atheism, altruism, and love
Monday, June 18 2007
Gretchen gets New York Times Select as part of her crossword puzzle addiction, so I still get my twice weekly dose of Paul Krugman, the only opinion columnist I enjoy reading. Yesterday, though, I saw an opinion piece by one Stanley Fish about atheism that I couldn't resist reading. Either I was going to be amazed and delighted by the New York Times running an article daring to blow a hole in the stifling irrationality of our religious culture or else I was going to be entertained by someone making arguments for the perpetuation of medieval superstition in a modern world. Not surprisingly, the New York Times being a mainstream newspaper constantly under attack for a purported liberal bias, I was going to have to settle for the latter.
Fish starts with the existence of altruism, which Francis S. Collins (a religious Darwinist) cites as evidence for forces outside the purely natural. Fish then attacks Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins (two atheists with best-selling books) for their "faith" that a purely naturalistic explanation will be found for altruism, claiming this faith puts them in the same league with what they are attacking. But does it really? Is there a difference between faith that inexplicable supernatural forces underlie certain phenomena and the kind of faith that says that some day science might offer (and that's the formulation they use) a purely naturalistic explanation? In a few paragraphs I'll offer Darwinian hypotheses explaining both the existence of altruism and the overwhelming feeling of love, so keep reading.
For the most part, us atheists are perfectly happy not talking about the absence of our belief in an all-powerful deity, much as we're happy not talking about how we don't believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. We also don't talk much about unicorns, the Loch Ness Monster, and the massive teapots that might one day be found orbiting Saturn. The universe of things that could possibly exist but have never been observed is massive, though the things that are widely believed based only on faith belong to a much smaller class. It's only after we have had our noses repeatedly rubbed in such nonsense that we feel the need to speak out. The ascendancy of non-rational thought under the Bush administration (and the inevitable catastrophes that have resulted) are directly responsible for the number of books attacking religion one now sees on the New York Times Best Seller List.
One key liability of faith that I rarely see discussed is its intimate connection with a specific culture. For example, a Christian hoping to convince an atheist of the reality of Christianity comes to the discussion armed with a set of gospels particular to a tiny piece of Middle Eastern geography, as filtered several hundred years later by Mediterranean elites with a specific agenda. If that Christian's aim is larger, that is, if he hopes to convince the atheist that the world was put together according to the Judeo-Christian creation myth, the geographical basis of his source material is further restricted, and the filtering effects of elites with agendas is increased. Would or should someone in China, India, Europe, Africa, Australia, or America accept that God only spoke to people in the Middle East, and did so numerous times, even sending his only son there, while completely ignoring people in other parts of the world? This question alone inspired into existence an entire new branch of Christianity, Mormonism. But it too wears geographical blinders when it comes to the world of people outside the small community of its founders. Other religions, particularly Islam, are similarly flawed. (The saving grace of Judaism is that it doesn't pretend to be a religion for people who are not ethnic Jews, and its claim that a Jewish God created the entire Universe, including people who might never have been Jews, comes across more as bravado from a self-admittedly jealous deity than something to be accepted as fact.)
Compare such geographically-mired world views with the world view provided by the sciences. Science as we know it is mostly a European invention, with origins in Greece, enhancements in the Arab world, refinements throughout the European Renaissance, and gradual spread to academia worldwide. But, to the extent that science makes narrow claims tainted by the viewpoint of the scientist making the claim, it is always open to revision. If a European scientist, for example, concludes that Europeans are the smartest people in the world because they have been able to supplant non-Europeans over much of it, a Chinese scientist can later make a convincing argument that perhaps Europeans were just lucky to be the beneficiaries of Eurasian agriculture and a European geography conducive to naval competition. Such an argument was actually made by Jared Diamond, an American of Jewish descent, but it was so perfectly reasoned that it swept aside the remnants of European Superman theory still present in anthropology. No such paradigm shifts can happen in the rigid world of religious dogmas, where embarrassing doctrines can't be uprooted and tossed aside but can, at best, be gradually smothered beneath layers of ever-more-obfuscating interpretations of the foundation documents, texts written, remember, by people in a claustrophobic ancient world.
This gets to the heart of why science will always be more "true" than any religion. Science is set up to admit its mistakes and make revisions based on new evidence, whereas every religion assumes that truth in its purest form was, at some point in history, "revealed," and that the only thing time and new insights can do is muddy the revelation (which, of course, they do). Science follows a Darwinian model in which belief (and yes, what scientists think at any one time is indeed a belief) is gradually tweaked over time in the direction of reality, whereas religion follows the creationist model, seeing every change as a detour away from truth towards heresy and corruption. Thus every religion will always be, in some way, small and inflexible, having been designed by wise men more ignorant and parochial than those that exist today.
With the exception of religious converts, religious people believe arbitrary sets of unproven ideas only because these sets were given to them by their parents, and they would have believed any arbitrary sets of unproven ideas their parents might have given them. Anyone with the capacity to reflect on this should experience profound moral doubts along the lines of, "What if Greek polytheism is the one true religion, and now it's extinct?"
And now I'd like to take a moment tearing down the oft-heard notion that "religion and science are compatible because they explain different things." The problem with this argument is that religious people are always trying to use their ancient texts to explain things that scientists have pretty well figured out. The creationism/Darwinism struggle is an example of this, as was Galileo's difficulties with the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, science (with the enormous religion-irrelevancifying power that is generalized Darwinism) has been steadily developing explanations for many phenomena whose explanation has long been reserved for religion. Take "love" and "altruism" as examples. From a Darwinian perspective, a mother's love for her child makes perfect sense, because without its having developed none of us would be here. And to function, it has to be overwhelming and transcendent in intensity. As for altruism, it's a factor of benevolent participation in a community and serves to strengthen it, and communities, like individuals, genes, societies, etc., also undergo Darwinian competition, with the most functional tending to survive and perpetuate the genes of their members. Love may be sweet to behold and feel overwhelming when experienced, but it was created by the cold, unfeeling engine of natural selection. Not to blow any minds with my reductionism, but if something feels overwhelming and worthy of religious awe, then it's probably an instinct, something also experienced by nesting birds and busy ants.
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