This piece in the Guardian has caused a little storm, and I’m not so naive as to be totally surprised by that. There’s much I could say about it, but frankly it never helps. I’m tired of how little productive dialogue ever seems to stem from these things and figure I will just leave the damned business alone (no doubt to the delight of the more rapid detractors). I will say here only a few things about this pre-edited version, which was necessarily slimmed down to fit the slot in the printed paper: (1) to those who thought I was saying “hey, wouldn’t it be a great idea if sociologists studied religion”, note the reference to Durkheim as a shorthand way of acknowledging that this notion goes back a long, long way; (2) note that I’m not against everything Dawkins stands for on this subject – I agree with him on more than just the matter of faith schools mentioned below, although of course I do disagree with other things. The “for us or against us” attitude that one seems to see so much of in online discussions is the kind of infantile attitude that I figure we should be leaving to the likes of George W. Bush.
The research reported this week showing that American Christians adjust their concept of Jesus to match their own sociopolitical persuasion will surely surprise nobody. Liberals regard Christ primarily as someone who promoted fellowship and caring, say psychologist Lee Ross of Stanford University in California and his colleagues, while conservatives see him as a firm moralist. In other words, he’s like me, only more so.
Yes, it’s pointing out the blindingly obvious. Yet the work offers a timely reminder of how religious thinking operates that has so far been resolutely resisted by some strident “new atheists”.
You might imagine that it’s uncontentious to suggest that religion is essentially a social phenomenon, not least because particular varieties of it – fundamentalist, tolerant, mystical – tend to develop within specific communities united by geography or cultural ties rather than arising at random throughout society. Without entering the speculative debate about whether religiosity has become hardwired by evolution, it seems clear enough that specific types of religious behaviour are as prone to be transmitted through social networks as are, say, obesity and smoking.
Bizarrely, this is ignored by some of the most prominent opponents of religion today. Arguments about science and religion are mostly conducted as if Emile Durkheim had never existed, and all that matters is whether or not religious belief is testable. Many atheists prefer to regard religion as a virus that jumps from one hapless individual to another, or a misdirection of evolutionary instincts – in any case, curable only with a strong shot of reason. These epidemiological and Darwinian models have an elegant simplicity that contamination with broader social and cultural factors would spoil. Yet the result is akin to imagining that, to solve Africa’s AIDS crisis, there is no point in trying to understand African societies.
Thus arch new atheist Sam Harris swatted away my suggestion that we might approach religious belief as a social construct with the contemptuous comment that I was saying something “either trivially true or obscurantist”. I find it equally peculiar that chemist Harry Kroto should insist that “I am not interested in why religion continues” while so devoutly wishing that it would not.
At face value, this apparent lack of interest in how religion actually manifests and propagates in society is odd coming from people who so loudly deplore its prevalence. But I think it may not be so hard to explain.
For one thing, regarding religion as a social phenomenon would force us to see it as something real, like governments or book groups, and not just a self-propagating delusion. It is so much safer and easier to ridicule a literal belief in miracles, virgin births and other supernatural agencies than to consider religion as (among other things) one of the ways that human societies have long chosen to organize their structures of authority and status, for better or worse.
It also means that one might feel compelled to abandon the heroic goal of dislodging God from his status as Creator in favour of asking such questions as whether particular socioeconomic conditions tend to promote intolerant fundamentalism over liberal pluralism. It turns a Manichean conflict between truth and ignorance into a mundane question of why some people are kind or beastly towards others. Yet to suggest that we can relax about some forms of religious belief – that they need offer no obstacle to an acceptance of scientific inquiry and discovery, and will not demand the stoning of infidels – is already, for some new atheists, to have conceded defeat. They will not have been pleased with David Attenborough’s gentle agnosticism on Desert Island Discs, although I doubt that they will dare say so.
The worst of it is that to reject an anthropological approach to religion is, in the end, unscientific. To decide to be uninterested in questions of how and why societies have religion, of why it has the many complexions that it does and how these compete, is a matter of personal taste. But to insist that these are pointless questions is to deny that this important aspect of human behaviour warrants scientific study. Harris’s preference to look to neuroscience – to the individual, not society – will only get you so far, unless you want to argue that brains evolved differently in Kansas (tempting, I admit).
Richard Dawkins is right to worry that faith schools can potentially become training grounds for intolerance, and that daily indoctrination into a particular faith should have no place in education. But I’m sure he’d agree that how people formulate their specific religious beliefs is a much wider question than that. The Stanford research reinforces the fact that a single holy book can provide the basis both for a permissive, enquiring and pro-scientific outlook (think tea and biscuits with Richard Coles) or for apocalyptic, bigoted ignorance (think a Tea Party with Sarah Palin). Might we then, as good scientists alert to the principles of cause and effect, suspect that the real ills of religion originate not in the book itself, but elsewhere?