the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

social solidarity isn't enough

The problematic Monsieur Durkheim

Many people, not necessarily religious themselves, have expressed annoyance and worse at certain writers and thinkers - Richard Dawkins being the most notable example - who have poured scorn on religious belief, equating it with primitivism, wilful ignorance and such. They've accused Dawkins and co of engaging in a 'new positivism', which largely misses the point of religious belief systems.

Take this quote, from a comment sent to me:

A crucial difference between science and religion is that factual knowledge as such is not a principal aim of religious devotion, but plays only a supporting role. Only in the last decade has the Catholic Church reluctantly acknowledged the factual plausibility of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin (Geitner 1999). Earlier religious rejection of their theories stemmed from challenges posed to a cosmic order unifying the moral and material worlds. Separating out the core of the material world would be like draining the pond where a water lily grows. A long lag time was necessary to refurbish and remake the moral and material connections in such a way that would permit faith in a unified cosmology to survive. Religion survives science as it does secular ideology not because it is older than, or more primitive than, science or secular reasoning, but because of what it affectively and collectively secures for people. Religion underpins the “organic solidarity” (Durkheim 1912/1995) that makes social life more than simply a contract among calculating individuals. It creates the arational conditions for devotion and sacrifice that enable people and societies to endure against even terrible odds.
It's a familiar enough argument, and there's some truth in it. I've already argued that religion is about solidarity, often, though not always, under a comforting paternalism. But though it might be incontestable that religious devotion is at bottom about something other than knowledge, the fact remains that many many Christians - as proven by the scary number of websites devoted to this sort of thing - are all too keen to contest and abuse a form of knowledge that they find incompatible with the Divine Word, ie science. It's absurd, and they've already lost the battle, but it's an attitude that more or less inevitably creates the kind of virulent response that comes from Dawkins et al.

Also, the above quote is too vague in its remarks about religious devotion, as if all religions are the same. I agree that the impulse to religious devotion has a kind of universality, but the particular religions into which these impulses are channeled are often very different. Christianity, for example, depends heavily on certain supposed historical events - namely the life and death, the words and deeds of Jesus. Jesus's divided character as man and god placed him in a curious position as both object of devotion/protective figure and historical personage whose life and deeds operated as an example of how to live. The historical personage is constantly being highlighted in sermons and exhortations, and indeed remarketed in attempts to appeal to the young. Considering such presentations and refashionings, evidence of the historical Jesus has to provide a touchstone (though in fact, evidence of the real Jesus is so scant as to be virtually non-existent).

I should also add that I often find the 'sympathetic' justifications of religion by 'anti-positivist' secularists to be ultimately condescending. Religion is depicted as a feel-good, enriching experience which builds up bonds between people and cushions them from the long dark night of the soul's contingency. As the above quote has it, it 'makes social life more than simply a contract among calculating individuals'.

This, to put it mildly, is a highly contestable depiction of social life amongst non-believers, but I suppose that playing up the positives of religious devotion entails playing up the negatives of non-belief. Ultimately, though, the argument is along the lines of, let them believe whatever, as long as it makes them feel good and behave well. They're much more interested in comfort than knowledge, bless their souls, so who are we to seek to strip them of their illusions?

While I recognise that many people feel compelled by their faith to engage in admirable works of charity and self-sacrifice, and while it may be true that believers by and large enjoy a measure of contentment that I can only dream of, I find these benefits, such as they are, to be a distraction to the main issue, which is how the world or the universe actually works and how we humans came to be a part of it and to play a part in it. These are knowledge issues, and obviously part of this knowledge is how religion works and what impels so many of us towards it. My 'bias' is that I'm not personally drawn to it, and I find its justifications unconvincing, if not delusional. So far, I've also been unconvinced by the justifications offered by the 'anti-positivists' and the compatibilists (those who believe that religion and science deal with different spheres of life and are therefore compatible), but I'm happy to explore them further.


Blogger Nick Blasbeat said...

Obiviously I didn't make myself clear enough. That article had literally nothing to do with attacking or defending religion. The argument they were presenting is simply that the descriptive model which accompanies the works of many anti-religious thinkers is simply wrong. One can just as soon accept Atran & Norenzayan's arguments and be totally against religion. Since you are obviously against religion, you could do worse than examine their arguments which are some of the most up-to-date in CogScie, to my knowledge, even if you think they are other wise soft headed.

10:53 PM  
Blogger Nick Blasbeat said...

"I find these benefits, such as they are, to be a distraction to the main issue, which is how the world or the universe actually works and how we humans came to be a part of it and to play a part in it."

Guess thats the point though; a lot of us don't feel that way. Anyway, I won't annoy you any more.

8:08 AM  

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