Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Monday, February 27, 2006
A follow-up to last night's post (which, by the way, reads to me as kind of rambling and incoherent in the cold light of day): I realize that I forgot to include any discussion of that paper by Robert McCauley that Derb linked to in his first post. Since I enjoyed the paper very much, and had a few thoughts about it, I want to correct that omission.

First off, I think the paper is broadly speaking correct. Science is profoundly unnatural, whereas religion is rooted deeply in human nature.

I also agree that science is, for that reason, more fragile, more vulnerable to extinction, than is religion in general or even particular religions. Science is dependent on institutional continuity in a way that religion - even organized religion - is less so, because individual believers can be effective tradents while the individual scientist cannot similarly carry his tradition on his back. The vulnerability of science is a sociological observation, but it derives from a truth about individual psychology.

I do think, however, that there is a bit of confusion in the paper as to the definition of religion. McCauley presumes that religion is, quintessentially, a set of beliefs - beliefs about supernatural agents and their impact on the natural world. Even "primitive" religion begins with theories about these supernatural agents and proceeds from there to invent rituals to influence these agents. My strong inclination, by contrast, is to understand religion as quintessentially a set of practices, and to find any architecture of belief to be belated. We have a deep-seated need to engage in ritual behaviors, and to tell stories; we come up with rituals and stories about the gods because we need the rituals and the stories, not because we've got a theory about why crops fail. But, to be fair, I am at least somewhat inclined to credit theories that find much of human reasoning about our decisionmaking to be belated - that is to say, to credit psychologies that claim we decide to do something without conscious reasoning and then, after the fact, use our reason to tell ourselves stories to explain why we did what we did. So religious behavior is just a special case of behavior in general for me. (Do not mistake me: I am in no way whatsoever a behaviorist. I don't understand how anyone could possibly deny the existence of mental states or their power to impact behavior. But it may still be the case that conscious mental states are belated with respect to any particular decision - decision #1 is made unconsciously but results in conscious mental states that "set up" the board, as it were, for decision #2, also made unconsciously but plainly affected by the conscious mental states that develop after and in response to - though we think they are prior and predicate to - decision #1. Is that clear?)

I probably being unfair in calling this a confusion, because McCauley alludes at a couple of points to the difference between religion "as actually practiced" and theology. But I'm not sure he sees the full implications of this distinction. Theology is quite as unnatural as science, and as likely to be in conflict with common sense and instinct as science is. I would make the following analogy: religion is a natural practice that rests on a foundation of instinctive predilection to ritual behavior, whereas theology is an unnatural, belated intellectual activity that is wedded to but also in perpetual conflict with "natural" religion, in the same way that tool-making in the broadest sense is a natural practice that rests on a foundation of instinctive knowledge of common-sense physics, whereas science is an unnatural, belated intellectual activity that is wedded to but also in perpetual conflict with "common-sense" reasoning about reality. Science is no more in conflict with "instinctive" religion than it is with common sense - that is to say: it's very much in conflict with both, but no one takes this to mean that common sense should be eradicated. By contrast, science and theology, inasmuch as they are competing totalizing systems, may indeed come into conflict, but if they do it seems to me that theology must, in some fashion, give way, because science as such by its nature cannot do so, whereas theology, because its ultimate object is to explain why things are, to impart meaning to reality rather than to make detailed and accurate predictions about how reality will behave, should be capable of assimilating whatever science discovers about how the universe works. My point from yesterday was that while theology as such should be able to do so, individual theologies may not be so capable, and thus science and religion as such should be able to live together in peace and harmony (for long stretches, anyway) but science and individual religions may indeed come into fatal conflict (or those individual religions may survive, but so transformed as to be unrecognizable to earlier generations of believers).

Science and theology are alike totalizing ways of apprehending reality. The kind of religious instinct that McCauley focuses on in his paper is not. McCauley quotes Dennett as saying that "until science came along, one had to settle for personifying the unpredictable--adopting the intentional stance toward it--and trying various desperate measures of control and appeasement." This is a perfect illustration of the category mistake that infects so much scientific writing about religion. The philosophical and theological tradition of arguments that any such attempt at appeasement is vain long predates the development of modern science; Job and Ecclesiastes are two early examples from the Western religious canon. And the natural impulse to want to appease the gods so they will take the cancer away has not been exorcized by modern science. Rather, those who are cowed by modern science's disapproval of cancer spirits may develop ritual behaviors that look for all the world religious but that are more solopsistic in nature, making of ourselves the gods to be appeased.

I don't want to sound negative; I thought McCauley's piece was a good one. As a corrective to the nurturist assumptions of cultural anthropologists and religious studies types, it's quite useful. Historians of popular culture and popular religiosity are frequently inclined to find suppressed "traditions" fighting against institutional religion when what they are probably observing is the effervescence of natural religion. But as an entry in the science vs. religion lists, I find the piece somewhat less useful.