Archive for July, 2012
Posted in Book Reviews, Civilisation Building, Identity & Society, Science, Psychology & Society, Spirituality, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Baha'i International Community, Bahá'í Faith, E O Wilson, Jeremy Rifkin, Jonathan Haidt, Mafia, Mao, Pol Pot, religion, Richard Sosis, Robert D Putnam, Robert Wright, Stalin on 23/07/2012 | 1 Comment »
. . . . . religion must be conducive to love and unity among mankind; for if it be the cause of enmity and strife, the absence of religion is preferable.
In the previous post, focusing on the role of religion in society, I tried to convey some of Jonathan Haidt‘s key points, from his penetrating overview of the area - The Righteous Mind. He contends amongst other things that the sense of belonging religion brings is an essential foundation stone for more general human cooperation. He tested this idea against the evidence and found it rang true. He then moves on to look at other evidence that provides a test from a different angle.
Long-Term Social Glue
What was really interesting to me was that he finds that religions are better than other ideologies at binding communities together long-term. He quotes evidence of where communes were compared (page 256):
Communes can survive only to the extent that they can bind a group together, suppress self-interest, and solve the free rider problem. . . . Which kind of commune survived longer? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes.
He looks at the analysis of the key ingredient of this superiority (ibid.):
What was the secret ingredient that gave the religious communes a longer shelf life? . . . . He found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members. . . . . . For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted.
This did not work for secular communes even though such sacrifices are necessary for longevity (ibid.): for them, ‘demands for sacrifice did not help.’
The inescapable conclusion seems to be, as Sosis argues, that (ibid.):
. . . rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized. . . . In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.
As we have already seen, Haidt is very aware that there is a sting in the tail of this position that absolutely needs to be acknowledged (pages 265-266).
So religions do what they are supposed to do. As Wilson put it, they help people “to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.” But that job description applies equally well to the Mafia.
This is where Haidt’s close analysis of the kind of community a religion helps develop kicks in (pages 266-267):
Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon … none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people. . . . “It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”
The Downside not Unique to Religion
As we have already seen, he looks closely at the old and thorny problem. You certainly can’t accuse him of ducking it (page 268).
Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonising another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited for that task. Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.
The subtle point he makes, which should be obvious to anyone who looks dispassionately at the history of atheist regimes such as those under Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, is that the problem is not religion per se, but the loss of a compassionate perspective that can come from identifying strongly with a group of any kind rather than with humanity as a whole.
This is the potential cost of the tool that can bring huge collective benefits in its wake that help everyone. However, to focus simply on the costs of religion without also weighing in the same scale the costs of secularism is hardly fair and certainly not objective. Haidt makes it very clear that even in terms of evolutionary success, i.e. reproductive superiority, secularism isn’t doing very well, let alone in terms of more subjective measures such as happiness and well-being (ibid.).
We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago. . . . the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).
He accepts that it is still early days in the history of such societies but feels that extreme caution is warranted before we can conclude that societies without a God can function any better on average than those with one, and he suspects that in the end they might come out worse for the comparison.
The Seed of Universal Fellow Feeling?
So, in spite of the well-attested dark side of belonging to a group, Haidt still feels that the potential is basically benign. He sees groups, which are demonised as the source of division and prejudice, also as the seedbed of fellow feeling (page 307):
We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.
Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.
His ultimate contention builds on what Haidt is saying here (page 428-429):
The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.
In Haidt’s words (page 307):
Anything that binds people together into dense networks of trust makes people less selfish.
Neither of these authors is complacent. They are very aware of the pitfalls that lie in wait. Haidt finds evidence, for example, that proximity to other groups does not necessarily breed tolerance and understanding (pages 307-308):
Putnam examined the level of social capital in hundreds of American communities and discovered that high levels of immigration and ethnic diversity seem to cause a reduction in social capital. . . . . . Putnam’s survey was able to distinguish two different kinds of social capital: bridging capital refers to trust between groups, between people who have different values and identities, while bonding capital refers to trust within groups. Putnam found that diversity reduced both kinds of social capital. . . . . people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to “hunker down”—that is, to pull in like a turtle.
Another Complicating Factor
Jeremy Rifkin, in his searching book, The Empathic Civilisation, highlights the contradiction that might still sink us even if we learn to love all our neighbours. It is true that he is convinced of the positive power of such a kind of empathy (page 16):
Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is the core of our nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilisation.
But he’s also aware of the entropy such wide connections bring in their train. As wider empathy creates bigger civilisations we need to consume more resources to sustain them, until what we need becomes unsustainable. One of the starkest statements of that principle comes early in his book (page 44):
The tragic flaw of history is that our increased empathic concern and sensitivity grows in direct proportion to the wreaking of greater entropic damage to the world we all cohabit and rely on for our existence and perpetuation.
Even so, even though all these writers understand the risks, there is tremendous hope in their more optimistic analysis of human potential and the value of religion at its best to bring that out. And if religion can help us extend our effective empathy beyond even our fellow human beings to include future generations, all life on the planet and even the planet itself, we might have some hope of long-term survival. Of course there are powerful forces that militate against this. We are all aware of them. But there are powerfully constructive forces within our nature upon which we can draw to effectively oppose them:
The faculties needed to construct a more just and sustainable social order—moderation, justice, love, reason, sacrifice and service to the common good—have too often been dismissed as naïve ideals. Yet, it is these, and related, qualities that must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production.
(From a statement by the Bahá’í International Community.)
