Explaining religion away, for the 100th time: Part II

In "Religion: Bound to Believe?" (Nature: Vol 455 23 October 2008), anthropologist Pascal Boyer does not even try to understand what drives a devoutly religious person; he is concerned only with finding explanations that suggest a cognitive kink or deficit. For example,

We now know that human brains have a set of security and precaution networks dedicated to preventing potential hazards such as predation or contamination. These networks trigger specific behaviours such as washing and checking one’s environment. When the systems go into overdrive they produce obsessive-compulsive pathology. Religious statements about purity, pollution, the hidden danger of lurking devils, may also activate these networks and make ritual precautions (cleansing, checking, delimiting a sacred space) intuitively appealing.

How does this help us understand why people spend their Friday night driving aged parishioners to holy hours or refuse to save their lives during a Rwandese massacre by abandoning fellow believers to their fate? Something is obviously missing from his explanation. On thing missing is accuracy about obsessive-compulsive pathology. An obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) sufferer knows that her obsessive compulsions are nonsense. That is, she knows that her son will not die if she fails to count all the windows in her apartment building all over again. But due to bad brain wiring, she feels the fear. (See The Spiritual Brain, pp. 129-30.)

Indeed, encouraging the patient to substitute thinking for feeling is the basis of a successful non-materialist treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, pioneered by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. So OCD would explain religious ritual only if the typical worshipper felt an inner compulsion to engage in the activity while believing it useless - not a common scenario, and hardly a convincing basis for a theory of religion. That anyone would advance such an explanation in a science journal shows how limited the appetite for accuracy is in this area. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Boyer's essay is that, following the dogma of hardline materialism, he writes as if there is no self:

Most modern, organized religions present themselves as a package that integrates all these disparate elements (ritual, morality, metaphysics, social identity) into one consistent doctrine and practice. But this is pure advertising. These domains remain separated in human cognition. The evidence shows that the mind has no single belief network, but myriad distinct networks that contribute to making religious claims quite natural to many people.
So no one has an integrated idea of what they believe? That is transparently untrue, but it is a logical consequence of the materialist doctrine to which Boyer is committed.If this is the best materialist science can do - and make no mistake, Boyer is several cuts above the usual "God gene" sludge - it is no surprise that materialist atheism is generally disbelieved worldwide. Boyer closes with a self-flattery that is so naive as to, at first, provoke derision:
Knowing, even accepting these conclusions is unlikely to undermine religious commitment. Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems. By contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.

But hold the laughter! To the extent that a non-materialist worldview is defined as delusional but a materialist worldview is defined as rational, the groundwork is laid for academic and legal discrimination against non-materialist points of view. Here is how it unfolds: The non-materialist worldview cannot be supported by evidence because those who accept the evidence are, by definition, delusional. The materialist worldview can never be disconfirmed by evidence because only a non-materialist is likely to advance such evidence, and such a person is delusional. Here we have a justification for discrimination against, for example, Christian schools or Christians in academic life.

Against this background, a group of non-materialists in neuroscience recently held the “Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness” symposium at the UN (September 11, 2008), co-sponsored by the Nour Foundation, UN-DESA, and the Université de Montréal. They were promptly attacked by a hit piece in New Scientist, a reliable standard-bearer for materialism, which read a dark conspiracy to institute religious fundamentalism in the United States into the multinational proceedings. Scratch a materialist atheist and a truther emerges, full-grown. That's no laughing matter.

Denyse O'Leary, a journalist, author, and blogger, is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.


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