Sunday, February 26, 2006

Breaking the Spell

Last week I read Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell. Despite some bad--and largely inept (rebutted here)--reviews, I liked it. Dennett demonstrates just how powerful a theoretical bulldozer evolutionary theory is. Most of the objections to it center on the fact that Dennett is an atheist and takes a naturalistic approach to the subject. I have no problem with this. I did find it a little frustrating that the book deals mainly with questions to which there seem to be no answers as of yet, but apparently, even the questions themselves were enough to raise the wrath of the reviewers, as Dennett himself predicted.

Even if, as one reviewer put it, it is evidently human to believe in something beyond what one can perceive, this does not mean that there is any reality that corresponds to that belief. There is a wide variety of cognitive heuristics which can misfire to create the illusion of the supernatural. Nor is Dennett at odds with human culture and ethics, as he is caricatured by his detractors. The biological basis of religion he is searching for is not a simple matter of biological determinism which mechanically produces the articles of faith. Rather, he is looking for the selective advantage which might have encouraged the development of certain traits which make people prone to religious belief. But once established, religion will develop according to its own purposes, which may have little or nothing to do with biological causes. Religion, as a cultural phenomena, develops along a line which is orthogonal to biological necessity. It follows its own rules, which may confer individual or tribal benefits, or which may only serve the purpose of memetic replication. In other words, the religion survives because people adopt and spread it, whether it does them any good or not. Dennett's question, then, is: does religion actually do us any good?

Dennett separates pure belief in God from belief in belief, the latter being the conviction that it is good to believe in God, regardless of whether God actually exists. Belief in belief is based upon the perception that religion is the basis of morality. For some it can be, for others it can be a license to kill. As I have pointed out before, evil men are evil precisely because they consider their actions justified. They do not consider themselves evil, and for them, religion can provide the encouragement they need to pursue their crimes. It is more likely that religion is the repository rather than the source of morality. You will find there what you put into it.

Against the litany of attrocities perpetuated in the name of God, the same old tired trope is paraded out: Nazism and Communism were secular ideologies, and look what they did. But if mere avoidance of God is all that is required to make one secular, then Scientology and Heaven's Gate do not count as religions. Hitler invoked Norse mythology and founded the Church of the Reich, open only to party members, with a copy of Mein Kampf on the altar. Stalin was a seminary student, and the Communists invoked the inevitability of Dialectical Materialism in place of the power of God. As late as the 80's, Russian children were being told that Lenin is the friend of all little children. Nonsense--Lenin had been stuffed and mounted in Red Square for sixty years by this point, and was, for a dedicated materialist, in no condition to be anyone's friend. For the Nazis, there was no God but the State, and the Fuhrer was its prophet. Both Naziism and Communism were wholesale distributers of garbage mysticism and woo-woo science. Both alternately courted and attacked religions--yes, the communists were quite willing to play the religious card when they needed to arouse the support of the people, as Stalin did when the Germans invaded. And when they attacked religion, is was not because they opposed religion per se, but because other religions were competitors on the same playing field. There are many things I would call these ideologies. Rational is not one of them.

My main criticism of Dennett--and of other atheist philosophers and scientists--is that they are preaching to the converted. This is too bad, because I believe they have something to say to believers, even if believers have no intention of dropping their beliefs. Dennett, like Richard Dawkins, strongly suspects that religion is a parasitic meme, an idea or behaviour which spreads across the population but actually damages its hosts, like a virus. Even if you consider this a gross simplification of religion, I believe that there is a type of religion whose sole purpose is only to spread and convert. I call this degenerate religion because, in the process of streamlining itself for rapid transmission and adoption, the religion sheds many of the very attributes that make it worth having.

A good analogy would be a product with a exceptional reputation. Eager to expand their markets, the manufacturer outsources to sweat shops that will produce the goods cheaply and in large quantities--but the resultant product is now garbage. All that remains is the brand name. For a while the market expands, based upon reduced price and wider availability, but at a hidden cost. The product still bears the name, but is in fact no longer the product that its reputation is based on. The result is an empty brand.

When the primary goal of a religion is memetic replication, all other goals become secondary. Assuming a religion was a positive benefit to its believers (and there are some religions that could only be improved by being watered down,) the distortions introduced by a rapid spread will produce a stunted version of the faith. Even for the most ethical religion, it may suddenly become acceptable to lie, cheat, steal, and kill in the name of spreading the faith. The more demanding (i.e. higher cost) aspects of the religion are dropped. New converts loudly proclaim themselves members of the faith--but the faith is no longer what it was. They are converts in name only. The ethical and spiritual aspects of the religion have not been passed on, and, under the sheer weight of numbers, these new converts pull the religion away from its roots. A large following of believers with superficial understanding of the faith is lethal; a religion that does not know itself and sustain a deep wisdom is dead. The religion is hollowed out. It has a huge body of followers, but it has lost its soul.

It would be far better for believers to preach the transcendent values of justice and truth, rather than trying to get others to join their religion. At least that way, when they did win a convert, they would be far more likely to gain the genuine article, rather than some flag waving cretin. What I see when I view clips of outraged mobs in the Muslim world protesting the Danish cartoons are not angry believers, but the same sort of ignorant yabos that tear up stadiums during soccer matches. Like the face-painting flower children at anti-globalization protests, these protestors haven't the foggiest notion of what the real issues are. The cartoons are not instance of idolatry, but the exact opposite. Idolatry would be creating a statue of Mohammed and then bowing in worship to it. Or working yourself into a frenzy over the depiction of Mohammed, as if Mohammed were God Himself. This is Islam as mere trade mark. I can think of no greater offense to the prophet.

But transcendent values are in the public domain, transcendent precisely because they belong to no one and every one. You cannot brand them, or charge admission. They are secular values as well as religious values. Worse, the attempt to brand these values can weaken them. There are very sound and convincing reasons to embrace these values, and understanding these reasons helps you to understand the values themselves. Invoking the Will of God, and blind orthodoxy, is one of the weakest arguments. It's a mind stopper, stunting the growth of mature judgement. And since God is so forgiving, maybe he'll let me off the hook this one time. Religion does not preclude the possibility of ethical maturity, but religion lite foists the heavy lifting off to external authority. A large part of knowing how is knowing why.

Knowing why, however, means coming to a naturalistic understanding. While it is true that faith may have motivated many scientists to undertake their scientific explorations, they did so because they understood that a purely supernatural entity is inscrutable. The true signs of divine will were to be found in nature, not in any ancient work of human authors--the truths of the natural world cannot be tampered with. Yet, having discerned the natural order, the role of God was pushed farther and farther into the horizon. Truth and justice became good in and of themselves; divine will, if it existed at all, became just the icing on a cake that was already quite filling.

Rather than squander their resources on occult sideshows like Intelligent Design, religionists might be better to join forces with the likes of Dennett and Dawkins. Properly directed, their somewhat skewed approach may yield some genuinely useful results. But to achieve anything useful, they would first have to swear an allegiance to the truth, rather than merely court public opinion. That this even needs to be said reveals the sorry state religion is in.