Monday, May 12, 2014

"Deeper" causes for bad religion

Most liberals think that religion is never the true source of a person’s bad behavior. Even when jihadists explicitly state their religious motivations—they believe that they have an obligation to kill apostates and blasphemers, and they want to get into Paradise—liberal academics, journalists, and politicians insist on looking for deeper reasons for their actions. However, when people give economic, political, or psychological reasons for doing whatever it is they do, everyone accepts those reasons at face value.
This is a quote by Sam Harris in his interview of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  I think I have only ever talked about Sam Harris on this blog in the context of criticizing him, but I give him credit here for offering an interesting idea.

The idea is that we can offer plenty of reasons for bad behavior.  But if you ever suggest that religion as a reason, liberals won't settle for that.  There's got to be some deeper reason.  This is especially easy to say about the Middle East, where there are lots of political and economic pressures that I don't understand that must go into the equation.  But why are political and economic reasons "deep" while religious reasons are not?

It's very hard for me to say anything about the Middle East, since I know so little about it.  So let's try asking the same question about the US.  Why are Creationism, climate change denial, and anti-science in general are so common, and well-organized?

You could probably come up with lots of economic and political reasons--Corporations stand to gain a lot from preventing environmental regulation, so in a democracy they have to sow doubt about climate science and science in general to get votes to go the right way.  And you could come up with religious reasons.  Evangelical Christianity is a fairly obvious explanation.  Belief that the endtimes are imminent may play into climate change denial.  Are the political and economic causes "deeper" than the religious ones?

To a limited extent, religious reasons may actually explain more than the polical/economic reasons.  The things that need explaining are: who is doing the most active denial?  What particular things do they deny?

But even if religion is a "shallow" reason, why does that mean it's not worth talking about?  Dismantling religion may not dismantle the "root" causes of anti-science, but it may deprive anti-science of one of its tools.  If we only attempt to attack the "deeper" issues, well, those issues may be so deep that we won't make much headway.

And while my standards prevent me from saying much about the Middle East, I should point out some relevant biases we have with respect to foreign nations.  First, we see foreign nations as monolithic.  So if there are terrorists in some foreign country, we blame it on the conditions of the country rather than blaming it on the qualities of that particular group (such as their religion).  Second, we see foreign nations in simplistic terms, wanting to reduce all trends to just a few factors.  Of course the Middle East is affected by the particulars of its religions, and of course it is affected by many social/economic/political factors.  Why can't all of these things be causes simultaneously?


miller said...

The problem is we see so many people telling each other what God's word apparently is, all taken from books allegedly dictated from the big G himself centuries ago, and re-interpreted constantly since then.

If only he could put in an appearance now and end the confusion and suffering.

miller said...

I think religion rarely is a cause. People are very good at reinterpreting their religion to support whatever they wanted to believe in the first place. It's not like Christians had sudden theological insight that made them decide lending money for interest was ok, it's just that the development of the modern banking system required the ability to lend money for interest, so they reinterpreted the theology to meet the needs of the bankers. (Islam took a different approach of retaining the prohibition on interest but creating loopholes you could drive a planet through, but it had the same effect.). Southern white Protestants found racism in the Bible, but when overt racism became socially unacceptable the Bible was reinterpreted to match the new social reality. Liberal Christian and Jewish theologians are doing the same with the homophobic passages in the Bible today. And there's no shortage of examples like this.

There are some particular religiously motivated positions that are hard to explain by reference to external social forces though. Suicide bombings and creationism come to mind.