Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: Hitchens, Collins and The Economist

The Economist, a right of center journal of news and opinion I find quite interesting (as do many other lefties), has noticed that atheism is big in the book market. Comparing Hitchen's book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything with Francis Collins's The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief they come up with a rather bizarre conclusion: whether you are a rationalist like Hitchens who comes up on the side of atheism or a scientist/rationalist like Collins who cleaves to the devout depends on whether you "have an intrinsic feeling for religion or not." Errr. ..sounds a little like circular reasoning to me, but it's about religion so that's OK, I guess.

I suppose the natural inference to make from it is that the tendency to be religious has a genetic origin. I won't argue here if this bit of genetic programming would be considered a bug or a feature, but plenty of people seem to believe it's the case:

The studies - of which there are now many - indicate that a tendency to religiosity is genetically determined; if one twin is very religious the other nearly always is too, no matter how they were brought up. For believers, such studies should raise a confronting question: why would an all-loving God create some of his people without the capacity for believing in him, and then, according to scriptures, send them to eternal hellfire for not believing in him? (Pamela Bone in The Australian)

On the other hand, as Ms. Bone is quick to point out:

Yet genetics do not explain why about 70 per cent of Swedes and 48 per cent of French are unbelievers, but only 25 per cent of Australians, 15 per cent of Spaniards and 4 per cent of Irish. Or what makes religious belief surge and wane across populations and over time. Or even fully explain what makes some people react to an event such as September 11 by becoming more religious and some to conclude that religion is just too dangerous to be tolerated.

But back to The Economist:

Belief in God and subscription to a religion are not quite the same thing, although both books treat them as if they were. Mr Hitchens makes the untestable case that the world would be better off without religion altogether. Stupid religious people would stop fighting stupid religious wars and a new enlightenment would ensue.


What is missing from the book is much sense of what a world without religion, or one that had not had religion in it, might look like. Lots of the principles that Mr Hitchens holds dear, like tolerance and justice, are secularised versions of religious ideas. (The Economist)

I don't know if the benefits of a world without religion are missing from Hitchens's book or not because I haven't read it. But a secular society is hardly unimaginable. Just take a look at western Europe. Pamela Bone, again:

I don't think it is an accident that Sweden, The Netherlands and France, the least religious of Western countries, are also the healthiest, wealthiest, freest and most educated. (The Australian)

I don't think it's an accident either. Sweden might have a state religion, but it's essentially a secular society, as is The Netherlands. And the French have had strict church state separation and government secularism for a century. Europe in general is more secular than the US and most other countries. If you want to imagine a secular world, you could start with western Europe. Yes, there are emerging problems with immigrant groups, problems I consider to be more class than race or religion based. But even when religion is an explicit feature, it isn't usually Islam versus another religious conception but Islam versus a secular society. If the religious aspect of the difference were removed I don't think the problem would disappear. But it wouldn't be worse and plausibly it would be better.

Hitchens is a neocon whose recent politics I despise (I think the same is probably true of Sam Harris). I don't know anything about Francis Collins's views, but I have no reason to believe he is anything but a very nice person whose principal social values I would find agreeable. But it's Hitchens's secularism that will win over Collins's obscurantism, independent of their politics. I don't have to like Hitchens (or Harris) to think they are right regarding religion. I don't have to dislike Collins to think he is off the wall on religion.

Meanwhile I'll keep reading The Economist. Even though they write some silly things.

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The Christian Bible endorses slavery, demands sacrifices for their god, and applauds the death penalty for working on the sabbath. Yet Christians happily ignore these directives. Instead, they use the bible to justify whatever beleifs they happen to hold.

People happily ignore those directives as soon as society's morality has move far enough past it to make them look silly. Religion acts to slow change of morality. That's all.

Religion merely codifies the secular morality of its time. It doesn't invent it - do we really think that "thou shalt not steal" came as a huge shock to the folk waiting for Moses to finish his chiselling? (See also the excellent exploration of this in The Simpsons).

By SmellyTerror (not verified) on 03 Jun 2007 #permalink

Nice men like Francis Collins and many of the more socially concerned religious people have their work cut out for them to portray a Nice God worthy of love, honor, devotion, and discipleship. If they stick just to Jesus they have an easier time. I tell my religious friends, since Jesus is supposed to be God incarnate, son of God, savior, his words trump anything else in the Bible and thus anything that contradicts should be trashed - their are in fact those even in the Evangelical fold who call themselves Red Letter Christians, meaning that the words of Jesus which are in red in some Bibles are the foundation of their belief. Jesus has some few proclamations that are still problematic, but still he's pretty good...unfortunately the usual practice is to not take his clear instructions for living literally, and to take Genesis, an obvious parable/folk myth literally. The nasty stuff (like God's command to have his people commit genocide) is ignored by most mainline Christians, but more and more being paid attention to by militant Christians.

Its a mess, and frankly for one who was in the midst of all that for most of my life, it is a relief to have stepped out. Thus I can use my Sun. morning, not to listen to another dull sermons, but to read the much more erudite and interesting Sunday morning sermonettes right here on Effect measure.

I dislike Hitchens politics as well, but oh to listen to him talk about Religion - he is so funny!

" depends on whether you "have an intrinsic feeling for religion or not."

