Friday, January 10, 2020

US NEWS on the Impact of "Religion"

Why schools should teach history better. 
Teaching high school kids how to think and do research sometimes drives me to despair.  Not because they don't get it, but because they generally do.  And then I turn around and look at how "successful" thinkers in the Media and often even the Academy argue in public, and I have to wonder if I'm wasting my time.  Maybe, after all, sloppy use of key terms, broad generalizations based on anecdotal and impressionistic "evidence," the profligrate employment of logical fallacies, and in short, shoddy reasoning that makes emotional appeals to key segments of your audience, is the way to make a name for yourself and grab your share of the world's approval and financial renumeration.  Maybe I'm setting these kids up for failure by teaching them how to think and argue rationally.   

Such, at least, was my gloomy reflection upon reading Deidre McPhillip's "Religion Needs a Savior: Most people think religion is the root cause of the world's problems, according to an international study," on the US News website.  (And a discussion linked to that article at a secularist website that promotes the "future of reasoning.")
I tell my students that one of the first things they need to do to make a sensible argument, is to define key terms.   
So what is "religion," used twice in the headine alone, which allegedly causes most the world's problems?  The term is famously tricky.  Sociologist Peter Berger divided definitions of religion into two kinds: substantive, which focus on the content of belief, and functional, which key in on the use society makes religion.  For instance, you can define religion as "Belief in God or supernatural powers," or as "The overarching ideology which a group of people take as fundamental in establishing rules of behavior."  (Or Paul Tillich's simpler "ultimate concern," to give another "functional" example.  The sociologist Emile Durkheim was probably the most famous "functional" theorist.)   
People ignore this distinction all the time, though it is critical.  Functional definitions often include secular ideologies, and therefore challenge the frequent assumption that "religious" people are somehow distinct from those who hold to purportedly unbiased, objective, scientific worldviews.  They level the playing field, reminding us that the same psychological and social forces work on us all, whatever our beliefs.   
But an even more important, and obvious, distinction the title of this piece begs is "Which religion?"  
As everyone knows, including those taking the survey, some Muslims have behaved badly in recent years.  Yes, I know, so have some Christians, especially if you go back to the Inquisition -- why do our minds immediately leap to that connection?  Because both are "religions“ we are told.  So we don't think, "Yes, but atheistic communists murdered one hundred million innocent people a few years back."  
Asking if "religion" has done the world harm is misleading not only because "religion" is defined to filter out murderous secular ideologies, but also because once defined, it includes many very different things.   A fallacy of composition is implicitly committed.  It is unfair to ask respondants about "religion in general" when they probably have particular religions in mind.   

"Are the Lutheran Brethren the root cause of the world's problems?"   
No?  How about Communism?  How about Capitalism?  Technology?  Try asking those questions, and see how people respond.  

Suppose the survey asked, "Is Islam the cause of most of the world's problems?"  How many people would answer "Yes" to that?   
I know, I know.  You can't ask that question in Mecca, because they won't let the kind of people who would ask it go there.  And you can't ask it in Lahore, because you might get stoned.

The title of the article raises two more red flags, which must be examined before the actual content of the article.  

What does "most of the world's problems" mean?  Grab a scratch pad and try listing a few of the more serious ones: 
 (a) Death. 
(b) Cancer. 
(c) War. 
(d) Mosquitoes and the diseases they bring. 
(e)  Ticks and the diseases they bring. 
(f) Traffic jams. 
(g) Bureaucrats.
(h) The threat of nuclear weapons. 
(i) The upcoming robot arising. 
(j) Irritating music in elevators. 
(k) CNN newscasts in airports when you want to watch the Superbowl. 
(l) Inane articles online.  

Maybe your list is a little different.  But still, start with daily life, and the things that actually impact you, and you have to say "Huh?" to this headline.  Clearly, most of the world's problems are not caused by religion collectively or individually, however you define the word.
Here in China, where few of the 1.4 billion citizens has a religion in sense (1) (which is the assumed sense), and the public, observable effect of Buddhism and Christianity is negligible (while Islam is suppressed even more heavily), I suspect "dropping my I phone on the sidewalk" would rank higher as a source of heartache.  Never mind "unrequitted love" or "getting fired."  

