Counterpoint 1 — To Dr. Arthur Reber’s Comments on Religion (Evolution)
Writer’s Note: What follows is my response to Dr. Arthur Reber’s comments posted at his website on Monday, April 29th. To read Dr. Reber’s commentary in full, please click here: “We Can’t Forget Evolution”
Dr. Arthur Reber is correct. We can’t forget evolution. And we won’t.
Yet for all the wit and persuasiveness of Reber’s argument which he terms “a different framework for viewing religion,” he leaps to what I surmize are erroneous conclusions, many of which leave me both unsatisfied and unconvinced.
In his essay, Reber cites compelling (his supporters might insist — irrefutable) evidence from the field of cultural anthropology which suggests all societies — from ancient to contemporary and those in between — have embraced one form of religion or another. He insists by the shear volume of these numbers and the “universality” of religious belief, we “have to acknowledge the powerful role is plays in people’s lives.”
Let’s begin by taking several quotes (hopefully none out of context) from Reber’s thoughtful essay, which I believe warrant additional comment and clarification from quite a different perspective:
1. “….horrible acts can be carried out without a God. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot slaughtered millions under secular banners.”
First. let’s begin with the easiest distortion to refute. Frankly, I’m surprised Reber would allude to gross historical oversimplifications to support his hypothesis on the sometimes vital role religion plays in totalitarianism. Many of the 20th Century’s most evil regimes would never have come to power nor thrived were it not for religion — aided by cooperation with religious authorities as well as the nationalistic and ideological fervor of citizens of faith. Whether it be Mussolini’s outright creation of The Vatican (state) via the Lateran Treaty of 1929 or Hitler signing his infamous Concordat with the Catholic Church in 1937, two of Europe’s most detestable societies weren’t simply enabled by church passivity. In fact, they were bolstered by those who believed in fighting a “Christian cause,” particularly in the struggle against Bolshevism.
Moreover, these two destructive regimes were hardly “secular.” More precisely, neither Fascist Italy nor Nazi Germany operated under “secular banners.” To the contrary. Mussolini’s cozy relationship with the Catholic Church is a matter of record. Meanwhile, Nazi ideology sought the creation of an entirely new state religion — aligning Protestantism with Aryan theology. This popular movement led by propagandist Alfred Rosenberg was called Positives Christentum (translated meaning — Positive Christianity) which “blended ideas of racial purity with Christian doctrine.” Read more on this if you want to. But I’d consider the many mythological components of the Nazi movement to be quite religious-oriented, and hardly secular. [SEE FOOTNOTE 1]
Another interesting example is Reber bringing up Josef Stalin, who studied to become a priest at seminary in Tbilisi. He spent five years as a seminarian. But I digress. Even a terse discussion of the role religion would play in what would later become the Soviet Union would be incomplete with alluding to the events which led up to the Bolshevik Revolution. Recall that Tsar Nicholas II was not only (Romanov) Russia’s head of state, but also the overseer of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was king and pope, rolled into one. His rule was marked by obscene hoarding of wealth, horrific pogroms against Jews which later fostered growing anti-Semitism throughout Eastern Europe, and arguably the most incompetent rule in modern history. While there’s some validity to Reber’s assertion that Stalin (who followed Nicholas eight years after his death) ruled under a “secular banner,” dismissing religion’s key role in the formation of both this detestable individual and the preceding years leading up to Stalin’s murderous era would be incomplete. Stalin hardly broke new ground when it came to committing atrocities. He merely continued a long pattern of them in Russia.
Reber also mentions Mao, who was raised in the Buddhist tradition. But he correctly calls his regime as China’s premier “secular.” Nonetheless, Mao’s writings (mandatory reading in Chinese schools) include many elements of Taoism and Confucianism. To suggest he and his regime were entirely secular would be mistaken.
Pol Pot’s horrendous rule in Cambodia as leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge was entirely engrained in religious principles. While all outside religions were indeed desecrated, new Kampucheans rallied around the Angkar, meaning the organization, which assumed an entirely theocratic role based on intense nationalism and the repudiation of all foreign influences. The Khmer Rouge replaced Buddhism as the new state religion. To call this regime “secular” might be accurate by Western definition (he destroyed all non-Cambodian religious institutions). But within the context of Cambodia’s own history and culture, the terrible events of 1975-1979 occurred largely because of governing principles quite similar to theocracy. [SEE FOOTNOTE 2]
I believe enough evidence has been provided here to refute claims that millions were slaughtered “under secular banners.” Religion not only enabled many of these regimes but also provided willing armies of anxious followers prepared to do the dirty deeds.
