FIRST, A NOTE: In an interview in MaCleans Magazine, anthropologist Lionel Tiger criticizes the aggressive tone of the “New Atheism” by singling out writers such as Richard Dawkins for calling people who believe in religion “idiotic”. In his new book “God’s Brain” Tiger (with co-author psychiatrist Michael McGuire) argues that belief is completely natural to humans and that religion and church act as “seratonin factories” that sooth and comfort our brains.
Apologists such as Tiger (who do not critique the science nor the apparent human-source of all religious philosophy, but rather the “tone” of the outspoken atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and others) are referred to as “Framers”. They believe that reason can be appealed to more effectively through more gentle means. The argument of Tiger and the like seems to be that since religion is a natural phenomenon (apparently accepting the proposition put forth by Dennett), it is worthy of respectful inquiry, but not ridicule. I can go along with that…to a point.
But that doesn’t change this basic truth: We humans are capable of (as well as both biochemically and psychologically pre-disposed towards) believing any number of impossible things for reasons both defensible and ludicrous. Count me among those that have believed. Count me also among those that appreciate the no-holds barred approach of, say, a Hitchens. Having said that, however…
AND NOW, THE SERMON:
The other night I played Irish music for the annual St. Patrick’s corned-beef and cabbage dinner at a local Catholic school. As I looked out over the crowd I saw a community of people, drawn together (in this building that their individual contributions surely built) by a shared religion. I noticed the carefree little girl skipping down the isle between the rows of cafeteria tables to pluck a ticket from the shiny green cardboard “leprechaun hat” for one of the evening’s door prizes. I saw the Monsigneur (a long-time fixture of the town) and reflected on his vows of celibacy as he stood and played the upright piano with a flourish while leading the crowd in song: “When Irish eyes are smilin’ — okay, everyone!”
I did not see a room full of religious zealots holding signs of aborted fetuses in front of Planned Parenthood, or any sign of a child-abusing priest. I saw a community of fellow humans and sensed the warmth of their fellowship, as volunteers served up the trays of stewed meat and vegetables that they had cooked for their fellow church members.
There is so much to admire and love in a scene such as that. And looking at the families enjoying themselves, the bouncing kids and the tottering old folks, I would be hard pressed to wish upon them any weakening of the bonds that bind them together as a tribe. But must the bonds necessarily be those of constraining and invasive religions? No, of course not.
For humans will find about any excuse to group together: Religion, model railroads, Ham radio, music, Toastmasters, motorcycles, Aryan supremacy. Clearly we have a natural tendency to clump in groups large and small. I think we’re still a tribal Ice Age people thrust into a world of technology and change that is ever increasing in amplitude and thereby amplifying our “primitive” natures.
I think the T.E.A. Party phenomenon is a fine example of this reaching back to an imagined past where men were men, right and wrong were easily defined, and life was more easily understood. Of course nostalgia is so incredibly effective because it reduces the messiness of past times into a handful of notions and images. The entire founding of our nation can be condensed into a single chapter in a history book.
This is also the problem sciences like Anthropology and Paleontology face: a bit of a bone here, or an artifact there that in reality represents a single object or animal from a specific time that was rescued by accident and conspiring natural conditions to represent a vast, widely-populated and complex time line. In short, we glimpse an inch of millions of miles of history, a second out of millions of years. No wonder we can weave entire stories from such bits — they have been isolated from their actual lives and times that were, to be sure, no less complex and varied as our own. Imagine a scientist trying to reconstruct your entire life from that bit of bubble gum you left under your desk back in fourth grade? (To be accurate here, the scientist would be able to use the DNA you left behind to verify it was you that was actually in that classroom at a certain period of time, but they wouldn’t know what you were wearing or what you were going to have for dinner).
Nostalgia, then, is selective by its very nature. Even our individual pasts are remembered as an increasingly refined collection of stories and images. (Have you ever been presented with a photo of yourself from your past that you had never seen or known of and felt the surprising power it had to re-shuffle your organized memories?)
Conservative politics trades on the power of reductionist recollection as much as religion does: both are constantly harking back to an ideal of impossible simplicity, even as liberalism (and “New Age” belief) project an inevitable teleological advance toward ever higher levels of consciousness and spiritual advancement (based much more on hope than human history).
I tend to fall more into the hopeful-for-the-future camp, if for no other reason than the attachment to a return to an imagined past is both impossible to fulfill and, frankly, detrimental to whatever progress we humans might actually be capable of.
We all believe silly things, even as we try to be rational and fact-based. I feel the urge as much as anyone. But what I have managed to do is find the same chemical comfort that religion lends the human brain in a more reason-based pursuit of an informed life.
The proponents of religious belief, even when stripped of any factual basis for their creeds, will still resort to the claim (so richly attacked by Hitchens) that the benefits belief offers to the harried human soul can be purchased nowhere else but in their pews. And for the most part, they are correct. But that is much more a criticism of the current market of ideas than any ringing endorsement of their own product.
Other writers such as Sam Harris and Jeff Sharlett have called for a new narrative based on science and fact to replace the creaky tomes of our old religions. This is a breach I am doing my damnedest to wade into (like I said, I’m the “hopeful” type — my own version of believing in foolish things). Because the plain fact is that I have replaced religion (almost in the same way that I replaced my once nightly alcohol consumption with morning workouts at a gym, and over time traded my other addictions one by one for healthier alternatives and, eventually, dropped even the better substitutes altogether).
And so I find myself hesitant to rip from anyone’s shoulders the worn old spiritual garment that they wear without first having a new one to offer them in exchange. But even then I would be committing an assault to intrude on another human’s life in that way. Religion, of course, has rarely entertained such qualms. Which is one of the many reasons if does not deserve the market share it has enjoyed for so long.
So what am I (what are we) to do? I don’t know the entire answer to that. For now I write, I post, I wear my Darwin walking fish pin, plaster Church of Bob stickers on my truck and generally allow myself to be visible as a believer of not simply a different religion, but a believer of a different kind.
I love attacking ideas. I don’t love attacking people. Is this the same sort of cop-out as the evangelical “Hate the sin, but not the sinner?” Probably not. For I am not accusing anyone of committing a sin by believing what they do, for believing is looking more and more (based on the research) to be a completely natural phenomenon (like, say, homosexuality). I would not (like most religions) deny what is natural to us, or try to suppress or excise it. My argument would be to let our nature flow towards a more enlightened expression, a healthier outlet than the ones we first thought up those millennia ago.
Things have changed a lot since the Neolithic, and we are gradually catching up. Maybe we should start a new national campaign called “No Cavemen (Cavewomen) Left Behind!” Heck, maybe we could even find a way to get the likes of Beck and Limbaugh to lay down their clubs and join the circle around the fire of reason. (Having said that, do you need any further evidence that my own irrational side expresses itself in an unsupportable hopefulness?)
We all believe silly and insupportable things. It’s as much a part of having the brains we have as sneezing or liking particular foods. But what we cannot afford to do is to defend foolish ideas against evidence and thereby hold them long past their expiration date. Religion is an old idea. We can find better reasons to clump together as a human community.