The Evolution of God, Part 2 12 April 2006Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion.
A friend from some of the post- and progressive Mormon forums I participate on, Bob McCue, wrote a great comment to my original post (read it here), and I thought it merited a new post and a continued conversation.
First, more on "memes." This is an idea that really must be addressed in the near future by either an anthropologist or a cultural sociologist. The idea that there are cultural units of meaning that circulate and function in a way analagous to genes drives me, a cultural sociologist, batty. The general idea that there are units of meaning may be mildly useful in cultural analysis, but drawing parallels with genes falls on its face after the most brief examination of how cultural meanings actually arise, circulate, transform, and fade away.
The research that claims that religiosity leads to more happy, healthy people is pretty well accepted now, but there are some problems with the conclusions that some people draw from them. First, these are studies conducted on Western populations that have had a noticable decline in community ties since industrialization. So in contemporary America, most Americans get community from religion, which affords them an identity and a 'group affiliation,' which can be lacking without a religion. What we know from community studies (this is outside my area, so I just know the basics) is that any positive and accepting group affiliation provides the sense of purpose and connection and community that religion does. In other words, that benefit is not unique to religion. After that, what you have is significant evidence that religiosity greatly reduces the likelihood that a teenager will have experimented with drugs, alcohol and sex. It does not eliminate the divorce rate among adults, but prolongs the marriage (the standard statistics use a four year time standard, whereas religious people go an average of 10 years without divorcing). Again, other factors, such as positive group affiliation and parental involvement, likewise reduce these risks in teenagers.
The problem with Dennett's analysis of tribalism of religion is simply that in small-scale, pre-modern societies, the identitification is with the tribe not the religion. In fact, religion as a separate thing is a product of large-scale, stratified social structures, and it doesn't even arise until after the agricultural revolution (only about 10,000 years ago). Dennett needs to look at the anthropology, here, because he has misplaced the cause of the group identification. The tribalism of small groups arises from the complex process of day-to-day interaction with people like yourself; it doesn't come from the religion. That is why I argued that historically and sociologically, to argue that the tribalism of religion gave a survival advantage is highly dubious (to me, at least). I agree that religion can have the effect of drawing intense insider/outsider boundaries, but historically, that is a feature of monotheisms; other world religions did not do that (and early Christianity actually didn't do it either).
That said, I completely agree with Dennett that regardless of all of that, religious tribalism (which is mostly a monotheistic trait) is highly maladaptive now.
I likewise agree with Bob that community identification is a major factor in overall human well-being, and that religious communities can often afford that sense to individuals without having the maladaptive and negative aspects of some forms of religion. I'm not anti-religion per se. I am highly critical of some of the ways some religions draw their boundaries; I reject the construction of "truth" in many contemporary religions (especially that of most monotheists); and I declaim the violence done in "god's" name. But I, like Bob, know of other socially responsible, deeply ethical religious communities, with open notions of "god" and "truth" that I find moving. On a personal note, since my break with mormonism nearly 10 years ago, I have been searching such a community for myself. I have found much joy in researching the world's religions, but haven't found that religious community that gives me both the communal affiliation I crave and allows me the intellectual freedom I need. Perhaps I'll simply always be skeptical of organized religion because of my experience in the Mormon church.
Excuse me while I put on my sociologist hat: The issue of the need for group belonging and identification and the dissolution of our communities and the devastating effect that has had on human well being has been the center of sociology since the mid-19th century. Basically, the argument goes that modernity represented a vast and sudden rupture in the lifestyles of human beings living in it, such that humans in modern societies (fully industrialized, organized bureaucratically, pluralist, and mass-mediated) live with a constant anomie (Durkheim) or alienation (Marx). The more I study modern society(ies), the more convinced I am of this reality. I think that it is no coincidence that the rise of fundamentalism coincides nearly always with modernization. Most recently, the rise of fundamentalist Hinduism in India demonstrates how even a universalist, pacifist, humane religion can be turned tribal, irrational, and bloody.
I think that a democracy fundamentally responsive to its consituents–instead of to capitalist interests–wherein people had the time and means and physical space to actual form communal bonds could go a long way to filling the hole left by modernization.