So why might people answer "yes?"  Because in such contexts, polls are generally intended, and perceived, as opportunity to vent, not to think analytically.  And who are respondents venting at?  Not at themselves, of course.  At people of other religions. 

So the premises that a public poll is a way to address the question of where most our troubles come from, or that people asked this sort of loaded question are likely to answer dispassionately even according to their own experience and beliefs, seem highly unlikely.  A critical thinker should understand that.  If I can teach it to high school students, why can't journalists muster at least that many skills in critical thinking?    

But at the risk of further exasperation, let's get to the actual article:   
"Raised as a conservative, Sunni Muslim girl in Canada, Yasmine Mohammed said she was taught to always be in fight mode.
"'The first thing Islam teaches you is to not question, but follow,' she says. And what she had to follow was a 'Muslim supremacy ideology' that called for violence against anyone who fell out of line and full armies prepared to join the fight when the caliphate was to rise.
"Systematic suppression of critical thinking is what makes Muslims ripe to join groups like the Islamic State group or become suicide bombers without questioning the motives of their directives, she says."

Not to defend Islam, of which I am not fond, but let us not ignore the fact that, as numerous anthropologists affirm, human nature is fundamentally tribal.  Nor am I sure critical thinking needs to be suppressed.  I think it needs to be developed. As mentioned, if it came naturally, I'd have to seek employment elsewhere.   And you will see from this article just how hard it is for some educated people even to fake it.   
"As a radical sect of Buddhist nationalists persecute the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wages on and a film challenging the Orthodox Church spurs violent protests in Russia, it seems that asserting sovereignty is the only thing the world's religions can agree on today."
Here, for instance.  What is this supposed to mean?  What is the "line of reasoning?"   Does the author seriously wish to extrapolate from four instances in which groups of "religious" people quarrel (though Israel is one of the least "religious" countries in the world) to argue that there is some sort of general agreement among "the world's religions" to . . . what?  "Assert sovereignty" I suppose means "make use of power."  

Since as Aristotle said, "Man is a political creature," and politics means the assertion of power, clearly the use of power is a universal human (not to mention lupine) characteristic.  

How is it criticall reasoning to argue from four vague instances to a trait covering 6 billion people, while implicitly exempting the "non-religious" billion or two people from that generalization?  Never mind the power games that New Atheists play among themselves!  And let us ignore the history of Marxism!
"In a recent Best Countries survey of more than 21,000 people from all regions of the world, the majority of respondents identified religion as the "primary source of most global conflict today."

Now here's the funny thing.  The accompanying chart doesn't show that most respondents said that at all!

Is 30% "most?"  (As the article's title says.)  Wouldn't "most" be more than 50%?

Nor can we blame this error on the anonymous person who writes article titles.  The author herself says "the majority of respondents" claim that religion is "the primary source of most global conflict today."  Maybe we should add other sources of world problems such as "writers with bad math skills" or "media nags who don't know the difference between 'majority' and 'plurality.'"  (Along with bad editors.)\

Neither, of course, is "most global conflict" the same as "the world's problems."

I tear out my hair.  How do such numbskulls attain their platforms?

When I click the link which ought to explain methodology, I find no explanation for who the respondents were or how they were chosen. 

"Spiritual beliefs create an inherent "us vs. them" scenario, experts say."
Which experts?  Is this another composition fallacy? 

Sports and politics also create "us" vs. "them" scenarios.  Take Brexit, for instance.  One might say that every assertion of truth, every scientific or historical or psychological claim creates an "us vs them" scenario.  

What's wrong with that, exactly?  Should we all think alike?   
"'When societies shatter, they generally shatter along tribal lines. People are seeing themselves as irretrievably different from their neighbors,' says Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher who has published books on Islam and the conflict between religion and science."

The movement Harris briefly helped to lead has also shattered along tribal lines.  The website Sam Harris and the Future of Reason is a site largely for tribal warfare between atheists who hold differing political opinions.  That's one reason I find it interesting.  If everyone said the same thing, it would bore the heck out of me.  

Humans are tribal.  Welcome to Anthropology 101.  

