Monday, November 23, 2009

Missing the Forest

"But philosophy has no direct influence on the great mass of mankind; it is of interest to only a small number even of the top layer of intellectuals and is scarcely intelligible to anyone else. On the other hand, religion is an immense power which has the strongest emotions of human beings at its service."

Freud, "The Question of a Weltanschauung"

Unlike some of the highly vocal neo-atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the militantly unbelieving Freud did not underestimate the opposition--he recognized that religion's roots go far deeper than the relatively thin soil of the intellect. A few sentences on in the essay quoted, he argues that religion performs three crucial functions: "It gives [human beings] information about the origin and coming into existence of the universe, it assures them of its protection and of ultimate happiness in the ups and downs of life and it directs their thoughts and actions by precepts which it lays down with its whole authority."

Providing (purported) knowledge, existential succor, and morality all at once, religion is the ultimate in one-stop shopping. Its transcendental simplicity is hard to beat, not least because the experience of it is both deeply personal and reassuringly communal.

Arts and Letters Daily today provides a link to an Edge article by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein that dispassionately dismantles 36 proposed arguments for the existence of God. All of the classic ones are there--the argument from ontology, from design, from pragmatism--and the fatal flaws of all are coolly and mercilessy exposed; I have come across many alleged proofs and disproofs of God, but never so neatly summarized in one place.

It's all there, literally in black and white, and yet the believer could still say that if this is what logic and consistency demonstrate, then so much the worse for logic and consistency. Indeed, considering the overwhelmingly religious history of humanity, this kind of logical coup de grace really shows how unphilosophical (in the narrow logical sense) human beings tend to be.

For believers, faith is least of all a matter of empiricism or logic. It is a tradition, a way of life, and a profound emotional need, but it is a philosophy only in the post hoc sense that cognitive dissonance must be suppressed somehow. And as some increasingly argue, religion's pride of place in human nature may have a deep evolutionary source.

Given that religious traditions have arisen independently but in parallel patterns across millenia and across the world, it isn't hard to imagine that faith may have offered a survival advantage to groups in a range of circumstances. In this respect religion has been likened to language--the innate capacity is there, and in both cases children famously absorb the tradition in which they are raised.

How to explain agnostics then? Language is so deeply genetic that, barring severe disorders or early linguistic deprivation, its capacity is universal. Religion obviously isn't like that. I wonder if evolution could have provided not only for the propensity for religion, but also for a certain fractional dissent therefrom. I'm speculating that groups with a truly universal religious "gene" may have tended to become rigid or complacent as compared to groups with more flexible religiosity, even if that made it possible, even inevitable, for agnostic psychology to flourish at least as part of a population. Indeed, religion may benefit, even require, an agnostic opposition in order to remain viable over the long term.

Evidence shows that agnostics and atheists, taken individually, can be as healthy, happy, and productive as believers. But the question for the future of religion is whether it is morally and culturally feasible for unbelievers to constitute a majority or even all of a population. Yes, Europe is famously growing quite secular, but birthrates there have also fallen alarmingly. Are relatively agnostic societies, like agnostics themselves, the exceptions that prove the rule?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Conflict and contention are generally productive/constructive/progressive. Humanity would have long been absurdly reduced to a complacent dead-end nothing if it weren't for the irrational and rational intuitions we're all inclined towards that subtract and add to form new conceptions of beingness/existence along with its evolutions/contingencies/revolutions of meaning/s. Healthful ideological friction just makes good evolutionary sense.