If you’re not busy this December 2nd and 3rd, and happen to be in the Buffalo area, you might drop in on the Center for Inquiry’s symposium “Daniel Dennett and the Scientific Study of Religion. A Celebration of the Fifth Anniversary of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.1” The organizers have arranged so that it’s only one slim dollar short of a hundred to stay the night at the Candlewood Suites.
And you should. Because to skip means missing the opening speech by Pascal Boyer: “Why There Is Almost Certainly No Such Thing As Religion.” Boyer is a professor of “Collective Memory” at Washington University in St. Louis. A university with no-such-thing-as Christian roots, incidentally.
But never mind, because more interesting is Boyer’s book, Religion Explained (you can see that he is prone to exaggeration). According to the blurb, Boyer assembles findings from “anthropology, cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary biology, Religion Explained shows how this aspect of human consciousness is increasingly admissible to coherent, naturalistic explanation.”
Your genes made you believe, you see. They do so to “maintain particular threads of social integrity”, so that these social institutions can in turn put you in the mood to make more copies of your genes. Clever little buggers, genes.
Luckily, though, we have men like Boyer who are able to break free of the control of the wee beasties and rise above their vile machinations. No religion for him, no sir! It doesn’t even exist. His genes can’t get the better of him. He has found freedom. His gospel (good news) is that your genes don’t have to control you, either.
If you can’t make it until the 3rd, you’ll still be in time for James Thomson’s lecture: “The Song of Serotonin and the Dance of Dopamine: How Ritual Harnesses Neurochemistry and Solidifies Religious Belief.” This suggests that science can somebody provide us with a pill to lessen the effects of serotonin and dopamine, so that they don’t get out of hand and lead to the worship of (obviously) false deities. Or the medicalization of religion continues apace.
Linda LaScola—who has an M.S.W. from, you better believe it, Catholic University—gives us her speech, “Preachers Who are not Believers — Preliminary and Ongoing Findings” based on a paper she and Dennett co-authored in the anything-goes journal Evolutionary Psychology.
It is their contention that many Christian clergy are “ensnared” in their ministries because of, and I quote, their religious “indoctrination.” These poor souls are “caught in a trap, cunningly designed to harness both their best intentions and their basest fears to the task of immobilizing them in their predicament.”
It is a complementary article, however; a peer-reviewed article. Subtle congratulations are offered to the non-believers they found and the “strange and sorrowful state of affairs” in which those folks found themselves.
My dears, all joking aside, I hope that you can see that this is not science. This journal purports to disinterestedly study human behavior and it uses language like this? To claim “sorrowful” is to hold a certain morality, an indisputable set of values.
But, joking to the forefront, I like this trend. I mean, the scientification of belief. It suggests that we conduct a similar study on academic philosophers who assume as true what they most desire to be true and then write confirmatory papers. Why do they do this? Are they are humorless as they appear? Do they suffer dearths of serotonin? Are they dopes sans dopamine?
Is it because they associate only with a snarky, isolated professoriate, a socially cohesive group that is blind to those who live outside its boundaries? They gather together. They sup as one. They have retreats. Just as the religious do, they offer comforting lectures on why what they believe is good and right.
How many of these atheists are secret believers? How many closeted religious will risk social standing or worry they will not gain tenure if they “come out” and say something like, “There is no proof that God doesn’t exist.” What a sorrowful predicament!
The genetic influence of why these people believe as they do should be studied. It is imperative that we discover the evolutionary explanation for their odd, flawed behaviior. We don’t see a lot of these people breed, at least not as prolifically as the religious, so the influence of their selfish genes will be mightily difficult to tease out. But I’m game.
1“Resplendently asinine.” David Bentley Hart’s review of Break the Spell.