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Counterpoint II: On Dalla's latest riposte on religion

Let’s be clear, Nolan. I’m not trying to defend religion’s track record nor its often destructive role in society. I’m coming to this debate as a social scientist trying to understand religion’s ubiquity, its role in society, its resistance to attack and, as noted, the gradual shift in religiosity that is emerging in some quarters. That said, let me get to the points enumerated in your blog today.


1. Noting that mass-murderers like Stalin or Hitler had links to or sympathy with particular religions doesn’t gain you much (as npc notes in his/her comment). Because religion is virtually universal it would be surprising to find a leader who didn’t have such. More important are the reasons and justifications for the slaughter. Stalin did not claim he was doing God’s work.

Better, I think, to distinguish between regimes whose brutality is founded in religion and take to the battlefield for their deity from those motivated by ideology, ethnic hatred, racism and power. Religion doesn’t have a great record but we shouldn’t paint with too broad a brush.

2. With regard to whether theologically based therapies work better than secular ones, I’m an empiricist. If we can find ways to deal with these populations without spirituality, I’m all for it. I’m pleased to see the study showing secular therapy was as successful as spiritual. Like you, I await follow up studies.

This topic has long interested me. I used to teach a course on the paranormal and took a very critical line. Students often asked me why I didn’t utterly condemn practices like astrology. The answer is that they play a positive role in many lives. A good astrologer can be a therapist. There are parts of society where even admitting that you could use psychotherapy is dangerous and going to see one next to impossible. These folks get help from all sorts of believers in the paranormal, including of course, ministers, rabbis and priests.

3. Religion’s universality isn’t a surprise. I don’t believe I ever said that. The interesting part is discovering the perceptual, cognitive and social factors responsible for its ubiquity. You cite awe and bewilderment at events beyond the grasp of early humans. This played a role but the social scientist in me notes that we still need to understand how humans induce causality and project causal roles onto unseen agents.

I do understand, Nolan. Sometimes what folks in my field do feels like ripping the petals off a rose to try to learn why it’s beautiful. We do … but we still appreciate the beauty.

4. On communication: Professor Dalla, I think you’ve spotted something in the role communication in the increasing acceptance of secular thought and argument. But I think you’re overplaying your hand. Recent work examining the growth of atheism identifies several trends, the most important appears to be “high levels of existential security, strong and stable governments with social safety nets.” Advances in communication are helpful but their impact will interact with culture.

This point is, I think, critical. I don’t see anti-theological arguments as persuasive unless there are serious social changes. Where we see non-theist cultures emerging are precisely those in which there are universal health care systems, solid safety nets, strong gun controls, clean water and air, strong support of science and education. These are where secularism will triumph. Fear, uncertainty and lack of control over one’s life pushes people toward religion. There are good reasons why it is in Scandinavia that we see the strongest move away from theism to secularism.

You said: “The industrialized world is probably just a generation or two away from a majority of people identifying themselves as agnostics, which is to say having no religious faith at all.” I can only hope you’re right.

You also said: “… this type of discussion 300 years ago could have subjected us to burning at the stake” – again, you’re right but I suspect they’d have roasted you first.

5. I note you are a supporter of science. I stand behind you applauding. Heck, I spent a half-century “doing” this stuff! There is no doubt that the growth of science continuously nibbles away at ignorant belief. But it also creates backlash. It’s not uncommon to find strong religious convictions hand-in-hand with rabid anti-scientific attitudes. The battle won’t be won easily.

6. Finally the good Professor Dalla returns to evolution and, alas, commits a classic logical fallacy. He notes that other characteristics displayed by humans also show universality. He seizes on intoxicants (one can speculate why….). He could just as easily and perhaps more persuasively picked, altruism, violence, territoriality, selfishness, sexual mating patterns or any of many traits that appear in virtually all cultures. So what. Merely noting that several things share an evolutionary basis doesn’t mean that they will share specific features. Religion’s evolutionary roots are obvious and important because if we want to move toward a secular world we’ll get there faster if we understand the foundations of belief. It’ll work better than ranting against religion and listing all the bad things done in the name of various deities.

I look forward to Professor Dalla’s next post (here) explaining where I have wandered off the path.

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