Thursday, August 11, 2011

Scientific Explanations of Religion

Post 43--:

Wired for Religion
I have a promise to keep: to deal with scientific explanations of religion. Remember Anderson Thompson and Clare Aukofer (A&T), co-authors of the book Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith from the last post?
A&T summarize for us attempts by scientists to unravel religion’s “DNA.” Backed by empirical evidence, scientists “have produced robust theories…that support the conclusion that it was humans who created God, not the other way around. And the better we understand the science, the closer we can come to ‘no heaven… no hell…and no religion too.” The mechanisms within us that support faith developed over the ages. Scientists have identified around “20 hardwired, evolved ‘adaptation’ as the building blocks of religion.” They go on to argue that “the better we understand human psychology and neurology, the more we will uncover the underpinnings of religion.” “We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason.”

Now, going by what I wrote in the previous post, we have good reason to be skeptical about the ideas A&T have about religion. Please review them, if you’re vague. That should put you on your guard with respect to this scientific stuff as well. If they misunderstand the inside of religion, how will they understand the “outside” of it?

Children's Altruism
OK, so, for the sake of argument, let us grant that those various scientists have indeed uncovered some significant physical, psychological and other factors within us that support our religious lives. Not being a specialist in any of these areas, I would be the last to argue with the veracity of their findings, which real scientists always regard as tentative and open to correction or even rejection. However, when they tell us with all the assurance in the world that science has demonstrated with “a wealth of research” children’s “capacity for altruism” and that “we are born altruists, who then have to learn strategic self-interest,” I do begin to wonder about the value of non-scientific, pre-scientific or anecdotal knowledge. I am well into my 70s and member of a large international clan. My parents both had many siblings—in the 10-12 range; I am one out of ten. Between my wife and myself, we can count something like 70+ nieces and nephews, never mind the size of the next generations. So, through the decades I have seen many children grow up in my own nuclear family as well as in the larger clan. My decades of non-scientific anecdotal observation and experience is that babies are concerned mainly if not only for themselves and that as they grow up, especially in the family context with other children, over the years they learn to become less egocentric and more altruistic, a process that takes them into young adulthood before it somewhat matures. I have experienced myself slowly becoming less egocentric and more altruistic as a life-long process and I am very conscious of the fact that I have not yet arrived, not even with a strong dose of my Christian faith encouraging me along this path.

Science and Adherents of Religion
Be that as it may, T&A are thus arguing that we are hardwired to be religious. In other words, that it is natural for us to be religious. In a way this seems a case of rediscovering the wheel, except that this time around it is supported by secular scientists. Non-secular scientists have long recognized this along with philosophers and theologians, while there is nothing in science itself to deny it. In response to debates around the 9/11 horror, Leonard Stern wrote in 2008 that “religiosity is hard-wired into the human condition” and that the secularist expectation—and hope-- shared by T&A, that religion is going to disappear and be replaced by reason has proven totally unreal. Stern also noted that the alleged hostility between religion and reason has little basis in fact, since the percentage of highly educated adherents is striking. For example, leaving the Christian majority religion aside, a quarter of US Buddhists have post-graduate degrees; Jews, 35%; Hindus, 48% (“Religion Isn’t Going Away, but It Needs Examination,” Vancouver Sun, March 25, 2008, p. A11). I will resist the urge to present you with an extensive bibliography of published writers who affirm the human hard-wiredness of religion, of belief systems, of faith, of worldviews and satisfy that urge by referring you to Volume 5, Part 2, of my series Studies in Christian-Muslim Relations (See Islamica page in my < www.SocialTheology. Com > or type in < Jan H Boer > on < >. It is especially the Kuyperian Christian school of thought, including its numerous scientist adherents, that has affirmed this view for nearly a century and a half.

Twisted Logic
What I find very strange and twisted logic is the assumption that if science can prove that we are hardwired by nature to be religious, then religion is proven false! This is absolutely absurd! If, as Christianity and Islam both affirm, the human race is created to be religious, then one should not be surprised if science found physical evidence supporting this. On what basis would such scientific hunches prove their opposite?! It is the same logical distortion applied to miracles: If you have a scientific explanation for an event interpreted as a miracle, then it cannot be a miracle! There is a decided antithesis between this kind of “science” and Christianity. Behind this strange “science” of A&T is an ardent anti-religion attitude shared by many secularists who just hope that religion will go away and not constantly call them to account. And then there is a deeper layer that consists of a dichotomy or dualism between religion and the world, including science, between the spiritual and the physical, that has been central to the major western secular worldview for centuries and, in fact, constitutes the western “common sense.” Few scientists, not being inclined to philosophy and other abstract ways of reasoning, are aware of this dualism. Why waste time on “common sense?” Again, at this point I can only refer you for details here to that same series and that same < >, Volume 5, Chapter 5, especially pp. 151-157. One day I will devote a post or two to this subject.

A sneak preview: next post will deal with my alleged fixation on secularism.

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