Monday, January 30, 2006

Deleted bits from roots

NOTE: this is just some stuff that I cut out of the Roots post. I kind of like it (although it doesn't really go anywhere) so I've put it up as is, no one reads this stuff anyway, so hey!

My problem is as follows. Religion, defined loosely by a belief in some powerful and transcendent agent, is culturally universal. Every culture seems to have something that can be readily identified as religious belief. (This is NOT to say, of course, that every single individual in every single culture adheres to these beliefs.) Given this universality, a number of researchers have wondered whether religious belief is something that has an evolutionary explanation: is there any adaptive value in religion? We know that religious belief is somewhat heritable (some of the variation in belief is accounted for by genes) but is it adaptive? Well I'm not going to answer THAT question, but if you are interested Steven Pinker has a nice paper on it here. Sufficient to say that researchers disagree on this one, but most agree that adaptive or not there is something about human minds that leads them to believe in the transcendental. Even in the UK (where church going has decreased alarmingly) most say they believe in something even if they have little knowledge of what that something is. Religion might therefore be like language; something that is more properly thought of as being acquired rather than being learned. If other languages are around then children will learn the one they hear, but if there aren't, then they will just create their own. This seems to have happened in natural "experiments" such when deaf children were institutionalised in Nicaragua, or when children turn the pidgins spoken to the by adults into creoles (see here for more on this).

All of this suggests that a group of babies became isolated from all other human contact and (and here I stretch a point) managed to grow up into adulthood, they would more than likely have not just a language but also a religion (of some sort). (William Golding reflected on this point in The Lord of the Flies albeit with children rather than babies).

OK so if the above is all true (which is a moderately sized if I agree) is it possible to do anything about religion? If we try to ban religion (which is kind of what he seems to want -- at the very least he wants us to stop teaching it to children) would it work? Would it not be rather like trying to ban language? Or to take Kurt Vonnegut's memorable recollection in Slaughterhouse Five when he tells a friend that he is going to write an anti-war book his friend replies "why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?". Meaning that for all the good intentions war is going to happen whatever novelists might say.

If we think a little more about Dawkin's argument he appears to be making two claims that are logically separable.

1. Religion is bad because it is intellectually dishonest and "gets in the way" of a scientific understanding of the world which is, in his view, more interesting than the rather prosaic explations offered up by religious creation myths.

2. Religion is bad because it leads to cross-cultural conflict, dehumanising the other and legitimising murder, rape and genocide (see my earlier blog on disgust).

The first is his argument (and mine) against the intelligent designers and why they should be kept out of the science classrooms. The second is his argument against Osama Bin Laden, Ian Paisley and their various followers. But religions are currently struggling with both of these. There are an increasing number of Darwinian priests and there are certainly many from all religions who reject violence against the other. Dawkins's discussion with the Bishop of Oxford (a Christian who accepts scientific explanations of the origins of life and the universe) was revealing as Dawkins admitted that he almost had more understanding of the bible-belt fundamentalists than of the watered-down religion of the Christian left. The problem is, however, that if we assume that religion is like language (or glaciers), and we want to avoid 1 and 2, then perhaps this is the best we can hope for.

And my goodness it can be very good. Liberals will often shy away from the whole idea that one tells, instructs or teaches someone something. (Educational theorists will often talk about "negotiating knowlege" -- I kind of know what they mean, but I don't imagine when they are lost in a strange town they wind their window down and ask a passerby if they can between them "negotiate the way to the university").

Work things out for yourself, indeed. Be critical and do not blindly accept, of course. But this should not undermine the power of teaching.

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