Religion As A Morally and Politically Ambivalent Force

Two weeks ago, I profiled various remarks from Jerry Coyne for the incisive way they challenged assumptions that (1) religion is indispensable for moral progress, (2) that religion is even on balance usually an aid to moral progress, and (3) that moral progress is even something observable over the course of history.  Coyne’s remarks were written as attempts to rebuff what he took to be the main theses of Robert Wright’s new book The Evolution of God.

Now Wright is challenging Coyne’s reading of The Evolution of God, providing textual excerpts which he claims show his positions on religion’s mixed blessings to be much more in line with those Coyne’s own.  Rather than refuting him, Wright argues that Coyne offers insights already accounted for within the book itself.  In reply to Coyne’s claim that Wright thinks religious and moral history has been “driven by God,” Wright cites The Evolution of God (pages 448 and 401):

This book’s account of the moral direction of history has been a materialist account. We’ve explained the expansion of the moral imagination as an outgrowth of expanding social organization, which is itself an outgrowth of technological evolution, which itself grows naturally out of the human brain, which itself grew naturally out of the primordial ooze via biological evolution. There’s no mystical force that has to enter the system to explain this, and there’s no need to look for one.”

We can explain the complex functionality of organisms without positing a god. The explanation is natural selection.

And against the claim that Wright had argued that monotheism was inherently a morally improving innovation over polytheism, Wright quotes pg. 173 where he rebufs the idea that in its origins monotheism’s universalism was a moral kind:

If you look at the earliest biblical texts that plainly declare the arrival of monotheism and you ask which of their various sentiments seems to most directly motivate that declaration, the answer would seem closer to hatred than to love, closer to retribution than to compassion. To the extent that we can tell, the one true God—the God of Jews, then of Christians, and then of Muslims—was originally a god of vengeance.

Wright points to passages in The Evolution of God where he notes that Paul’s gesture of wider moral inclusion beyond ethnic barriers still did not translate into love and tolerance outside of his religion and then he shows his text’s acknowledgments of the violent strands of the Koran and its interpretation.  Which then brings us to what Wright says he really thinks about whether religion is either inevitably or indispensably an aid to moral progress:

Which raises the question of what I do believe about moral progress. Well, (1) I’m only talking about progress along one dimension—a growing circle of moral inclusion, even across ethnic and national bounds, that is visible in most places across millennia, though not necessarily across decades or even centuries. This is the progress that Peter Singer documented in his book The Expanding Circle, that Steven Pinker has noted and theorized about, and that many other thinkers acknowledge as well. (2) Unlike Singer, I’m attributing this expanding circle mainly to the expansion of social organization—in particular, to the growing scope of “non-zero-sumness” or interdependence. (3) Though I argue in this book that all three Abrahamic religions have shown a responsiveness to these dynamics—that is, they generally get more tolerant, less belligerent, in response to non-zero-sum dynamics—I emphasize that there’s no guarantee that, as social organization approaches the global level, humankind will make the necessary moral adaptation; we may instead see social chaos on an unprecedented scale.

I don’t argue that religious belief is a pre-requisite for this moral progress; atheists are presumably just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers. The values system in question—religious or secular—is a kind of “neutral medium” through which underlying social dynamics find their moral manifestation.

I find myself very sympathetic to Wright’s narrower thesis as here presented.  As can be seen throughout my argument for gay marriage, and in my discussion of the psychological challenge of inculcating visceral concern for world poverty in people, I also view moral progress in terms of the struggle to further widen our circles of inclusion.  I see the struggle as being against evolutionary conditioning from primeval times in which tribal loyalty and extra-tribal hostility were more necessary aids to preservation.  I view our greatest moral struggles to be ones of overcoming group-based belligerence.  And, like Coyne and Wright, I do not think any divine agency guarantees progress or think that whatever progress has already been achieved has happened in either a linear or a constant fashion.

As a committed secularist, I am happy to point out religion’s complicity with numerous instances of regression into tribalism throughout history.  But also I take Wright’s frequent warnings that it is naive in most cases to argue as though religion leads to conflict and exclusivism all by itself, in a political and social vacuum—as though only removing religion could either prevent or end all conflicts which presently have religious dimensions.  Real world politics is always more complicated than that and not all human conflict can be blamed only on religion.