2. “It is the embracing of religion that gets life-long criminals to reform; it’s the glue that holds AA and other groups of “recoverers” together. Nothing else works as well. It is belief in the supernatural that gets people through their desperate lives. It wouldn’t work to strip away this crutch. It is the defining feature for who they are.”
Could religion’s role in self-improvement and recovery be explained by religious people simply outnumbering the non-religious, and by the large(r) number of faith-based support groups which seek to help criminals, alcoholics, and other troubled people?
Even so, the most troubling statement (from above) is Reber’s assertion that “nothing else works as well.” I’d like to see some evidence of this, if available. Surely, many thousands have reformed themselves and recovered without religion. Right?
As for my evidence, let me share with you at least one finding which suggests secular treatment methods are at least as effective as, and in some cases more effective than faith-based recovery groups.
In last month’s Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment (December 2008), University of New Mexico addiction specialist William Miller and his colleagues presented findings from two controlled trials in which patients underwent drug treatment. Some of the patients received spiritual guidance as part of the treatment — learning such practices as prayer, meditation and service to others, all of which are central to 12-step programs.
Others received secular psychotherapy. Because of the enduring popularity of AA and similar programs that involve a spiritual component, Miller and his team expected the patients in the spiritual group to do better than those in the secular group. They were wrong — at least in the short term.
While both groups eventually benefited relatively equally from their treatment — abusing substances on fewer days — it took longer to see improvement among those in the spiritual group. What’s more, those who received spiritual guidance reported being significantly more anxious and depressed after four months than those who got secular help. [SEE FOOTNOTE 3]
Based on this evidence, secular treatments (non-religious) have been just as meaningful and effective (if not more so) than faith-based recovery groups. Moreover, what little evidence I did see in support of greater effectiveness with religion are usually promoted and publicized at religious-affiliated sites — not always the most credible bastions of scientific discovery.
Admittedly, I have no background nor training in this field. So, I must rely on other sources. But just because it sounds good that faith makes people take the right course in life does not necessarily make it true.
3. “Those approaches couldn’t explain the universality, the fact that every society ever encountered has some form of religion. Universality is a red flag to a social or biological scientist, it suggests that there is something very deep here.”
I’m not sure why religion’s “universality” would be a surprise. Reber provides a convincing overview of mankind’s evolution, morphing into what he calls “social systems.” I presume we agree that social system share similar components — including leadership/governance, some moral code, delegation of tasks, a judicial process, common recreational activities, family bonds, and so forth. That religion (worshiping gods) evolves into yet another vital component of these social systems is hardly surprising, given the colossal influences of the forces of nature.
Remember, practically everyone lived outside among the elements. Unable to explain why the sun rose, the stars shined and then disappeared, lightening strikes, droughts, famine, disease, skin lesions, not to mention terrifying natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and so forth, wouldn’t early tribesmen desperately grasp for answers? How could they not among themselves form the most fundamental foundations of shared religious beliefs — be it praying to a sun god, or tossing virgins into a volcano as a ritual of sacrifice?
What important here is that these early believers were our ancestors. They set seemingly unshakeable belief system into motion, destined to continue and later multiply, both by numbers and complexity. And so it was for thousands of years. Tens of thousands. During most of human history, not much changed. People were still living in the dark and cooking with fire up until 130 years ago. Indeed, natural disasters and disease were utterly unexplainable until very recently (on the human timeline). The preponderance of religion, or “universality” of it suggests nothing more than centuries of mass panic and horribly misguided traditions which we agree are difficult to break away from.
4. “….since the Enlightenment there has been a drift toward secularism but it isn’t as fast or as successful as you’re making it out to be.”
We may argue about the degree to which the “drift towards secularism” has taken place. You see the glass mostly empty. I see it partially full.
