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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’

Last night I managed to get round to watching Waldemar Januszczak‘s excellent programme on the work of Hans Holbein the Younger. It’s still available on iPlayer for those with access who wish to follow this up. The last fifteen minutes of the hour long programme were devoted to Holbein’s masterpiece The Ambassadors. In his exploration he picked up on something in the painting I had never noticed. This caused me to to add a line to a poem I wrote many years ago, as otherwise I do not think I would be doing justice to the complex layers of meaning in the portrait. I also have used a better image of the painting so that it shows all the necessary detail in the section that I have retained after cropping: clicking on the image twice brings it to a size that makes spotting the detail easier.

Uncertain Death v3

For the source of the image see link

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My rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry, with a vague memory that I’d been somewhere like this before. And sure enough I had. This pair of posts from 2011 is covering related ground – the first came out yesterday. This is the second and last.

In the previous post on this topic we ended with DH Maitreyabandhu‘s attempt to create a test of the value of a poem (The Further Reach – page 61, footnote):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

He moves on in the remainder of his article in the Poetry Society magazine, Poetry Review, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

John Keats July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative-  beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

This, it could be said, is where I begin to lose my grip on his meaning but where I most want to grasp it fully. I want to grasp what he goes on to say because I believe – and not just because my religion says so – that religion and science are like the two wings of a bird. We need them both if we are to live wisely and well, but to use them properly we have to integrate our understanding of their different  approaches to the truth. Maybe there is a transcendent position, as Jung would say, that dissolves their apparent differences and from which we can see their essential unity. I’m not sure this is what Maitreyabandhu is getting at, but I hope so. Let’s see where he goes from here. I can already feel the rope of his meaning slipping through my fingers.

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

I still don’t feel I have completely understood all that he is trying to say but I do hope that I haven’t introduced too much distortion or dilution into my attempt to convey the tenor of his inspiring exploration of the nature of imagination and its role in poetry. I am looking forward to integrating his insights more deeply into both my practice of writing and my practice of compassion.

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WJ pencil

William James – self-portrait in pencil

Yesterday I attempted to explain my default position of uncertainty and why it lent such a strong appeal to Paul Jerome Croce’s book on William James. Now comes the difficult task of cherry picking key quotes from the book to illustrate why the feeling of attraction did not wear off as I read my way through it.

Principled Uncertainty

What follows here, designed simply to illustrate this one point, is a sparse selection of quotes from this book’s richly detailed and rewarding survey of the thinking of the time. I’m going to pick up the story with the impact of Darwin.

It would be impossible to overstate the degree of shock his book created. This is both because its argument was profoundly unsettling, and its accessibility meant that it was very widely read. What I hadn’t realised till I read Croce’s book was that he shocked not only the religious but the scientific community as well (page 88):

Science practised under the star of Darwinism represented the displacement of the cultured amateur by professional experts and a divorce of science from moral purpose and religious conviction. Most important, the new science, operating according to probabilities, removed its findings from expectations of certainty in either science or religion. This methodological challenge to scientific certainty is the true Darwinian revolution, far more than the supposed triumph of science over religion or even the dominance of Darwin’s particular insights about evolution.

The effect of this on William James is of particular interest to me (page 109-110):

The major shock of Darwin for James turned out to be the great biologist’s method and its implications for science and religion. Because the theory of natural selection was a plausible explanation rather than a proof of the origin of species, James began to doubt the need to expect certainty in either his science or his religion. . . . . . Darwin’s approaches provided a signpost, but William James in the 1860s still had much learning and struggling to do in his journey toward adopting beliefs without certainty.

In the 1850s and 1860s William James was a member of a loosely constituted group of young thinkers that called itself the Metaphysical Club (page 154):

The central issue of their enquiries was certainty. They saw that neither scientific theory nor religious faith could generate conventional forms of certainty, and they searchingly asked whether there could be any other basis for belief and action.

