Religion As Standard

Systems often get locked into standards. For example, computer systems get locked into programming language and operating system standards. When people notice that existing standards have unsatisfactory features, they often try to create and promote alternate standards. Such attempts usually fail, however, due to the large costs of coordinating to switch to new standards, including the loss of complementary investments into old standards. In order to induce a switch, expected gains from a new better standard have be large enough to compensate for switching costs, and users need to coordinate their actions in order to switch.

Hopes for a libertarian revolution seem similar. Yes, there may be gains from transferring traditional government services (like schools, roads, fire protection) to private substitutes. But we have many complementary investments in an existing government-provision system that has many self-reinforcing elements. If most people see the potential gains from switching to be few and weak compared to the substantial cost of switching, it just won’t happen. So big change probably won’t happen until some new context where many folks expect private substitutes to work much better.

Strong atheist critiques of religion also seem similar. Religious people often say things that sound crazy, at least when interpreted as claims intended to say things similar to, and evaluated by the usual critical standards of, most other intellectual realms. Atheists want to apply relatively uniform standards of interpretation and evaluation across wide ranges of intellectual claims. Such uniform standards should allow intellectuals to draw more reliable inferences combining insights from many diverse topic areas.

Religion, however, is a complex system integrating emotions, behaviors, relationships, and things that sound and are treated somewhat like intellectual claims. We have made many expensive complementary investments into this religious system, investments that would be expensive to translate to a substitute system. Religious folks understand that treating their religious claims as crazy would detract from the many complex functions that these claims serve within the complex religious experience. So they would rather apply different intellectual standards to these claims. They’d rather say “Don’t take this so literally, don’t be so reductionist; this kind of talk is just different.”

Of course defenders of religion also don’t want to say that they are just making comforting noises that have no intellectual meaning; a sense that their words are somewhat like intellectual claims is part of what lets those noises be comforting. And they don’t want to clarify in much detail just what exactly they are saying, in the usual intellectual terms. They’d rather say “Haven’t you got other topics to go investigate? Why come to our area and mess with things you don’t understand? How can you be so sure of your intellectual standards and your preferred interpretations of our words, so as to put at risk all this useful religious practice?”

It seems to me that religion will handily win this contest for a long time to come. The social support that can be mustered by a few intellectuals hoping for more uniform standards of interpretation and evaluation across diverse topics seems quite weak compared to strong interests others have in the usual complex religious processes. Even if many broad-thinking intellectuals decide to pick a noisy fight over this, most of society will just shrug their shoulders and ignore it. Surely this fact is known to most atheists, so this can’t really be about inducing a social change to a new less objectionable religion substitute. So it is probably mostly about other things, such as status contests within the smaller world of intellectuals.

FYI, some relevant quotes from the atheism critic James Wood:

I can’t be the only reader who finds himself in broad agreement with the conclusions of the New Atheists, while disliking some of the ways they reach them. … [They have] a simplistic reading of how people actually hold those beliefs. … For millions of people, religious “belief” is not a matter of just totting up stable, creedal propositions (“I believe that Jesus is the son of God”, “I believe that I will go to heaven when I die”, and so on), but a matter of more unconscious, daily practice (“Now it is time to kneel down, face Mecca and pray”). This kind of defence of the deep embeddedness of religious practice has been influenced by Wittgenstein – for whom, say, kissing an icon was a bit like loving one’s mother; something that cannot be subjected to an outsider’s rational critique. … We know that plenty of people hold religious beliefs that are also propositions … Rather than simply declaring all religious belief to be non-propositional, which is manifestly untrue, it would be more interesting to examine what might be called the practice of propositional beliefs. We know that people believe all kinds of things, as propositions. But how do they believe them? In this area, the New Atheism has nothing very interesting to say, except to wish away all such beliefs. (more)

Modern Godless man, deprived of the old spirits and demons, and thrown into a world in which there is no one to appeal to outside his own mind, finds it hard to experience the spiritual “fullness” that his ancestors experienced. … Where are we left when evolutionary biology tries to reduce the strong evaluation we make about altruism by claiming that, like all animal behavior, it is just a contrivance that benefits our selfish genes? In Taylor’s terms, the question is whether an “upper language,” in which we describe altruism as noble and admirable, can be fully captured by a “lower language,” of instrumental and biological explanation, a language that scrupulously avoids the vocabulary of purpose, intentionality, design, teleology.

Taylor is skeptical that it can; he worries about the undermining allure of such reduction, and not without cause. These days, one is continually running up against a crass evolutionary neuroscientific pragmatism that is loved by popular evolutionary psychologists and newspaper columnists (of the kind who argue that we are happiest living in suburbs and voting Republican because neuroscience has “proved” that a certain bit of our brain lights up upon seeing Chevy Chase or Greenwich; or that we all like novels because stories must have taught us, millennia ago, how to negotiate our confusing hunter-gatherer society—I exaggerate only a little). Taylor is right to claim that the popularity of this type of reduction is “one of the most burning intellectual issues in modern life.” (more)

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