Monday, October 18, 2010

Critical Thinking about Religion?

Frans de Waal is a biologist specializing in primate behavior—mostly non-human primates. He wrote an article for The New York Times on Morals Without God.

Like so many others, de Waal can't imagine what kind of morals and ethics a society would create without guidance from supernatural beings.
Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.
I do not accept that my society is steeped in Christian morality. I believe that Christianity has borrowed some very sound ethical principles shared by all societies and tried to make them its own. That does not mean that our wish to discourage murder and theft is a Christian value.

Furthermore, those values that are uniquely religious—such as banning contraception, prohibiting gay marriage, and rejecting evolution—are frequently the very ones that are rejected by modern Western societies.

It is NOT impossible to know what a society would look like without religion. It would look very much like the societies of Western Europe. Those societies have retained the moral and ethical values that pre-date and supercede religion and they have rejected the values of Christianity that they have outgrown. In countries like France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark citizens are rapidly approaching the point where religions are completely irrelevant. The Pope can continue to hold Sunday mass at St. Peter's and he can create a bevy new saints every year, but hardly anyone will care. Most of them don't even care today. In fact, most Canadians don't care even though more than 40% of us are nominally Roman Catholic.

I'm surprised that de Waal doesn't mention this since he is from the Netherlands and he makes this an important part of his opinion piece in The New York Times article.

It's true that no historical human cultures have been free of superstition. Almost all of them believed in magic. Our ancestors thought there were gods who controlled the weather and they feared evil gods who would do them harm. They believed in magic potions, fairies, and dragons. They believed in lucky numbers and developed elaborate rituals to avoid bad fortune (don't let a black cat cross your path).

The fact that all past cultures were highly superstitious is interesting, but it certainly doesn't trouble me the same way it troubles Frans de Waal. He said, "That such [non-superstitious] cultures do not exist should give us pause." Why? Is it hard to explain why older cultures believed silly things that aren't true?
Other primates have of course none of these problems, but even they strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.
This is really hard to understand. On the one hand, de Waals admits that we don't need God to make us moral. On the other hand, he suggests that our society is steeped in Christian morality. He seems to be saying that religion is important even if God is unnecessary.

One of the essential hallmarks of critical thinking is skepticism, especially skepticism about your own personal beliefs. One should always be prepared to question one's own assumptions.

One way of doing this is to look for evidence that will back up or refute your assertion. In this case, Frans de Waal should be asking himself whether there are any examples of societies that are adopting naturalistic worldviews and abandoning religion. If there are such societies, then is it true that they are in the process of evolving prophets and devotees and forming another kind or religion?

I've been in Europe many times over the past decade and I've not seen any evidence of this new religion that's supposed to look just like any old religion. There's no evidence of this new form of religion in North America either. I currently live in a very secular society in the suburbs of Toronto. Half of the people in my immediate neighborhood are non-believers and most of remainder do not agree with the moral and ethical tenets of any religion—especially Christian ones.

None of the non-believers in my neighborhood seem to have a pressing need to find another kind of religion to replace the one they've discarded. We are happy that Canada legalized gay marriage, prohibits capital punishment, allows abortion, promotes gender equality, and defends the right of every Canadian to have affordable access to health care. We don't need prophets and priests to tell us that this is good for society.

Frans de Waal is wrong to claim that our ethics and morals are derived from religion. He is wrong to claim that past belief in silly superstition is evidence that those superstitions can't be discarded. And he is wrong to believe that when societies discard religion they will be faced with such a void that they will have to re-invent religion.


24 comments:

  1. Having grown up in France, I can confirm that at the time religion was almost absent from society and it came as a shock to me when I moved to the US to see how deep the reach of religion is here (and not for good). Since then though, Islam has grown very fast in France and is quickly becoming the #1 religion. What do we make of that?

