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What Believers and Atheists Can Learn From Each Other (co-written with Rabbi Geoff Mitelman)

Here’s a forthcoming article for the Huffington Post religious blog I’ve written with Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, a friend and fellow cognitive science enthusiast. We discuss atheism and the psychology of belief. Check out his blog Sinai and Synapses

Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman: It’s inherently challenging for believers and atheists to have productive conversations. Discussing topics such as belief and nonbelief, the potential irrationality of religion, or the limits of scientific knowledge is difficult since each side often ends up more firmly entrenched in their own worldview.

But one bright person interested in broadening the conversation is Sam McNerney, a science writer who focuses on cognitive science and an atheist interested in religion from a psychological point of view.

I found Sam through his writing on ScientificAmerican.com, and started reading his blog Why We Reason and his posts on BigThink.com. We discovered that even though we approached religion from different perspectives, we had great respect for each other.

So as two people with different religious outlooks we wondered: what can we learn from each other?

Sam McNerney: There are many things we can learn. Let’s take one: the role of authority.

A recent New York Times article points out that secular liberal atheists tend to conflate authority, loyalty and sanctity with racism, sexism and homophobia. It’s not difficult to see why. Societies suffer when authority figures, being motivated by sacred values and religious beliefs, forbid their citizens from challenging the status quo. But a respect for authority and the principles they uphold to some degree is necessary if societies seek to maintain order and justice and function properly. The primatologist Frans de Waal explains it this way: “Without agreement on rank and a certain respect for authority there can be no great sensitivity to social rules, as anyone who has tried to teach simple house rules to a cat will agree.” (Haidt, 106)

Ironically, atheists’ steadfast allegiance to rationality, secular thinking and the importance of open-mindedness blinds them to important religious values including respect for authority. As a result, atheists tend to confuse authority with exploitation and evil and undervalue the vital role authority plays in a healthy society.

Geoff: You accurately bring up one aspect of why organized religion can be so complicated: it is intertwined with power. And I’m glad you note that authority and power are not inherently bad when it comes to religion. In fact, as you also say, a certain degree of authority is necessary.

To me, the real problem arises when religion adds another element into the mix: certainty. It’s a toxic combination to have religious authorities with the power to influence others claiming to “know” with 100% certainty that they’re right and everyone else is wrong.

One thing I learned from several atheists is the importance of skepticism and doubt. Indeed, while certainty leads to arrogance, uncertainty leads to humility. We open up the conversation and value diverse experiences when we approach the world with a perspective of “I’m not sure” or “I could be wrong.”

Recently, astrophysicist Adam Frank wrote a beautiful piece on NPR’s blog 13.7 about how valuable uncertainty can be:

Dig around in most of the world’s great religious traditions and you find people finding their sense of grace by embracing uncertainty rather than trying to bury it in codified dogmas…

Though I am an atheist, some of the wisest people I have met are those whose spiritual lives (some explicitly religious, some not) have forced them to continually confront uncertainty. This daily act has made them patient and forgiving, generous and inclusive. Likewise, the atheists I have met who most embody the ideals of free inquiry seem to best understand the limitations of every perspective, including their own. They encounter the ever shifting ground of their lives with humor, good will and compassion.

Certainty can be seductive, but it hurts our ability to engage with others in constructive ways. Thus when religious people talk about God, belief or faith, we have to approach the conversation with a little humility and recognize that we don’t have a monopoly on the truth. In the words of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, we need to realize that another person doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right.

This doesn’t mean believers and atheists will agree on the role of religion in society, the validity of a particular belief system, or even the very existence of God. In fact, believers and atheists will almost certainly continue to vehementlydisagree about these questions. But we have to remember that not all disagreements are bad. Some arguments are quite beneficial because they help us gain a deeper understanding of reality, encourage clearer thinking, and broaden people’s perspectives.

The Rabbis even draw a distinction between two different kinds of arguments. Arguments they call “for the sake of Heaven” will always be valuable, while arguments that are only for self-aggrandizement will never be productive (Avot5:20). So I’m not interested in arguments that devolve into mocking, ridicule, name-calling or one-upmanship. But I’d gladly participate in any discussion if we are arguing about how we make ourselves and this world better, and would actively strive to involve whoever wants to be part of that endeavor, regardless of what they may or may not believe.

