Taking Religion Seriously: Moral Minds and Mary Midgley

Even though I’m sure I’ll disagree with a lot of what it has to say (I’m a post-modern deconstructionist, after all, and words like universal always raise my hackles), I am so glad that a book like Moral Minds has come out (Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right And Wrong, Marc Hauser). We need some sort of antidote from the scientific community to books which have recently been published denouncing religion as too silly to take seriously. I have not yet had a chance to read Moral Minds, but based on the NYT review and some brief participation in Professor Marc Hauser‘s online research project, it appears that, although Moral Minds does not address religion per se, focusing instead on what Professor Hauser believes is the significant role of morality in human evolutionary biology, Moral Minds at least opens the way for serious scientific discussion of the function of religion in human evolutionary biology – given that religion is a primary provider of moral system and therefore a shaper of moral minds.

Like Mary Midgley (see Mary Midgley, Imagine There’s No Heaven, New Scientist, October 1-14, 2006), I do not believe that scientific knowledge encompasses – like truth and beauty – all there is to know, but I do believe that if science would take religion seriously as a human behavior worthy of study, we might learn some interesting things about ourselves. Science, of course, is not the only avenue to knowledge and understanding, but in times like these when religion is stirring up so much trouble, we need all the help we can get. Since the beginning of anthropology, anthropologists have taken religion very seriously – knowing that religious myths, beliefs, and rituals held the key to understanding the value systems and psychological makeup of other cultures. Why not turn this keen anthropological eye upon ourselves and our own culture?

Groups like the Center for Inquiry and scientists like Richard Dawkins are entirely too literal-minded to understand the significance of religion. They hold conferences and seminars, spill endless amounts of ink on endless reams of paper debunking the supernatural – when the “supernatural” is probably the least important and least dangerous aspect of religious belief. Millions of people hold some sort of religious belief who have no interest in the supernatural – who could care less whether or not Jesus walked on water or raised the dead or resurrected himself for that matter.

The significance of religion, which is a creation of humanity and, therefore, an artifact of nature (humans are after all part of the natural world), lies in its worldview, its moral teachings, and in its value system. Providing scientific data to debunk religious miracles is as silly as wasting time proving that magic isn’t real. Those people who want to believe will continue to believe, despite appeals to scientific fact; those who don’t don’t need additional “scientific” proof to dispel illusions they never had. If one is seriously concerned about religion and the havoc it is currently playing in the world, then one should attempt to understand religion not ridicule it. For if we could discover a perfectly natural and reasonable explanation for the phenomenon of religious belief and share this explanation with the world of believers, it would be a far more effective means of dispelling powerful and dangerous beliefs than ridicule could ever be. Ridiculing a child’s irrational fears, for example, only makes the child more fearful than ever; but explaining to the child why she fears and why that fear is irrational can sometimes do wonders.

Over the millennia of human occupation of this planet, what human beings have not understood at a given time or place has often been chalked up to “supernatural” powers – as no natural explantion was conveniently at hand. However, as our knowledge of the natural world has increased, much of what we had thought of as “supernatural” we now understand as natural. Which is not to say that we’ve got it all figured out. How boring would that be! Thankfully, there remain mysteries upon mysteries to be unraveled – mysteries which I believe are natural rather than supernatural in origin, yet no less wonderful. As in the past, many people will continue to jump to the conclusion that what cannot be explained must be supernatural in origin. Others, scientists and humanists, for example, who believe they already know everything and whose minds are closed to the possibility that nature may still have a few tricks up her sleeve, will deny that mystery exists – often missing a great opportunity for scientific investigation, and leaving the field wide open for religion to provide its own explanation.

The rational and logical approach to solving mysteries is not to deny them but to analyze them and to try to find a natural explanation. This is the approach I believe we should take when considering religion. Religion has been around for a long time and has been found in most, if not all, human societies. It is a powerful motivator. Large segments of societies are devout believers and devote enormous amounts of time and energy to religious practice. To dismiss religion as merely silly superstition is the epitome of silliness. Religion is a serious human behavior and as such should be taken seriously. What is needed is a rigorous exploration into exactly what religion is, what it does, and how it works. (Which is what I’m trying to do on this website.)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.