Okay, I’ll confess some possible sour grapes here: a while back I had the bright idea of writing a New York Times op-ed on the old canard that “science, like religion, is based on faith”. That, after all, has been a misconception promulgated not infrequently in the Times‘s own columns, but one never answered in the same paper. I wrote the op-ed editor with my idea. He wrote back asking for a precis of what I wanted to discuss, and I responded with what I thought was a pretty good (and detailed) proposal, including a rationale for why such a discussion was necessary, giving the list of NYT pieces that had previously argued that science was based on faith, and showing how my discussion would make new points not discussed by scientists or New Atheists.
I never heard back—not even a “no.” When I inquired, after a few weeks, about what they had decided, I still got no response. How rude can you get?
But of course we know that the New York Times—unlike the Washington Post, which regularly publishes anti-religious op-eds—spends a lot of time osculating the rumps of the faithful. One would think that strange in one of the few papers that still has a “science” section, but I suspect that there’s more sympathy for faith at the end of section A.
Well, there are other venues, some that even have more readers, and readers who might benefit from reading about the “faith” canard. Perhaps I’ll try those places.
But it’s especially galling to see, time after time, accommodationist Tanya Luhrmann publish columns on religion in the Times—all of them sympathetic and most of them trivial. Today’s piece, “Conjuring up our own gods“, is especially notable for saying virtually nothing new. In essence, here’s its message:
1. Most Americans believe in supernatural or paranormal phenomena.
2. Such belief appears to be “hard-wired,” which I interpret as “instilled in our brains by natural selection.”
3. Pascal Boyer and others think that religious belief stems from an evolved adaptation to believe in agency (you’ll know this if you’ve read Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origin of Religious Thought).
4. It may be in our brains to believe in agency, but a sustained religious belief, in which you walk and converse with God, takes work.
There is nothing here that hasn’t been said before. And Luhrmann’s argument is neither dispositive nor coherent.
First, just because a belief is widespread does not mean that it’s “hard-wired”. Many people, including most Scandinavians, have managed to shake off their belief in God. Did they unwire themselves? Or did they experence reversed natural selection? For millennia most people were xenophobic, and men thought women inferior. Were those ubiquitous beliefs hard-wired, too? Ubiquity of belief is no evidence for genetics, and, in fact, the very topic of Steve Pinker’s last book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was how fast we’ve discarded our inimical beliefs over the last few centuries. Change occurring that fast simply cannot reflect alterations in the frequencies of genes. Such change must be mediated by culture alone, and Pinker gives several explanations.
If religion is in any sense hard-wired, then in my view it’s a byproduct of other evolved aspects of our brain, and not necessarily the need to believe in agency. It could, for instance, simply be an evolved credulity, so that kids tend to believe what their parents tell them. (That would be adaptive.) Start with some parents who believe in the supernatural for any reason at all (and there are, by the way, some religions, past and present, in which God wasn’t an active agent on Earth), and religious belief gets promulgated culturally. (I’d say as a “meme,” but I don’t like that concept.) When people ask me about Boyer’s theory, or another theory about why belief in God was adaptive, my response is always, “Well, maybe, but religion originated so long ago that we just don’t know. I have no idea where it comes from.” I’m an evolutionist, but I don’t even have a strong opinion on the matter. There are, of course, many other theories about how religion came to pass.
Nevertheless, without mentioning alternative theories, Luhrmann presents Boyer’s (and Justin Barrett’s) as the best explanation:
One interpretation of these data is that belief in the supernatural is hard-wired. Scholars like the anthropologist Pascal Boyer, author of “Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origin of Religious Thought,” and the psychologist Justin L. Barrett, author of “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” argue that the fear that one would be eaten by a lion, or killed by a man who wanted your stuff, shaped the way our minds evolved. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were more likely to survive if they interpreted ambiguous noise as the sound of a predator. Most of the time it was the wind, of course, but if there really was danger, the people who worried about it were more likely to live.
That inclination to search for an agent has evolved into an intuition that an invisible agent, or god, may be there. (You can argue this theory from different theological positions. Mr. Boyer is an atheist, and treats religion as a mistake. Mr. Barrett is an evangelical Christian, who thinks that God’s hand steered evolution.)
Note how she a). elides from presenting one among many theories into the tacit assumption that that theory is right; and b). doesn’t present other theories for the origin of religion.
But then Luhrmann draws a distinction between “intuitive plausibility” and “sober faith”. And, as always, she trots out her old Bucephalus, the idea that having “sober faith” is hard—very hard. That, of course, was the topic of her last book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. (See my note about that book here, and search the site for “Luhrmann” to see my many posts on her subsequent columns and talk shows.)
Luhrmann then relates the story of a man called Jack, who made up an imagined animal—a fox—as a “thought form” (“tulpa” in Buddhism) to help focus his meditation and calm him down. But in order to keep that calming fox in mind, Jack had to concentrate. Otherwise the Meditative Fox would slip away, presumably hunting Meditative Hares.
And that brings us to Luhrmann’s tedious lesson: that having real faith—imagining God as walking by your side and communicating with you—is HARD. You have to work at it, but if you do, God will eventually show up. (Read God Talks Back to see this thesis in extenso.):
The mere fact that people like Jack find it intuitively possible to have invisible companions who talk back to them supports the claim that the idea of an invisible agent is basic to our psyche. But Jack’s story also makes it clear that experiencing an invisible companion as truly present — especially as an adult — takes work: constant concentration, a state that resembles prayer.
It may seem paradoxical, but this very difficulty may be why evangelical churches emphasize a personal, intimate God. While the idea of God may be intuitively plausible — just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are atheists who have prayed for parking spots — belief can be brittle. Indeed, churches that rely on a relatively impersonal God (like mainstream Protestant denominations) have seen their congregations dwindle over the last 50 years.
To experience God as walking by your side, in conversation with you, is hard. Evangelical pastors often preach as if they are teaching people how to keep God constantly in mind, because it is so easy not to pray, to let God’s presence slip away. But when it works, people experience God as alive.
Secular liberals sometimes take evolutionary psychology to mean that believing in God is the lazy option. But many churchgoers will tell you that keeping God real is what’s hard.
And many churchgoers will probably tell you the opposite!
Luhrmann’s conclusion is, I think, conditioned by her work with the Vineyard, an evangelical Christian sect. And in some cases those people do have to practice before they imagine that they hear God speaking to them. It’s not all that easy to adopt a delusion. But it’s not so clear that everyone who finds consolation in God has to work that hard. And, anyway, so what? And why does Luhrmann need to write a column saying exactly what she said in her book, but adding on unproven assertions about the origin of faith?
Some of Luhrmann’s defenders argue that she’s a nonbeliever and is merely an anthropologist reporting how faith works in America. Maybe so, but then why call her book “When God Talks Back”? And why write so many columns defending faith?
Lurhmann was, of course, funded by Templeton, and in their report on her work, Templeton elides from “reporting about people’s belief in God” to “reporting how people experience God.” The latter, of course, sort of assumes that God exists. Here’s a bit from the Templeton Foundation report on Luhrmann’s work:
As an anthropologist, Luhrmann is clear that her job is not to assess the veracity of people’s experiences, but she concludes that believers are genuinely changed. Further, the work it takes to experience God in this way enables people to hold onto their beliefs in the face of the skepticism of the secular world.
That’s how you put a Goddy spin on what purports to be pure anthropology.