Saturday, November 3, 2012

Religious superstitions: to criticize or not to criticize? That is the question

“It’s really interesting that wherever religion is on the front foot, it bears down in a very impressive [way] on people. Look at the Taliban. Wherever they’re on the back foot, they suddenly become very friendly, very concessive and very tolerant. And that’s where they should be, very firmly on the back foot.” - A.C. Grayling

As far as I know, all cultures that have been discovered so far have had some form of religion. Many people find comfort from their religious beliefs especially in times of great personal tragedies. I know many people who were able to deal with the misfortunes that befell them only because of their faith. Only some privileged people have the time to ponder over questions about god. Most people are too busy trying to make ends meet to bother about such questions. In this episode of Point of Inquiry about cheating, Dan Ariely points out some surprising benefits that religion may be providing.

Maybe there is a human need for rituals and ceremonies.Witness the elaborate ceremonies around the Olympic flame. I tend to get bored with the opening and closing ceremonies of sporting events but I am obviously a mutant. Most people seem to enjoy these events. Graduation ceremonies will lose something if students did not wear those funny hats and coats. We are all irrational at various times. Actually the world would be quite a boring place if everyone was rational all the time. (Here is an interesting lecture by Robert Sapolsky on the evolution of religious rituals.)

The relationship between religiosity and intelligence is confusing. Einstein thought that religion was a psychological 'prop'. But take Francs Collins. You can't get much more smart than him but he has weird views about religion. Or consider the case of the Hitchens brothers - two very smart people with opposite views about god. Christopher Hitchens was as strident as they come in criticizing religion while his brother Peter Hitchens is a believing Christian who abhors his brother's views. Or take the case  of religious experiences of astronauts. (But there are doubts about how spontaneous some of these experiences were.)

It is fallacious to think that reason can always trump belief. Religion makes emotional appeals to fear, hope, tradition, etc. and talking about the double helix or the Big Bang often doesn't produce results. Man is a social animal and it  is indisputable that religion provides plenty of opportunities for like-minded people to meet and interact with each other. Most people are content being what Kierkegaard called an 'automatic cultural man' who is described in The Denial of Death by Earnst Becker (a typical example is depicted in Nissim Ezekiel's poem The Professor): as confined by culture, a slave to it, who imagines that he has an identity if he pays his insurance premium, that he has control of his life if he guns his sports car or works his electric toothbrush....For Kierkegaard "philistinism" was triviality, man lulled by the daily routines of his society, content with the satisfactions that it offers him: in today's world the car, the shopping center, the two-week summer vacation.  Man is protected by the secure and limited alternatives his society offers him, and if he does not look up from his path he can live out his life with a certain dull security:
Devoid of imagination, as the Philistine always is, he lives in a certain trivial province of experience as to how  things go, what is possible, what usually occurs..... Philistinism tranquilizes itself in the trivial...
Does all this mean that we should close our eyes when we encounter religious superstitions and treat them with respectful silence since the majority of them seem to be harmless? Is it nobler in the mind to suffer them with a patient shrug or by opposing them reduce their virulence? Carl Sagan ponders this question in The Demon-Haunted World:
Clearly there are limits to the uses of skepticism.  There is some cost-benefit analysis which must be applied, and if the comfort, consolation and hope delivered by mysticism and superstition is high, and the dangers of belief comparatively low, should we not keep our mis-givings to ourselves? But the issue is tricky.  Imagine that you enter a big-city taxicab and the moment you get settled in, the driver begins a harangue about the supposed iniquities and inferiorities of another ethnic group.  Is your best course to keep quiet, bearing in mind that silence conveys assent? Or is it your moral responsibility to argue with him, to express outrage, even to leave the cab - because you know that every silent assent will encourage him next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause him next time to think twice? Likewise, if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition - even when it seems to be doing a little good - we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.
Meera Nanda also makes several good points. It is not my contention that everybody should become a Dawkins or a Hitchens.It may be the case that just like there needs to be a balance between risk takers and followers, there perhaps needs to be a balance between those who believe in god and those who don't in order to organise masses of people to achieve a common goal. (I may be wrong here. The Scandinavian countries have some of the lowest rates of religious belief in the world but they consistently top the Human Development Index.)

It would be disingenuous to suggest that Dawkins and Co. are not aware of what Sam Harris calls 'The Fireplace Delusion'.  Dawkins has often said that even when he is debating in front of believers, he is not trying to  convince them. He is hoping that his message that religion does not deserve special privileges is heard by people who are sitting on the fence, people 'who didn't even know there was a fence to sit on' as he put it in the BBC series The Life Scientific. As Eric Macdonald says, '...while it may be true that Dawkins, in Spufford’s words, knows “sod-all about religion,”* it is also true that most religious believers know even less.' And that is because believers accept unquestioningly what their religious leaders say.

Why does the 'best culture' in the world consistently have such an abysmal rank in the Human Development Index? (Years of good economic growth have not had much impact on these figures. Something is rotten in the State of Denmark. I am sick of listening to gasbags going ga-ga over hot air.) What role does religion play in perpetuating inequality? Is religion a cause or an effect of poverty? Can religion be confined to the private realm or is its very nature such that it will intrude into the public sphere? These are questions that are worth discussing instead of always tiptoeing  carefully around the elephant in the room.

Atheists are not wasting their time. Somebody needs to ask the uncomfortable questions and push the envelop. Believers dislike the New Atheists because they are gadflies who keep pushing them out of their comfort zone and face the fact that the Emperor has no clothes. They don't parrot 'what everybody knows' which often has to be treated cautiously. They have helped shift the Overton Window. Converts' Corner is evidence that their arguments are having an impact.

Perennial deference to the prevailing zeitgeist doesn't produce change. As Salman Rushdie said in this interview with CNN-IBN, I am tired of religion constantly asking for privileges. Anything goes under the garb of 'right to religion' and firm voices need to be raised against pious thuggery instead of pusillanimous capitulation which is generally the case.Ayaan Hirsi Ali puts it bluntly, " At the heart of that alternative are the ideals of the rule of law and freedom of thought, worship, and expression. For these values there can and should be no apologies, no groveling, no hesitation."  If you wear the right religious uniform you can get away with anything  and this bluff needs to be called.

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