Not at all. I have an intrinsic feeling for religion and I ended up being an atheist. It did, granted, take me a longer time to reach this point than it does for many people. I did not as a child or teenager decide that I didn't believe in god. I slowly stumbled onto that idea in my late 20s and early 30s when I stopped going to church and then became and agnostic for serveral years. One day I just realized that I didn't believe in god at all any more. It was a huge relief, and a great weight fell off my shoulders. I still like some of the trappings and ritual of religion, but I can't participate because the inconsistencies of doctrine and dogma make me crazy.

At any rate, it is interesting that some people look at a sunset (for a cliche example) and it makes them believe in god while other look at a sunset and think how amazing the universe is, without any thoughts of supernatural agents. Mostly, I suspect, it comes from our upbringing and cultural surroundings, and the immense peer pressure to beleive, at least in the US. I used to be in the former camp, and while I still have the same ecstatic experiences at about the same frequency, I no longer attribute them to the touch of a diety.

Lots of the principles that Mr Hitchens holds dear, like tolerance and justice, are secularised versions of religious ideas.

The very fact that Hitchens, an atheist, can hold these principles dear indicates that they are not quintessentially religious in nature. A planet full of atheists could hold them equally dear, if not more so, since a world without faith would be a world without the insane privileging of cities over other cities and people over other people based on nothing reason and the senses can detect. We have enough to fight over without inventing additional scarcity.

Furthermore, as others have already pointed out, religion itself has a far from blameless history in this regard. Well-known passages in the Bible condone slavery as an acceptable status quo, and endorse genocide as a way of life, giving explicit instruction for the annihilation of whole peoples. Many of the faithful simply ignore the likes of Deuteronomy 7 or 1 Samuel 15, while scholars spin endless evasions, demoting the barbarity of God's chosen and God Himself to mere allegory. We forget that the words translated "peace" more accurately mean "recompense" and "submission" — or, as Charles Foster Kane might say, "love on my terms." We excise teachings from our holy books in the same way that we distance ourselves from the murderous fanatics who profess to share our faith: by deeming them deviations from the "true Islam" or the "real Christianity."

What makes our particular set of deletions — our own set of holes in the holy scriptures — better than any other kind? Is it merely our more thoroughgoing commitment to tolerance, our broader definition of who constitutes "my neighbor"? If we accept that as the yardstick of faith, the quality by which we rank the worth of beliefs, then surely the rejection of all ancient mythology can be a path of great worth indeed.

"The studies - of which there are now many - indicate that a tendency to religiosity is genetically determined; if one twin is very religious the other nearly always is too, no matter how they were brought up."

My identical twin brother is religious in the Collins scientist/rationalist mold while I am an atheist. However, we were both equally religious in our teens. My scientific education (medical physics) led to painful doubts which eventually killed my faith, while my brother was able to reconcile his scientific education (cell biology) with his faith. Now in our 50's, we are both quite comfortable in our positions, and don't argue over them. Go figure.

I think holding that there may be a genetic predisposition (not stricly a genetic cause) to religiosity is certainly compatible with variable rates of religiosity in different countries. Predisposition is the key word, as that leaves room for many factors--cultural, historical, and especially ones' parents beliefs--to aid in accounting for any single individual's religion.

I think the same view could be applied to another controversial area: homosexuality. That there is some genetically- and/or developmentally-derived predisposition for self-identification as a homosexual is certain. Some individuals would likely (privately) identify as homosexual regardless of what culture they live in, but others, including some bisexuals, would adapt to their cultural surroundings.

We have to get past the view where something is either completely caused by genes or entirely not, and religion seems to be as good an area as anywhere to require a complex, nuanced explanation.

globalizati: OK. I'm not sure I'm with you about this, but suppose it's true. Is it a bug or a feature?

There's also the problem of separating our possibly-genetic "religious impulses" from the social constructs that get identified as (proper) religion. Lots of us believe in some form of supernaturalism while rejecting the narrow range of "acceptable" religions within our own particular culture. If public-opinion polls taken over the last 30 years mean anything, most American "Christians" fall into this category, since they don't attend an organized Christian church, know even the simplest tenets of their supposed faith, or even follow the basic restrictions of Christianity except where those requirements are backed up by the legal code.

To use an analogy, maybe being "religious" is like having a sweet tooth or a weakness for high-fat foods. These biological tendencies are evolutionary adaptations, and it's clear they would have been useful during humanity's long career as hunters-and-gatherers. In modern society, however, pandering to our tastes for sweets and fats has brutally warped our economy and our environment, as well as making us individually less healthy. Similarly, our religious impulses are so common that we postulate some kind of genetic advantage from them, but the current manifestations of Big Corporate Religion have been as bad for our politics as Big Corporate Agriculture is for our health.

By Anne Laurie (not verified) on 04 Jun 2007 #permalink

globalizati: OK. I'm not sure I'm with you about this, but suppose it's true. Is it a bug or a feature?

It depends. It depends on how you define 'bug' and 'feature' and on the particular individual and society you're talking about. Are you calling something a bug or a feature based on its correspondence with truth? If by bug you mean 'X decreases genetic fitness' then you'd have to find a way to measure that, controlling for all the variables (good luck...). If by feature you mean the opposite, you'd have to do likewise. It's quite possible that it could be a bug if taken too far in one direction, and a feature if held in moderation. Or it could be either depending on the situation an individual finds themselves in. Labeling things as good or bad seems to be a whole 'nother issue--one that is incredibly complex and for which I don't think we really have the evidence to make broad claims either way--so I'll just stick to saying that this may be a natural predisposition, and leave it at that.

I like what Anne says about separating our innate drives from the social constructs in which they manifest themselves.