Us vs. Them: Is Religious Belief to Blame?
by Dr. Benjamin Wiker
J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer have written a pop-piece editorial for the L.A. Times, “Science and religion: God didn’t make man; man made gods.” It’s actually a slightly disguised promo for their new book, Why We Believe in God(s) which purports to tell us the cause of religious belief, and hence the cure.
Actually, the cure comes first; or rather, what is first and foremost in their allegedly scientific minds is that religion is a kind of disease that needs a cure. Then, having taken for granted that religion is the cause of all that ails humanity, they go on to tell us the cause of all religion. Once we know the cause—our DNA, that old culprit, that chemical Satan of all our woes and author of our never-ending fall—then that knowledge itself will, magically, break the spell of religion, and release humanity for its bright summer of happy unbelief.
Excuse me while I stifle a yawn. Yet another Dawkinsy rehash of the “religion is bad, evolution causes religion, let us break free from the genetic chains that bind us to irrational belief” kind of books. (Be amazed: Thomson serves as a trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.)
Here’s the basic plot. “Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection. They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past.”
Got that? Trait X can be hypothesized to have helped Tribe Y to survive. Trait X can be anything, from something obvious (the capacity to cooperate) to something weird but undeniably necessary (the capacity not to mistake your foot for your nose).
How does that get us to religion? Trait X is then hypothesized as being useful for baneful religious practice Z. “Among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce ‘out-group’ hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies. Religion hijacks these traits. The rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, for example, or the doctrinal battles between Protestant and Catholic reflect our ‘groupish’ tendencies.”
And the conclusion? Stop the religious hijackery! “We can be better as a species if we recognize religion as a man-made construct. We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason.”
Would that Thomson and Aukofer had taken a bit more advantage of that ability themselves! The first problem with this line of reasoning is that it is based upon the Enlightenment assumption that religion is the cause of all our woes, and that science is fundamentally opposed to religion…
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