Thursday, October 12, 2023

Thinking Rationally about Religion and Violence

Teaching high school kids how to think and do research sometimes drove me to despair. Not because they didn't get it, but because sometimes they did. And then I look at how "successful" thinkers in the Media and often even Academy argue in public, and wondered if I was wasting my time. 

Maybe, after all, sloppy use of key terms, broad generalizations based on anecdotal and impressionistic "evidence," free employment of logical fallacies, and in short, shoddy reasoning that makes emotional appeals to dupes, is how to make a name for yourself and grab your share of the world's approval and financial renumeration. Maybe I was setting kids up to fail 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 told students that one of the first things they needed to do to make a sensible argument, was to define key terms. 

So what is "religion," used twice in the headline alone, that multi-tasking pest 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. Secular ideologies often qualify as “religions” under functional definitions. This makes skeptics uncomfortable, because they want to stigmatize “religious” people as inherently irrational, unlike themselves. Functional definitions level the playing field, reminding us that the same psychological and social forces work on us all, whatever we think about God. 

But an even more important, and obvious, distinction begged by the title of this piece is "Which religion?" As everyone knows, including those taking the survey, some Muslims have behaved badly of late. (I finally post this after Hamas' recent murderous exploits were celebrated widely.) 

Yes, so have some Christians, especially if you go back to the Inquisition -- why did you think of that? Because both Christianity and Islam are “Abrahamic religions“ we are told. 

So it does not even cross the skeptic’s mind that, “Yes, but atheists murdered one hundred million innocent people during our grandparents’ life-times." That is the advantage of implicitly defining religion to exclude their own ideology: they need not be hoist with their own petards. 

Asking if "religion" has done the world harm is misleading not only because "religion" is poorly-defined, but also because either sort of definition covers very different things. A fallacy of composition is committed. It is unfair to ask folk about "religion in general" when they invariably have particular religions in mind. 

"Are Lutheran Brethren the root cause of the world's problems?" No? How about Communism? Capitalism? Technology? 

"Is Islam the cause of most of the world's problems?” 

That question won’t fly in Lahore, or else stones will. Go ask police officers in Beijing if the Communist Party has messed up the country, and with luck, you’ll soon be on a flight home. 

And what does "most of the world's problems" mean? 

Take out a scratch pad and list a few serious ones: 

(a) Death.
(b) Cancer.
(c) War.
(d) Mosquitoes and the diseases they bring.
(e) Ticks and the diseases they carry.
(f) Traffic jams.
(g) Bureaucrats.
(h) The threat of nuclear weapons.
(i) The rise of Artificial Intelligence.
(j) Unmelodic music in grocery stores.
(k) Ugly public art.

Your list may differ. But the problem with the article’s title should be obvious. Clearly, most big problems are not caused by religions, however you define the word. (Unless you count Satan’s temptation to “be as gods, eat the apple” as a “religion.”)

In China, where few of the 1.4 billion citizens has a religion in the sense of belief in supernatural beings, 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 "unrequited love" “bad air” or "getting fired.")

So why might people answer "yes" to such an inane question as “Is religion the root cause of the world’s troubles?”

Because polls are intended to let people vent, not think. And who are respondents venting at? Not at themselves, of course. At people of other religions.

So much for “the future of reasoning.”

Anecdotal Arguments Against Faith, plus "Expert" Opinions

The contents of the article exhibit do little more to reassure one that post-religious humanity will think clearly or honestly.

"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.

And does critical thinking need to be suppressed, or developed?  If it came naturally, I'd have to seek employment elsewhere. And when it comes to job security, the US News article is reassuring. 

"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." 

Take this line of “reasoning,” for instance. Does the author seriously wish to extrapolate from three 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?” Claim power over others?

Aristotle pointed out that "Man is a political creature.” Since politics means assertion of power, clearly the use of power is a universal human (also lupine) characteristic.

So we should generalize from three instances to 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? Or the fratricidal history of Marxism?

My point, of course, is not that atheists are either more or less violent than Shiite Muslims. It is that McPhillip has deceived herself into thinking she has made a rational argument, when she has not come within a country mile of a clear thought. 

But on she treks: 

"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.’ Spiritual beliefs create an inherent “us vs. them" scenario, experts say."

Which experts say that? What are they expert in?

Sports and politics also create "inherent 'us vs them' scenarios. Indeed, every assertion of truth, every scientific or historical or psychological claim, every basketball tossed into the air, also creates an "us vs them:” those for, and those against. Society is constantly fracturing along the fault lines of a billion assertions. Any claim "A" immediately creates a default "non-A" at the other end of the court. Ever line in the sand, saying "This is ours" (Rouseau) creates potential for conflict. 

McPhillip's borrowed "insight“ is thus simultaneously both trivial and earth-shaking: if she applied the same standard to ideas in general, she would have to portray them all as dangerous.  (And maybe they are, for her.)

"’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 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 offered the same views about the world, it would make me wonder if I were trapped in the world of 1984 or the planet in Madeleine L’Engle where children all bounce their balls simultaneously.

