Monday, December 25, 2006

Religious Memes and Rational Autonomy

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that some evolutionary story about a powerful disposition towards religiousness in humans is right. That is to say that there are features of our cognitive constitution that arose in our evolutionary history that made us prone to seek out sweeping metaphysical answers to our ultimate questions, or disposed us to derive satisfaction from religious explanations of the world, or some other biological grounding that is responsible for the powerful appeal of religion. What’s interesting and inflammatory about these theories is that they are charging that we don’t believe in God because it is true and because we possess good, justifying reasons that support the belief. Rather we are caused to believe by some aspects of our neurobiology.

Dawkins argues that evolution selected for human offspring who would respect, believe, and revere wisdom imparted to them by their parents. Listening to advice about how to get by in a world you know very little about from someone who has become an expert has obvious survival advantages. This advantageous tendency to accept guidance from them also makes us poor at distinguishing between sense and nonsense. So once religious ideas get a hold in culture, parents pass them along with all of the other things they think are true, and the kids readily take them as truth. So they can’t discriminate between the usefulness of “Avoid the bend of the river with crocodiles,” from “Sacrifice your best livestock to insure an abundant harvest from the gods.”

Dennett argues that evolution equipped us with a hyperactive agency detector. Having strong dispositions to attribute beliefs, desires, and intentionality to the other creatures we encounter gives us a powerful model for predicting their behavior and saving our own skins. And there are many other intriguing hypotheses being debated.

Now consider some of the reproductive and mutative behavior of religious ideas or memes. A “holy” text, when a group of people acquire one, provides a fertile breeding ground for the proliferation of ideas, theories, constructs, and theses about God’s goals, plans, desires, instructions, and nature. So people read, and reread, and discuss, and debate, and preach, and sermonize, and analyze the document again and again. They scour it for details for answers to life’s most challenging questions. And a successful religious text in the history of human religious exploration will be one that is conducive to these aims. Religious documents, whatever their source, that are not well suited to addressing people’s emotional, psychological, and social needs will not fare well in their hosts. Fewer people will be drawn to their creeds. So these less fit texts must adapt or die out (lose adherents.) Zoroastrianism, for example, is on the verge of extinction.

Most holy documents we have now within established religions have undergone this process of winnowing, adapting, and mutating for centuries. One kind of text that succeeds is metaphorical, vague, suggestive, and mysterious. In the rereading and the debating and the endless generation of new interpretations of the text, some bodies of religious doctrine, or some religious cultures will be more fit to get traction in the minds of the people who host them. In the telling and retelling of religious customs, and rereading of the texts, and the memories of people trying to recall a prayer or point of doctrine from childhood, the bodies of religious custom evolve. They reproduce with different features than their progenitors. Errors in recollection are introduced. The environment changes; the needs and interests of religious people change over time. So doctrine evolves.

Over time, some religious cultures, or meme patterns, prove to be more fit than others. Some have a broader appeal, serve more people’s interests, or manage to propagate themselves (evangelism, and religious encouragements to have lots of kids) better than others. And there are different ways to develop evolutionary fitness in meme space—some religious movements spread rapidly like a fashion trend, picking up new members like a French fashion designer becomes all the rage for a season. Others acquire their ground in our lives slowly and steadily, fortifying their place in the culture, in history, and in society like the Catholic church.

Now if humans have a built in evolutionary disposition towards religiousness, what would that be like from our perspective? What would it feel like to have that part of your nature helping to steer your actions? Would it be like the insatiable craving of addiction that a heroin addict goes through? Would it feel like the thrill of winning to a gambler? Would it feel like the careening vertigo of a fresh, infatuating love affair?

No doubt, many religious people have these sorts of feelings about worship and their participation in religion. Most likely, these kinds of powerful feelings are rare. Most people’s feelings about their religion are not like these feelings most of the time.

I don’t know if I have an answer to the question of how I would be able to tell in myself whether it is reason that justifies my belief, or it is my neurobiology that causes me to believe. Sometimes I can tell that I am cranky with someone because I haven’t had any coffee to drink and not because they did anything wrong. Other times, they haven’t done anything wrong, and I haven’t had enough coffee, but I convince myself that they are to blame. So I am not the best judge about the genesis of my beliefs. The fact that there seem to me to be good reasons to support it is not enough. It often seems that way, even when the belief is utterly unjustified.

A number of facts encourage us to take the idea that religious beliefs spring from our biology seriously.

Religion is ubiquitous. In the United States, there are 300 million people. The vast majority of them consider themselves to be religious. Less than 3% of the population describe themselves as non-believers. Worldwide, religious adherents are in the strong majority in almost every country. And those billions of people devote their lives to religion, they spend enormous amounts of money on it, they sacrifice themselves to it, they are celibate for it, they abandon their families for it, they kill for it, they build cathedrals and temples that take centuries to complete for it, they overthrow governments for it, they commit genocide for it, and so on. It is perhaps the single, biggest, most influential, most important, persistent phenomena in all of human history.

It seems highly unlikely that anything could loom that large in human lives and human history and not find some sympathy in the cognitive constitution that was built by natural selection in us.

So if that is at least partly responsible for your religiousness, how should you approach it or feel about it? Evolution doesn’t invalidate the satisfaction or the value of religion in people’s lives. Quite the contrary, the hypothesis under consideration here is that evolution is what makes religion so appealing and so gratifying to us. But if there is something about our natures that pulls us towards religion, we have just cause to be cautious. That means we may not be able to reason as clearly about it. We may be prone to rationalize. It might make us more likely to work harder to find justifications for it and less willing to consider alternatives. It might make us more dangerous, less cautious, more dedicated, more sympathetic, less free regarding it.

If our cognitive constitution made us predisposed to have certain types of beliefs, then that that disposition is a direct obstacle to our being rational about them. And that is serious cause for concern, particularly since we wouldn’t treat that belief as if it is irrational. Quite the contrary, it would probably seem to us that we were being perfectly rational. Just like a lack of coffee makes me irritable, but I blame the imagined social slights on my coworker. And we’d continue to tell others and ourselves that we are believing because it is true and because we have good reasons for believing it. So if natural selection hypothesis about religion is right, then we are wired to be irrational but not know we are being irrational about a set of beliefs that affect our moral views, our political views, our social behaviors, what we teach our kids, which wars we choose to fight, which people we decide to tolerate and which ones we decide to kill.

So we need to know, maybe more than we need anything else, whether or not this is true about us, and we need to take measures to control it.

What the religious meme hypothesis makes clear is that there will likely by ideas out there (not just religious ones) that will exploit features of our cognitive constitutions and that threaten to undermine our rationality, our safety, and our futures. Religious memes are potentially the most important and potentially dangerous ideas like this in human history.

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