This has always been a key question for me. It’s not surprising, then, that I felt myself to be in like-minded company. At this point I found an interesting side issue mentioned, suggesting that Richard Dawkins might be blindly following a long line of misguided popularisers, dating back to Darwin’s own time, and suggests that he really should know better. Croce refers to (page 155) ‘the recent revolution in Darwin studies, which demonstrates the scientific unorthodoxy of Darwin’s probabilistic methods and attributes the materialistic claims of scientific certainty to Darwin’s popularisers rather than to Darwin’s science itself.’ Music to my ears again.

ChWright

Chauncy Wright

A key influence on William James was a contemporary and fellow Metaphysical Club member, Chauncy Wright (page 174):

William James learned from his friend Wright to reject the certainties of traditional religion and to regard science in probabilistic terms, but James never accepted the claim that science offered alternative certainties. By considering the uncertainties of both fields, he extended Wright’s ideas further than Wright himself could imagine.

James then moved further on the shoulders of Charles Sanders Peirce (page 195):

Without intending it, this rigorous pacesetter for James’s understanding of science became a role model for the younger man’s more thorough embrace of uncertainty. Pierce’s ambiguities opened a wedge in the edifice of scientific authority which James expanded into wholesale questioning of the possibility of finding certainty in any beliefs.

A core aspect of Peirce’s thinking concerned the nature of what we can achieve by thinking (page 144):

[He maintained that] our minds can never reach the essences of things, but only come to know them in mediated ways. . . . . “Our idea of anything is an idea of its sensible effects. . . . . .[H]e claimed our minds can really know the world (at least in the long run), but that such knowledge will always be mediated; . . . . [T]he method of science is focused correctly on effects, not essences.

He felt that most knowledge was probabilistic (page 216):

Probabilities can provide certainties, but with important qualifications: as Peirce had already realised at least as early as 1867, they provide answers only about groups and in the long run. So he declared it “unsound” to claim “that knowing a thing to be probable is not knowledge.”

This approach requires as assumption of orderliness in nature (page 219):

Inductive inquiry, which gains knowledge through “a process of sampling,” relies on the assumed orderliness of its sample to do its business, since the inquirer presumes that the randomly selected portion “has nearly the same frequency of occurrence” as the whole class of things under evaluation. . . . He leaned his faith in induction on the orderliness of the human mind and the world it comes to investigate.

CS Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce

(This sounds like an anticipation of Plantinga’s recent case that science and religion are inherently in harmony.) It’s clear therefore that Peirce did believe ‘in a divine creator and an orderly universe’ but his ‘prime goal [was] to lay the cosmological ground for his scientific project.’ Where did this leave James? Croce is preparing the ground for a second volume that does not seem yet to have appeared, so he does not go into great detail (page 223):

He was much more attuned than his more logical colleague to addressing the growing suspicion among scientists, religious believers, science watchers, and religion watchers that their propositions could not provide the certainty that previous generations had cherished.

He then qualifies this (page 224):

Recognition was only the first step, because he realised even more acutely than his peers the psychological appeal of certainty. To maintain the moral commitments that his whole circle cherished, to avoid a slide into nihilism, and to reconstruct belief for a scientific audience, James would need to find the moral equivalent of certainty.

Lamberth, whose work I looked at in a previous post, has much more light to shed on where James’s thinking ended up than I have time to repeat here. The final sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in this tome.

All that remains is to explain how I find it possible to feel at home with both this level of uncertainty and my commitment to the Bahá’í path. That will have to wait until tomorrow.

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First cause? The aftermath of the attacks of September 11 2001

First cause? The aftermath of the attacks of September 11 2001

To coincide with the appearance of her new book – Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence – Karen Armstrong published an interesting if not completely convincing piece for the Guardian the day before yesterday. There is an equally interesting riposte by Noel Malcolm in the Telegraph which my good friend, Barney, alerted me to. I shared an extract from her article yesterday. Here is an extract from the response. 

As I stated yesterday, I think each of them make valuable points. However, for me they fail to address clearly a fundamental aspect of the problem which Jonathan Haidt puts his finger on. Idealism, no matter how valuable it may be in many ways, can become fertile soil for murder and torture. Once you believe anything to strongly that the ends come to justify any means whatsoever you’re sunk in iniquity – an issue I have reblogged about recently. The other factors they adduce can all play a part in the toxic mix, and be used as justifications or act as triggers. None the less, if you remove over-identification with an ideology you significantly reduce the risk of an epidemic of atrocities. It doesn’t matter whether the ideology is religious or secular.

