[This will be a series of posts based on a book I am writing – see last post]
When anthropologists began to study religions in cultures other than the European context, which itself was based upon Roman jurisprudence, they encountered a difficulty. Until this time, in the mid-nineteenth century, “religion” had meant Christianity, with a sidelong glance at Islam and Judaism, religions which shared a number of common features (so they thought): a single deity, doctrines, rituals, and religious authorities. But some time earlier Europeans had begun to encounter eastern “religions” like Buddhism, Confucianism, and the Hindu Vedic traditions. These “religions” either had many deities, or none, a plethora or absence of doctrine, at least in the sense that failure to accept them excluded one from orthodoxy, and occasionally highly local and variable rituals.
The “solution” was to either classify these traditions and communities in terms that were developed for Christianity, forcing them into the European Procrustean Bed, or to set up a typology of religions. One who presented the most widely used, subsequently, was Edward Burnett Tylor (Tylor 1871). He noted that while some writers of his day asserted that religion was a late development in human societies, in fact it was the opposite of the truth:
It is not unusual for the very writer who declares in general terms the absence of religious phenomena among some savage people, himself to give evidence that shows his expressions to be misleading. Thus Dr. Lang not only declares that the aborigines of Australia have no idea of a supreme divinity, creator, and judge, no object of worship, ‘no idol, temple, or sacrifice, but that in short, they have nothing whatever of the character of religion, or of religious observance, to distinguish them from the beasts that perish.’
He instead suggests that the “natural religion” of humanity is what he calls animism:
I propose here, under the name of Animism, to investigate the deep-lying doctrine of Spiritual Beings, which embodies the very essence of Spiritualistic as opposed to Materialistic philosophy.
… Animism in its full development, includes the belief in souls and in a future state, in deities and subordinate controlling spirits, these doctrines practically resulting in some kind of active worship. One great element of religion, that moral element which among the higher nations forms its most vital part, is indeed little represented in the religion of the lower races.
Tylor here sets up a contrast between “lower” religion and “higher” religion, which, clearly, is based on Christianity. He includes within animism Hindu religions.
This – dare one say – imperialistic notion of religion is common within Christianity, and to an extent other so-called “world religions”. Adherents are so immersed in their own world view and community that they often cannot even conceive of other ways to see the world than their own, and must make all others as similar to theirs as they can.
Ironically, this Christian centric notion of religion has been transferred to those who have left Christianity, or who were raised non-Christian in a Christian-dominated society. When discussions of what counts as religion in the context of scientific belief are held, it is generally agreed upon by all sides that what is true of Christian religious traditions, is true of Islam, Hinduism, and such recent sectarian divisions as Mormonism. And yet, all ethnological investigators know that there is no such shared essence to religion. So when, for instance, Richard Dawkins writes
My title, The God Delusion, does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists of the previous section. That is why I needed to get Einsteinian religion out of the way to begin with: it has a proven capacity to confuse. In the rest of this book I am talking only about supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament
and then argues against that version, in order to conclude in the final chapter
Religion has at one time or another been thought to fill four main roles in human life: explanation, exhortation, consolation and inspiration. Historically, religion aspired to explain our own existence and the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves. In this role it is now completely superseded by science…
he is clearly gerrymandering the argument. First, he says, he will only deal with supernatural religion, but then, he concludes, religion (without the qualifier) is superseded by science. Clearly, then, we should abandon religion, as he goes on to say, in favour of a clear-headed scientific view of the world. But what he should have argued is that supernatural religion, akin to Tylor’s animism, is superseded by science and should be abandoned. I think you would find a great many religious thinkers agree.
When we argue about whether “religion” is compatible with science, it pays to be very careful about what we might be asking, for this reason. “Religion” covers a multitude of sins, so to speak. What we want to ask is instead this: Is there some ordinary sense of “religion” that is neither the animistic or “supernatural” religion, nor the abstract, rarefied religion of philosophers and scientists, that is compatible with science? Somewhere between the God of the folk, and the God of the philosophers, lies the medium position that is interesting.