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."

Here come those ”experts" again. Which experts, besides the New Atheist Sam Harris? What are their exact words? What evidence do they offer to back up their opinions?

I'm an expert in "religion." I don't hear my fellow historians, theologians, or students of comparative religion, saying that religion is more dangerous than politics or nuclear physics, for examples.

Indeed, the argument given so far sounds like something a crack-pot psychologist dabbling in comparative religion or intellectual history might say. The impact of ideas in the collective is not a question that can be answered theoretically. (Notice the fudge word "potentially," which is a concession that the author cannot back her point up with solid empirical evidence.)

If you have proof that "religious" people (by whatever definition) are more violent, cruel or mean than people who lack any beliefs or purpose in life, please offer that evidence, so we can crunch the data! 

Or how about if we just cite Swami Sam like good faith-heads? 

"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 (whose expertise lies in cognitive science, not religion), offering armchair theorizing. Odd, if “experts" in general are making this point, that she keeps on citing the same fairly young scholar, whose academic work lay in a field remote indeed from the claim supposedly being supported.

"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.’

Maybe we should start a drinking game: bottoms up when the word "expert" is used.

This expert turns out to be a young instructor, not professor, at a community college. 

He does hold a PhD in psychology. But these two comments hardly seem to require one to issue. Your most sacred beliefs are part of who you are! (Bet you didn't know that, Irish Catholics! Or Iranian Shiites! Or Icelandic Wiccans!) And some people get more upset than others when you tell them their religion is wrong! 

Remember, this is expertise talking, so don’t laugh!

"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."

You may want to sit down for these “heavy” revelations. 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 to thinking both sun and earth circle the moon. Profound, no? 

But the experts have even more such wisdom to impart. 

"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 the flow of earth-shattering profundity. But what this seems to mean is, if you don't care much about your religion, you probably won't lose your cool if someone trashes it.

Are we going too fast?

Also, if you don't care 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 obtained this vast store of expertise from their PhD studies, or from an old Beatles song. Either way, we soldier on:

"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 teenager . . . 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."

A sad story, indeed.

"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. '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 or the Sermon on the Mount. (Cough, cough.)

But we seem to be straying off the path. Wasn’t someone going to make the case that religion is the root of all evil? The title of the piece was "Religion Needs a Savior: Most people think religion is the root cause of the world's problems, according to an international study."

Nope!  It turns out that this title is a lie. The actual question asked was not about "the world's problems" in general. Rather it asked "What's the primary source of most global conflict today?"

Obviously, "problems" is a vastly broader set of issues than "conflicts," especially if you add the adjective "global," then the chronological modifier, "today."

Anyone who doesn't recognize how dishonest it is to conflate these two, shouldn't stand within ten miles of a keyboard. It is like asking people, "What is the most difficult thing about eating a pineapple?" Then when they say, "Pealing off that hard, greenish-yellow skin," you announce, as your headline, "Most people object to mixed skin colors!"

If one were to focus on the present moment in history, Islam is, arguably, the source of most civilizational friction. One could also make a case for the Woke ideology. Look a few years into the past, and it was communism. Look into the future, and the atheist neo-Confucianism of China looms on the horizon.

But death, taxes, cancer, and traffic are all arguably bigger problems for most people. And most religions don't cause much fuss, even those that are passionately believed (what Stark called “high tension” faiths.)

"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 on what people think in the present, not the future. We have no idea whether there will even be any human beings 27 years from now, let alone what they will believe. A LITTLE intellectual humility on how our grandkids will identity is advisable.

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. But in some other countries, the church has suffered sudden reversals.

What path people follow in the future, is up to them, and predicated on numerous variables, many of which themselves are complex or invisible to any human or computer prognosticator. But just a bit more from “experts” before we (finally, yes, sorry) close:

"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, and Woke ideology in California. 

"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 kinder and gentler.

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. One eastern critic pointed out that Hick's "Real" was implicitly theistic, while many theists found it rather un-Real. So Hick's attempt to satisfy everyone ended by satisfying almost no one, as such ghostly universalisms usually do.

But I think Johnston is closer to the truth than the other "experts" McPhillip has cited. Of course people can appeal to "Got Mitt Uns" to commit tribal cruelties. Yet anyone who recognizes the image of God on his neighbor, and who hears 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, then look God in the eye.

I just read part of a doctoral dissertation 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 some Miao 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 this article fails on all fronts. Religions are complex, varied, and contradictory as the humans they strive to direct. Simple-minded a priori generalizations, inspired by abstract psychological theories and absent careful empirical research discretely analyzed and reported, don't tell us anything. Neither do answers to loaded questions.  

And really, kids, you need to define your terms clearly, make due concessions, quote qualified authorities while recognizing the limits of their expertise, look at the big picture not just a few convenient facts, and think critically about your thesis.  

Which, after all, may be worth learning to do, after all.  

Think critically about religion, and it may not help you get published or elected to office.  But as Kipling put it, do all that, and "You'll be a man, my son."