Still what they say deserves careful consideration in my view. We need all the help we can get to reach a deeper understanding of the processes that lead to such senseless slaughter.

Below is an extract: for the full post see link.

‘Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. We thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11 changed all that.” So said Richard Dawkins, who until his retirement enjoyed the title of Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

Some of us began to wonder whether Dawkins had secretly renegotiated the terms of his job, becoming instead the Professor for the Public Misunderstanding of Religion. To argue that one act of terrorism, however extreme, committed by members of one radical movement proved the harmfulness of all religion was a strange piece of reasoning. But, undeniably, it caught a popular mood, and the Dawkins-Hitchens denunciation of religious faith as a force for evil in the world has been on a roll ever since.

If the argument here were just about radical Islamism, this debate would at least have a clear and narrow focus. But the Dawkinsite argument is grafted on to an older tradition of anti-religious rhetoric going back to Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, who compiled an entire history of religiously inspired mayhem – from the brutal campaigns of the ancient Israelites to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the many “wars of religion” in western Europe. This is a heavy burden for any would-be defender of the faith to pick up and deal with.

Karen Armstrong does not flinch from this task. A prolific author of books about religion, she seems to have the right qualifications to be a moderate, non-dogmatic apologist for it: as a former nun, she can see things, so to speak, from both sides of the convent wall. Previously she has written about early religious history as well as modern fundamentalism; her new book runs from the one to the other, from Gilgamesh to bin Laden, covering almost five millennia of human experience in between. This is both an apologia and a history book, aimed always at supplying the context of what may look like religiously motivated episodes of violence, in order to show that religion as such was not the prime cause.

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Uncertain Death

For source of image see link

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Graham Sutherland – sketch for the Crucifixion

The steed of this valley [of love] is pain; and if there be no pain this journey will never end. In this station the lover hath no thought save the Beloved, and seeketh no refuge save the Friend.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Seven Valleys+ page 8)

Towards the end of his chapter on the subject, Hamilton, in his book The Sociology of Religion, quotes Fenn (page 180) as wondering whether secularisation “does not so much drive religion from modern society [as foster] a type of religion which has no major functions for the entire society.” Spirituality becomes purely magical, even occult. The conclusion voiced in Century of Light captures this (page 6):

inherited orthodoxies [are] all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that [calls] into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularization of society’s upper levels [seems] to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

The evidence currently available suggests, for example, that the secularisation of society’s upper levels does indeed coincide with “religious obscurantism.” Hamilton (page 180) quotes a study by Luhrmann (1989) as showing how followers of witchcraft and magic in London and surrounding areas of South Eastern England are for the most part well educated, well-qualified professionals many of whom are scientifically trained and employed in such industries as computers and as research chemists!

A Road to Ruin?

David Gascoyne

Not from a monstrance silver-wrought
But from the tree of human pain
Redeem our sterile misery,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
That man’s long journey through the night
May not be in vain.

(David Gascoyne: Poems 1937-1942)

On the one hand the picture within the Writings, with Bahá’u’lláh setting the tone by using words like “godlessness” and “heedlessness”, highlights how, as the light of religion fades, we find it decaying into a fanaticism, terrorism, fundamentalism, superstition or a mere market choice, surrounded by a darkening atmosphere of materialism, greed and scientism which culminates in the decadence the Guardian so forcefully depicts and condemns (World Order of Bahá’u’lláhpage 188) and concludes that at this stage we have become  ‘. . . .  a society that must either be reborn or perish.” The evasion of the challenge that true religion presents us with comes, when looked at from a spiritual perspective, with a high price in the form of pain.

On the other hand many scholars draw no such drastic conclusions, content to detect a not too unpleasant state of intellectual freedom which might lack meaning and clear moral direction but with none of the major consequences referred to. Admittedly, while other thinkers, such as McGrath (2004) in The Twilight of Atheism, present a far less rosy picture, this is generally from a position heavily influenced by a religious perspective.

