I recently saw this quote: “In the old days, religion was needed to make sense of the world. These days, the world can’t make sense of religion” I don’t know who it’s from but I liked it. Religion is widespread. It can motivate people for good and for bad. So, like it or not, modern societies find it necessary to interact with religion and this is sometimes problematic. This book is helpful for this as it provides an overview of findings from the scientific study of religion
It’s a version of lectures given by Pascal Boyer at the Universities of Frankfurt and Gießen, in May 2008 (as part of the Templeton Research Lectures on science and religion). Boyer explains that “being lectures, these were delivered in the form of sermons – that is, in this case, with greater emphasis on argument than evidence.” Descriptions of experimental studies are minimal but each chapter is well-referenced and there is a 7-page bibliography.
This has the advantage of providing an authoritative overview and access to the literature in a short book (112 pages in total, including a 5-page afterword or critique of the lectures by theologians Elisabeth Gräb-Schmidt and Wolfgang Achtner).
As well as describing conclusions from the scientific study of religious thought Boyer also explores the implications for several questions: “Can there be a free civil society with religions? Does it make sense to talk about religious experience?” And “Do religions make people better? “
Don’t be deluded by “illusion”
If recent theological reviewing practices are anything to go by this word “illusion” is going to be misrepresented. To be clear, Boyer’s book is not about the illusory beliefs common in religions. As he says, that “was conclusively argued more than two centuries ago by Kant and other Auflärung scholars.”
No. He argues “the very existence of something called ‘religion’ is largely an illusion.” That religion as a package, “an integrated set of moral, metaphysical, social and experiential claims . . . .does not really exist as such. Notions of supernatural agents, of morality, of ethnic identity, of ritual requirements and other experience, all appear in human minds independently. They are sustained by faculties or mechanisms in the human mind that are quite independent of each other, and none of which evolved because it could sustain religious notions or behaviours.”
Scientific investigation should not, therefore, concern itself with “religions.” That would be a sidetrack into specific dogma, teachings and histories of institutions. The domain of theology, not science. Rather it should concentrate on religious behaviour, thoughts, ideas and norms and their acquisition. These are accessible to investigation by evolutionary science, anthropology, cognitive science and psychology.
Boyer describes this as the “Kant-Darwin axis.”
Even for most members of organised religions, their religious thoughts have little to do with what their religious institutions profess. And these thoughts and behaviour also occur without religious institutions or theology.
“So that knowing theology, or being conversant with the scriptural traditions, does not, unfortunately, add much to our understanding of religious thought and behaviour, because most human societies throughout history have managed to have religion without theology.” And this appears true even where organised religion exists.
Today it is common to see conflicts between religious institutional doctrine and the beliefs, thoughts and behaviours of members of those institutions. Struggle between the officers of the church and their “flock.” And this is even truer for academic theology. We have the situation described by Karl Krauss – “scholars of religions and their audiences are in complete harmony. The latter do not hear what the former say and the former do not want to say what the latter expect!”
The book has useful discussions on the irrelevance of religious behaviour and thoughts to morality, the nature of “religious experience” and the problems religion presents to freedom and democracy. Here I will concentrate on the discussion more relevant to science and reason.
Escape routes – fundamentalism and “spirituality”
Boyer rejects the idea that religion is the “sleep of reason” Rather is “natural”. “It is quite clear that explicit religious belief requires a suspension of the sound rules according to which most scientists evaluate evidence. But so does most ordinary thinking of the kind that sustains our commonsense intuitions about the surrounding environment.”
“The ‘tweaking’ of ordinary cognition that is required to sustain religious thought is so minimal that one should not be surprised if religious concepts are so widespread and so resistant to argument.”
After all, we know solid objects are largely open space and gravity is a curvature of space-time. However, even scientists in their day-to-day lives intuitively see solid objects as full of matter and objects falling because of their weight. It’s not hard to understand why human ideas of spirits and agency can lead to god ideas or belief in minimally counter-intuitive supernatural agency.
But in modern pluralist, democratic, educated societies, members of religious institutions can nevertheless be effectively living in two different worlds. Their own community with its specific dogmas and beliefs and the world at large where such beliefs are considered strange. This creates a conflict from which religious people have two “escape routes” – fundamentalism and ‘spirituality.’
Fundamentalists resort to dogmatism to resolve the conflict. They “take the contents of institutional religious messages seriously, as saying what they say and prescribing what they prescribe.”
“Compared to many forms of modern institutional religion, fundamentalism is of course strikingly (indeed stridently) coherent.”
Fundamentalists will often despise the vagueness of other believers. “The desire to ‘return’ to a largely mythical past, where people’s beliefs were not troubled by modern notions of evidence and pragmatic efficacy” usually accompanies their dogmatic search for clarity. Despite this they will make use of modern technology if it helps their purpose. Their presence on the internet shows this.
Fundamentalists are preoccupied with commitment and its signalling, Like all dogmatic institutions (and political parties of the extreme left and right come to mind). They seek to keep their institutions pure and make defection costly for their members.