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  2. As you point out, or at least hint, de Waal is doing womething with religion that he would not do with primate studies. He's looking at things common to virtually all religions and common to virtually all non-religious people and claiming that this is due to a specific religion. If he found a behavior common to all primates he wouldn't think of using it as a marker for just one of those species. So he's turned off part of his thinking once he turned to religion, which is all too common a reaction.

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  3. Bertrand Le Roy

    Since then though, Islam has grown very fast in France and is quickly becoming the #1 religion. What do we make of that?

    The obvious conclusion is that French culture and society will do to Islam what it did to Christianity. The second and third generation of French Muslims will be as secular as the rest of French society and, if we're lucky, they will transmit some of that secularism back to the predominantly Islamic nations.

    Instead of looking at the Muslim "invasion" of Western Europe as a threat we should recognize it as an opportunity. Fundamentalist Islam cannot survive a collision with modern Western European civilization.

    Those people who think that Western European society will be overwhelmed by fundamentalist Islam are idiots. The exact opposite is what's going to happen, beginning with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, and Kosovo then continuing with Turkey, Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco.

    I predict all of these countries will be predominantly secular by the end of this century. They will look a lot more like Western European societies than like Saudi Arabian society.

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  4. I predict all of these countries will be predominantly secular by the end of this century.

    It took western Europe 1600 years or so to throw off the shackles of Christianity. And that just gets us to the start of the enlightenment.

    It's not as if the early Christians walked into a cultural and intellectual void.

    One could draw parallels between Western Europe of today and 2000 years ago.

    Not that I disagree with your basic premise but Islam is a very vigorous religion and it gets a lot of funding from the Wahhabi sect of Islam in Saudi Arabia, basically petro-Islam.

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  5. I found an interesting article on the death penalty and Christianity that explaines some things I believe people often get wrong. Worth checking out: http://dstp.cba.pl/?p=3079

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  6. I know that, likely well before he decided to post on Larry's blog, Bertrand Le Roy's own reason failed to win an argument against the forces of emotional imagery. So what chance does anyone have in engaging him in an argument?

    There is no Muslim "invasion" of Europe, really.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_Europe

    When is it likely that Islam will become the #1 religion in France?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_France#Statistics

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  7. De Waal doesn't think much of humanity if he thinks we're less capable than chimps of having stable communities without fairy stories to make us behave.

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  8. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.

    This is untrue. The Pirahan is an Amazonian tribe that does not have religion. They do have a special set of morals. You can read about them in Daniel Everett's book, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes.

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  9. Morality without religion?
    Would Confucianism qualify?

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  10. Franciscus Bernardus Maria (Frans) de Waal
    clearly remembers his catholic background. Dutch names often show the religion of the parents (or did show).

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  11. This is untrue. The Pirahan is an Amazonian tribe that does not have religion. They do have a special set of morals. You can read about them in Daniel Everett's book, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes.

    Now we're going to have to come up with a rigorous definition of religion, because I have no doubts that some will argue against this by shifting the definition of religion around. After all, we're told by many that "atheism is a religion," so I've no doubt that some will view any folk beliefs whatsoever as a religion, or even any set of moral standards, no matter how secular, as constituting a religion.

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  12. You are being naive about Islam. Young Muslims show very little signs of abolishing Sharia role and truly taking part in the progressive, democratic process of this country. Many of them in Germany, France and England have grown up in enclaves and retain strong ties to their community and religion. Many young terrorists and fundamentalists have been secularly educated in Europe, yet show few signs of truly becoming secular. The rise of Islam is quite concerning. While there is no need to sound alarmist, watch this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-3X5hIFXYU

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  13. Perhaps Aspirin posted to the wrong blog entry?

    There are differences between the European and Canadian situation, and it is quite unfair to colour any entire group by one region's political problems.

    Please read
    http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/10/19/f-vp-kinsman.html

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  14. I'm sure aspirin meant to post the link to his racist video on another blog.

    Probably one that's on whatever planet he's coming from.

