Monday, August 24, 2009

Religion Doesn't Kill People; People Kill People

I recently caught Robert Wright talking to Charlie Rose about his book "The Evolution of God". I thought he had some interesting things to say, though I haven't read the book. You can check it out the interview for yourself here.

His basic point is that religion is not the root of all evil (ie Sept. 11, Iraq war) as the neo-atheist totalitarians Dawkins and Hitchens would have you believe. He argues that religious doctrines evolve to meet the basic biological needs of their followers. He points out the fact that scriptures of all religions are full of obvious contradictions that give them the flexibility to adapt to changing enivronments. When leaders need to rally the troops to "kill the infidels", the appropriate scripture verse is at hand. Likewise when it's time to "love all men as God's creatures" a different verse from those same scriptures provides justification.

If not religion, what is the root of all evil? Wright alludes to what I think is a much more scientific explanation. Human behavioiur is simply driven by competition for finite resources. In this respect, we are no different than any other living organism. When our bellies are full and survival is a given, we all get along. Everyone can be part of the in-group. Philosophers write about the virtues of tolerance. When conditions are not so good and people start to starve, it's another story. Every man for himself. Tribalism rules the day. The all encompassing in-group breaks down and leaders of smaller tribes look for rationale to villify and exterminate the others. In good times or bad, religious scriptures provide group cohesion by justifying whatever behaviours the circumstances demand.

I'm not totally sure this is what Wright was getting at, but it's my interpretation. The behaviour of all living organims, humans included, is governed by basic survival, not by cultural cues. Don't buy it? Try witholding a meal or two from your cat...then try it with a human child...and watch peaceful co-existence go out the window. Sure we like to blab a lot about WHY we do certain things. It's the will of God, or whatever. We humans are the blabbiest much of monkeys to ever walk the Earth. Our painfully acute sense of self- and social-awareness demands that we constantly talk about everything we do and why we do it. We are moralizers, justifiers and rationalizers. But being self-aware and telling all about it does not equal self-determination. Ask Hannibal Lecter. The evolutionary chain of causation that determines our behaviour is not altered just because we loud-mouthed humans have the capacity to provide a self-affirming running narrative to anyone who will listen.

Wright's second major point is that religions currently need to and can re-invent themselves to promote harmony in a globalized society. He seems to think the way to get to a more scientifically correct religion is to put purpose back into evolution. That is, evolution unfolded as it did because God rigged up the universe to make it so. He makes this argument in a recent NYT piece. Evolutionary biologist Larry Moran is skeptical (more here); and it's hard not to agree with him. There is no evidence that evolution is directional (what about convergent evolution?). But is there evidence that it isn't ("junk" DNA)? I think this one ends in a draw.

Anyhow regardless of what you think about God, I think it's OK and even desirable for scientists to tolerate religion rather than try to exterminate it from the planet. And shift their attention away from cultural noise and back to the serious biological problems humanity faces. Feeding the world...population control...the end of oil...any takers? I can hear Hitchens already..."Hmmm...that sounds hard...can't we just go back to using big words to make fun of Creationists and blame them for all the problems?"


Anonymous said...

Your description of religion as an adaptable doctrine totally fits with the idea that religions are nothing but powerful well evolved memes. Adaptable and evolved for spreading in all societal conditions.
I agree with you very much in the sense that I find a lot of biologists preoccupied with debunking religion. What is left to debunk? Its been done. Those who listen will and those who don't perhaps aren't worth your time. I think debunking religion and knocking it constantly is kind of like the Jerry Springer of scientific discourse. It gives you an opportunity to look down on another group of people, and our non-scientific human nature just eats that stuff up.
That being said, I have quit holding my tongue about how silly religion can be. If I have to put up with religious conservative influence in politics ect. They are going to have to put up with my thoughts on the subject after a couple of margaritas.