The opposite escape route is “a retreat into comfortable vagueness.” Confusing terms like “spirituality”, “connectedness” the “sacred source of our being” and “oneness” are bandied around.
“The vagueness here is not just a problem of expression. Far from being the accidental outcome of some author’s particularly poor writing, there is in general a deep reluctance in this field to commit oneself to any specific claim. . . . The whole point of spirituality-talk, it seems, is to avoid particular topics rather than address them.”
I am sure many readers will recognise this problem. The standard of argument in many modern theological books and debates is relevant. Lacking real evidence or consistent logic these debaters and writers can nevertheless write and speak confidently using weasel words, flowery language and naive logic. I suspect that this vagueness is part of their theological training.
Science and Religion
I found Boyer’s comments on the science vs. religion issue useful and a little sobering. For him the question of a science-religion dialogue just doesn’t arise. It couldn’t. “This very notion of a ‘debate’ or ‘confrontation’ or even comparison is hopelessly confused.”
Firstly there it assumes there is such a thing as religion – concentrating on official doctrines, teachings and institutions rather than religious thought and behaviour. Also such a dialogue and conflict implies a likeness. “But there is none between scientific theories, held and understood by a very small number of people in a small number of human groups, and the religious imagination, easily acquired and maintained by millions of people with no effort. A more sensible comparison would be between scientific activity and theology, or between popular representations of science and popular religiosity on the other.”
It is humbling to be reminded that “scientific research and theorising has appeared only in a very few human societies . . The results of scientific research may be well-known but the whole intellectual style that is required to achieve them is really difficult to acquire. By contrast, religious representations have appeared in all human groups that we know, they are easily acquired, they are maintained effortlessly and they seem accessible to all members of a group, regardless of intelligence or training. . . . . religious representations are highly natural to human beings, while science is quite clearly unnatural. That is the former goes with the grain of our evolved intuitions, while the latter requires that we suspend, or even contradict most of our common ways of thinking. So it makes sense to see these two domains as diametrical examples of cultural transmission, two limiting-cases in the connections between evolved cognition and cultural creations.”
Boyer describes Stephen J. Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) as “rather misguided in both descriptive and normative terms. . . first, it is not at all clear that issues of values and morality necessarily fall outside the domain of science; second, even when they do, it is not clear at all that religious doctrines are a relevant source to resolve them.”
So, on the one hand religious imagination and science belong to different realms of human knowledge which makes division of labour implied in NOMA meaningless. “Scientific developments have made all religiously inspired pronouncements about the world simply unnecessary.”
On the other hand religious behaviour, thoughts and imagination are widespread, popular and easily maintained and transmitted because they accord with our evolved intuitions.
So much for any naïve atheist confidence that religion will disappear any time soon.
Persistence of religion
Religious notions persist and will continue to do so because “they are firmly rooted in the deepest principles of cognitive activity.” In summary Boyer describes three reasons:
1: Religious ideas violate some of our most basic intuitions (e.g., that agents have a position in space, that live beings grow old and die, etc.). This makes them memorable and easily transferred.
2: Religious ideas conform to many intuitive principles.
3: “Most religious norms and emotions are parasitic on systems creating similar norms (e.g., moral intuitions) and emotions (e.g., a fear of invisible contaminants) in non-religious context.”
I think, however, that we should recognise these reasons don’t necessarily, or inevitably, lead to religion, or religious beliefs, as commonly understood. They can result in other forms of superstition or magical thinking. They can also contribute to the variety of human personality and thinking styles present in human diversity. Including atheist ones.
Is “New Atheism” naive?
In a sense yes, says Boyer. He comments that modern atheists (“new atheists”?) are, “like their eighteenth-century predecessors” concentrating on critique of religion, rather than understanding “how religions work and what made them culturally successful.”
I agree, having often thought that modern atheist authors spend little time discussing the origins and persuasiveness of religion. However, Boyer’s criticism is a little strong considering that Daniel Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” does concentrate on this aspect, and makes use of Boyer’s work. Indeed, Dennett’s main message is that the “spell”, the taboo against scientific investigation of religion, must be broken.
However, Boyer sees these objections to “modern militant atheists’ as irrelevant. After all, their role is advocacy and consciousness-raising, rather than scientific investigation. “Modern atheists are trying to maintain the visibility of a particular intellectual positions (that religion is intrinsically ridiculous) and by implication of a certain kind of discussion (e.g. of moral issues without the help of superhuman agency) and a certain kind of existence (a life without constraints from religious institutions. That, I think, is a positive outcome by itself, and I would claim, it is so even for religious believers, once we consider the modern relations between religious institutions and civil society.”
Pascal Boyer’s previous book “Religion Explained” has become of a popular classic on the findings of the modern scientific investigation of religion. This present book is much shorter (112 pages compared with 375 pages) but provides a useful, compact and easily accessible overview of the field.
Further, it uses some of these scientific findings to explore issues like the science-religion relationship, the role of (and claims made by) religion in the moral sphere, and the problems religious thinking presents to modern and secular societies.
I think it is a valuable resource. And of use to a wider audience than the academic one its price suggests.
See also: The god gene – or is it a meme?