    On my planet I see many immigrants from predominantly Muslim nations. I see their children by the thousands on the campus of my university. They're not very scary and they behave very much like their Caucasian, African, Oriental, and South Asian friends.

    The idea that Canada will become a nation where the majority adhere to the religion of Islam is about as ridiculous as you can get. In fifty years the majority will be non-believers just as they will be in European countries.

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  15. "Many young terrorists and fundamentalists have been secularly educated in Europe, yet show few signs of truly becoming secular."

    Well done with the moron impersonation, there.

    Many of the people who dress up as animals for the purposes of sexual gratification show signs of sexual gratification while dressed as an animal. Therefore Europe will be dominated by furries in five years time.

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  16. "I've no doubt that some will view any folk beliefs whatsoever as a religion"

    There is a huge amount of linguistic sleight-of-hand in these debates, I agree.

    Anything with gods in it counts as 'religion'. So Christians who believe in the one true God say that *their* case is bolstered by the fact that Hindus believe in countless gods.

    Catholics say that it's 'secularists' on one side and that they're on the same side as the Mormons, whose holy book describes them as 'the mother of abominations'.

    It's nonsense. It's like vegetarians arguing that they're the same as veal eaters deep down, because it's all just food in the end.

    The majority of the human race, even at any given time, has never been the adherent of any one religion. Even if you count 'Christianity' or 'animism' as one religion. It's hard to get a majority if you count 'monotheism' as a religion.

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  17. Mr. Moran's quip confirms something that I remember Richard Dawkins saying- nowadays, if you criticize Islam or its growth you must by default be a racist. It is remarkable to see a man of Mr. Moran's critical intelligence think that the Muslim student population of a Canadian university is representative of young Muslims in Europe or Canada as a whole. It is also remarkable to see a man who otherwise is very critical of religion harbor these naive thoughts about the fastest growing religion in the world. All Muslims are not fundamentalists or terrorists, but as Sam Harris says, Islam poses special problems which we have to acknowledge.

    I won't say more except to point to Christopher Caldwell's "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe". Caldwell is no right-wing xenophobe and his book takes a hard-nosed, rational and sobering look at the problems with Muslim immigration in Europe. The problem has been created as much by Europeans as it is by Muslim immigrants by refusing to hold up the immigrants to their secular, democratic standards. It's worth reading, unless you have already made up your mind that Caldwell is a racist, just like me.

    Anon: The point was that some of the most fundamentalist Muslims are college-educated Muslims in secular countries. Try to think a little before you spout inanity.

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  18. "The point was that some of the most fundamentalist Muslims are college-educated Muslims in secular countries."

    No, your point was to generalize a 'rise of Islam' (your words) from a handful of such people.

    Such people exist. They are motivated by the knowledge that Western, multicultural values *do* seek to eradicate fundamentalist totalitarianism. Religious fundamentalism does not want to live 'side by side' or 'as equals' or as one of the things on offer in a marketplace of ideas.

    But your 'rise of Islam' narrative depends on them being some persuasive political force, not people so desperate they feel the need to blow themselves up.

    Name a UK law that demonstrates Shariah law is being adopted. Name the fundamentalist Muslim MPs, any holding elected office or union leaders. Point to one thing that indicates this 'rise of Islam' in the UK.

    You can't. Because the paranoid dream world you live in is one that only you and a tiny number of other people are smart enough to see, and which threatens the whole of humanity. Or, in other worlds, if you think there's a 'rise of Islam', if you can even type those words without ironic quotes around them, then you have exactly the same mindset as the 7/7 bombers.

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  19. -But your 'rise of Islam' narrative depends on them being some persuasive political force

    That's the point. They are a persuasive political force, a force which has been engendered by a common set of shared religious beliefs.

    -Name a UK law that demonstrates Shariah law is being adopted
    You are clearly misunderstanding. I did not say that UK law was being turned into Sharia law. I said that Sharia law was being regarded as being above UK law in many cases. The point was not about the law of the land being explicitly subverted but about there being an alternate set of laws which was allowed to be given precedence above the secular, democratic law of the land.

