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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Musing on Logical Consequences and the Absence of Religion

Some people, and I am one of them, have so internalized rationality that we carry out the logical consequences of what unfolds before us in everyday life. This is a good thing and a bad thing, mostly good. On the bad side, it is easy to get distracted by playing out scenarios in your head - you can easily miss the big picture. However, good discernment skills (that is, being good at separating the important from the unimportant) can easily nullify this problem. On the good side, being the "logical consquence type" affords one an infinite amount of practice at prognostication.

Just sitting on a sidewalk observing a city, you can find countless things to observe and predict, especially if you've seen most of them before. You see a guy backing up from a news stand and a woman hustling along looking for a cab, and you predict that they will collide. If they do, check, you were right. If they don't, your mind determines the reason and then catalogs it for future consideration. Maybe this sounds like its bordering on OCD, but I can assure that it happens to me with no effort whatsoever. I watch my 14-month old walk (he's still pretty sketchy) and feel myself cringing as he approaches an obstacle that I know he's not accounted for. Down he goes. I'm not conscious of what my mind is doing until I feel my shoulder muscles tightening up to my neck. Logic, I think, can often be used in the same way to predict human behavior, especially considering the evolutionary history we all share.

By considering the social nature of the human animal, we can make interesting predictions about hypothetical scenarios. Betrand Russell once asked what would happen if we could all suddenly read each other's minds. After a time painful disillusionment, he predicted that we'd eventually have to accept each other for who we were, warts and all. This is because the alternative would be living a solitary existence. Sounds about right to me. Humans don't do well with loneliness and will do most anything to avoid it. (I love the part in Isaac Asimov's, I Robot, where in comparing the robots to humans, he mentions that they almost instinctively crowd together in the dark. Such insight.) What else can we learn from our nature?

Suppose all religion was suddenly gone from the world. What would happen? Would humans fall into mass moral depravity, inevitably detroying the environment, and killing each other off? There are many who would say yes. In fact, this is one of the chief arguments against secularism. Just today, Dennis Prager penned a column entitled, "Better Answers: The Case for Judeo-Christian Values" (Read It). He is apparently embarking upon a quest to make a rational case for Biblical values, making sure to contrast them with other available value systems. (Good luck, Denny - brighter minds have failed time and again.) He claims that secularism was responsible for the horrors of Nazism and Communism. Aside from the fact that a major component of the anti-semitic sentiment in Germany had its roots in the belief that the Jews killed Christ, the notion that secularism was to blame is preposterous.

Secularism is nothing more than the absence of belief in superstition and the irrational. If anything, it was secularism (via the use of reason), much more than religion, that made a stand against communism. It was the simple acknowledgement of the fact that the communist ideology results in massive human oppression, death, and unhappiness that stirred men to resist it...with force. And I think rationality would accomplish just as much in the absence of religion.

Once again, humans are social creatures. We are genetically programmed to cooperate and seek the approval of those we admire. This, in conjunction with the quest for status, is sufficient to order human society, and it was doing a fine job long before religion ever came along and co-opted, codified, and extended the social rules created by the notion of safety in numbers. Groups of early hominids that adopted rules of morality simply fared better than groups that did not. Over time, the socially forward-thinking emerged as the winners by default - there were no hominids left but humans. If religion is all that stands between us and the decline of civilization, then someone needs to explain how mankind even made it to the inception of monotheism. Oh, that's right. Our creation signaled the emergence of the one true God. Isn't that convenient? Silly myths aside, by current accounts, we should have killed ourselves off millennia ago. No, the golden rule and all its accoutrements are merely elaborations on the concept of reciprocal altruism, a concept that we are wired to make work. And so we would in the absence of religion. But perhaps not without a bit of adjustment time.

The logical consequence of the absence of religion, admittedly, may very well be the immediate presence of a moral vacuum. Just as a mind reading population would initially recoil at the thoughts of their contemporaries, it's fair to say that our society may indeed see an initial decline in morality. But, just as human nature would come to rescue in the case of mind readers, so would it in the absence of religion. Pragmatism would take over, and logic is the preferred tool of the pragmatist. Contrary to what religious apologists would say, the rules of social conduct would quickly avail themselves. Most of us would avoid stealing, killing, raping, or cheating because it simply doesn't make sense to do so, like some do now. Others would avoid those behaviors because of fear of social consequences (which, of course, would include punishment), like most do now. Still others, those who occupy the outer fringes of the bell curve, would operate sociopathically, as all do now. But the social order would emerge - it's in our blood. And it would likely be a great deal better than the social rule set with which we currently find ourselves shackled.

