bookmark_borderHomo stupidus

There is something vaguely stupid about religion. This doesn’t mean that it is irrational to be religious—I suspect that sometimes it can be rational to adopt even grossly stupid, fundamentalist beliefs. Nonetheless, from asserting the literal truth of ancient myths to driveling about how liberally interpreted myths still lead us to deep and ineffable truths about supernatural realms, there is something about religion that I can’t help but think insults my intelligence.

Still, I also have to wonder whether the critical interest I show in religion is itself stupid. After all, if I am looking for seriously dangerous, suicidal varieties of stupidity, I have to doubt that religion qualifies. Human societies, including modern societies, are reasonably well-adapted to supernatural convictions. It’s even an open question whether we can do without them. I can count on conservative religion to regularly generate stupidities such as creationism, but we can live with that. Even if, say, the level of creationism in the US became as bad as that in Muslim countries, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It would mainly further decouple science and the general public. We are not far from such a situation anyway.

No, the really catastrophic form of human stupidity has little to do with our habit of perceiving gods and ghosts in the shadows. It’s our basic material rapacity, and inability to think about the long term—all very secular failings structurally embedded in the way we do modern mass politics. It is becoming increasingly clear, for example, that we, as a species, are collectively incapable of responding to global warming.

Now, conservative religion—the most common, most popular, most visible form of religion—can be counted on to make things worse. The right wing faithful at the Discovery Institute have long been hysterical in their opposition to the scientific community, seeing our solid support for Darwinian evolution in conspiratorial terms. We are, apparently, censoring intelligent design, and running a corrupt, ideological operation. And predictably, they see climate science through the same stupid lens. Global warming is, apparently, a prime example of intellectual corruption, together with evolution. The scientific community is either pushing a culture war or is trying to extort large levels of funding, depending on what flavor in the conspiracy theory they want to emphasize. These people have clearly been toiling on the margins of intellectual life, such as right wing think tanks, for so long, that they have totally lost sight of life within the scientific community.

But intelligent design proponents give voice to stupidity, they don’t invent it. We’d be hell-bent on digging ourselves even deeper into our hole even if religion did not have an uncanny ability to sanctify right wing politics.

bookmark_borderReligion and social dysfunction

Gregory Paul’s paper “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions” is available online. Among its conclusions:

all hypotheses that religious belief and practice are the normal, deeply set human mental state that is highly resistant to conversion to nontheism are unverified. Instead popular religion is in the main a superficial psychological response that seeks the daily aid and protection of supernatural entities to alleviate the stress and anxiety created by a sufficiently dysfunctional social and especially economic environment. Other potential causes of large-scale religiosity, including fear of death and genetics, are at best secondary factors that only operate effectively when the socioeconomic situation is defective to the required degree. Popular nontheism also is a predominantly superficial psychological response to the socioeconomic environment, in its case to a sufficiently secure one.

I’m not sure how much to trust Paul’s conclusions—politically, they fit just a bit too well with my prejudices. His favored explanations also seem to be overly ahistorical.

He also focuses on conservative, organized monotheism as the default form of religiosity, disregarding more diffuse forms of supernaturalism that are common in secularized societies and support the contention that belief in supernatural agents is a “normal, deeply set human mental state that is highly resistant to conversion to” naturalistic views.

Still, if anyone wants to wade into the argument about whether organized religion is socially beneficial on balance, Paul’s work represents a strong statement of a case that religiosity is strongly associated with social dysfunction.