Sam: You are right to point out that both atheists and believers under the illusion of certainty smother potentially productive dialogue with disrespectful rhetoric. What’s alarming is that atheism in the United States is now more than non-belief. It’s an intense and widely shared sentiment where a belief in God is not only false, but also ridiculous. Pointing out how irrational religion can be is entertaining for too many.

There’s no doubt that religious beliefs influence negative behavioral consequences, so atheists are right to criticize religion on many epistemological claims. But I’ve learned from believers and my background in cognitive psychology that faith-based beliefs are not necessarily irrational.

Consider a clever study recently conducted by Kevin Rounding of Queen’s University in Ontario that demonstrates how religion helps increase self-control. In two experiments participants (many of whom identified as atheists) were primed with a religious mindset – they unscrambled short sentences containing words such as “God,” “divine” and “Bible.” Compared to a control group, they were able to drink more sour juice and were more willing to accept $6 in a week instead of $5 immediately. Similar lines of research show that religious people are less likely to develop unhealthy habits like drinking, taking drugs, smoking and engaging in risky sex.

Studies also suggest that religious and spiritual people, especially those living in the developing world, are happier and live longer, on average, than non-believers. Religious people also tend to feel more connected to something beyond themselves; a sentiment that contributes to well-being significantly.

It’s unclear if these findings are correlative or causal – it’s likely that many of the benefits that come from believing in God arise not from beliefs per se but from strong social ties that religious communities do such a good job of fostering. Whatever the case, this research should make atheists pause before they dismiss all religious beliefs as irrational or ridiculous.

Geoff: It’s interesting — that actually leads to another area where atheists have pushed believers in important ways, namely, to focus less on the beliefs themselves, and more on how those beliefs manifest themselves in actions. And to paraphrase Steven Pinker, the actions that religious people need to focus on are less about “saving souls,” and more about “improving lives.”

For much of human history the goal of religion was to get people to believe a certain ideology or join a certain community. “Being religious” was a value in and of itself, and was often simply a given, but today, we live in a world where people are free to choose what they believe in. So now, the goal of religion should be to help people find more fulfillment in their own lives and to help people make a positive impact on others’ lives.

It’s important to note that people certainly do not need religion to act morally or find fulfillment. But as Jonathan Haidt writes in his new book The Righteous Mind, religion can certainly make it easier.

Haidt argues that our mind is like a rider who sits atop an elephant to suggest that our moral deliberations (the rider) are post-hoc rationalizations of our moral intuitions (the elephant). The key to his metaphor is that intuitions comes first (and are much more powerful) and strategic reason comes afterwards.

We need our rider because it allows us to think critically. But our elephant is also important because it motivates us to connect with others who share a moral vision. Ultimately, if we are striving to build communities and strengthen our morals, we cannot rely exclusively on either the rider or the elephant; we need both. As Haidt explains:

If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, institutions and relationships that work primarily on the elephant to influence your behavior. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for…a society that no longer has a shared moral order. [And w]e evolved to live, trade and trust within shared moral matrices. (Haidt, 269)

Since religion is a human construct, with its “norms, institutions and relationships,” it can be used in a variety of different ways. It can obviously be used to shut down critical thinking and oppress others. But as you mention, religion has positive effects on well-being, and religious beliefs correlate with a sense of fulfillment. Perhaps the job of religion, then, should be giving us a common language, rituals, and communities that reinforce and strengthen our ability to become better human beings and find joy and meaning in our lives.

Ultimately, we don’t have to agree with someone in order to learn from them. As Ben Zoma, a 2nd century Jewish sage, reminds us: “Who is wise? The person who learns from all people.” (Avot 4:1) When we are willing to open ourselves up to others, we open ourselves up to new ideas and different perspectives.

Indeed, I have come to believe that our purpose as human beings – whether we identify as a believer, an atheist, or anything in between – is to better ourselves and our world. And any source of knowledge that leads us to that goal is worth pursuing.

