Razib has a frighteningly smart post on religion, secularism, Korea, etc., but I thought this excerpt was worth noting:
Religion adapts to the world as it is, engaging in dynamic processes of retrofitting. If supernaturalism is the cognitive default in many then the details of the religious narrative are of only proximate importance. But, I also think it is important to note that the decline of organized religion does not imply a concomitant decline in supernaturalistic or non-scientific thinking per se. An equal number of Americans and Europeans believe in reincarnation after all! The extremely secular (defined by a generally positive attitude toward science and an apathy toward organized religion) Chinese are also responsible for the near extinction of tigers (and other animals) because of the popularity of Chinese medicine. Secular American regions, like the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco, are also “New Age” meccas.
That, I think, is exactly right. Science-types spend a lot of time bemoaning specific cultural incarnations of our cognitive “supernaturalism” (Jerry Falwell, Intelligent Design, biblical literalism) without trying to grapple with the larger psychology issues underlying the religiosity. It’s funny that even people without any religious affiliation need some sort of metaphysical belief system, be it yoga or Chinese herbs or just some vague faith in an afterlife. (Even Sam Harris needs his Buddhism.) My own pet hypothesis is that the human mind craves mystery: we have a deep psychological need to know that not everything is reducible to the callous laws of physics and materialism. Whether we fill that mystery with God or Gods or some New Age chakra is more a matter of local culture than anything else. When people like Dawkins attack wimpy agnostics or moderate believers, they forget that many atheists aren’t uber-rationalists. They carry around tarot cards, not The Selfish Gene.
What’s the takeaway? Two things. First of all, it’s important to note that science isn’t necessarily in conflict with our need to believe in some sort of mystery. Modern science, after all, has discovered some of the craziest ideas around, from the principles of quantum physics to the fact that our head holds a trillion cells trafficking in minor jolts of electricity. These ideas are both materialist and mysterious, since they hint at a universe that exceeds the current capacities of our imagination. What Hamlet said to Horatio is still true.
Secondly, we (the materialists) should recognize that some religions are much more amenable to having their sense of the mysterious be modified than others. Instead of attacking all religions as bastions of anti-science beliefs, we should encourage the faithful to redraw the lines of the faith, to escort God to some new gaps. That said, I still agree with Razib’s final point:
But, I do think the argument that the decline of organized religion is “good for science” is correct in the end because I think these counter-scientific narratives have a more diffuse impact. In short, the problem with organized religion is that it scales supernaturalism into a powerful unified force, like the forcible realignment of iron molecules within ore to generate magnetism. So long as the molecules are randomly oriented then they “cancel out” and don’t result in a net force. Though New Religions, superstitious claptrap and customary cults (e.g., nominal affiliation with a Shinto Shrine and a Buddhist Temple) are common in Japan, there is a societal deference to science because there is no unified counter-force (though Japanese attitudes toward organ donation suggest that “irrational” beliefs can be perpetuated in secular societies).