Saturday, April 07, 2007

Faith, Not Theocracy
At the risk of offending Bill "Butt Sex" Donohue, who's presumably looking for an easy target after the spanking "South Park" gave him this week, I commend this Easter Weekend Blogswarm.

So many topics, so little time. But rather than rant against the religio-ideological perversion of our public sphere under the Idiot King, or the disturbing similarities between the most repressive strains of Islam and Christianity (and the unmasked yearning of some at the far fringes of the right to fuse the two movements in an attack on the common enemy of secularism), I'll go with something happy here.

Tomorrow my in-laws are coming down for the holiday, and my mom and brother are coming up from Philadelphia. This should be an interesting day: my wife's parents, and her brother (who also will be here) are practicing Catholics, Annie is basically a lapsed Catholic, my mother is a not-very-good Jew, and my brother and I are agnostics though I consider myself culturally Jewish. (I'm sitting here eating matzah as I type.) Convenings of Catholics and Jews can be awkward--especially given the long-accepted narrative around this particular holiday--and I made a few "Running of the Jew" jokes at my family's seder last week in Philly. But this isn't going to be like that. Annie's cooking a leg of lamb, my in-laws always get a charge out of coming down to the city from Connecticut, my brother-in-law just got back from a vacation in California. I expect it'll just be a good time with the family.

This isn't the direct purpose of religion, of course, but if you go by that NYT magazine article from a month or so back, it's not too far off. Some evolutionary theorists believe that religious belief played a community-strengthening role:

The trick in thinking about adaptation is that even if a trait offers no survival advantage today, it might have had one long ago. This is how Darwinians explain how certain physical characteristics persist even if they do not currently seem adaptive — by asking whether they might have helped our distant ancestors form social groups, feed themselves, find suitable mates or keep from getting killed. A facility for storing calories as fat, for instance, which is a detriment in today’s food-rich society, probably helped our ancestors survive cyclical famines.

So trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves. As William James put it, religion filled people with “a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life . . . an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.”

Such sentiments, some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living. The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.

I've long believed, and probably written here, that religion has had value as, among other things, "the training wheels of moral social norms." The Golden Rule, most of the Ten Commandments, and other tenets of the various monotheistic traditions don't require belief in an anthropomorphic God to have appeal; they're also good guidelines for how to act within a society or community. The problem of course is when religious groupings, like any other community of affinity from gun owners to Yankees fans, get too aggressive in their proselytizing (in the non-theological sense, I mean). They wind up very far afield from their belief systems; at best they get into self-aggrandizing doctrines with obvious temporal ramifications like papal infallability; at worst it turns into jihad and people get blown to bits.

Keeping it at the personal level, though, isn't something I think secularists should worry about. If anything, they should just enjoy the togetherness, and the lamb.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lamb was very good.