So how is it that religious beliefs are almost certainly wrong, yet the vast majority of people in the world accept them? What makes religiosity so attractive?
A central theme of my previous post, New Scientist looks at the science of religion, is that belief in the supernatural comes naturally to humans. Early on in childhood development we understand that "agents" with desires, intentions, and a consciousness like our own exist even though we can't perceive these beings.
It isn't much of a jump to divine unseen agents, gods and other entities.
But after listening to a Point of Inquiry podcast interview with Jonathan Haidt, author of the recently published "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion," I got some additional insights into why people believe.
Both Haidt and his host, Chris Mooney, agreed that the stance of so-called New Atheists is too simplistic. "There's no demonstrable evidence for religious beliefs, so anyone who believes them is a fool."
Maybe that sentiment isn't stated quite so bluntly by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and their fellow New Atheist advocates, but it's close to their basic attitude.
By contrast, the New Scientist articles about the "why religion?" question point to causes that are deeper and more complex than a simple failure by people to comprehend that what they believe is factually wrong, untrue, out of touch with reality.
Haidt said that religions appeal for many reasons, not least of which is the pleasing sense of community that believers enjoy. For example, they assemble in a church, mosque, temple, gurdwara, meditation hall, or wherever with like-minded people, sharing a common view of what life is all about.
This does indeed seem to be more of a motivation for sticking with a religious organization than a purely cognitive sense of theological truthfulness.
For over thirty years I was an active member of an India-based spiritual group, Radha Soami Satsang Beas. I gave lots of talks ("satsangs") at RSSB meetings, almost always observing that the attention, enthusiasm, and energy level of those in attendance rose markedly after the talk was over and we turned to chit-chatting -- either at the meeting place or a coffee house.
Sure, if asked why we had joined the group, and continued to stick with it, we'd offer up "politically correct" reasons relating to the marvelous sophisticated mystical teachings which were so obviously reflective of how the cosmos truly was.
In truth, though, we all liked the feeling of being part of something bigger than ourselves, a community which shared an appealing belief system and supported its members in navigating through life with the aid of a certain religious compass.
So since religions are popular for reasons other than their truth-content, atheists and agnostics aren't going to be very successful in deconverting true believers by merely pointing out the unreasonableness of what is believed.
I've come to accept that insight, partly by reflecting upon my own experience. I don't think I ever was really convinced that the spiritual beliefs I held were true. And I also don't think I ever was convinced that the system of meditation which purportedly would confirm the truth of those beliefs was capable of doing the job.
Jonathan Haidt said, matter of factly, that of course he's an atheist, along with almost all of his fellow psychologists and other researchers who study religiosity/morality. His gripe with the New Atheists isn't that God exists and religions are right. Rather, Haidt seems to go so far as to look upon scientists as having a belief system which isn't all that different from the religious variety.
I haven't listened to all of the podcast. But I could tell that the host, Chris Mooney, disagreed with Haidt on this point. As do I. And other listeners. (Check out comments about the interview on the Point of Inquiry web site.)
Haidt said our intuitions and emotions are the "elephant" on which the "rider" of reason sits. He implied, and maybe stated directly, that science is as prone to this neuroscientific fact as religion is. In response, Mooney asked him whether truth is one of the criteria people use to arrive at intuition and emotion laden moral judgments.
I didn't hear a straight answer from Haidt, which was surprising. After all, Haidt must accept that some truths are truer than others. If not, why has he written several books? Why does he carry out the scientific research that he does?
Indeed, Haidt said that the community of science is effective in distinguishing truth from fiction, reality from unreality. He thinks, though, that individual scientists are as prone to truth-shading as religious true believers are.
I don't agree.
The examples he gave were unconvincing, like researchers who refuse to acknowledge that behavior differences between men and women are driven by hormones, or that physical differences (like "white men can't jump") between the races aren't real.
Sure, scientists have blind spots, biases, unexamined beliefs that cloud their view of reality. However, secularists are much more willing to change their minds than religious true believers. Just look at how much the Catholic Church has changed in the past few thousand years or so, compared to how much scientific knowledge has advanced.
Take me, a subject of considerable interest to myself.
For about thirty-five minutes today I listened to Jonathan Haidt explain his viewpoints in the interview with Chris Mooney. That was enough to cause me to change my mind about some issues that, previously, I'd been pretty confident about. Such as, demonstrating that a religious belief almost certainly isn't true should be enough to prod someone into questioning their devotion to a belief system.
I'm open to new ideas, fresh perspectives, evidence I hadn't considered before -- and more so now than when I was deeply entrenched in a guru-based, supernatural-embracing, just-have-faith religious organization.
So, yes, I accept Haidt's contention that religiosity is founded on much more than a simple "I believe in X." But I can't equate religious belief with scientific belief, or morality that's capable of providing good utilitarian reasons for why something is right/wrong with a "thou shalt" morality.