Thoughts on New Research

A good friend of mine, Paul Kleinginna, reads voraciously on the subjects of science and religion. He recently sent a note summarizing some of the things he's been reading, and their implications for religion. It offers some interesting ideas to consider, and with his permission I am sharing it with you.

    Hi Mike,

    I saw an interesting bumper sticker this week on a Virginia car. I think it said something like "God Bless Everyone". Do you think that religion has much chance of becoming more universal (in the sense of concern for humanity as a whole) in the near future? It seems to me that religion is too often motivated by either self concern or group loyalty. Let me tell you about some interesting things I have been reading about in recent issues of the New Scientist. One is the recent DNA evidence that humans have continued to evolve (e.g., Bruce Lahn finding about 700 new genes, at least two of which are involved in brain chemistry) over the last 10,000 years. This is opposed to the traditional teaching of no significant biological changes in the last 50,000 or so years. Much of the research in this area is preliminary, but will likely cause heated discussions as it develops, since it touches on race issues.

    A second area I have been reading about is the debate over the role of religion (positive and negative) in human evolution. Specifically, has religion affected the survival of individuals, families or larger groups? The famous philosopher, Daniel Dennett, has a new book out about religion entitled "Breaking the spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon". It suggests that while religion is comforting, aids group cohesion, and sometimes helps explain things otherwise unexplainable, it is also associated with too many negatives (e.g., wars, persecution, distortion of knowledge). Dennett suggests that it is a powerful self-perpetuating meme that should be resisted. He postulates a hair trigger innate mechanism called the "hyperactive agent detection device" that attributes agency to anything complicated that moves.

    Others, like Francisco Ayala (UC at Irvine), Robin Dunbar (U. of Liverpool), and myself would balance the discussion by emphasizing the survival advantages of religion to the individual or group. From a personal point of view religion may reduce existential anxiety about death, provide purpose, meaning, and fulfillment in life. Religion often makes individuals happier, healthier, and more attractive to others. Constructive religious cognition could also allow people to get on with other survival activities, instead of dwelling too much on fear and despair, or spending too much time trying to figure out extremely difficult existential questions on their own. From a group standpoint religion may strengthen cohesion (possibly aided by an endorphin-based group cohesion mechanism); strengthen group values; and lead to group charity (which often can be stronger than the sum of more individualized charity). I do believe that we must be careful that the psychological processes involved in religion are not exploited to cause significant harm to individuals or societies. Many hostile individuals or groups are often looking for "permission" from religion to harm others or as a way to convince others to join them in their effort.

What are your thoughts? Is religion likely to be a unifying force or a divisive one in the future? On balance, does it seem more constructive or destructive? Yes, this is one of those questions endlessly debated, but the timeless quality of the question also suggests its importance.


RTC said...

From a sociological standpoint, this kind of depends on your theoretical approach to religion. If you think secularization theory is right and that religion is on the decline, then it cannot possibly be a more divisive force (though I tend to believe this is a mischaracterization of secularization theory). If you follow Rodney Stark's camp and dismiss secularization theory, believing religion is here to stay, at least for a while, then I think there is plenty of reason to believe religion is going to be increasingly divisive.

My personal thought is that for the immediate future little will be as divisive as religion (I'm a modified secularization theorist). Recent events with the Muhammed Cartoons in Muslim countries illustrate where the real divide currently lies - between pluralistic, quasi-secular countries (where Christianity is the dominant, though relatively weak religion) and Muslim countries, where the lack of pluralism has prevented the people in those countries from experiencing the destruction of their plausibility structures, as argued by Peter Berger. In short, until every culture and society on the planet experiences a significant form of pluralization, brought about through one component of secularization (differentiation or the separation of the spheres of society), religion will continue to be extremely divisive. Once people are exposed to pluralism and experience the cognitive dissonance that comes through the realization that many religions exist and that the adherents in all of them are both good and bad people, the extremism associated with religious fanatacism will decline. Until then, riots, violence, animosity, and death.

Of course, if it's not religiously inspired, it would probably be politically inspired, but for now it's one of the notorious characteristics of religious fanatacism.

Anyway, my two bits...

Three Score and Ten or more said...

Thanks for dropping by my blog. I was sure that you had a page and a blog but hadn't really taken advantage of them. I found both to be very interesting (with of course some overlap). I found Paul's letter very interesting as was the comment here. Things to think about with old worn out equipment.

lilfern said...

Over the years the word religion has itself got an ominous ring to it. Personally for me it brings associations of rituals and yearly events.
Born into a Catholic family - I spent 25 years of my life figuring out why I was/should be a Christian. Birth cannot determine religion. According to me religion has to be an act of faith based on unquestionable belief. In our day and time I really do not think that this is completely true.
Religion still has a very notional value for most. A social tag with which we go along. In being so, yes, it acts as a binding force within set groups.
In conclusion, I feel that religion is a practice which fosters cohesiveness for its own good....as all groups which strive for existence must!