Last night, the Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists club (C.A.S.H.) presented a debate between PZ Myers and Loyal Rue on the question: Can religion and science co-exist? I witnessed this event and would like to tell you what happened.
I want to begin with a message to PZ Myers: Thank you, PZ, for your service! There are a lot of people in the twin cities who could engage in an interesting debate on religion, atheism, evolution, creationism, etc. and do an OK job, but none others have the experience and intellectual preparation (to do an excellent job) and the draw (to guarantee lots of people come to see it). Which means you have to drive all the way from Morris, Minnesota on a school night. I hope people understand that you don’t have to do this for any good reason other than it has to be done (although maybe getting out of Morris frequently is a reason, I don’t know).
I also want to thank Betsy Burr for joining me last night for the debate and beers before and after. We don’t get together enough, and our joint research projects and our friendship require that this change, so let’s fix that.
Thank you as well to the large man at Palmers Biker Bar who stood by and protected us from the onslaughts of dozens of drunken Marti Gras revelers. We did not need your protection … Betsy had the situation well in hand … but I know you were sincere.
Finally, I want to thank my wife, Amanda, for doing the hard work last night. It was parent night in the large school you teach in, and aggressive queries and comments from parents insisting that you teach creationism along side of, or instead of, evolution in your science classroom may be very common, but that does not make them run of the mill or acceptable. While the rest of us were out debating, reveling, or discussing rodent teeth, you were doing the hard work that few of us can do.
Now, on to the debate. I am certain PZ will blog the best possible perspective of how the debate went and what was discussed (ah, he did so as I was writing this). I want to summarize only a few key points and explain the specific problems I had with Rue’s presentation. These problems are very important to me. So important, in fact, that I sort of lost control last night and had to be tasered by the C.A.S.H. security team. (Thanks, guys, I understand why you did that and appreciate it.)
Rue and PZ share an almost identical position on religion in relation to society and science in particular. Rue, however, believes that the next step in the “evolution” of religion is to be transformed into a secular and humanistic construct with all the features he sees as central to religion, including the reification of moral codes and understanding of the natural world in the form of myth/story metaphor tropes that facilitate both moral behavior and an understanding of nature. Rue wants to call this construct religion, and PZ wants to call it science.
I was thinking we should call it secular humanism, but interestingly, no one mentioned that last night. Perhaps someone will suggest why that term does not apply.
I think the heart of the Rue-PZ difference lies in the following contrasting (yet not necessarily exclusive, or even matched) views:
1) Religion is a powerful organizing social and cultural force, so it isn’t going to go away and in fact should be openly used as we pass into the next state of social evolution, from Nation State to Global Consciousness. (That’s Rue.)
2) On balance, Religion brings with it baggage consisting of untenable spirituality and non-naturalism, which has often been translated into social or political movements, as well as individual actions, that form the worst aspects of human nature and society. Leave that baggage behind. (That’s PZ)
PZ might add that religion has nothing special to offer to offset this baggage. I would also phrase the argument thusly: Retaining religion as a normative social and cultural construct because of the benefits Rue cites (we can accept these benefits as plausible for the sake of argument) is a little like saying that we can accept and maintain Nazism because we have a newly reformed, evolved form of Nazism with all the good features of how to organize infrastructure and government (great roads, secure military, nice rockets) but without the bad features. Most of us would prefer to avoid the label (Nazi) because the label is a symbol that carries powerful meaning, and thus, dangerous baggage.
There are more reasons that religion is bad, or at best not good, that were not discussed last night (or that were but that I do not mention). But I await PZ’s summary which will be more succinct and relevant than I can give you in my present hazy state (I only had three beers, but that’s more than I had since going out to the bar with Mike last month to discuss Democratic Politics and stuff).
Now, on to my objections to Rue.
Rue presented three formalized constructs that I will very briefly summarize here.
A processual model of religion
Rue provided what I’ll refer to as a model of religious social process. This is about how religious practice ties together myths or stories with concepts that emerge to explain the unexplained (such as a duality of nature and spiritual, etc.) and other aspects of society. If you saw his charts and graphs, and viewed them from a Western or Judeo-Christian, or Abrahamic or, I believe, South Asian or possibly East Asian cultural perspective, you would get it, and see its value, and understand what he is talking about. I’m not going to try to represent his model here, go read his books.
The most salient point of his model, in relation to the debate, is that morality derives from this process of integrating unknowns and explanations. I think he is right, as long as we keep “morality” in lower case, or use the phrase “a form of morality” and not “the morality.”
In Rue’s model, morality and ethics requires this process of transformation of questions about the universe to symbol rich mythology and story telling. The model is really a set of interrelated metaphors that provide the framework for the cultural codification of morality. The next step in evolution of religious practice and belief is to transform this framework into a purely naturalistic one. Keep this in mind, I’ll come back to this concept later.
The Evolution of Social Form
The next model he presented was a model of the evolution of social form that runs like this (I’m using a different format than he did but you’ll fully understand it):
Bands of foragers -> tribes -> chieftainship -> Nation State -> Global system
In his model, the processual model described above emerges as human society evolves from bands to tribes to chieftainships, with a story (like an origin story in many cases) facilitating that transition. At the latter end of the process, Rue claims that a new story, which is secular science, needs to be the story that transforms us from Nation State to Global System (he used somewhat different terminology but this is his point). Nice point, he may be right, but this specific aspect is not what I had a problem with, necessarily.
