Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Natural Religion?

Just before Christmas, this article appeared on the BBC website, on the subject of whether or not religion will ever disappear, given the increasing number and proportion of atheists in the world.  Overall it’s a very interesting article, but perhaps inevitably I have a few problems with it.  The author is a dedicated science writer, and to me the whole article reads like it was written by a fairly committed atheist, or even anti-theist, who is trying very hard to write a fair-minded article, but not quite succeeding.

The article treats ‘religion’ purely from a utilitarian, evolutionary perspective.  It discusses religion as a source of comfort, especially in periods of crisis or hardship, and a device for ensuring social cohesion in low-resource societies.  That religion provides these things is entirely true, but at no point does she approach, or even refer to religion as an intellectual construct for attempting to make sense of our physical universe and the more ethereal philosophical questions of its existence.  Instead she describes it as a quirk of human psychological development an in-built tendency to assume agency and intention where none is present.

My main problem with the article though is the strong inference (unless I’m just being incredibly over-sensitive and inferring things that aren’t there) that religion is essentially intellectually lazy and cowardly.  Rather than quote large chunks of the article, you’ll find most of this under the section entitled ‘Hard habits to break’.  The writer claims that because humans have an in-built, evolved tendency towards religiosity, atheists have to consciously fight against this.  She quotes; “With education, exposure to science and critical thinking, people might stop trusting their intuitions.  But the intuitions are there.”

Unsurprisingly, the implication that education, science and critical thinking are anathema to religion is one that I have very little time for.  The article goes on to suggest that because religiosity is a natural tendency, it’s easy while science is more cognitively difficult, even noble to pursue in the face of ignorant but powerful instinct.  It describes religion as ’the path of least resistance’.  I’ve posted before about the intellectual snobbery found in some atheists, and the condescending, self-satisfied attitude of ‘Well, whatever you need to get you through the day I suppose, but obviously I don’t need any such psychological crutch to cling to.’  I wonder if we’re not encountering a self-perpetuating myth that properly educated, intelligent people aren’t religious, therefore people dismiss religious ideas because they want to be thought of as educated and intelligent, meaning that those people considered educated and intelligent are the ones that have echewed religion.

Believing, as I do, in evolution, I am very well prepared to believe that we have evolved in ourselves a natural tendency towards religiosity.  Where I stop though is at the assumption that therefore this must mean that religion is false.  Religion may be an artificial psychological construction, but then, so is absolutely everything else.  After all, philosophically there are no verifiable things at all, only sensations.  If we’re not careful, we can drift into the seas of ’if one hand claps in a forest, but no-one’s around to hear it, does it still kill two birds in the bush?’ but, for example, in reality nothing is ’hard’ or ’warm’ or ’yellow’.  They simply are, and it is only when aspects of them are sensed by receptor nerves and the impulses sent by these nerves are interpreted by a mind can they be described using artificial psychological constructs designed to allow that mind to make sense of its surroundings, such as ’hard’, ’warm’ or ’yellow’.  Does that mean that an object isn’t, within our psycho-sensual framework, hard or warm or yellow?  Of course not.

An even better example is that of hunger.  I can tell you that I am hungry right now.  My wife will tell you that I am hungry all the time, but as I have pointed out on numerous occasions, this isn’t true, since sometimes I’m asleep.  But this merely highlights my example.  After all, technically, I am never hungry.  It would be more accurate to say that I feel hungry.  Hunger isn’t a real thing, it is merely a sensation.  If I'm asleep, I can't feel hungry, therefore it would not be accurate to describe myself as hungry, even if, as is alleged, my stomach rumbles in my sleep.  Hunger’s a very useful sensation, and has very sensibly been evolved to persuade us that it would be an excellent idea to go and eat something to stop yourself from dying.

Hunger is a naturally evolved, technically artificial, neurological cattleprod that drives us into certain behaviour.  Religion is, to my mind at least, exactly the same.  And just because I know that really there’s no such thing as hunger, that it’s something that my ancestors developed to give me an excuse for having elevenses, doesn’t mean that I must assume that there’s no such thing as food.

We evolved eyes to receive light, and that was very useful indeed, but the light was there before we could see it, or even had a concept of it.  We evolved ears to receive sound, but the air was oscillating long before.  We evolved hunger, and there were already things to eat.  We evolved a pyschological tendency to religion, and God was already there, waiting for us to encounter Him.

I’ll finish, as is my wont, by quoting C.S. Lewis:  "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

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