The God of the philosophers
As Dawkins discusses, many scientists have had a sense of “God” and “religion” which bears little resemblance to the ordinary religion of the societies around us. Sometimes this is just a metaphor for a sense of awe about the physical universe. Dawkins calls this “Einsteinian religion”, but it is better thought of as the religion of the Enlightenment, that period of thinkers that responded to the scientific revolution by removing as much in the way of animistic supernaturalism as possible. It is the religion of deists, who believed that all revelation had to be excised – thinkers such as the fathers of the American Revolution like Jefferson and Paine. But, philosophically speaking, it is the religion of the Enlightenment philosopher Leibniz, whose view has both been incredibly influential amongst the philosophically inclined, and also the subject of withering parody by Voltaire, in his novel Candide.
Leibniz was not, despite Voltaire, ignorant of the problems of his view. He held that God was, by definition (whose definition? Well, philosophers since Epicurus in the fourth century before our common era) perfectly good and ultimately powerful. This meant that we had to account for a world in which things were less than optimal. Leibniz argued that since God was good and powerful, this must, contrary to appearances, be the best world any God was capable of making. It was, he said, the best logically possible world. This was what Voltaire parodied with his portrait of Doctor Pangloss, who disaster after disaster, insisted this was for the best because “all is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds”.
Leibniz’s point was rather different to Voltaire’s parody (after all a good parody must take some view to the extreme). He knew the world was messy and had suboptimal events, individually. What he argued is that this collection of optimal and suboptimal outcomes was the best any God could do, in order to achieve whatever goals a God should have. Evil is evil, but it is the least amount of evil a good powerful God can get away with, logically. We might appeal to the economists’ theorem, Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, which states that when you have a number of competing goods, there is no perfect outcome, just the best trade-off compromise. God has his own Arrow’s dilemma. No nicely ranked set of outcomes is possible, even for a deity.
No church of Leibniz was ever formed, although some of what are often called “liberal” or “modernist” churches approach it. So while it remains only a philosophical speculation, it hardly represents what most people call “religion”. Unfortunately, when philosophers ask questions like “is religion compatible with science?” the kind of God they assume is more like Leibniz’s, a god of the philosophers, than the pope’s.
The God of the folk
Ethologists of religion distinguish between what they call folk religion and elite religion. Elite religion is the religion of educated elites, of the theologians and philosophically inclined. Folk religion is the religion that finds its way to preachers and pastors, in sermons and letters to the editor about the declined moral standards of the secular world. Elite religion is usually mostly free of supernatural beings and spirits in things, while folk religion can range from the simple literal reading of sacred texts to a borderline animism. For example, Catholicism has a wealth of theological works to draw upon, but the folk version often includes supernatural powers of the saints, or even a mixture of African or folk cults such as is found in Caribbean voodoo or Peruvian worship of dead heroes or even criminals.
Clearly the folk religions have the greater social sway. This can be simple superstition, like crossing yourself when you pass a graveyard, or it can be more malignant, like searching out those who are “witches” and burning them, something that unfortunately still occurs in places like Nigeria and Papua New Guinea to women and even children. To take these as the exemplar of religion, the way Dawkins does, however, is to gerrymander the issue. Of course such religious beliefs are incompatible with science; that is not the issue. Likewise, the parallel case of folk beliefs about psychology, or even economics (“voodoo economics” as George H. W. Bush called it, which remains an article of faith among certain kinds of conservatives the world over), are incompatible with our best knowledge about these fields. It is not an argument against “psychology” or “economics” to say that these folk beliefs are incompatible with science, and neither should it be about religion. Science does rule out some sorts of beliefs.
