Are the Faithful More Selfish Than Atheists?
Christopher Hitchens argued that religion makes humans "extremely self-centered."
Common complaints about atheism go like this: How could you think that all this is for no reason? Who are you to say that you know there is no God/plan/divine order? How much hubris are you filled with to make such a claim?
An inability to comprehend randomness and the quirks of natural selection—Daniel Dennett writes in his forthcoming book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, “evolution is a process that depends on amplifying things that almost never happen”—leaves the religious mind dumbfounded regarding the possibility of chance.
The first line of defense in such an argument is usually moral: there is no ethics without an overseer. Richard Dawkins shut that down in The God Delusion, detailing a number of studies that show when faced with moral conundrums, atheists and religionists respond in the exact same manner.
Most people come to the same decisions when faced with these dilemmas, and their agreement over the decisions themselves is stronger than their ability to articulate their reasons. This is what we should expect if we have a moral sense which is built into our brains, like our sexual instinct or our fear of heights.
Faithless or not, we are moral animals, at least in theory if not always in action. Dawkins also borrows from Dennett in differentiating between belief in God and belief in belief. Recognizing that belief in the latter has positive effects, including better immune functioning and psychological outlook, is not the same thing as knowing a divine creator. When logic is introduced, as Yuval Noah Harari attempts in Sapiens, the moral argument quickly falls apart.
Monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe—and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.
Beyond ethics lies a fundamental biological reality. In The Evolution of God, Robert Wright argues that religion appears to be a spandrel, a term borrowed by Stephen Jay Gould denoting “a phenomenon supported by genes that had become part of the species by doing something other than supporting that phenomenon.” Spandrels are incidental to nature’s design process, not a direct product. There is no survival necessity inherent in religion, yet thanks to our unique neurochemistry it appeared.
Wright argues that every organism thinks itself special; survival depends on such a belief. Humans might be the only animal to dream, write down, and decree an elaborate ethics based on moral imagination, but biology inevitably wins out: in times of danger our survival mechanisms kick in. You might be peaceful, though when attacked an inherent viciousness emerges. This happens in thought as quickly as deed—we are the chosen species, chosen race, chosen religion, chosen individual.
In this self-congratulatory self-reward is embedded the deeply egotistic phenomenon called religion. Remove morals and ritual (two arguably necessary aspects of human social orders) and the metaphysics exploits our contemptible qualities. In God is Not Great Christopher Hitchens tackles this head-on:
Religion teaches people to be extremely self-centered and conceited. It assures them that god cares for them individually, and it claims that the cosmos was created with them specifically in mind.
While Dawkins is often attacked as curmudgeonly, he writes that he has no vested interest in taking down beliefs, but rather he is, as an evolutionary biologist, shocked that in the face of overwhelming evidence his opponents refuse the possibility of natural selection’s finer points.
For V.S. Ramachandran this dilemma requires a reframing our neural patterns. He invokes the beauty of evolution rather than a stark denial of the imagination. In Phantoms in the Brain he uses epic Indian mythology as an example of adjusting to the realities of biology:
If you think you’re something special in this world, engaging in a lofty inspection of the cosmos from a unique vantage point, your annihilation becomes unacceptable. But if you’re really part of the great cosmic dance of Shiva, rather than a mere spectator, then your inevitable death should be seen as a joyous reunion with nature rather than as a tragedy.
We all return to our maker in one form or another. Whether our ashes are scattered into an ocean or from atop a mountain or the slow decomposition of flesh nourishes worms and soil, we exit as we entered. The notion that some are granted an escape hatch for having a slightly different cognitive process than the next guy is the true danger, for religion initiates a potential for bigotry, xenophobia, racism, sexism, intolerance, and many other emotionally-stunted neuroses.
True, this mindset does not require religion, proven during this American election season. But that insidious thought process—we’re the chosen ones—underlies biological greed nature implanted in us. That is perhaps the real tragedy; as Wright concludes, the social issues we face today, such as climate change and abject poverty, are more important than individual fitness. He goes on,
Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.
Can a religion be inclusive of everyone? Thus far biology says no. Yet in some ways our imagination is also a spandrel. While a product of our brain’s default mode network, the ability to shape reality by imagining forward intentions is a powerful evolutionary quirk. It’s built cities and nations and machinery that flies beyond our planet’s boundaries to explore what was once beyond our wildest imagination.
Selfishness divides us, but it also restricts us. Many great triumphs—vaccines, shelter, complex food systems—involved thinking past our environment, for better and often worse. Perhaps we just need to get used to not calling this unitary force religion. Although the word is derived from a root meaning ‘to bind,’ it has often accomplished the opposite. Even getting into the dialectical weeds is too abrasive a goal. Maybe the place to start is simply getting over ourselves.
Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.