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Monday, July 9, 2012

A Materialist View of Religion

Allen Orr has written a review (New York Review of Books, Jan ‘10) of Robert Wright’s book, The Evolution of God in which the author develops a materialist theory of religion.  Religion has evolved, he says, according to practical imperatives, therefore matching the histories of religions and civilizations. 

According to Wright’s theory, although religion may seem otherworldly—a realm of revelation and spirituality—its history has, like that of much else, been driven by mundane “facts on the ground.” Religion, that is, changes through time primarily because it responds to changing circumstances in the real world: economics, politics, and war. Wright thus offers what he emphasizes is a materialist account of religion. As he further emphasizes, the ways in which religion responds to the world make sense. Like organisms, religions respond adaptively to the world.

Religion has always been political. Henry II elevated his friend, Thomas Beckett to the important position of Archbishop of Canterbury, hoping that he would back the king in his attempts to curb the power and influence of the Church; but Beckett, formerly a carousing drinking buddy of the king, was transformed by the mantle of religious authority and insisted upon the absolute sanctity and privilege of the Church and its monasteries.  Echoing a crisis of today, Beckett refused to allow the King’s officers to arrest priests who had been accused of a secular crime.  Henry won out, Beckett was beheaded, and the course to showdown between English monarchs and the Papacy was underway.

The conflict between the Catholic Church and the secular power of English kings came to a head during the reign of Henry VIII, and the battle was over power, influence, and money.  Henry took over the monasteries and used their wealth to support his own secular needs and initiatives; and at the same time the Pope had been taken hostage by the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor, thus receptive to the support of the English, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and tacitly to the exertion of English secular authority.  The Vatican was an equal player with the most powerful dynasties of Europe during the Renaissance, vying and allying with Spain, France, and the Holy Roman Empire against England, a contest that began shortly after Henry II’s grandfather, William the Conqueror invaded Britain.

Five hundred years later, the Church still attempts to exert its secular influence by invoking religious principles; and in the United States today the Church has dug in its heels, taken political sides against the Obama Administration claiming a type of religious persecution.

Wright’s book is thorough in its chronicling of the secular interests of religion.  His main tenet is that there has been a symbiotic relationship between religious and secular interests throughout history – a non-zero sum, win-win  calculus where both have benefited through collaboration.  Wright begins his analysis in pre-history:

Drawing on both anthropological studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies and classic analyses of primitive religion by Mircea Eliade and his peers, Wright reminds us that the shaman’s world was animated by a host of gods who lived within forces of nature and who determined the fates of individuals and tribes. Religion had little to do with morality and everything to do with the prosecution of war and intra-tribal politics.. With the rise of agriculture, however, society grew more complex, placing a premium on social harmony. Religion, Wright says, responded to these changed conditions and became moral: it got into the business of policing people.

In other words, the most primitive religions were all about pre-historic man’s relationship with the immanent forces of nature – the powerful, unintelligible, and therefore dominating phenomena of thunder, lightning, sun, moon, stars, and tempest which framed man’s universe and gave him a perspective on his being.  As new human beings found that social groups were aids to survival, religion sanctioned inter- and intra-tribal wars; but religion soon accommodate the new societal demands of sedentary social and economic life.  It became the arbiter of a morality that would keep the peace.  As small social groupings grew and expanded into nation-states, religion kept pace:

Later, primitive states grew more organized and different cultures came into contact. Although the theological consequences of these contacts could have been disastrous—different peoples worshiped potentially competing casts of gods—Wright argues that non-zero-sum dynamics prevailed. States had much to gain from one another by trade or armed alliances. So religion again responded sensibly: typically, the roster of gods recognized by any group simply expanded to include those of other groups.

Wright devotes considerable attention to the growth of monotheism as a consolidating influence to the polytheistic faiths that were still prevalent:

As expected, Wright stresses that the evolution of Yahweh responded to tangled political, military, and economic conditions: these included Jewish relations with the Canaanites (Baal-worshipers), innumerable military adventures and misadventures, exile, and the differing political fates of northern and southern Greater Israel.

In short, the establishment of a powerful monotheistic Jewish religion was as much a political event as a religious one.  While the early Jews no doubt believed that the concept of one God was far more evolved and superior to that of a multifaceted, polytheistic one, it also was a simple, consolidating principle – no matter what the particular polytheistic beliefs of a group were, they could easily be assimilated into a simpler, more inclusive whole.