The Academic View

None the less, I feel it can be argued that thinkers, researchers and scholars outside the Bahá’í Faith and within the main tradition of the social sciences have been grappling vigorously with the phenomenon of secularisation from their own perspective, and the fruits of their work do enrich our understanding even when some of them clearly do not share a sense that it is a destructive process. Their emphasis on data as a corrective to unbridled intuition is a healthy one, though this must not be allowed to lead to the all too frequent conclusion that what cannot be empirically proven is by the absence of that type of evidence proved wrong.

Even the agnostic and atheist majority amongst them recognise that there has been a price paid for the decline of religion, though they disagree amongst themselves greatly as to the value of what has been lost. There is also an increasingly detectable trend for academic writers to explore the values of religion to both the individual and to society. Some of these writers I have discussed in previous posts.

Measuring the Mind?

Rupert Sheldrake is one such writer. He is a scientist who has risked his credibiliity and his career arguing publicly for science to accept its limitations and allow for the existence of baffling mysteries it cannot (yet?) explain.

In his excellent book The Science Delusionhe lists ten unhelpful dogmas that the church of science teaches (pages 7-8). These include: everything is essentially mechanical, all matter is unconscious, nature is purposeless and evolution has no goal or direction, minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains, and mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Jonathan Haidt is another who writes in the same vein. He finds, for example, that religions are better than other ideologies at binding communities together long-term. He quotes evidence of where communes were compared (The Righteous Mind: page 256) and the findings indicated that 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.): ‘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.’

For now perhaps it’s sufficient to close this list with a brief mention of Roy Baumeister and Ron Tierney who have trawled the scientific literature and found numerous examples of how religion benefits society and the individual. (I am not blind to the dark side of faith and have discussed it at some length – see my posts on Conviction for example.)

‘Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity’

I don’t think I can end this post without making some further reference to the work of Charles Taylor, whom I mentioned in the previous post. I cannot claim to have read him thoroughly or carefully as yet but dipping in and out of his book A Secular Age has convinced me I must make the monumental effort of reading through all 776 pages at some point.  To give a sense of why I feel he is saying things worthy of careful note, I’ll quote briefly from a short section (Number 16 of his 19th Chapter ‘Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity': pages 726-727).

He feels that there are a number of dilemmas which both faith and exclusive humanism have to deal with:

These demands include: finding the moral sources which can enable us to live up to our very strong universal commitments to human rights and well-being; and finding how to avoid the turn to violence which returns uncannily and often unnoticed in the “higher” forms of life which have supposedly set it aside definitively.

Both positions are shakily maintained:

The more one reflects, the more the easy certainties of either “spin”, transcendental or immanentist, are undermined.

There are strong pressures towards the latter: ‘the present fractured expressionist culture . . . seems very inhospitable to belief.’ However, he feels the pressure to believe has not completely vanished.

. . . . the sense that there is something more presses in. Great numbers of people feel it: in moments of reflection about their life; in moments of relaxation in nature; in moments of bereavement and loss; and quite wildly and unpredictably. Our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief.

He describes the secular age as ‘deeply cross-pressured.’

Coda

So, where do I stand? Secularisation, however positively you see it, comes at a price. So, of course, does religion. Defining what that price is, exactly, is the tricky part. That’s the task that we all must perform if we are to act responsibly. It’s also possibly not a once and for all decision, involving as it does the question whether or not  to believe in a God of some kind. And if we don’t believe in a God, what do we read into this reality? If we do believe in God, what kind of god do we believe in? For my part, I find it harder to imagine that we can solve the problems that confront us without a belief in a higher being: such a belief will, I admit, only work if our sense of this higher being widens the compass of our compassion to include all life without exception and raises our sense of justice to its loftiest possible level.

The choices we make in this respect are likely to be constantly tested. The only things we cannot afford to do are pretend it does not matter or that we are not choosing. Ignoring the problem is a choice. These choices will shape the world our children thrive or die in.

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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.

( ‘Abdu’l-BaháParis Talks, page 129)

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.


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