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Troy Jollimore on the God Debate
Posted on Apr 2, 2009
“Ever since the Enlightenment,” write John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in “God Is Back,” “there has been a schism in Western thought over the relationship between religion and modernity. Europeans, on the whole, have assumed that modernity would marginalize religion; Americans, in the main, have assumed that the two things can thrive together.”
“God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World” is, in large part, an extended argument that the Americans were right: right to think that religion and modernity were compatible and could flourish together, and right to think that the way to encourage this double flourishing was by instituting a church-state separation in order to encourage religious pluralism and diversity. The American accomplishment, as they see it, is the achievement of a robust spiritual marketplace in which free individuals can choose and pursue whatever vision of God suits them best—or, if they so prefer, choose none at all. (The book’s heavy use of the consumerist language of markets and the free choice is, incidentally, no accident; Micklethwait is editor in chief of The Economist, and Wooldridge is its Washington bureau chief.)
One might well sympathize with many aspects of this. (I certainly have nothing bad to say about the separation of church and state, although I wish the authors had acknowledged that many religious Americans are not nearly as appreciative of it as they are.) The problem with “God Is Back,” though, is that the convincing arguments run in only one direction. The authors make a fairly persuasive case that modern technology and expanded individual freedoms have encouraged the spread and vibrancy of religious belief, not only in America but also in many other parts of the world—China, Latin America, South Korea and so forth. But if modernity has indeed been good for religion, it is far less obvious that religion has been good for modernity.
In the U.S., progressive movements in favor of civil rights and social justice once had deep and pervasive religious roots, but these days the dominant religions in America are nearly always associated with counter-progressive forces that frequently take their inspiration from (and frequently try to return society to) some set of pre-modern traditions or values. The same is true today in various other parts of the world; most saliently, perhaps, in the Middle East. Religion, in all too many cases, seems to encourage parochialism and hatred of the other, as well as superstition and scientific ignorance—all human flaws that the spread of modernism and universal reason was supposed to help us overcome.
In the American context, the issue of religious resistance to science is especially troublesome. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, though, spend little of “God Is Back” on the conflict between science and religion. Perhaps they felt that the topic has been talked nearly to death—a feeling for which I have some sympathy. Or perhaps the explanation lies in their rather simplistic understanding of what would constitute “compatibility” between religion and science. In their view, to show that two beliefs, or belief systems, are compatible, it is enough to show that there are significant numbers of people who adhere to both. The mere existence of religious believers in the modern world, then—the fact that modernity did not simply wipe religion off the map—is enough for Micklethwait and Wooldridge to conclude that religion and modernity (including science) are in their sense compatible.
But this establishes nothing of any real interest; after all, people often think inconsistent and incoherent things. The interesting question is whether it makes sense, in the modern world, for a person to be religious. The correct explanation of religion’s persistence in the modern world, then, might be not that religion and modernity are actually compatible, but rather that humans are irrational enough, and capable of sufficient degrees of cognitive dissonance, to simultaneously hold incompatible beliefs. (As the biologist Jerry Coyne, writing in The New Republic, recently put it, saying that religion and modern science are compatible because some people fail to grasp their mutual exclusivity “is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers.”)
The question of whether religion has survived modernism is therefore distinct from the question of whether, rationally speaking, it ought to have done so. But this second question is one in which Micklethwait and Wooldridge very rarely display any interest. One consequence of this is that the authors’ standards for what constitutes a vindication of the legitimacy of religious belief are often startlingly low. Scientists, they write, “are demonstrating that religious experiences are ‘real’—in the sense that they are associated with changes in brain patterns.” But whoever claimed that religious experiences were not real in this sense? Every experience is associated with some sort of change in the subject’s brain patterns. (When people cast horoscopes or go to séances and play with Ouija boards, things happen in their brains too.) Yet the argument strikes the authors as impressive enough that they return to it at the end of the chapter: “It seems that religious experiences can be ‘real’ to the people who enjoy or endure them: they are connected with changes in the activities of the brain.” What a revelation!
Equally unconvincing is the authors’ claim that evidence showing an apparent link between religiosity and dopamine levels “makes it harder to dismiss religion as a mere ‘illusion,’ as Freud once put it.” I suppose what they must mean is that, if such evidence pans out, religion is no mere illusion; it is, rather, an extraordinarily useful illusion. What puzzles, though, is that their inability to provide any evidence that religious belief is actually true, and not some sort of illusion, doesn’t seem to bother them at all.
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