Those of you who have studied anthropology will recognize the fallacy in Rue’s stages of evolution. If you have, the following assertion he made will actually make you mad, as it made me mad:
Rue notes that later on in this social evolution, the moral code that derives from religion is the main reference point for people’s moral behavior. But, he says, the code that operates at the band/hunter-gatherer level is different. At this basic level of social organization, he says, moral behavior is maintained by the negative emotional reaction by other members of the band when you do something bad. Ogg the cave man does something wrong, and Erg the caveman gets pissed and pimp slaps him, so Ogg learns that this is a bad thing to do. Rue did not use the phrase “operant conditioning” but he was describing such a system. The idea that a band of hunter gatherers could have a complex moral code, drenched in nuance and subtlety, that takes an individual a good part of a life time to learn and in which all members participate, and in which people search for meaning and with which people measure self worth and the worth of others, and to which people turn when in doubt, which is exploited by those seeking power or twisted by those with nefarious goals, and so on and so forth, is not allowed in Rue’s model. That kind of complex stuff happens at higher social levels than the band. Hunter-gatherers can’t do that.
I think I like Rue. I’d like to have a beer with him. And he responded with aplomb and courtesy to my ranting, when I took over the microphone and screamed at him for ten minutes until I was tasered by the C.A.S.H. security team. But I have to say that this really burns me.
The system of social evolution Rue describes is called the Morganian Evolutionary Model. It looks nice, seems to work internally, and could be a description of how human society has evolved and to some extent may be organized at any point in time as we see some areas of the world in nation states others in tribal states, and others in band state. This idea was very fully developed and widely applied in the early part of the 20th century.
Subsequently, historical ethnographies, modern ethnographies, archaeological investigations, and all sorts of other work has put the Morganian model to test. Now, you understand that while I am an anthropologist, I do not trust or accept the writings of sociocultural anthropology at face value. I find much of that area of anthropology to be annoying and useless. But I have made a study … this is central to my own research … of social structure in the “band” and “tribal” areas of human organization. I’m here to tell you, and there are thousands others, piles of literature, centuries of collective experience, to back me up on this, that the Morganian model is wrong.
That giant run on sentence I gave you above … “complex moral code, drenched in nuance and subtlety, that takes an individual a good part of a life time to… bla bla bla … which is exploited by those … with nefarious goals, and so on and so forth…” … that kind of cultural complexity we see in day to day life is not less or more developed in any one kind of society. All human cultures have this attribute. Furthermore, societies do not necessarily evolve or change from one type to the other as described in these models. Finally, the attributes and descriptors needed to support these models … what “tribal” is, what a “band” is, etc. … do not hold up under scrutiny.
In other words, the Morganian model is a fiction of nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars who had it way wrong. Using the Morganian model to investigate social evolution is about as misguided as using the Humour Theory to do medical research today. Way, way, way, wrong.
Now, here is one of the key points I’d like to make, to all three of you who have managed to get this far down the page:
Rue’s model of religion is meant to be applied to all peoples who have undergone sufficient cultural evolution. He said this again and again … (“All religions do this, all religions do that…” again and again) … But band level societies get their moral code from the pimp slap or the dirty look or other emotional reactions.
These assertions are not true.
Some hunter-gatherer groups (quite possibly all or most) have all sorts of religious/ritual/spiritual stuff going on, but do not drive a personal moral code from these beliefs or activities in large measure or at all. A member of such a society does not avoid cheating in an altruistic interaction or in sexual liaison because it is a sin … a violation of a spiritually or religiously derived social tenet. Nor does such an individual avoid transgression because someone else will grunt at him or snarl or slap him or her. A person in a forager society is moral and ethical because there is a moral and ethical code that is nuanced, complex, useful, etc., but in my view that derives not from genes, not from the limbic emotional response, and not from a religious construct centered on myth and metaphor.
Rather, the moral code in many cultures is derived from social and community level interactions. It is humanistic. The moral code in many cultures is derived from a humanistic base that in turn is based on understanding of the worth of fellow humans and the value of cooperative interaction, and this moral code is as useful and complex and adaptable as any other moral code. Indeed, the moral code derived strictly from mainstream western religious sources is typically hypocritical, hard to interpret, derives its complexity not from the fact that life is nuanced, but rather, that the text on which it is based is garbled. Hunter gatherers have better moral codes than people living in Nation States, and this code does not derive from or rely on religion.
In sum, Rue’s processual model of religion linked to a Morganian evolutionary model are wrong in describing our species, even if parts of these models can be used in a limited way to describe Western perspectives.
The Evolution of Thoughts in Science
Rue also provided a vertically aligned model of the evolution of thoughts and activities in science, running from “absurdity” through “conjecture” and “hypothesis” and ‘theory” through law, etc. etc. It is a typical model of stepwise movement from virtually total lack of understanding of something to truthful knowledge. PZ seemed to think this was an OK model, but he did not comment on it much. I think it represents a useful oversimplification. Part of the model assumes that if an idea is refined, i.e., improves and includes more correctness, that it would typically move up from the absurd end to the truth end of the hierarchy, but I can think of transformations in science where an idea “improves” (in that it is better to have the idea than to lack the idea if the ultimate goal is ‘understanding’) but because of this improvement it actually moves ‘down’ the scale, perhaps from hypothesis to conjecture. In fact, I think that happens all the time in hypothesis testing, when it is discovered that your hypothesis was OK in formulation but the methods you are using fail in a way that teaches you more than the experiment itself.
But that is an entirely different topic and I think I’ve gone too long already. The final person I want to thank is Loyal Rue … for the very thought provoking conversation.