Monday, March 31, 2008

Is Faith Inevitable?

Last Thursday evening I watched a panel discuss the question "Is Faith Inevitable?" Unlike previous shows on TV Ontario, this one had a balance of believers and non-believers.

Two of the non-believers, Robert Buckman and Ronald de Sousa, are well-known in Canada (see below). You can watch the entire show at The Agenda.

I agree with the comments made by an undergraduate here at the University of Toronto when he says that the discussion got sidetracked [The Unexamined Life ...]. The real question is not whether faith is valuable, it's whether there is a God that you should have faith in.

Furthermore, I was very disappointed in Buckman and de Sousa because both of them bought into the line that we have evolved a need for religion. This is ridiculous. There is no gene for believing in supernatural beings and there's no reason to think that atheists need to overcome their genetic makeup in order to reject the notion of God. I wish we could put an end to this silly meme before it spreads any further.


  1. Obviously, there's nothing so simplistic as a "gene for religion" any more than there's a "gene for playing competitive sedentary games" (eg. chess, checkers, cards, etc.) Religion (according to the explanations which make most sense to me) seems is cobbled together out of various bits of our psychology like primate dominance, over-active agency-detection, need for tribal markers, etc, many/most of which are at some level rooted in genetics. I suspect that, given our psychology it was probably historically inevitable that we would invent religion(s). Whether it is inevitable that some large fraction of people will continue to believe in religion remains to be seen.

  2. From a historical, rather than a"gene bullshit" point of view, religion has long ago moved to secondary roles in most western societies. However, in my opinion, there will always be at least some religion, that people will actually resort to it the more tired they may become of a dominant "rationalist" system. Specially if it is it fatigues and shows signs of decadence (secular rationalism is only human too). Case in point: the decadence of the roman empire, and its fall to christianity.

  3. Thanks for posting this; it was interesting. Wish we had TVO (sigh).

    I agree that the panelists might have framed the evolutionary advantage of our predisposition toward belief from authority better. But at least they mentioned Dennett (who sums that topic up nicely I think).

    On the up side was a clear message that, although one does have (or might have) a tendency toward irrational beliefs, at least we have the hope that we can collectively educate one another to think seriously before taking actions based on those beliefs -- something good to be said for the ol' peer pressure.

  4. Dennett sums up the issue nicely?!!

    Uh, no...

  5. Hmm, I can may stand to be corrected, but my take on Dennett is that he takes the view that the McLuhanesque global village will not protect religions. So they must evolve or die:

    Edge Article quote: … it is no longer feasible for guardians of religious traditions to protect their young from exposure to the kinds of facts (snip) that gently, irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance.

    So evolve they will (akin to an organism, a virus I believe he terms it):

    Edge Article quote: … Many religions have already made the transition, quietly de-emphasizing the irrational elements in their heritages, abandoning the xenophobic and sexist prohibitions of their quite recent past, and turning their attention from doctrinal purity to moral effectiveness.

    [continued next post ...]

  6. And hence Dennett predicts a hopeful, more pliant form of religion:

    Edge Article quote: What it will take is patience, good information, and a steady demand for universal education about the world’s religions. This will favor the evolution of avirulent forms of religion, which we can all welcome as continuing parts of our planet’s cultural heritage.

    Again, please feel free to correct me if I am in error.

    But, as sad as it may be, it is not rational to believe that religions will fade any time soon. Sadly, I am reminded of the adage that if one were to consider all the people in the world (not just the intellectual elite that I'm certain that you chum about with, but all the people); then take the average person and fix that stereotype in their mind; Remember that 50% of all people are less capable/able/intelligent than what you have imagined. Sobering indeed.

  7. It is tempting to replace the infamous ladder idea of inevitable "progress" with selection pressures and extinction. But I'm not sure if it applies at all.

    I could buy into Eamon's description as a sensible tentative one. I'm reminded of the observation that chimps may make better "rational market agents" than humans due to differences in behavior. There is definitely something seemingly irrational about humans at large. (And I hope any biological basis is due to drift, nudge, nudge.)

    Though I would add the boost from specific pathologies some speculates in. I.e. some religious founders and leaders may have found a suitable outlet for their innate behavior, to the detriment of the rationality of the adopted group behavior. Such characteristics would be internally undesirable in the long run, one would think, regardless of Dennett's predictions.

  8. "Gene(s) for religion" might be no more than whatever developmentally causes us to develop brains that support curious minds. Religion, philosophy and science may all have the same root in wondering what caused X, for any X you care to name. Before modern scientific methods, speculations about causes easily could be (and apparently were) anthropomorphised into questions of "who" rather than "what."

    It's also easy to imagine that the strength of belief in a deity or deities among members of a group would have been thought directly related to the group's survival prospects (we see it today in everything from football to war), so it's entirely unsurprising that religions developed such an emphasis on faith/belief/obedience.

    So, a "religion gene"? Silly, I agree. But a makeup that makes the historical development of religions unsurprising? I think that's not silly.