When Religion Claims to Tame Natural Impulses
Often one hears from the religious (and from Christians in particular) that religion tames the natural state of the human. The creationist pseudo-intellectual John Piper, for example, often talks about this in his oh-so-sophisticated “analysis” of atheism.
But why should we believe that the willingness to put rules and regulations on human freedom in the name of mystical ascetic values is not natural too? Religion, as described by Daniel Dennett, is entirely natural phenomenon. It is exactly what one expects from a species that, having evolved for billions of years, still have frontal lobes that are too small and hormonal glands that are too big. Even with our frontal lobes, we are host to countless cognitive biases that we are very seldom aware of and which seriously disrupt our ability to make reliable, accurate inferences from available evidence.
It is therefore no surprise that we, as natural people, have a long history filled with superstition and off-the-charts irrationality. We have and we continue to believe that witchcraft and demonic possessions are real things, and that we can kill witches or perform exorcisms. We have people that fall for Nigerian scams and arguments like Lewis’s Trilemma or TAG. We have a surprising number of highly educated people committing the conjunction fallacy. We have a very difficult time understanding Bayes’s Theorem.
The methods of skeptical inquiry that we take for granted, the methods of science, rationality, and logic are not natural. We are not born with nearly the kind of sharp rationality that we should have; rather, we are inescapably mammals full of delusions and beliefs that we don’t realize we have.
The secular idea of human freedom, of living in a pluralistic society with a separation of church and state, is also not natural. It is politically radical, religiously blasphemous, and chronologically modern. The history of humanity is filled with patterns of oppression, and much of this oppression comes from ideas about how we should control the apparent “natural” impulse of man. This need, this will to political and moral power, is as natural as the impulses themselves, and it leads to very bad places.
These ideas are a rejection of our supposed “natural” ideas of sex, of work, of family life. They’ve placed women in bondage and homosexuals in jail. They’ve made certain days of the week “holy” enough to not allow anyone to work (or sell alcohol). They continue to haunt us through taunts of, “we love the sinner, but hate the sin”. They seek to define what people can wear or how they should present themselves (often with extra regulations for a specific gender). They care about your family and your marriage and feel threatened when your family isn’t like theirs. They’ve warned against the dangers of skepticism, of free inquiry, of rational inferential methods. And they absolutely cannot stand atheism, because all people are born without a belief in God, and whatever people are naturally can’t possibly be good.
If religion wants to tame us as natural people, then it has to start at the fundamental level. It has to demonstrate why it is correct outside of the realms of “personal experience” and other fallacious methods of inquiry. It has to demonstrate, and not merely assert, why it is morally superior. Even after hundreds or thousands of years, there is still work that they haven’t even started.
Posted on March 16, 2012, in History, Religion and tagged conjunction fallacy, history of religion, John Piper, less wrong, natural impulses, natural man, rationality, superstition. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.