For example, the religious beliefs based on folk tales of Thor causing thunder and Woden causing lightning are ruled out by a knowledge of meteorology and physics. All sides in the debate agree upon this. But let us suppose that Thorologians (the Scandanavian equivalent of theologians) become acquainted with modern science. They might decide to reinterpret Thor’s powers in a more philosophically sophisticated manner, something like how the catholic tradition interprets the Bible allegorically. This form of Thorism is not contrary to science, because, as happened with Galileo’s heliocentrism, the tradition reinterprets what had previously been a literal world view as a theologically charged story or allegory. So does modern science rule out Thor-worship? The question turns on whether or not the religious traditions are those of the pre-Christian folk or those of the post-scientific thinkers within the Thor community.
Likewise, we cannot infer from, say, young earth creationists within the Christian tradition to the view that science has ruled out Christianity, since the term “Christian” is as slippery and malleable as “religion” itself. One person’s “Christian” is another person’s heretic or even unbeliever. So we have to understand the social and intellectual structure of religions.
Elite religion, on the other hand, is not the same as philosophical religion. Where Leibniz evades the question of God’s direct intervention in the physical world, allowing for it but presuming that science holds sway in explaining mundane events, elite religions can often adopt a realism towards miracles, revelations and interaction with spirits, angels and demons. That is, elite religion can include supernatural events and powers. The difference with folk religion is that it attempts to reconcile in a cohesive structure of ideas and beliefs both the core beliefs and doctrines of the tradition, as well as the best of our knowledge about the natural world. Nobody who is concerned that their religion be, to some extent, realistic, wants science to conflict with their tradition. That would be equivalent to saying there are two truths about the world and that they are in conflict. Believers usually hold the beliefs they do because they are intended to provide insight into how things really are, not into how we wish them to be.
Critics of religion often accuse it of wishful thinking. A recent popular “new age” movement, called The Secret, invented by an Australian television producer, Rhonda Byrne and promoted by Oprah Winfrey, is a perfect example of this (Byrne 2006). According to the Secret, if you have a positive attitude to life and wish hard for what you need, the Universe will deliver it. Consider what the Universe would need to be like for this to be true: it would need to be run by some power – a Universal Law of Attraction – that attends to the every desire of those who are properly positively thinking, and to intervene in what would otherwise have occurred to bring about what they desire. Clearly this is magical thinking, as the title of a later book, The Magic (2012) makes bleedingly obvious.
But if folk religions are often rife with magical thinking, elite religion is more sophisticated in its approach. The view that the universe must act like humans do, with intentions, agency, and responsibility, and that it can be bargained with, is called anthropomorphism, literally, taking things to be like humans. It is a form of projection, and according to a dominant view in the study of religions, in what has come to be known as the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), gods are the ultimate anthropomorphism. As Voltaire famously said, if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him, surreptitiously implying that in fact we did.
Elite thinkers attempt to dehumanise gods and divine powers. There are two ways to do this: either deny that deities act in the same manner as human agents do (by raising their agency to a higher form that bears no resemblance to human agency) or deny that we can recognise their agency when it occurs. The former approach can take several forms. In those religions where all that is not God is created by God, one can say that God created the universe so that it would result in the outcomes God desires without meddling, through foreknowledge of what would occur if, in fact, he created that universe. This view makes God’s agency a much more rarified kind than humans. He made the world and the world made us. In theology, this is called the distinction between primary cause or creation of all things, and secondary causes, the laws of that which God created, according to which the creation behaves. We shall return to this [see here].
The latter kind of elite religion supposes that God somehow orders things (in a mysterious fashion) so that things turn out according to his plan. This is not deism, which tends to presume that God does not intervene in physical affairs,but instead a managerial notion of God who orders things to behave according to his business plan, or as religious terminology has it, Providence. How that occurs is left open. It contrasts with the non-interventionist notion of God as a clock maker who builds and winds up the universe, and then lets it run. A modern version would see God as the computer builder and programmer, who then lets the program run as it was programmed to do.
The reference class problem
Now, which version of religion – elite or folk, interventionist or non-interventionist – is it that we must compare and contrast to science? The fact is, there are no generalisations that cover all bases; it depends very much on the particular form of religion that is in conflict with science in a time and place. In one place and time it might be fundamentalist Protestantism that is the problem, as it is in North America. In another it might be some kind of Hindu extremism, and in another, although I cannot envisage this happening, the kind of Anglicanism that is more concerned with tea than metaphysics.
