Interesting Study, Wrong-Headed Approach

Here’s a study from a website by a self-described “humanist” who is interested in “why some people believe in gods, and what the psychological and social consequences of those beliefs are.”

The study show something that doesn’t surprise me a bit: “symptoms of autism correlated with lack of belief in God”. This does not, of course, mean that atheists are all on the autism spectrum. Nor does it mean “autism necessarily leads to atheism”. But it does suggest that the reason so many Evangelical Atheists come across as having radically impaired abilities to relate to normal social and emotional cues is because they do. And a radically impaired ability to relate to other persons is going to impact one’s ability to relate to a community of persons like a Church, not to mention the community of Persons who is the Blessed Trinity. So I think the study worth paying attention to.

At the same time, I’m highly skeptical of projects like sociology or, worse yet, sociobiology of religion. The attempt to track down biological origins for religious belief seems to me to be a fool’s errand. Even getting at a definition of what we mean by “religion” is vastly more difficult than most naive Westerners suppose. Is it a belief in the supernatural? Then Buddhism is not a religion? Belief in an afterlife? That leaves out a number of things we would normally call religious. Use of various symbolic rites to convey beliefs about Ultimate Reality? That would make the Inauguration of the President or a Boy Scout Court of Honor a religion. Ethics? Atheists have ethics. It’s a hugely thorny problem. And adding the bogus dimension of some sort of biological basis for it just muddies the murk more.

More than that though, is the overlooked dimension of hubris in attempting to talk about “religious” people as though they are another species from oneself. I profoundly distrust that. It’s better than the Evangelical Atheist attempt to characterize the “religious” as though they are a *lower* species than oneself, but it still seems tone deaf to me. Humans are made in the image and likeness of God, including atheists and sociologists. You cannot stand outside the human race and try to analyze its religious character “objectively” when you are a human being. You can only enter into the experience of being human. Some things are better understood, not be dissecting them, but by experiencing them. You don’t find out what Hamlet is by going back stage and analyzing the costumes, sets, ropes and pullies of the theatre. You learn what Hamlet is by “looking at surface” from out in the house, entering into the world through the door Shakespeare provided you right there at under the proscenium arch.

Likewise, is somebody wants to understand a religion, they should learn about it the way the religion itself tells us about itself. If I want to know about Judaism or Islam or the Catholic faith or some Protestant group, I don’t come up with some theory about why these foreign creatures believe what they believe. I ask them and experience their rites and listen to the people who believe what they believe and ask, “Are these things true?” My reason for becoming Catholic came down to this: All other religious traditions (including the intensely religious belief system called Evangelical Atheism) seem to me to borrow from or anticipate Jesus Christ and the Church he founded. I’ve never found a more reasonable explanation for the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth than Peter’s: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

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  • Lukas

    I think it’s interesting how some of the conventional sociology of religion tends to not work quite so well with Christianity. For example, Jonathan Haidt attempts to argue that religion an outgrowth of our instinct to avoid contamination and disease: It sounds sort of plausible, but it doesn’t jive too well with, “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’”

    • abb3w

      It can be reconciled, in part by noting that particular tenet was an outlier diverging against the common trend, and that contemporary disgust reactions still tend stronger among more religiously devout (including Christians).

      There’s a classic experiment on disgust done by Paul Rozin, where people are given a nice piece of delicious chocolate fudge to eat, and then offered the chance to a second piece of the same fudge… which they discover is shaped like dog poo. (But mind you, part of the exact same batch of fudge.) While I’ve not tested it myself (and doing so without proper human subjects research release paperwork would both be unethical and likely to get you sued!!!), from what I’ve read I expect you would find the religious disproportionately unlikely and the irreligious disproportionately likely to take that second piece of fudge once they see it. (For meticulous experimentation, you can also control for greed by putting half the population in a control group, who are offered a second piece that they discover is… shaped like the first.)

      • abb3w

        Drat it, tag fail.

      • Faith

        Yes, that is why religious folks start hospitals and leper colonies. They are so wussy!

    • Jon W

      Jonathan Haidt’s book was awesome, but he is looking at morality entirely from the outside. It’s one thing to offer plausible accounts of its genesis or to list its benefits to the individual or the community and quite another to account for the absolutism with which the moral law speaks to the individual in his heart. What he needs is not an account of morality from the outside, but one from the inside. The absolute call of love is what Haidt cannot explain.

  • Liam

    I’ve been interested in the idea that religion is man’s love of reality and desire to do it justice. We love reality, so we try to learn as much about it as possible. This impulse is demonstrated across the spectrum from science to mysticism. Our love of reality manifests itself in obligations, or morality. Christianity recognizes that we owe this reality our entire being to begin with, and therefore it is impossible to repay any breech of the moral code. As fallen beings we are incapable of following the code, and are worthy of condemnation. Justice demands we make amends, but we are incapable. This is where Christ comes in.

  • Brian Niemeier

    Well said, Mark. Empirical attempts to explain religion away always proceed from the a priori belief that matter is all there is. Thus they are doomed from the start.

    I remember the “God part of the brain” news cycle from a few years back. Most reporting on the claim that certain areas of the brain are connected with religious experience overlooked the fact that disproving religious experience on that basis also disproves the existence of a real world outside the brain.

  • SouthCoast

    Sociology is anthropology for those who don’t like to get their shoes dirty.

  • Tom R

    Maybe this is an unrepresentative sample but the most autistic individuals I’ve cone across have been zealous Calvinists [*], zealous atheists and zealous traditional Catholics (Vatican 1.8 or lower), in that order of sample size. The key was “zealousness”, rather than particular doctrinal content. I’m certain if l knew more Jews and Muslims then the ultra-Orthodox and Salafists would score highly too.
    By contrast, l would be very surprised if there are any Pentecostals on the autism spectrum, or many Catholics from the sub-denominations north of Vatican 2.4 or 2.5 (altar girls, Third Rite reconciliation, omission of definite article in sentences like “called to be church”). Those religions would attraction for the House/ Doc Martin/Sheldon Cooper types.
    [*] Using “Calvinist” here in the Protestant sense of “having some discernible connection or resemblance to the doctrines taught by John Calvin of Geneva, 1509-64″ rather than in the Catholic/ Pullmanite sense.