He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Friday, November 21, 2014

Fair Questions: Does religion cause more harm than good? Part I

Over at the occasionally insightful Salon, Valerie Tarico posts a set of 6 reasons to justify the notion that religion does more harm than good.  I would like to examine these reasons and attempt to sort out the extent to which they might support the claim that religion does more harm than good.

In the course of this analysis, I will approach the claims as an empiricist with a scientific worldview so as not to prejudice my conclusions.  For the convenience of the reader, I will perform my analysis in parts, taking two of the author's claims at a time.

1.  Religion promotes tribalism.

The author cites verses from the Bible and the Koran to substantiate this claim.  And those verses do indeed indicate a mentality of tribalism.  That said, the first difficulty with this claim is that the evidence provided is simply insufficient to substantiate a general claim about religion.  It might substantiate a claim that, "Christianity and Islam promote tribalism."  Even that may be a stretch, because there are also verses in the Bible ("Love your enemy...") and the Koran ("...and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess.") which support an imperative to reach across tribal boundaries that might otherwise normally restrict the kindness of an "Iron Age" person.  In the end, the strongest claim that might be supported by the evidence offered by the author is the claim that, "Christianity and Islam promote tribalism in some cases and promote crossing tribal lines in other cases."

But to be fair, is it possible that we could make the claim inclusive of more religions?  Certainly. We could add other religions to the list and selectively quote their sacred texts as well.  The difficulty is that finding an example of tribalism in the Tao Te Ching would be far more difficult than finding one in the Koran.  Some religious texts have more tribal elements than others, and some have strong elements of universalism.  This makes it impossible to make the case that tribalism is a feature that is common to religions in general.

And even if we could find evidence to support the claim the religions, without exception, promote tribalism, then we face the problem of explaining the tribalism so obviously present in other areas of human life.  Why do we have extremely tribal and polarized political parties who consistently harangue the other party?  Why do we see the development of similar fault lines in secular governments (e.g. the U.S.S.R. and China and North Korea) in which there is one party that oppresses everyone else who isn't aligned with the party?  Why do our schools have cliques and our workplaces have in-groups and out-groups?  Why do our families often undergo division into people loyal to one family member and people loyal to another family member?

There's a very simple reason for this.  We evolved as pack animals, and we think in terms of friends and foes because that is a very functional way for a pack animal to operate when their survival depends on having reliable pack members to ensure their survival.  Tribalism isn't a function of religion.  It's a function of being human.

2. Religion anchors believers to the Iron Age. 

Granting the assumption that the author's moral intuitions are correct, there are nonetheless serious issues with this claim.  Once again, the author doesn't provide evidence sufficient to substantiate the claim that religion in general anchors people to the Iron Age and only focuses on a small subset of religions.  Scientology is about as far from an Iron Age religion as one could get, and it exhibits many attributes the author seems to find so troubling in those Iron Age religions, such as the reckless acquisition of wealth, a deep-seated need for control over its adherents, and wacky beliefs without good evidence for them.  The general claim that religion anchors believers to the Iron Age is dead on arrival.

This issue is compounded by the author's invocation of the Golden Rule, a rule that came out of a religion which (according to the author) is anchored to the Iron Age.  If this most excellent rule came out of the mentalities of some guy anchored to an Iron Age culture, a guy who upheld the capricious laws of the Torah, then why would we trust it?  Shouldn't we be suspicious of moral claims made by a guy like that?

That said, would we be justified in making the much more modest claim that "Judaism, Christianity, and Islam anchor their believers to the Iron Age?"  The author focused on those religions, so let's examine them.  Given that there are millions of contemporary Jews, Christians, and Muslims who oppose violence, superstition, misogyny, racism, and willful ignorance...well, it's difficult to take seriously the idea that those religions keep everyone in the Iron Age.  At best, we might be justified in claiming that, "People who want to anchored to the Iron Age can use a subset of religions to anchor themselves to the Iron Age."

The author makes the point that believers can easily find validation for their bad behavior.  So what?  What's surprising about people employing normal human confirmation bias to find evidence for their position anywhere they can while conveniently ignoring evidence that might counter their position?  If we are reading the author's article on religion to which I am responding, then we can see that this particular human trait is alive and well today.  The article is a great example of it.

What actually anchors us to the mentalities of the Iron Age is the fact that our brains are basically the same as our Iron Age forebears.  We are subject to the same in-group bias, confirmation bias, and agency over-detection that we see so clearly in the behavior of our ancestors.  Today we have widespread belief in clearly false conspiracy theories, irrational ideological allegiances, and a fascination with New Age occult practices.  Our cognitive errors are no more infrequent than the cognitive errors of our ancestors, though they may lead us to somewhat different incorrect conclusions.

Stay tuned for an examination of the 3rd and 4th claims.

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