Claims such as the one made by the late Christopher Hitchens, that Religion Poisons Everything (the subtitle of his 2007 book) are therefore incredibly ambiguous and rely upon vagueness for their impact. Some religion poisons some things, and no religion poisons everything. For example, no religion has poisoned my Apple MacBook, unless you believe that Apple itself is a religion. To say that religion poisons everything is rhetoric and little else.
Yes, Dawkins does try to argue that “religious moderation” allows religious fanaticism to exist, and that religious indoctrination is child abuse, but these are not factual claims. Extremism is largely the end product of social factors such as frustration with social exclusion and resistance to the rate of social change. As such it arises not because there are religions, but because of general human tendencies to react when in those conditions of frustration and confusion. In short, religion doesn’t cause extremism, being human does. And all children are indoctrinated, although in polite company we call it socialisation or even education. It is no more child abuse to teach a religion to your child than it is to inculcate a love of the local football team – indeed there are some very close parallels between support for religions and support for political and sporting affiliations. One might almost think that there is a common underlying cause, and that it is not religion itself that is at fault.
If we are going to apportion blame to religion – and I certainly think there are things some religions can correctly be blamed for – we must ensure that we do not shepherd into the class being blamed anyone who even vaguely is connected to it. For example, Muslims are often asked why they do not criticise bombers and other forms of terror in the name of Islam; as if every Muslim is responsible for the actions of every other person who self-identifies as Muslim. And yet, we do see Muslim leaders decrying such actions, both in the Western countries where there is an increasing (and generally benign) Muslim presence, and in the countries where the terror is taking place. This is conveniently overlooked by those who wish to paint all Islam as a terror religion. It is a form of a well-known fallacy: of taking the parts to stand for the whole, which goes by the name fallacy of composition. I would like to call this the reference class problem.
A reference class in statistics is the baseline group against which some outlier is measured. For example, western nations are generally not very religious, which makes the United States stand out as an exception. “Western nations” forms the reference class because they are intertwined in their cultural and socioeconomic histories. But does “religion” form a reference class? Arguably not. Religion scholars are in that respect like economists: they are studying a heterogeneous set of things under a constructed category. It is quite widely understood by scholars of religion that there is no single thing that is religion and not also applicable to other phenomena in human culture and society (see, for instance, Bulbulia 2005).
We are subject to what psychologists call confirmation bias, where any single instance of something that we find important stands for the entire class of phenomena (see Kahneman 2011 for a good discussion of this and other cognitive biases we are prone to). A person commits an act of terror who is Muslim, and we will infer that Muslims are criminals or at least the religion is. A Catholic or Baptist commits an act of terror, and we assign them to other reference classes than their religion (working class, Southerner, gun-nut, etc.), because we expect Muslims to be terrorists. The imputation is not based upon facts, but upon our constructed classes of people.
So it is far from clear that religion is, in fact, the problem here. Even the so-called religious wars, such as The Troubles in Ireland or the Crusades, were the outcome of social, economic and political processes, for which religion stood, not as a cause, but as a proxy for the opposing sides. This is not to say that religion never causes problems of this kind – of course it does. But often enough it is not the cause so much as the banner under which other issues are being resolved. The Irish Catholics and the imported Protestants were representative of ethnic groups with different social status and power, and so being Catholic was not so much the root of the Troubles as the honest signal of group identity. I shall return to this, also. [See here]
How to speak about religion
In order to avoid the reference class problem, it would be better to use more specific terms when discussing religion. These are called index terms and act like a database record ID to prevent putting the wrong data in the wrong record. In ordinary language, we often use adjectives and names to identify what we are talking about: instead of talking about “religion”, an index term like “fundamentalist religion” is better, and “Southern Baptist religion” better still. The reason for this is that while “fundamentalist” has a set of connotations (socially conservative, etc.) the use of “fundamentalist” as an adjective is pretty ambiguous. For example, we have seen the use of “fundamentalist Muslim” or worse, “fundamentalist atheist”, when in fact the term’s origin and proper meaning is “Christian in the Protestant tradition whose beliefs trace back to the series of books entitled The Fundamentals in the early twentieth century (Dixon, Torrey et al. 1910–1915, Numbers 2006). For a historian, that is what “fundamentalist” means. Applying it to Darwinists, atheists, Muslims or any other group is at best analogical and at worst merely deprecating. This would mean that if “fundamentalist religion”, or “Southern Baptist”, is the reference class being blamed for some social outcome, or assigned to an argument, there is little to no confusion about what that means, and it blocks overgeneralisation through a fallacy of composition.