Nonetheless, I think a case can be made that while religion is not solely responsible for all the conflicts in which it plays a part and while it can be more and less inclusive and adaptable, religious and secular values systems are not merely “neutral media” through which moral progress can work.  There are aspects of religion which inherently oppose the expansion of inclusiveness and aspects of secularism which inherently incline against exclusivity.    Valuing religiosity itself entails valuing certain values that are in conflict with wide inclusiveness  insofar as religiosity depends on establishing highly specified faith traditions.  This is because specific faith traditions inevitably need to demarcate themselves from other traditions, creating an incentive for exclusivity.  They also depend for their substance, as specific faith traditions on shared rituals and symbols which inevitably exclude those outside their particular faith bonds.  So far these things are of themselves of course just inevitable features of the ineradicably human practice of forming groups.  But what makes them problematic in the case of religions is that they are tied to a commitment to value rationally unjustifiable claims in the form of beliefs taken on faith alone.

Insofar as religions praise this practice of holding intellectual positions for which outsiders may not demand any adequate defense, religions insulate themselves (and their members) from full criticism from the outside.  And insofar as religions inculcate these beliefs that admit of no possible proof on purely rational grounds, they give their faithful believers many dogmatic claims about the world and morality by which to judge circumstances and other people in ways that those outside the faith would have no theoretical reason to accept.   This inevitably leads serious religious believers who take their faith’s propositions to heart doomed to perpetual conflicts with their neighbors from different traditions.

This is most problematic of course when political decisions are negotiated with one or more parties advocating theologically influenced positions that cannot be acceptable to those outside the tradition.  But it is not only on the political level that a great deal of intractable moral and intellectual angst and frustration is expended in conflicts between believers from competing traditions and between believers and non-believers.  These are disagreements are distinguishable from other protracted intellectual, moral, political, and social disputes which at least admit of theoretical resolution since disputes which involve faith beliefs are inherently irresolvable by reason.

By contrast, while secularism can surely be wedded to similarly closed-minded habits of thought, it does not inherently praise faith in unfounded beliefs as an ideal the way that religion does.  Secularism is inherently more likely to lead to rationalism since the secularist, by definition, identifies himself in a cosmopolitan way, as secular, as part of the world rather than narrowly as part of a specific tradition (which identification is usually epitomized by his faith identification).

Rationalism and fideism are not equally neutral mediums for the values of inclusiveness.  Rationalism inherently includes all rational beings when it demands we always give reasons to each other and demand reasons from each other.  If reason alone is to be the judge of opinions (insofar as “reason alone” is a practically realizable ideal, of course), then they are in principle laid open to the judgment of all rational beings who are adequately qualified to judge them.  If faith is permitted to judge the truth of a given tradition’s opinions then those viewpoints can theoretically be adequately assessed only by that tradition’s faithful and they are beyond the criticism of both the faithless and those faithful to a different set of competing dogmas.

It is true that a particular faith can interpret itself in a way that minimizes hostilities towards neighboring states and faiths and Wright’s case that faiths do precisely this when it is in their practical interests is both extremely intriguing and hope inducing.  But this does not mean that this is the most ideal or efficient way to persuade people towards inclusivity.  When trying to persuade a faith tradition to become more inclusive, you have to use far more than rational appeals to morality and self-interest but you often have to contort that tradition’s holy texts and other authorities in numerous places to show how the change can be interpreted as “the true meaning of the faith.”  This usually involves a whole lot of hermeneutically disingenuous whitewashing of the complicated history that Wright knows really comprise religious traditions.  This is a tedious and uncertain task which could very well fail in any particular case and it’s not an obstacle when dealing with rationalistic traditions.

For Wright’s insights to be effective and persuade normal believers, they have to be able to ignore or downplay the significance of their traditions’ dark sides to which he honestly calls our attention.  They cannot admit that they are adopting a moral standard of increasing inclusiveness that is defensible separately from their traditions and is the best means for evaluating their goodness and badness throughout history.  For the religious person, the faith has to in some significant way be itself an indispensable source of moral guidance or why bother with it?  If all it is going to do is follow the guidance of secular moral reasoning, why not just go ahead and become a rationalistic secularist and ditch the pretense to having a revealed faith by which God guides your group specially?

