A new science of religion?
This is not an apologia for god. Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life. But it is a call for those who aspire to a secular society to approach it rationally – which means making more effort to understand what they are dealing with. Religion is deeply etched in human nature and cannot be dismissed as a product of ignorance, indoctrination or stupidity. Until secularists recognise that, they are fighting a losing battle.
It’s a pity that the words “secularists” is used, as so often these days, as synonymous with atheists or anti-theists, which isn’t what it means. See the BBC site for a definition of secularism, which notes, correctly,
You may be surprised to know that while most secularists are atheists, some secularists are actually believers in a faith. While they believe, they don’t think that belief is a reason for special treatment.
However, it is true that many anti-religionists, like many religionists, make no effort to understand “what they are dealing with”. Whether the contributors to this issue of New Scientist can enlighten us is debatable.
One is Justin L Barrett, author of Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs, which makes the controversial claim that children “arrive in the world with a strong, cognitively driven propensity for religious belief ‘preinstalled’.” He writes,
By the time he was 5 years old, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could play the clavier and had begun to compose his own music. Mozart was a “born musician”; he had strong natural talents and required only minimal exposure to music to become fluent.
Few of us are quite so lucky. Music usually has to be drummed into us by teaching, repetition and practice. And yet in other domains, such as language or walking, virtually everyone is a natural; we are all “born speakers” and “born walkers”.
So what about religion? Is it more like music or language?
Drawing upon research in developmental psychology, cognitive anthropology and particularly the cognitive science of religion, I argue that religion comes nearly as naturally to us as language. The vast majority of humans are “born believers”, naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations …
Barrett accuses Richard Dawkins of ignorance of the psychology of religion. Without reading his book (or New Scientist), I can’t say if the evidence for his hypothesis stands up to scrutiny, but my inclination is to regard children’s religion, if they have any, as the product of cultural influences and the imagimation, not an inborn predisposition, though there has been some research into whether there’s a neurological explanation for some people’s religious experiences; a “god spot” in the brain.
Another contributor to New Scientist is Ara Norenzayan, from the University of British Columbia, whose view is that “religion is the key to civilisation” . In a paper published by UBC, Norenzayan and Will M Gervais wrote,
Worldwide sociological evidence shows that societies, as they experience economic growth and greater conditions of existential security, move towards more secularization; yet, because religiosity has a net positive effect on fertility rates, even after controlling for socioeconomic status, secular societies are shrinking, while religious ones are expanding. As a result, a larger proportion of the world’s population remains religious, and the world has more religious people than ever before.
This is what worries me. The birthrate among religious people is increasing, yet the earth has finite resources. There are already too many people, religious or otherwise. Click here to read about the importance of population control. You don’t need to be scientist to understand why it’s important; you just need to do some basic maths.
Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?
— Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of Colorado; World Population Balance Board of Advisors