In a way, the social rules of a rational, non-religious society would resemble the invisible hand in economics - non-coerced, distributed, self-centered decision-making that resulted in the overall good of society. Indeed, religion is not unlike socialism or communism in that it centralizes the decision-making of the masses, forcing them to conform to the system or risk great peril. So, for my part, when I imagine the logical consequences of a world without religion, I am not disturbed at all. I am heartened. Alas, this is nothing more than a thought experiment.

Ours is world that is, and has been for many centuries, dominated by religious views. Even though we may envision the quasi-utopia of a rationally conceived social order, we have no choice but to recognize that we can't there from here. We, the secularists, are the minority, and the majority has a vested interest in discrediting us. This does not mean we wage war, for we are on a quest for individual freedom, the corollary of which is the notion that all people should be taken as individuals. This implores us to give credence to the reasons by which real people embrace religion. We can daydream of a world without it, but we can't let our fantasies lead us to galvanize ourselves against all things religious. Instead, we must engage open minds in thoughtful debate. For some folks, abandoning religion simply costs too much. Unless we've walked in their shoes, who are we to judge? This is the high road, the enlightened road, in my view.

And as for the religious who will remain vigilant in their assault on our views, we can take comfort in knowing that, though they have shrouded their laws in supposed divinity, it is still a fact that Hester Prynne did not wear the scarlet letter for God; she wore it for man.

12 Comments:

Blogger gtrude said...

I think you make a great point.......and that is people's lack of faith in 'society'. Regarding the proper role of government and society, when I suggest to individuals that government need not be involved in purely social issues (ex. marriage, drug control, charity contribution, etc...); that in fact these issues are better left to the individual (and by extension, society), I'm often met with looks and comments suggesting I've completely lost my mind....."Of course government has to shape society, it would crumble without government and religion to mould it."

Most people I know (even those who do attend church)will live a very large proportion of their life without any direct contact with religion or government, and still they will not recognize the value that society in and of itself holds.

1/05/2005 08:12:00 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Suppose I come into (or age into) a culture where a certain form of meaningless and unpleasant noise comes out of the loudspeakers in every store. Where people buy disks full of this noise, talk about it endlessly, have their favorite practitioners of the noise, and even gather in public places - paying good money - to be exposed to it. What's more, there are people who use this noise in order to hop around, twisting their bodies into strange shapes, and again, they pay good money to see or to do this?

Have they all gone mad? Or is there something here I'm just not getting?

I've come to think religion is the same sort of thing.

Just my $0.02,

Idiot Grrl

1/05/2005 09:32:00 AM

 
Blogger gtrude said...

The only difference is, no one is claiming that any genre of music holds the absolute answers on subjects as far reaching and diverse as where we came from, where we are going, how best to organize society, how to govern that society, etc...

Nope....only religion displays that sort of arrogance, despite it's track record on those very subjects. I mean seriously, show me 1 instance where religion and scientific thought have gone head to head and religion has come out on top? I'm getting tired of having to show respect for religion, and pretend as though it's answers to life's and societies' ills even come close to those proposed by rational thought.

1/05/2005 09:50:00 AM

 
Blogger Jack said...

Religion is another yoke imposed on the masses by the elite. But of course the masses are all too eager to strap the thing onto themselves, aren't they?

I agree with your main points, but I think you overestimate the extent to which the masses are socially evolved. The fact of the matter is that there are 80,000,000 Evangelical Christians in the US. Do you know what those people believe? They're downright insane to you or me, but they're the core of the so-called 'red states.' And we're in the so-called "First World!" Europe might be a bit higher on the scale, but I must stress MAYBE. India, China, and Japan have very different religious hierarchies, but the result (the ignorance of the masses) is the same. In other words, most of the world is still under a rock when it comes to logical thought.

I, too, look at the world through logical eyes. I, too, pine for the day when mankind outgrows its obsession with the ethereal and gets down to business with the world at hand, but I don't see it happening in our lifetimes. Hester Prynne might tell you that our world is more evolved than hers, but I doubt that she wouldn't recognize it.

