Maybe your eye would be caught like mine when I saw this title in the bookstore. The atheist in question is Bruce Sheiman and the subtitle of his book is: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion than Without It.
Also, like me, perhaps, you’re not only curious how another atheist would defend this thesis, but whether our secret, or maybe not so secret, deepest, darkest fear could be true: Is humanity better off with religion than without it? We can all recite some pretty gory events even in Chritianity’s history, e.g., upwards of 50,000 burnt at the stake in the Dark and Middle Ages for heresy, blasphemy, and other offenses against God–justice provided courtesy of the Church.
In our evolutionary past, yes, religion did have survival value for the species. It wouldn’t just be a spandrel–an evolutionary by-product rather than an adaptation in it’s own right–given it’s universal spread. If religion wasn’t an advantageous adaptation surely there would be one or more cultures somewhere in the world without it. But it is universal.
Bruce Sheiman indicates the various benefits, social and psychological, that religion can give to it’s participants. I think most of us would have to give religion and it’s followers that–they do derive some benefits from it. At the risk of over simplifying Sheiman’s work much of what he says seems to be compatible with the idea that believers have religion and its various benefits due to a process, maybe rational, that comes to the conclusion, “Religion is good; let’s have it.” In other words, believers have religion because it is good, or at least, they perceive it that way.
I think we owe the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens) a lot; thank you for your service. They’ve done much toward our liberation. That’s taken some courage to speak out and strength to face largely unfair criticism (My bent is a tad bit more soft, maybe not a lot, and a smidge more “spiritual.”). I, and perhaps you, have been buoyed up by their work and words. I was disappointed, though, to learn that some (at least Dawkins and Dennett–I don’t know that I’ve heard Harris’ or Hitchens’ positions) believe religion is NOT an adaptation, but a spandrel.
For me, all the pieces of the puzzle snapped together when I learned of the evolutionary origin of religion. That was the greatest revelation of my life. It was the “missing link” in the understanding of why there is religion. Religion IS NOT a response to supernatural beings in a spiritual realm, but an adaptive characteristic that gave some tribes, some cultures an advantage–akin to something like our bellicose nature and territoriality.
Save that discussion for another time, Sheiman’s book, I think, is worth a read, if for nothing more than stimulating the discussion on the more interesting topic, that an atheist would defend religion. I can see a humanist offering tentative support to the extent that religion serves humanity, but stopping short of any cowtowing to religious dogma or a hierarchical power structure. (Not on this blog, but I wrote a short story a few years ago about an anti-religious man in a post-apocalyptic distopia–my default crucible for what-if-reality–who found himself defending a church as his humanist gut told him to do.)
In what seems to me to be a cursory discussion, since the book was printed in 2009, though it could have been written earlier, Sheiman gives short shrift to the idea that any genes could carry forward much of a propensity toward religious belief and grants even less merit to the truly scientific parts of neurotheology–those parts being the the cause and effects of neurochemicals in religious belief and thought. Sheiman dealt with both of these in less space than a single page.
Those are not directly his topic of course. And it’s not my intent to drag his thesis through my flower garden (well, maybe it is), but the thesis that religion is an evolutionary adaptation, to me, is as important an organizing principle in the study of religion’s origins as evolution is as an organizing principle in the study of biology.
What’s germaine about this to Sheiman’s point? It goes to the heart of why we have religions–and how the religious practitioners “get ahead.” (Long story short–think of the time scale–the last hundred thousand years. The tribes or troupes that have deep, committed involvement in they’re common identity, origin myths, ultimate destiny, and, possibly, fidelity to the same deity, as well as a common “rant, chant, dance and trance,” these peoples would thrive where less bonded–and less bound–early humans would not. Coupled with bellicosity and territoriality, what’s stronger than invoking God & Country as we go to war?) And there you have what would be the strong sense in which it was better for humanity to have religion than not.
I hope these twin theses, of religion as an evolutionary adaptation and the neurochemical underpinnings of belief, which might be a corollary of the former, weren’t discounted by Sheiman as I fear they might have been by Dawkins and Dennett to fit well within their belief structures about religion. That is, could Sheiman want religion to have such a source in the heart of humanity that it exists precisely for the good it does, while at the same time, Dawkins and Dennett reject the possibility that religion served as an advantageous adaptation–and that that legitimizes religion to a greater extent than they wish it did?
In spite of its evolutionary origin, if religion offers an enjoyable association of people who’ve come together to express gratitude for life, health, and each other’s company in good will and who intend to do good for those in need, it would be hard to fault that.
July 30, 2011 at 3:04 pm
This is my first entry to this blog so be gentle.
This blog is for freethinkers, humanist, and otherwise godless heathens however they got that way. I’m trying to move beyond rabid atheism. Aiming for the higher road is doing that for me.
What’s beyond atheist fundamentalism? Maybe some acceptance of the other world. The religious are everywhere–you knew that. You also knew well the mode of tolerance. After all, we live it.
I see this shift for me within the frame work of the movement. We are in something of a civil rights-like movement. The question is where? Are we in the militant phase? Do we need to get the larger community’s attention? Or can we come off that a bit and expect and receive some respect, at least, enough to continue the dialogue that’s been started? I think we can.
I’m coming out of a long and lonely winter in the Bible Belt. Within the decade I listened to a preacher giving the invocation at my daughter’s high school graduation start by shouting at us that there is a god.
My wife stopped me from outing myself in protest with the question, did I want to ruin my daughter’s life? Being outed would also have ruined my business in the community. Those are the stakes in the rural midwestern communities. I’m more interested in the community for us to participate in.
It’s only been a few hundred years since nonbelievers got to meet
each other when one of us was burned at the stake. It was a short and unsatisfying relationship. I’m hoping for a little more for us.
Share. How did you get here?
I was ‘helped.’ Fundamentalist, here, are literalist about scripture and dogma. They are also in a tough spot. Their beliefs have to be literally true for them to be believers. Their forerunners were the folks who brought you the ‘science’ that the earth was the center of the universe. That’s why creationists are still trying to re-write the science books, and with some success if you follow the Texans who are dictating the science textbooks for the nation.
I was blind-sided by that one. I had a very well written biology text in high school in the 1960′s, meaning evolution, as the primary organizing principle at work in nature, was covered. But it wasn’t ’til my second daughter, who graduated 5th in a class of 270, had completed advanced biology told me in conversation that she’d never heard that humans were primates. I did have a little foam form in my mouth over that one.
Still, I think our (yours, mine, and anyone who’s interested) rational discussion is another way to start a dialogue that can enlarge to encompass believers who can learn not to behave badly toward us.
So, again, share. How did you get where you are today?
July 8, 2011 at 4:10 pm