2005/09/25

Belief in the unbelievable

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a conversation between New Yorker editorial director Henry Finder and biologist Richard Dawkins. I first learned of Dawkins about 8 years ago and became enamored of his description of the kind of conceptual virus he called a "meme." I was myself trying to introduce a meme by the title of my book, "Hispanic Nation" (I seem to have succeeded; the phrase has now become common to describe the newly-developing sense of community among U.S. Latinos).

Dawkins is genial, quick-witted and a thoroughly rational philosophical materialist, as you surely already know. He is of course an evolutionist, since Darwin's theory is the only one that makes sense and has mountains -- or fossil-heaps -- of evidence to support it. Does belief in evolution necessarily make one an atheist? he was asked. Yes, indeed, he replies, though "I'm not supposed to say that." That's because other defenders of evolution don't want to alienate those more or less sane religious people who accept evolution as a fact. There are those who claim that religion and science are two paths to different kinds of truth, and that they can happily coexist. However, says Dawkins -- and I think he's absolutely right on this -- that's balderdash, because any religion implicitly or explicitly makes scientific claims. Specifically, that the universe was created by some divine intelligence -- a hypothesis for which there is no evidence whatsoever, and that, if true, would yield a universe utterly unlike the blindly developing, purposeless one we actually have. Purposes are made by human beings, because our brains have evolved to give us that capacity, and each of us must forge his or her own purpose.

That seems to me not only eminently sensible but liberating. There's no big Daddy in the sky, it's just us, having to take responsibility for our own lives. One of the central questions that Finder kept bringing up is why so many Americans (far more than people in the U.K. or other European countries) believe otherwise, and why religious belief -- as irrational as it obviously is -- has survived through the millennia. Since Dawkins is a biologist, not a sociologist, he could offer only a biological explanation: The human infant brain is "wired" to accept commands from elders. This childhood propensity to believe is highly adaptive (in Darwinian evolutionary terms) for the survival of the species, since in our species, the young need lots of protection from their elders for several years. Once we reach the age of reason, we begin testing those things we were taught by our elders against experience, and need retain only those that seem valid. But, for reasons Dawkins cannot explain,some people continue to honor the absurd precepts of religion even into adulthood.

A biological answer won't really work here, because of the great variation among human groups. Let's try sociology. Almost everybody gives up belief in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus by adolescence. Why don't they also abandon beliefs in miracles, virgin birth, invisible spirits and so on? A big part of the reason must be because our society has so much invested in maintaining religious belief. Whereas it is in our society's interest that kids give up believing in the Tooth Fairy and Santa as they themselves near parenting age, it is in the interest of many institutions -- the churches, of course, but also political parties that rely on religious fervor -- to keep religion alive. Thus even people who don't really believe still pretend to, because it's considered the proper thing to do. Or they try to force themselves to believe, often by repetitive mind-numbing rituals to keep their minds from asking probing questions. This kind of adherence to doctrine that is not really believed is what they call "faith."

I think there are other reasons, too. Some of my friends who may or may not really "believe" (that is, accept as scientific fact the miracles and so forth) but who retain "faith" do so because they find the religious ritual deeply moving. They do not want to sacrifice the esthetic and sensual experience. And no doubt there are other reasons, such as the appalling scientific illiteracy permitted or even encouraged by our schools. Anyway, while Dawkins' biological answer is plausible, it can't be more than part of the story.

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