"The divisions created by religion are deeper and potentially more harmful than those formed through other aspects of identity such as race, nationality or political affiliations because they confront individuals with differing opinions on the ultimate purpose of life, experts say. And more than 80 percent of those surveyed said that religious beliefs guide a person's behavior."

There are those ”experts" again.  

Which experts, besides Sam Harris?   What do they say?   What evidence do they offer to back up their opinions? 

I'm a credentialed "expert" in "religion."  I don't hear fellow historians, theologians, or students of comparative religion, saying this.  

Indeed, this sounds like something an on-line soap box psychologist dabbling in fields he or she knows little about might say.  But this claim that religion is a more dangerous division than "race, nationality, or politics" can be answered theoretically.  (Notice the fudge word "potentially," which is a concession that the author cannot back the point up with good evidence.)  If you have evidence that "religious" people (by whatever clear definition you wish to hazard) are in fact more violent or cruel or mean than people who lack any beliefs or purpose in life, or that "religion" causes more warfare than politics or other forms of self-identity and group power accumulation (hah!) please show us your hand! 

"Religion often becomes the master variable," Harris says. "It provides a unique reward structure. If you believe that the thoughts you harbor in this life and the doctrines you adhere to spell the difference between an eternity spent in fire or one spent on the right hand of God, that raises the stakes beyond any other reward structure on earth."

Still just one "expert," Sam Harris.  Odd, if “experts" in general are making this point, that she keeps on citing the same young man.  

And, sigh, still no mention of evidence.  Nevertheless, we press on: 

"Tribal tendencies are natural for humans who need groups and community to survive.  But the driving forces behind especially alienating, fundamentalist beliefs are a combination of nature and nurture, experts say.
“'Any beliefs that concern the sacred are integral to people’s identities,' says Andrew Tix, a psychology professor at Normandale Community College whose nationally recognized research focuses on religion and spirituality. 'People differ in how much they’re threatened when the sacred is brought into question.'” 

Finally, another expert is mentioned.  This one is a young instructor, not professor, at a community college.  He does have a PhD in psychology, however.  These two comments hardly seem to require a PhD in psychology to affirm.  
"He points to psychology’s Big Five theory in which openness to experience is one of five key personality traits that is influenced by genetics and shaped by experiences.
"Some people have found ways to 'hold their beliefs more lightly and with a sense of mystery,' he says.  They would score high on ‘openness,’ while fundamentalists who hold their beliefs with heavy conviction would more likely score low."

So -- you may want to sit down for this.  People who are convinced about what they believe, really believe it.  Ponder the implications: if you firmly believe that the Earth goes around the Sun, you will score low in measurements of how open you are to changing your mind.  Profound, no?  

For this, we need experts.  
"Religious communities teach different ways of responding to criticism of their identity, Tix says, but it comes down to the notion of threatened egotism.
"The stronger a person’s convictions in their identity – of which religion is often a key part – the more likely they are to be violent when their identity is threatened."

You may find it hard to keep up with all the expert profundity.  But what this seems to mean is, if you don't care much about your religion, you probably won't get mad if someone trashes it.  Are we going too fast? 

Also, if you don't care much about your country, you probably won't care if someone invades it.  If no one cared about anything -- no country to die for, and no religion, too -- why just imagine! 

So I am not sure if our experts got all this expertise from their PhD studies, or from an old Beatles record.  But on we forge:     
"The Muslim identity surrounding Mohammed in Canada's British Columbia was strong. She was beaten for not memorizing the Koran and married to a member of al-Qaida as a teenaget/  

But after taking a religion course at college, Mohammed said the unease she had always felt with what she was told to believe finally started to take shape.
In voicing her newfound convictions to her family, she immediately became part of “them” instead of “us.” The fight turned against her. She says her family disowned her and threatened to have her killed. She fled to different parts of Canada, changed her and her child’s names and says she feels lucky the death threat has so far only been a threat.

May God give this woman a family and freedom!  Also believers who are persecuted in China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Iran, Myanmar, Vietnam, North Korea, and other countries founded on intolerant theistic and anti-theistic ideologies. 

"It is only in comparison with modern Islam that modern Christianity and other religions appear more benign, says Sam Harris, who is very publicly atheist."