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  20. -You can't. Because the paranoid dream world you live in is one that only you and a tiny number of other people are smart enough to see
    Well, see, that's exactly what Dawkins and Harris say. These days, anyone who points to the dangers of the world's rising Islamic population is by default a paranoid racist xenophobe. Such an attitude clearly cannot foster constructive dialogue.

    -Name the fundamentalist Muslim MPs, any holding elected office or union leaders.
    Again, this point is meaningless, since the original discussion was whether young Islamists have explicitly forsaken the religious sentiments of their elders and embraced a secular, democratic ethos. All the 7/7 bombers were apparently young, secular, educated Islamists, many of whose parents were moderates. So were many of the 9/11 hijackers. MPs are hardly representative of these people.

    -if you can even type those words without ironic quotes around them, then you have exactly the same mindset as the 7/7 bombers.
    I stand corrected (vida supra). Since when did acknowledging the rise of a religion start to be regarded as tantamount to terrorist-like thinking?

    Again, I would point to two hard-headed, non right-wing, rational books about this topic. One is the Christopher Caldwell volume which factually documents the problem with the 'rise of Islam' and how Europeans themselves have caused the problem by not cracking down on Sharia law. The other one is Sam Harris's "The End of Faith" which delineates the problems with moderate Muslims. Last time I checked none of these gentlemen were religious xenophobic demagogues or ideologues.

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  21. "I said that Sharia law was being regarded as being above UK law in many cases."

    Except, and this is a rather crucial point vis a vis your argument:

    IT ISN'T

    It simply isn't. A couple of years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a silly old man who looks a bit like a badger, suggested that Muslims might be able to use their laws among themselves, if all parties agreed.

    He was jumped on by just about every politician, many of his bishops and even Muslims, who said they didn't want that at all.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7233335.stm

    Oh look - facts! I have visions of your skin burning as you're exposed to them.

    Somehow, in your mind and the mind of paranoid likeminded people, this has become 'the Muslims are imposing their laws on us'.

    They aren't. The mere suggestion was shouted down. Yet you think this is happening. Why? Well, when the facts and reality clash with what's in your head, that's called 'delusion'.

    You are wrong. End of discussion.

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  22. -It simply isn't.

    You are joking, right? You cite a single example of an Archbishop whose words were criticized by politically correct politicians and Muslims themselves. Why is criticism by any of these groups surprising? Instead, let's stop wasting time on meaningless controversies and look at the facts:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article4749183.ece

    That article talks about Sharia law given precedence when it comes to Muslim civil cases. The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal is still very much alive and kicking. Here's another one:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1031611/Sharia-law-SHOULD-used-Britain-says-UKs-judge.html

    In this case, the UK's top judge himself gave his permission for Sharia law to be used in family, property and marriage disputes.

    Sharia law is still respected and allowed to function as a parallel law of the land in the UK. I hope now you will understand which one among us is deluded.

    -You are wrong. End of discussion.
    Apt response from someone who wants to sweep uncomfortable facts under the rug.

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  23. @Larry: to be clear, I do not subscribe to this view that it is an invasion and I agree with you that there is more opportunity than threat. Then again, wouldn't it be naive to think society always evolves in that direction? You include Turkey in your examples, but isn't that a very secular society that tended recently to go back to a more religious state?
    I do wish you are right.

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  24. @crf: you are right that I've been blowing things out of proportion and I stand corrected for that, but you're making entirely unwarranted assumptions on what I think. I was merely asking an honest question, asking our host what he thought of the growth of Islam in some countries and whether that and how Christianity maintained strong roots in the US contradicted the idea that secularism will eventually win no matter what. I'm satisfied with his answer except maybe for the made-up quote about an "invasion" that you were so quick to copy.

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