1/05/2005 02:43:00 PM

 
Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

Idiot Grrl, I think you're recognizing the herd mentality in humans. Whether it's music (or the shit that goes for music these days), TV, politics, or religion - looking at the masses from the outside is always puzzling.

When I was about 14, I started noticing that herds of cows always seemed to stand facing the same direction. Of course, not all of them, but enough for it to be noticeable. I wondered how they decided which direction they would point. Was it a leader cow that handed down the changes? Or did it just happen? With religion and music, I think it's a little of both. With cows, I'm still not sure.

And Gtrude, you're noting that the religious influence on the herd digs deeper into their daily lives and perspectives than maybe music. So right - that's why there's simply more at stake when it comes to religion than when it comes to most things. And it's precisely the mass deference to religion that gives it safe harbor in many ports that would otherwise push it away. As being religious is the majority view, people naturally assume that there's something wrong with not being religious. That puts them on the defensive around religious people. That's a linchpin in the problematic machine, one that can be easily pulled out.

Here's what I do. When I meet someone who is religious, I deal with them as I'd deal with anyone. If religion comes up, as in they start talking about their religion, I ignore those aspects of the conversation and proceed with whatever else we were talking about - just as I would a seemingly normal person who suddenly started going off about their imaginary friend named Henry. (It simply isn't polite to engage crazy people.) That's usually enough of a signal for them to change the subject, but if this person happens to ask me if I'm religious, without hesitation, without hesitation...without hesitation, I come back with: "I don't have time for God."

It's a stunner, so you need to be good at keeping a straight face. But it works because it puts the onus on them to either defend their beliefs or shut up about it. If they choose to engage me, I'll take em down whatever path they want to go (validity of the Bible, existence of God, disparity between Jesus' teachings and modern religious rules, value of religion to society, religious corruption, and on and on), and they lose (assuming they haven't stormed off in a huff - can't make omelets without breaking eggs)...or they concede that they're totally irrational and that they stay religious because it makes them feel better. That's the end of the debate. It's a TKO for me.

But, fun as it sounds, this rarely happens because most religious people can tell when they've met someone they have no chance of converting - contrary to what many people think, being religious doesn't mean you're an idiot hick. The proportion of idiots among them probably mirrors the proportion among any other huge demographic. Being religious simply means that you hold a belief that is not founded in reason - there are MANY ways to get there, and I think very few of them have to do with intellect - most have to do with emotion.

The response to the "are you religious?" question for an in-the-closet skeptic (face it - this is most of them) is often a matter of social acceptance. My treatise on this topic is long and involved but it generally concludes with, "fuck that."

1/05/2005 10:34:00 PM

 
Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

Jack - don't confuse social order for society having some purely rational belief set. Even in the days before monotheistic religion, when man's social order was dictated by cooperative necessity, there's no telling how many ridiculous and erroneous ideas were generally held to be true. My point is only that the basic glue that keeps humans living respectfully with each other is hard-wired in all of us. Take away religion and we will not fall into a moral abyss. But take away religion NOW, when rationality has proven itself so continuously for centuries, and we'd likely see a much more reason-oriented social order. Maybe not. Pipe dream - the point is moot.

"Hester Prynne might tell you that our world is more evolved than hers, but I doubt that she wouldn't recognize it."

Uh, yeah, that's what I was saying. It's a bring-back on a concept from this site's original post (http://www.enlightenedcaveman.com/2004/06/pen-or-keyboard-in-this-case-is.html).

1/05/2005 10:44:00 PM

 
Blogger Michael Gersh said...

Maybe I have missed something here, but isn't religion, or at least the need to believe in that which we have no logical answer for, hard wired into the human brain, by the same forces of evolution that shaped the rest of our ouvre? Smug secularists posting here might believe themselves to be above this basic human need, but I think that this is a distinction without a difference. While many so-called rationalists might disbelieve the Bible's miracles, they merely believe in something else. Maybe global warming, or other environmental belief, that Michael Crichton has so presciently perceived as akin to religious belief. Maybe it is some sort of overreliance of other human constructs, such as the social contract, or even the supremacy of rationality itself.