Or in comparison to the greatest atheistic movement in human history, Marxism-Leninism.  
“'It’s more than inconvenient that these old [religious] books support things like slavery and the killing of women who are not virgins on their wedding night,' he says. 'None of these books is the best we have on anything we care about.  All could be improved with editing, and that should banish any notion that they are the product of omniscience.'”

I have seen attempts to "improve" the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount with editing.  (Cough, cough.)  

But we seem to be straying a little from the topic -- and have yet to see any evidence to support the notion that "religion" (whatever it is) is to blame for most of the world's ills.  (Still less the Christian religion in particular.)  
"But religion is not going away."

And if it did, we wouldn't know, since you haven't defined it yet.  
"Estimates from Pew Research Center predict that the worldwide population of religiously unaffiliated people will shrink from about 16 percent in 2010 to 13 percent in 2050. In the same time frame, the share of Muslims is predicted to grow from 23 percent to 30 percent of the world’s population."

Pew Research is an expert in the present, not the future.  We have no idea whether there will be any human beings on Planet Earth thirty years from now, let alone what they will believe.  A LITTLE intellectual humility on this point would be reasonable. 

Few predicted the sudden growth of Christianity in China.   In recent years, a phenomenon never seen before has occurred in the Muslim world, too -- millions converting to Christ.   While in other countries, the church has suffered sudden reversals.  What path people follow in the future, will kind of be up to them.   

But we have to endure more "experts," still:  
"Experts agree that finding a human connection at some level can help build empathy and bridge the gap between conflicting ideologies and identities.
"In many Muslim-majority nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, religion is directly tied to national policy and politics."

As is atheist ideology in China.  
"For 18 years, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, founded by Douglas Johnston, has facilitated faith-based dialogue to find commonalities in these conflicting sides.

“'What you’re doing is shifting accountability from an ideology or political movement to god. If you do that, you tend to find that people behave nicer,' Johnston says. 'It’s incumbent upon all of us to search our beliefs, our instincts and the rest of it and do what we can to be agents of reconciliation.'”

This quote seems to contradict everything that went before it.  "Religion" was the shark in the pool.  Now political ideology becomes the real danger, while faith in God can make us all nicer.  The author does not even seem to notice the contradiction, yet alone try to resolve it in some way.  

Of course, not all religions, especially defined functionally, appeal to God.  John Hick tried to get around this by describing a "Real" that is the truth behind surface manifestations in all religions, like the sun around which different planets orbit.  One eastern critic pointed out that Hick's "Real" was implicitly theistic, while many theists find it implicitly unreal.   So Hick's attempt to satisfy everyone ended by satisfying almost no one, as such faded universalisms usually do.    

But I think Johnston hits closer to the truth than the other "experts" McPhillip has cited.  Of course people can appeal to "Gott Mitt Us" to do terrible, tribal, cruel things.  Yet anyone who recogizes the image of God on the person on the subway, and who listens to Jesus tell him that all morality and prophetic writings are summed up in "Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself," cannot go full tribal and be consistent.

I read part of a doctoral dissertation today by an orthodox Jew who noted that the Miao people in China had been fighting the Han people, and losing, since forever.  Their conversion to Christianity, he noticed, allowed them to begin to forgive the Han.  And his own faith in God seemed to give him something in common with evangelical missionaries and Chinese minorities alike.  

So I found this article singularly irrational.  Life is complex.  Humans are complex.  Religions are complex, varied, and contradictory as life and humans, which they try to describe and direct.  Simple-minded a priori generalizations, inspired by abstract psychological theories and absent sound empirical research carefully analyzed and reported, don't tell us much about anything.  Neither do answers to loaded questions, especially when those questions are loaded with nothing more explosive than flem.  

Reasoning on the cheap is no more intellectually persuasive than the wave in someone else's football stadium.  


Joe Mccarron said...

This is a very good post that I think is well worth reading. It can get wearisome dealing with some of these people who seem to tirelessly push their atheistic propaganda.

I may check out some of your books. My website is at I may link to your blog if that is ok.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks! Of course!

Joe Mccarron said...

I did some checking and it appears Bill Murray never said what the "Godless Utopia" Meme claims he said.

He seems to actually be somewhat religious raised Catholic and a sister is a nun, although it seems he is not catholic anymore.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks. Bill is too funny to be that silly.