No doubt, technological advances — especially in mass communication — should provide a significant boom to secularism in the coming years. Ideas once considered to be heresy can now be widely read and even openly contemplated, an option that simply didn’t exist a few generations ago, unless one was brave enough to go to a bookstore and purchase something written by Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, George Santayana or the many other writers and artists who had to camouflage their non-religious convictions in a variety of creative ways. Only during the last 50 or so years, has the open debate on religion truly begun, and it’s still only limited to the most advanced nations of the world, mostly in the most affluent urban areas.
Indeed, we have come far. But we still have a long way to go. Engaging in this type of discussion 300 years ago could have subjected us to burning at the stake — in the most advanced nations of the world at the time (burn Reber first — I’ll bring the marshmallows). In America, a cursory glance at some unusual laws on the books up until the 1970s reveals tethered ties to religion. Thanks to technology, we are on the fast track towards secularism as never before. The industrialized world is probably just a generation or two away from a majority of people identifying themselves as agnostics, which is to say having no religious faith at all.
5. “You noted that we (collectively) are more enlightened, less burdened with ritual and more progressive than ever. This is true but the shift is mainly due to the success of science and the growing acceptance of the scientific method for it’s been giving people a better sense of how those “agents” actually work.”
And as science continues to provide greater comforts and explains things more sensibly, fewer people are going to believe in virgin births, burning bushes, and weeping statues. As science continues to teach us more about the mysteries of the universe, the ancient rituals of religious worship — which really haven’t changed much — are going to seem about a relevant as a hula dance or a pow wow.
Until recent times, science could not explain the forces of the universe. Now, it can (to a great extent). With continuing advances in technology which enables most people to access information at the touch of a keystroke or access to a hand-held mobile device, believers in science/humanity/logic shall enjoy decisive advantages over a judgmental and punitive culture based on a primitive implausibility.
6. “….religion is natural and easy and the reasons are found in evolutionary theory. Note: many of these arguments come from the work of a friend, Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia.”
I thought it best to close with some additional words from your friend and well-versed ally, Ara Norenzayan.
While I appreciate the supposition that religion is very deeply engrained in human evolution and is even perhaps an intrinsic component of our existence, so are other irrationalities, including some self-destructive tendencies.
To wit, I wonder if a study has been done which supports the (admittedly, just made up here on the spot) theory that other detrimental acts are just as “evolutionary” and “universal” as religion?
Let’s dig a bit deeper into the topic of universality. Repeating Reber’s earlier comment: “….every society ever encountered has some form of religion. Universality is a red flag to a social or biological scientist, it suggests that there is something very deep here.”
I wonder what would happen if we were to remove the word RELIGION. Instead, let’s insert INTOXICANT.
Doesn’t every society have at least one means of disengagement — in other words, a way to escape from reality (getting high, drunk, whatever)? Is there any society in the history of the world that hasn’t used some form of alcohol or drug? The ancients drank fermented potions. Tribesmen chewed leaves which made them dizzy. Tobacco has been used for thousands of years. Hasn’t mankind pretty much stumbled to where we are today with the comforts of a lot of booze and dope?
Surely, you see where this is going.
The answer to that question being rather obvious here, is religion really any more special — or “deep” as Reber insists — than other potentially addictive and self-destructive and senseless activities which consume equal time and energy?
Oddly enough, obvious similarities do exist between religion and intoxicants on the multi-millennial human timeline, a comparison that’s just as relevant as whimsical. Reber’s trusted source (Norenzayan) released a study last year asserting that those who think analytically “are less likely to express religious beliefs.”
Might we also presume that those who think analytically are also less likely to be drunks and dope addicts (emphasis mine).
See, Karl Marx was right after all. Religion is the opium of the masses. [SEE FOOTNOTE 5]
Note: I expect Dr. Arthur Reber will offer some kind of retort in the next day or two. After doing so, I will publish several questions (here) for his consideration.
FOOTNOTE 1 — Source: Wikipedia defines Positive Christianity
FOOTNOTE 2 — Interesting paper by Alex Hinton, Rutgers University: Agents of Death: Explaining the Cambodian Genocide in Terms of Psychosocial Dissonance
FOOTNOTE 3 — Source: Time Magazine
FOOTNOTE 4 — Source: Is Rationality the Enemy of Religion (Nature)
FOOTNOTE 5 — Note that this quote is often mistaken. The full and correct translation is actually more detailed than this, but is often condensed to be more concise. Source: Opium of the People