Wright argues that the development of Christianity was no different:

Wright predictably argues that the development of this doctrine, like others, can be seen as a response to quotidian local conditions. Indeed, he claims that Paul, who traveled relentlessly, played up brotherly love—”we, who are many, are one body in Christ”—to encourage harmony within the many quarrelsome churches that he visited and then left all too soon. Paul’s message was, in other words, a management strategy, part of a business plan that allowed him to export Christianity to much of the Roman Empire.

The history of Islam is no different – it changed and adapted given contemporary circumstances:

When Muhammad resided in Mecca, he was a politically powerless prophet who, like many prophets before him, antagonized the rich and suffered the ridicule of the people. Under such circumstances, Wright says, the optimal strategy suggested by game theory for a religion is clearly one of tolerance and conciliation. And, Wright points out, those parts of the Koran that date from Muhammad’s Meccan years are frequently conciliatory. Indeed Muhammad reaches out to, and expresses a degree of tolerance for, Jews and Christians (“To you be your religion; to me my religion.”)

But when Muhammad relocated to Medina, factual circumstances changed radically and rapidly. Muhammad’s now numerous followers grew into a staggeringly powerful political and military force. Given these changed circumstances, Islam had fewer practical reasons to pursue a strategy of tolerance and the Koran, Wright says, began to sometimes speak in a less conciliatory tone. None of this, he insists, should surprise us. Nor is it unprecedented. During difficult or turbulent political times, the Hebrew Bible (in Second Isaiah) and the New Testament (in Revelation) also grew less tolerant of other beliefs.

Wright runs into a problem with today’s religious conflicts.  Muslims and Jews especially have found no win-win, non-zero sum solution to their problems. Neither religion has found the vision or expansiveness to negotiate mutually satisfactory agreements that would necessitate changes within the worldviews of each, but would benefit both.

As Wright tries to explain this deeper sight, matters get murky. The key, he says, is something called the moral imagination, the mental ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. This ability, he assures us, was “‘designed’ by natural selection to help us exploit non-zero-sum opportunities, to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.” So the argument is that an evolutionary psychological construct, the moral imagination, lets us see game-theoretic situations that are non-zero-sum. And the result, often enough, is economic or political cooperation as well as the expansion of the moral circle.

This has not worked.  ‘Putting oneself in another’s shoes’ has been almost impossible.  Although there have been interesting psycho-social games (reported on this blog) which have used narratives to generate positive empathetic brain activity and which have increased tolerance through empathy induced by storytelling, these are but individual, small, and restricted experiments.  In most cases both sides have dug their heels in.  There is no way that Israelis could possibly be right on their claims to the Holy Land; nor the Muslims.  History is to long, to complex, and too affective to be disaggregated and made subject to logical dialogue.

Wright argues that to make further moral progress—and, in particular, to resolve tensions between Islam and the West—the moral imagination needs some “coaxing.” In fact the moral imagination needs to be expanded to “a place it doesn’t go to unabetted.” And fortunately there’s a force that can do this coaxing—religion. Indeed Wright claims that one of the great achievements of religion is that it periodically steps in and expands the moral imagination.

Obviously Wright had dug himself into a hole.  While he has compellingly argued for the materialistic and adaptive forces of nature, he finds himself looking for a a New Age refuge – ‘moral imagination’.  I do not think he needed to step into this hole, for his argument about the secular foundation for religion is sound.  Religion is not supra-human, or express anything divine, perpetual, or everlasting.  It is the construct of human beings to help us order and discipline ourselves.  That is perhaps the abiding genius of the human race – that we have the infinite capacity to ‘do what it takes’ to survive.  We found millennia ago that invoking the unknown, powerful, and frightening forces of nature and the supernatural could be a more practical and efficient way of assuring an orderly progression to the expansion and survival of the human race.

In other words, there will eventually be a religious-secular compromise between Arabs and Jews, and between Muslims and the Christian West.  Perhaps they will find conciliation in the common ground of Abrahamic roots.  Perhaps more importantly they will first resolve secular issues which have been cloaked in religious rhetoric (who has the original right to Jerusalem), and then use religion to encompass the non-zero sum beneficiaries.

The reviewer concludes that Wright’s thesis, while sound in its beginnings, lacks staying power and relevance because of his inability to explain the present.  Yet the reviewer does little justice to the major theme of the book – that religion is simply a human social construct, one that is easier to apply than its secular imitations because of its historical otherworldly power, and one that is infinitely adaptable to changing human conditions.  In short, he is a firm believer that Man created God and not the other way ‘round; and that the creation of religion was one of the most ingenious of Man’s inventions.

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