Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why be religious?

Contrary to the opinions of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hichens, religion arguably provides an edge or religion would not have appeared and then persisted in almost all cultures. Moral psychologist Johnathan Haidt makes that argument very strongly in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012).

Haidt's analysis is worth reading. Carefully nuanced and well documented, his position offers a strong counterpoint to scientific reductionism. If religion, as most of the New Atheists, contend is the source of most of the evil in the world and has nothing to contribute to human development, why is some form of religion pervasive throughout the wide diversity of human cultures? Why does religion continue to exist?

Logically, if religion disadvantages its adherents, then natural selection, whether genetically or culturally, should work against religion's continuing existence. (Incidentally, Haidt demonstrates that the emergence of human culture has greatly expedited the speed of genetic evolution, implying that religion, if it contributed nothing to survival, should disappear quickly.)

In brief, Haidt maintains that religion, by creating and sustaining human community, advantages its adherents. In community, kinship altruism broadens to become reciprocal altruism. Communities, especially religious communities, promote loyalty, discourage cheating, and encourage both fairness and caring, all of which advantage religious persons over the non-religious. Haidt's analysis begins with the work of Hume and Durkheim and ends by citing numerous contemporary studies that support his views.

Importantly, Haidt's conclusions do not depend upon theological propositions or particular expressions of religion. Instead, he approaches the issue scientifically, building upon sociological, psychological, and neurological theory and research.

Haidt's work complements that of Harold Koenig at Duke who focuses upon the health benefits of religion. Koenig's work is centered on individuals; Haidt's work centers on communities. Both are functional analyses that seek to determine what role religion plays in human life. Haidt completely ignores the issue of God; Koenig recognizes that although his work is suggestive of God's existence, the best he can demonstrate is correlation between belief and health.

Reading Haidt's book prompted two sets of musings:

  1. Most human behavior is selfish. The New Atheists claim that all human behavior is selfish, i.e., driven by genes attempting to replicate themselves. Richard Dawkins' memorably titled The Selfish Gene, for example, makes this argument. Haidt contends that some human behavior is also groupish, i.e., motivated by loyalty to the group. He delineates cultural and genetic evidence in support of this view. Groupish behavior explains why voters, contrary to widely held expectations, do not always vote in ways that best align with self-interest. Poor rural whites exemplify this incongruity, who tend to support tax cuts that benefit the wealthy and to oppose expanding potentially beneficial government transfer programs. What is wrong with encouraging religious commitment based on the advantages that it confers to members of religious communities? Perhaps Victoria Osteen, wife of the infamous megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, was correct when she suggested that church attendance should be more about what makes the worshipper happy and less about what God wants. Although that appears to fly in the face of conventional theology, God does want what is best for humans; why not be more open and direct about the benefits of religious participation?
  2. How would I systematically describe the benefits of being religious? What's your answer to that question? Here's my first effort at answering: The benefits of being religious are that (1) religion provides a caring, loyal community in which to live; (2) religion correlates with living a longer, healthier life; (3) religion provides one with a set of values (or virtues) that arguably lead to a fuller, richer life with greater prospects of passing those qualities to future generations; and (4) religion offers a framework for making sense of one's life. Haidt maintains that morality is pluralism, i.e., there are shared values but there are also multiple ways to balance those values, none of which is inherently superior to all others. This view coheres well with the proposition, advocated in previous Ethical Musings' posts, that there are many different paths to God. Obviously, the fourth benefit of religion - that it offers a framework for making sense of one's life - raises the questions of whether God exists, how one can experience God (if God does exist), and what that experience means for living.

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