Friday September 21, 2007
A few weeks ago, the New Scientist published an article by Helen Phillips called “What good is God?”, yet another contribution to current debates about the value of religion. The fundamental question that the article posed was this: if morality is, in a sense, hard-wired in the brain, then why do we need religion? “It seems,” Phillips writes, “we are born with a sense of right and wrong, and that no amount of religious indoctrination will change our most basic moral instincts.”
Phillips doesn’t exactly take the question head on. Instead she looks at the growing body of research on the connection between religion and morality. And, as always, the results of this research have been decidedly ambiguous. One the one hand, some studies seem to demonstrate that religion is a definite force for the good, and on the other hand, other studies suggest that it has decidedly negative consequences.
The more research takes place, the more it seems that religion and morality interact in hugely complicated ways. Phillips cites an interesting study by Gary Jensen that suggests that there is a correlation (not necessarily a causal connection) between homicide rates and forms of religion. Jensen’s research considered homicide rates in “dualist nations” (in which beliefs in both God and the devil were prevalent) “God-only” nations (in which beliefs in God were prevalent, but not in the devil) and “secular nations” (in which beliefs in God were not prevalent). Although it is broad-brush research, the article is intelligently argued, and a welcome break from the unedifying spectacle of believers and atheists alike trying to pin various Crimes of the Century on the other camp. Jensen writes that,
when the moral and religious universe encompassing individuals involves cosmic struggles between benevolent and malevolent forces, moral struggles between “good guys” and “bad-guys,” and dichotomous choices between good or evil, then there is little or no inclination to consider any middle ground, negotiation, or flexibility in dealing with lesser conflicts and struggles in everyday life. It may be that a religious cosmology with moral “wars” and “dueling deities” sets the stage for culture wars, facilitates interpersonal wars, and encourages people in conflict to think in terms of dueling contenders for righteousness…
What is interesting here is that we are actually no longer arguing between the two poles of religion vs. atheism, but looking instead at the problems of a form of moral dualism. The simplistic idea of a struggle between “good guys” and “bad guys” may or may not be overtly religious, but the evidence seems to be that it is particularly destructive. Indeed, Jensen’s research suggests that the difference in homicide rates between secular and God-only nations is statistically insignificant; whilst the difference between these two and dualist nations is much greater.
[T]he high dualist nations have the highest homicide score followed by the lesser dualist nations with God-Only and secular nations exhibiting lower scores. However, the statistically significant contrast is between the dualist nations and the God-Only and secular nations. Relative to dualist nations, nations with a sizeable percentage believing in God (but not the Devil) have a significantly lower score. The most secular nations exhibit a significantly lower score than dualist nations as well. But, contrary to Paul’s emphasis on secular versus religious nations… there is no difference between the non-dualist, God believing nations, and the relatively more secular nations.
Such a picture does nothing either for those who would like to see the whole world secularised, nor does it do much for those who think that all heathens such as myself need to do is to return to the fold, and everything will be set to rights. Instead it seems to suggest that lethal violence becomes a problem when what is lost is moral nuance, an understanding of moral complexity. If Jensen is right, and of course further research is necessary, the problem is not so much religion as dualism. And so the question that we must ask about our religious and secular texts and ideas is perhaps this: do they foster this dualism, or do they seek to break it down?
So perhaps it is really not that useful to talk about religion versus secularism. Perhaps what we need to do instead is to renounce our loftier ideals (whether religious or secularist) and to ask some more pragmatic questions about the fine grain of our lives: what are the forms of belief and of practice that conduce to kindness and the cessation of harm? Because this kind of question and the close attention that it requires is often seriously neglected in such discussions. The propensity to morality may be hard-wired in the brain. So may the propensity to violence. So may the propensity to various forms of religion. So may the propensity to various forms of secularism. But surely the urgent matter is that of how we are to navigate our way through all of this so that we might be able to bring a little more kindness, a little more breathing space, into the world.
Image: WikiMedia Commons
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
Purity? What purity?: Friday July 28, 2006
On the virtues of being mixed-up!
Unpacking the Self: Tuesday August 1, 2006
Thoughts on selfhood and its absence.
The Inferno of the Living: Thursday April 5, 2007
Catholicism, Calvino and life in the inferno.
Does Religion Need Defending?: Tuesday October 18, 2005
Is the proposed new offence of Incitement to Religious Hatred helpful?
Meditation as Natural History: Monday January 7, 2008
Meditation, natural history, and medieval books of beasts.
Interfaith Dialogue: Tuesday December 12, 2006
Religion, identity and dialogue and why I am not a Buddhist.
Real Magic: Monday November 19, 2007
Where is the real magic?
On (Not) Debating the Existence of God: Sunday October 18, 2009
God, godlessness and the good life.
Nutters?: Wednesday November 28, 2007
Religion, politics and Tony Blair.
Is this it?: Tuesday September 16, 2008
Surely there must be more to life…?
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.