Posted in Book Reviews, Civilisation Building, Identity & Society, Science, Psychology & Society, tagged 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Daniel Dennett, Emile Durkheim, Jonathan Haidt, moral capital, progress, religion, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, science on 17/07/2012 | 1 Comment »
If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure; but if the remedy should only aggravate the complaint it had better be left alone. Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion.
The Hive Switch
I watched a compelling BBC Four programme the other day on the price of progress. One of the commentators, David Suzuki, listed the kinds of capital what he calls the ‘pseudo-science’ of economics dismisses as ‘externalities’ – the ozone layer, deep underground aquifers, top soil, biodiversity – all of them the ‘kinds of services’ that ‘nature performs.’
He did not include another kind that Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book The Righteous Mind, brings into the closing chapters - moral capital. He begins with a slightly different concept – social capital (page 290):
Social capital refers to a kind of capital that economists had largely overlooked: the social ties among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from those ties. When everything else is equal, a firm with more social capital will outcompete its less cohesive and less internally trusting competitors.
Social capital has a strong link, in his view, with morality (ibid.):
To achieve almost any moral vision, you’d probably want high levels of social capital.
He goes on to define what he thinks moral capital is (page 292):
[W]e can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community. . . . . the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.
He examines its effects. It is a double-edged sword (page 293).
Moral capital leads automatically to the suppression of free riders, but it does not lead automatically to other forms of fairness such as equality of opportunity. And while high moral capital helps a community to function efficiently, the community can use that efficiency to inflict harm on other communities. High moral capital can be obtained within a cult or a fascist nation, as long as most people truly accept the prevailing moral matrix.
The root of this whole highly debated issue, for Haidt, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length earlier in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247).
Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.
How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.).
. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”
I got a faint taste of what he is describing, and with something of the same sense of ambivalence as he is pointing towards, when I attended the last night of the summer proms last weekend at the Birmingham Symphony Hall, celebrating its 21st birthday. The soprano got us all standing at the very end for an enthusiastic rendering of ’Land of Hope and Glory.’ Many there were waving the union jacks they had bought and almost everyone was singing – a buzz of hivish activity, without doubt. I was standing half-wanting fully to participate, but so strong is my inoculation against massed activity, administered I think by so much footage of the Nuremberg rallies seen at a very early age, I didn’t sing and hadn’t bought a flag. In this way at such events I miss out on the positive for fear of the negative effects. Interestingly, an isolated but reasonably large Welsh Dragon was tolerated but the lady who unfurled a massive Chinese flag was asked to put it away – so even something as apparently innocent as a flag at the Proms isn’t entirely without the power to disturb.
An Attack that Misses the Point
Haidt accepts that religion, because it is linked to moral capital, can be the same kind of double-edged sword as moral capital (page 247-248):
Morality binds and blinds . . . . . Many scientists conclude that religion is an extravagant, costly, wasteful institution that impairs people’s ability to think rationally while leaving a long trail of victims. I do not deny that religions do, at times, fit that description. But if we are to render a fair judgment about religion—and understand its relationship to morality and politics—we must first describe it accurately.
He then embarks on a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of religion, starting with the attacks of the new atheism. He focuses on those writers who have some claim to be scientific in their approach (page 249-250):
Harris was a graduate student in neuroscience at the time, Dawkins is a biologist, and Dennett is a philosopher who has written widely on evolution. These three authors claimed to speak for science and to exemplify the values of science—particularly its open-mindedness and its insistence that claims be grounded in reason and empirical evidence, not faith. . . . For Harris, beliefs are the key to understanding the psychology of religion because in his view, believing a falsehood (e.g., martyrs will be rewarded with seventy-two virgins in heaven) makes religious people do harmful things (e.g., suicide bombing). . . . [R]eligion is studied as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, and these beliefs are said to be the cause of a wide range of harmful actions. Dennett takes that approach too.
Haidt contends that this approach is far too narrow to do religion justice (page 250):
. . . 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. You’ve got to look at the ways that religious beliefs work with religious practices to create a religious community.
For him community is the key to understanding the core of religion (ibid.):
. . . . the function of those beliefs and practices is ultimately to create a community.
Parasite or Adaptation?
He skilfully contrasts two schools of thought (page 253-254).
To Dennett and Dawkins, religions are sets of memes that have undergone Darwinian selection. Like biological traits, religions are heritable, they mutate, and there is selection among these mutations. . . . Some religions are better than others at hijacking the human mind, burrowing in deeply, and then getting themselves transmitted to the next generation of host minds. . . Dennett proposes that religions survive because, like those parasites, they make their hosts do things that are bad for themselves (e.g., suicide bombing) but good for the parasite (e.g. Islam). . .
Scientists who are not on the New Atheist team have been far more willing to say that religion might be an adaptation (i.e., it might have evolved because it conferred benefits on individuals or groups). . . [I]nstead of talking about religions as parasitic memes evolving for their own benefit, Atran and Henrich suggest that religions are sets of cultural innovations that spread to the extent that they make groups more cohesive and cooperative. . . . Among the best things to do with a by-product God, according to Atran and Henrich, is to create a moral community. . . If the gods evolve (culturally) to condemn selfish and divisive behaviors, they can then be used to promote cooperation and trust within the group.
The conclusion Haidt draws from this, and other evidence that there is not space to quote, is (page 256):
There is now a great deal of evidence that religions do in fact help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival.
The next post will explore more in terms of the complexities and ambiguities that qualify the optimism of that position if we take it too much at face value.