May 01, 2007
The new atheism-4: The new questions posed by the new atheists
Religious beliefs are ubiquitous and have been around for a long time despite the lack of any convincing empirical evidence in support of the beliefs. As I have said before, the evidence asked for is not unlike the evidence required if someone says that there are three kinds of electric charge in the universe, as opposed to the two kinds that scientists currently believe in. You have to provide data to support that contention. If you don't, people are perfectly justified in rejecting that position. To assert that a third kind of charge exists but it has no measurable and observable effect on anything is not a position that has any intellectual merit. And yet that seems to be precisely the kind of argument that elite religionists are making.
That is not the only kind of evidence that god could provide. Sam Harris in his book Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 78) points to a website that asks why the people who claim that god heals people in response to prayers never seem to pray to have the limbs of amputees re-grow, even though salamanders routinely do this without any prayer. As the website says: "If we pray for anything that is impossible -- for example, regenerating an amputated limb or moving Mt. Everest to Newark, NJ -- it never happens. We all know that. If we pray for anything that is possible, the results of the prayer will unfold in exact accord with the normal laws of probability."
Yet despite this lack of evidence, almost all societies at all times seem to have had some form of religious beliefs and observances and this naturally begs the question of why this is so. Religious people and theologians will answer that this is because god really does exist and people have sensed god's presence in some way. This then requires an explanation of why, if there is a single god, there are so many varieties of religious beliefs that are quite different.
One commonly accepted explanation is that only one religion is right and the rest are wrong. This assumes that only one particular religious group managed to sense correctly the right nature of god. The catch, as we all know, is that each of the different religions believes that they are the truly special ones and there seems to be no way of determining which belief is correct.
But another explanation can be obtained by bringing social scientists and anthropologists into the picture, and trying to explain the divergence of beliefs in this single god in the light of historical contingencies. In other words, they argue that god's presence is revealed to humans in such subtle ways that people interpret god in the light of their immediate social and cultural contexts, leading to different conceptions of the one god at different times and different places. Why is god so subtle in leaving clues instead of being direct? That is put down to inscrutability.
But one can easily come up with yet more alternative explanations. One (which I just made up in the course of writing this post) is that there isn't just a single god but many gods, each competing for the allegiance of people on Earth. In other words, rather than one religion being right and all the others wrong, they are all right. The Jewish god, Christian god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and all the other gods that people worship are all separate entities, playing a game according to some rules they have agreed upon that results in the people on Earth, who are the 'pieces' in their game, competing as proxies to see which god is going to emerge the winner with the most followers.
This explanation explains quite a lot that a single god model does not. For example, take the problem of why bad things happen to good people. When people suffer for no discernible reason, this model could argue that it is caused by one god trying to make the believer in another god angry with their current god and shift their allegiance. This model would also explain why for most religions apostasy is one of the biggest sins and unquestioning faith and devotion are portrayed as great virtues, because all these things discourage people from switching allegiances and thus causing their god to lose the game.
It is often argued that religions can also arise even in the absence of any god because the notions of an all-powerful god and the existence of an afterlife are so comforting for those who fear death, that they have been tempted to invent a benevolent father figure and a life after this life. Or that religion arose because ancient people were trying to find explanations for the wonders of the natural world and the idea of a cosmic creator made sense to them. These kinds of explanations arise from the fields of individual and social psychology.
But such explanations for the existence of religion are not satisfying for those who look at it from the point of view of evolutionary biology because they come in response to the wrong question. For such scientists, it is not enough to suggest that religion came into existence because it satisfies psychological needs. Since the paradigm for them is evolution by natural selection, a satisfactory explanation would have to answer the harder question of why it was evolutionarily advantageous for those individuals who had predispositions for behaviors that result in religion coming into being to be preferentially selected over those individuals that did not. Saying that beliefs in god and the afterlife satisfy human curiosity and are comforting may be true but miss the point.
The answer to this question is not at all obvious. On the face of it, religion is at an evolutionary disadvantage because evolution prefers those organisms that use their time and resources wisely and efficiently to propagate their genes. It is hard to see how people who seem to want to spend their energy and resources building places of worship, and their time in worship, can have an advantage (in terms of natural selection survival) over other humans who use their time in more productive ways such as cultivating food or building better shelters or hunting prey.
This is why the entrance of natural scientists into the science-religion debate has shaken things up so much, because they are not only asking new questions, they are suggesting that they may soon be able to provide biologically-based answers to age old questions of then origins of morality and religion and consciousness.
More to come. . .
POST SCRIPT: NPR host audition
I heard that NPR is having an American Idol style contest to find the next National Public Radio program host. A good friend of mine Daniel Steinberg has submitted an audio clip which you can listen to here and then rate him.
I listened and he has a terrific voice, very NPR-y. But even more important than that is that as a host Daniel (by training a mathematician but now diversified into many areas) would bring with him a sharp intelligence, wit, broad knowledge, a good humored approach, and common sense.
I hope you will listen and vote accordingly. To avoid ballot stuffing, there is a quick registration process to assign you a password before you can vote, but that was quick and painless and they do not ask intrusive personal questions.