None of us are immune to this human tendency to believe in some specific explanation for an essentially unknown, and perhaps unknowable condition. The confidence with which secularists can make statements, like gtrude said above:

"only religion displays that sort of arrogance, despite it's track record on those very subjects. I mean seriously, show me 1 instance where religion and scientific thought have gone head to head and religion has come out on top?"is no different, in my opinion, than the arragance she imputes to the religious. For her one instance, what about the total failure of evolution theory to show how the "organic soup" created the first cell, with its complex structure and unimaginably intertwined chemistry? There are many instances where religion and scientific thought go head to head, and, for many, religion provides the answer where science leaves off. For others, they provide their own answer... one that has no more scientific basis than that for the divinity of Jesus. Yet they believe in their "secular" answer with the same certainty as their religious brothers. Or maybe they question this "truth" with the same zeal as many of the religious question their dogma.

For the record, I am an agnostic on the question of the existence of a supreme being, trending against, but I cringe at the moral superiority of secular rationalists, who so confidently express their contempt for and superiority to the religious among us, when they show the same basic belief system behavior themselves, just giving it a different label.

1/06/2005 02:30:00 PM

 
Blogger gtrude said...

Michael,
"is no different, in my opinion, than the arragance she imputes to the religious. For her one instance, what about the total failure of evolution theory to show how the "organic soup" created the first cell, with its complex structure and unimaginably intertwined chemistry?"

You've illustrated my point to a tee. Where science simply states what is known, and leaves everything else up in the air until more evidence surfaces; religion will make up some answer (which I see is the latest musing on this sight). So here is an aswer where science has said, "we don't have enough information to aswer that question"; and religion says "an invisible man in the sky made us in a total of 6 days, about 6000 years ago".

Are you seriously going to tell me that the scientific answer to this question doesn't carry more weight, more validity than the christian answer?

1/07/2005 03:50:00 PM

 
Blogger Michael Gersh said...

That's my entire point, gtrude. No answer is not satisfying for the cave mind, so most humans will form a belief as to the correct answer. Your disdainful arrogation of the religious person's putative answer shows us which belief you hold as to the formation of the first cell, and the stupidity of anyone who would believe that the universe could be created by an intelligent being in six days. Surprisingly, I hold the same belief as you do on the lack of a basis for that six day time frame. The difference between you and me on this is that I respect either answer, as well as the thought process that gets one there. That's why I love this blog!

1/11/2005 02:18:00 AM

 
Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

"The difference between you and me on this is that I respect either answer, as well as the thought process that gets one there."

I, too, respect either answer and the thought processes behind them. However, that doesn't mean that I don't consider one poorly reasoned. The problem situation, in philosophical speak, is the origin of our world. The two main alternatives are creationist and evolutionary. When I weigh the evidence, I find that the creationist argument has far more evidence against it than the evolution argument. So much so that I am comfortable in believing in the evolution argument (as opposed to leaving the matter unsettled in my mind). However, as always, I'm willing to change my mind if someone can bring evidence that I have not considered. That, I think, is the right approach.

1/11/2005 04:05:00 AM

 
Blogger Jurgorr said...

Hmm...

Is lack of a belief really a belief, Michael?

If the caveman mind needs to believe in something (anything) to explain the world, then could we not say that those people who can honestly answer the Creation question with "I don't know" have risen above this need to some degree?

I suppose if you press the point "surely you must believe some explanation of creation", then the "I don't know" people [ie. secularists] would probably come up with something or other. But the question is not only whether or not there is a belief but with what degree of certainty it is held. A belief that is held with infinitessimal certainty is, for all intents and purposes, no belief at all.

As for a world without religion... I agree with you, EC. Morals evolved from nothing before and will continue to exist with or without creation myths. The love and convert thy enemy / keep no record of wrongs morals taught by Jesus and MLK Jr. are something that I have absolute hugely tremendous heaps of respect for - because frankly they work. The homophobic and self-righteous jihad garbage spewing from certain presidents, on the other hand, is truly contemptable.

1/12/2005 03:04:00 AM

 
Blogger alice said...

One aspect of religion which I haven't seen addressed thus far is that it is an attempt to ameliorate the reality of death. In fact it is my guess that this is the origin of religion. Humans are the only creatures who have the ability to contemplate their own demise. From that truly awesome realization follows a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. No wonder we humans have devised such an elaborate system of thought to dstract us from the inevitability of death.
I wonder what the world would be like if we humans universally accepted death as final. Instead of the promise of heaven, hell or reincarnation perhaps we could develop philosophies and ceremonies which would comfort us and perhaps we could become sanquine about the fact that we have just this one chance at life.

1/16/2005 03:56:00 PM

 

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