Religion, Evolution & What The New Atheists Overlook

Lancet flukes (Dicrocelium dendriticum) are a clever little parasite. To reproduce, they find their way into the stomach of a sheep or cow by  commandeering an ant’s brain. Once this happens, ants exhibit strange behavior: they climb up the nearest blade of grass until it falls, then they climb it again, and again. If the flukes are lucky, a grazing farm animal eats the grass along with the ant; a sure win for the flukes, but a sad, and unfortunate loss for the six-legged insect.

Does anything like this happen with human beings? Daniel Dennett thinks so. In the beginning of his book Breaking the Spell, Dennett uses the fluke to suggest that religions survive because they influence their hosts (e.g., people) to do bad things for themselves (e.g., suicide bombing) but good things for the parasite (e.g., Islam). Implicit in Dennett’s example is that religions are like viruses, and people and societies are better of without them.

Dennett’s position is akin to the rest of the New Atheists: religion is a nasty and irrational byproduct of natural selection. This means that religious beliefs were not directly selected for by evolution any more than our noses evolved to help us keep our glasses from sliding off our faces. In the words of Pascal Boyer, “religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources.” The question is: what cognitive resources influenced religion?

Most cognitive scientists agree that the Hypersensitve Agency Detection Device (abbreviated HADD) played an important role. In brief, the HADD explains why we see faces in the clouds, but never clouds in faces. Neuroscientist Dean Buonomano puts it this way: “We are inherently comfortable assigning a mind to other entities. Whether the other entity is your brother, a cat, or a malfunctioning computer, we are not averse to engaging it in conversation.” This ability endows will and intention to other people, animals and inanimate objects. The HADD produces a lot of false positive errors (e.g., seeing the virgin Mary in a piece of toast), and God might be one of them.

Another feature of the human mind that religion might have co-opted is a natural propensity towards a dualistic theory of mind. Dualism is our tendency to believe that people are made up off physical matter (e.g., lungs, DNA, and atoms) as well as an underlying and internal essence. Even the strictest materialist cannot escape this sentiment; we all feel that there is a “me” resting somewhere in our cortices. A belief in disembodied spirits could have given rise to beliefs in supernatural entities that existed independent of matter. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom is a proponent of this view and supports his conclusions with experimental evidence highlighted in his book Descartes’ Baby.

Although the by-productive hypothesis, as it is known, is incomplete, it all points to the same logic: “a bit of mental machinery evolved because it conferred a real benefit, but the machinery sometimes misfires, producing accidental cognitive effects that make people prone to believing in gods.”

This is an important piece of the puzzle for the New Atheists. If religion is the off shoot of a diverse set of cognitive modules that evolved for a variety of problems, then religious beliefs are nothing more than a series of neural misfires that are “correctable” with secular Enlightenment thinking.

Not everyone agrees. The evolutionary biologists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson propose that religiosity is a biological adaptation that created communities by instilling a “one for all, all for one” mentality in its members. This is important because it allowed group members to function as a superorganism, which moreover gave them an advantage on the African savannah; “An unshakable sense of unity among… warriors,” Buonomano says, “along with certainty that the spirits are on their side, and assured eternity, were as likely to, as they are now, to improve the chances of victory in battle.” The binding power of religion would have also helped communities form objective moral codes – do unto others as you would have others do unto you – and protected against free riders.

Jonathan Haidt is making a name for himself by advocating this point. In addition to the group selection hypothesis, Haidt points to our species ability to experience moments of self-transcendence. The world’s religions, he believes, are successful because they found a way to facilitate such experiences. Here’s how he explained it in a recent TED:

If the human capacity for self-transcendence is an evolutionary adaptation, then the implications are profound. It suggests that religiosity may be a deep part of human nature. I don’t mean that we evolved to join gigantic organized religions — that kind of religion came along too recently. I mean that we evolved to see sacredness all around us and to join with others into teams that circle around sacred objects, people and ideas. This is why politics is so tribal. Politics is partly profane, it’s partly about self-interest. But politics is also about sacredness. It’s about joining with others to pursue moral ideals. It’s about the eternal struggle between good and evil, and we all believe we’re on the side of the good.