I have found this a very difficult point to get across to critics of religion. They, like everyone else, look around them and see a certain group of vocal proponents of this or that scientific idea speaking in the name of “religion” (and not, say, Southern Baptist fundamentalism) and generalise from this to the view that all religious are like those people. But this is not true. There are religious people who are generally pro-science and pro-reason (as they understand it; they might be mistaken) but who don’t get the press the fundamentalist Baptists or Wahabist imams do. This is hard to avoid: we typically take our categories from prime examples around us, as we learn the language and societal norms of our community, a technique known as prototyping in linguistics and psychology. As we mature we will revise many of these simple examples but not all. There isn’t time to do this, and unless you are exposed to the reflective investigations of specialists through education (or well written popular books), you probably maintain most prototypes without much revision. But this is not a scientific or rational approach to a problem.
Religions are not monolithic blocks of belief, contrary to the way it is presented within religions themselves. There are usually multiple interpretations, attitudes to the secular, and sub communities of ideas and specialisms within any religion. Consider the Church of England. It has roughly three different communities: low church, broad church and high church (roughly, those influenced by evangelicalism, those who take a “middle way”, and those who are Catholic in all but allegiance to the See of Rome). Each of these has theologians, who specialise in doctrinal matters from an abstract perspective, the clergy, who are ordained and given a basic training in theology, pastoral care, and liturgy, among other topics, and the laity, who may be well or poorly educated in their own church traditions. if you were to criticise, say, evangelical Anglicanism, you would be best to look at what their theologians and biblical scholars say, and not their twice-a-year worshippers. So who should we ask the question about science in that community?
Who should we ask can accommodate science?
There is a standard principle of debating and reasoning known as the “principle of charity” (see Davidson 1973), according to which the argument you should combat in your opponent may not be the one they express, but the best possible and strongest version of it you can construct. This is so that if you can succeed in knocking it down, your opponent has no way to turn.
We could, of course, measure the effect that folk religion has had on the acceptance of science. This is a useful and important thing to do (see Numbers 2006). But that is a sociological investigation. Accommodating science within religion is a philosophical issue, not a sociological one (consider a reverse argument: science is not determined by what the majority think acceptable). So perhaps we should ask the following questions:
- Which religion or form of religion should we ask whether it can accommodate science?
- What represents the best (most charitable version of) that form of religion’s beliefs about the relation between science and [their] religion?
- What are the solutions offered in that faith community’s traditions for dealing with science?
- How well do these resources cope with science and the modern world?
We will address these points in subsequent posts.
Bulbulia, J. (2005). “Are there any religions? An evolutionary exploration.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 17: 71-100.
Byrne, R. (2006). The secret. London, Simon & Schuster.
Byrne, R. (2012). The magic. London, Simon & Schuster.
Davidson, D. (1973). “Radical Interpretation.” Dialectica 27: 314–328.
Dixon, A. C., R. A. Torrey and Others, Eds. (1910–1915). The fundamentals – a testimony to the truth. Chicago IL, Testimony Publishing Co. (Bible Institute of Los Angeles).
Hitchens, C. (2007). God is not great: how religion poisons everything. New York, Twelve.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. London, Allen Lane.
Numbers, R. L. (2006). The creationists: from scientific creationism to intelligent design. Cambridge, MA; London, Harvard University Press.
Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive culture: researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art and custom. London, Murray.