance, are nothing more than light sensitive patches that are only useful for discriminating between light and dark. However, given that our hypothesized sense is so unreliable and so subject to subjective biasing, even should we suppose its existence, we could not reliably trust the data from it other than to say that it is, apparently, perceiving something (but we know not what). However, just because we can't trust the data from such a sense does not mean that the sense, itself, could not help to explain the persistence of religious belief. After all, if the majority of people had an undeveloped sense and this sense did, in fact, lead them to conclude that there was something "out there", even if they could not agree on what they are perceiving and even if their interpretation of their perceptions was subject to influence and contamination, so long as that majority had their convictions reinforced by that sensory organ, we would have cause to suppose that this would help to ensure that people and cultures persisted in having religious beliefs. So, let us put this down as our first entry into our list of hypotheses:

  • Religious beliefs persist because most humans have some sort of sense that the brain interprets as evidence of a "spiritual reality".3
I see that I've spent quite a lot of effort to just reach this single bullet-point. In all honesty, I was hoping that this would be a two-part essay but I think that both you and I could probably benefit from a break. Next week I will take up the thread in considering other possibilities to account for the persistence of religion. With any luck, I will also be able to draw the essay to a conclusion… but no promises.

1 Actually, that particular description does go beyond what many people consider to be the goal of ecumenicalism, which they would describe as a movement to increase communication and understanding between the denominations. While acknowledging that this may, in fact, be the broader and more prevalent form of the ecumenical movement, I do believe that it is fair to say that some see the ultimate goal in the terms that I have framed. Since it would be this form that is more pertinent to my point, this will be the one that I focus on.

2 As distinguished from para-polythestic beliefs such as the Christian notion of a Trinity.

3 For lack of a better term.

No comments:

what is this?

Tell me when this blog is updated. . .