Rationalists, by contrast, are in principle free to change their minds and admit that their previous habits of moral judgments were erroneous or that their traditions are flawed.  Of course, even rationalists have strong  traditionalist ties too (such as to the Enlightenment and to ideals like equality, human rights, etc.) but they are all revisable in a far more self-aware way than faith traditions allow as a rule.  Rationalism makes opposition to dogma its highest duty and so introspects its own dogmas where faith traditions are constantly trying to safeguard theirs and to compromise only under severe practical pressure and always while trying to save face that the tradition was always essentially correct.

As long as there are human beings, there will be human groups, and as long as there are human groups there will be degrees of exclusivity towards those who are outside our groups.  Or at least there will always be a tendency to prefer our narrower circles to our wider ones as we are encompassed by wider concentric group circles.  No matter how cosmopolitan we can get ourselves to become, no matter whether we can eventually even ingrain in ourselves genuine fellow feeling for humanity at large and get to the point where we have no group of Others whatsoever whom we hate or dehumanize—we will likely always still prefer our family and friends over our colleagues, our colleagues over mere acquaintances, acquaintances over strange fellow countrymen, our fellow countrymen over others in our particular geographical alliance, etc.  on outward to the whole human race taken as one large group with which we identify.  In other words, even if we maximally diminish the human mind’s tendency to judge according to in-group/out-group dichotomies, we will likelystill rank our preferences and retain stronger group identities in our narrower circles than in our wider ones.

The problem with religion is that by introducing the irrationalism of faith, as an over the top means of inculcating allegiance to tradition, it makes it harder for people to see their local group as one that is only a subset of larger group identification.  It makes people feel like the religious grouping is the ultimate and absolute one.  Even where within this grouping people can be persuaded to inclusive attitudes and to thinking in inclusive categories, the presence of faith and rationally unquestionable beliefs inherently resists that process.

All that said, in a world in which it is unlikely for religious institutions to collapse altogether in the near future, I think it is admirable for moderates within them to participate in the tugs of war within their faith traditions in such a way as to pull their traditions’ centers further towards rationalism and moral inclusiveness.  I think that Wright’s thesis has potential for laying out an effective game-plan for those engaged in real world politics who need pragmatic strategies for figuing out how to turn religion into an ally of world peace on its own terms.

But, my own concern is with the longer game, the bigger tugs of war between rationalism and irrationalism, progressivism and traditionalism, reason and faith, freedom of thought and practice and authoriatianism of thought and practice.  Ultimately, what the religious moderates want to achieve from within religion will not be enough.  It’s a strategy for working with the realities of the problem of humanity’s attachment to faith insofar as it persists.  And it’s a strategy which for the time being helps perpetuate religion with all its latent authoritarianism and irrationalism, which could resurface in extremist forms at almost any time.

So, I side with those working to make stronger gains for rationalism and inclusiveness by confronting religion’s irrationalism and authoritarianism head on in an attempt to persuade those who can abandon faith to do so and to eliminate all the extra obstacles to universalist thinking that its narrowness inherently puts up.  Will that make religion feel threatened and make its extremist manifestations more likely as counter-reactions?  In some cases, of course this has happened and will continue to happen.  The most evil and closed-minded dimensions of religion are going to be threatened by direct confrontations with moral progressiveness, secularism, and rationalism that threaten their hegemony.  But when religions do lash out violently, they also lose moral and intellectual credibility with those in the middle and, hopefully, religious moderates become more vigilant against the seeds of irrationalism and violence in their traditions.  And when confronted by strong atheist, secularist, rationalist demands for moral and intellectual explanation, the moderates are challenged to liberalize their traditions as much as possible in order to justifiably persist in them.

So, for these reasons, while I understand Wright’s pragmatic reasons for calling for a view of religion as more capable of increasing inclusivness on its own terms and I understand that in real world political terms this is the shrewdest path to moral and political progress, I still support and will continue to engage in the parallel project of calling out irrationalism and moral authoritarianism out for their inherent problems.

Or put most simply—we can either work with people’s prejudices or we can denounce the propensities to prejudice altogether.  While the former solution is a necessary compromise in some cases where the prejudices are impossible to change in an allotted timeframe in which there are other goals at stake, there is also a vital charge that as many of us as possible also pursue the latter, more fundamental goal of removing praise for unjustified, prejudicial beliefs altogether, even those with the long honored name of “faith.”

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