What’s interesting about Haidt’s angle is that it sheds a bad light on Enlightenment and secular ideals that western civilization was founded on. We exult liberty, individualism and the right to pursue our self-interest. But are we ignoring our innate desire to be part of something greater? Are we denying our groupish mentalities? The modern world gives us fixes – think big football games or raves – but I think some atheists are deprived.

And this brings me back to the fluke and the New Atheists. If Haidt is right, and our religiosity was an evolutionary adaptation, then religious beliefs are a feature of, not a poison to, our cognition. The fluke, therefore, is not a parasite but an evolutionary blessing the facilitated the creation of communities and societies. This is not to deny all the bloodshed on behalf of religion. But if religion is an adaptation and not a byproduct, then “we cannot expect people to abandon [it] so easily.”

The Future Of Religion

Religious people, that is, people who say that religion is important in their lives, have, on average, higher subjective well being. They find a greater sense of purpose or meaning, are connected to stronger social circles and live longer and healthier lives. Why, then, are so many dropping out of organized religion?

Last year a team of researchers led by Ed Diener tried to answer this question. They found that economically developed nations are much less likely to be religious. On the other hand, religion is widespread in countries with more difficult circumstances. “Thus,” the authors conclude, “it appears that the benefits of religion for social relationships and subjective well-being depend on the characteristics of the society.” People of developed nations are dropping out of organized religion, then, because they are finding meaning and wellness elsewhere.

The real paradox is America, where Nietzsche’s anti-theistic proclamation went unheard. 83 percent of Americans identify with a religious denomination, most say that religion is “very important” in their lives and according to Sam Harris 44 percent “of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years.” In fact, a recent study even showed that atheists are largely seen as untrustworthy compared to Christian and Muslims.

Why does the United States, one the most economically developed countries in the world, deviate from the correlation between religion and wealth? One answer is that trends always contain outliers. As Nigel Barber explains in an article: “The connection between affluence and the decline of religious belief is as well-established as any such finding in the social sciences…. [and] no researcher ever expects every case to fit exactly on the line… If they did, something would be seriously wrong.”

Whatever the reasons, a recent article by David Campbell and Robert Putnam suggests that Americans are catching up to their non-believing European counterparts. According to Campbell and Putnam, the number of “nones” – those who report no religious affiliation – has dramatically increased in the last two decades. “Historically,” Campbell and Putnam explain, “this category made up a constant 5-7 percent of the American population… in the early 1990s, however, just as the God gap widened in politics, the percentage of nones began to shoot up. By the mid-1990s, nones made up 12 percent of the population. By 2011, they were 19 percent. In demographic terms, this shift was huge.”

A study by Daniel Mochon, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely bodes well with this observation. They discovered that, “while fervent believers benefit from their involvement, those with weaker beliefs are actually less happy than those who do not ascribe to any religion-atheists and agnostics.” It’s possible the “nones” Campbell and Putnam speak of are motivated to abandon their belief by a desire to be happier and less conflicted with their lives. This might be too speculative, but there are plenty of stories, especially in the wake of the New Atheist movement, of people who describe their change of faith as a dramatic improvement for their emotional life. In a recent interview with Sam Harris, for example, Tim Prowse, a United Methodist pastor for almost 20 years, described leaving his faith as a great relief. “The lie was over, I was free,” he said, “…I’m healthier now than I’ve been in years and tomorrow looks bright.”

What does this say about the future of atheism? Hitchens and others suggest that a standoff between believers and non-believers may be inevitable. “It’s going to be a choice between civilization and religion,” he says. However, grandiose predictions about the future of the human race are almost always off the mark, and it’s likely that the decline in religion will remain slow and steady. It’s important to keep in mind that this decline is a recent phenomena. It wasn’t until the 17th century, the so-called Age of Reason, when writers, thinkers and some politicians began to insist that societies are better off when they give their citizens the political right to communicate their ideas. This was a key intellectual development, and in context to the history of civilization, very recent.

To be sure, radical ideologies will always exist; religion, Marx suggested, is the opiate of the people. But the trend towards empiricism, logic and reason is undeniable and unavoidable. Titles including God Is Not Great and The God Delusion are bestsellers for a reason. And if Prowse’s testimony as well as Campbell and Putnam’s data are indicative, there is a clear shift in the zeitgeist.

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