Sunday, December 30, 2007

The premature nature of "Scientific" investigations of Religion

Over the past few years it has become trendy among atheists and other methodological naturalists not just to disagree with religious points of view, but to take the offense. Whether it's Richard Dawkins, about whose The God Delusion the New York Times said:

Despite the many flashes of brilliance in this book, Dawkins’s failure to appreciate just how hard philosophical questions about religion can be makes reading it an intellectually frustrating experience.

And about which fellow evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson said on E-skeptic:

When Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues.

[You should read the review, and in fairness, Dawkins' reply.]

Then there's Sam Harris with The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, about the first Natalie Angier ended a mostly positive review (also in the New York Times with these paragraphs:

‘’The End of Faith’’ is far from perfect. Harris seems to find ‘’moral relativism’’ as great a sin as religious moderation, and in the end he singles out Islam as the reigning threat to humankind. He likens it to the gruesome, Inquisition-style Christianity of the 13th century, yet he never explains how Christianity became comparatively domesticated. And on reading his insistence that it is ‘’time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development,’’ I couldn’t help but think of Ann Coulter’s morally developed suggestion that we invade Muslim countries, kill their leaders and convert their citizens to Christianity.

Harris also drifts into arenas of marginal relevance to his main thesis, attacking the war against drugs here, pacificism there, and offering a strained defense for the use of torture in wartime that seems all the less persuasive after Abu Ghraib. Still, this is an important book, on a topic that, for all its inherent difficulty and divisiveness, should not be shielded from the crucible of human reason.

And of Christopher Hitchens, with God is Not Great, the Los Angeles Times commented on his relative lack of sophisticated understanding of the very nature of religion:

Hitchens' book lacks any definition of religion more intellectually ambitious than the just-cited "fear of death, and of the dark," etc.

[I should point out here that I place Hitchens' book in an entirely different category from those of Dawkins and Harris. The latter, I believe, have the virtue of writing about what they strongly believe. I have seen nothing in Hitchens' work that suggests anything more than an Ann Coulter-type huckster looking for the quick buck.]

More ambitiously, scholars like Daniel Dennett and Pascal Boyer have taken a stab at examining the phenomenon of religion itself as a subjective for naturalistic inquiry.

Boyer's Religion Explained is so well-written, in fact, that you can get swept away through the first three or four chapters before the wheels start to come off of his very processual anthropological discussion of primitive beliefs that are later conflated with modern world religions by an incredible sleight of hand. The Los Angeles Times called it, "occasionally illuminating and utterly unconvincing."

Dennett's Breaking the Spell fails to live up to either the literary or logical standards he set for himself in his hugely influential Darwin's Dangerous Idea, as noted by the New York Times: "For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett's book."

I am fully aware that one could go out and pull glowing reviews from atheist sources for all these works, just as you could hit the religious press and do the opposite. This is almost a test case for post-modernism, with the reviews often telling you more about the reviewers than the book under consideration.

However, there is a point to all this. Somewhere. I had it a minute ago.

Oh, yeah. One of the most intriguing anti-Dennett essays appeared in the conservative Catholic journal First Things, "Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark" by theologian David Hart. I'm not so interested in the review of the book--which is unsurprisingly hostile--but the comments that Hart makes about the entire enterprise of a scientific study of religion:

[***Warning, warning, Will Robinson, danger, danger, danger, heavy sledding ahead***]

Questions of method, important as they are, need not be raised at all until the researcher can first determine and circumscribe the object of his studies in a convincing way. And here it seems worth mentioning-just for precision’s sake-that religion does not actually exist. Rather there are a great number of traditions of belief and practice that, for the sake of convenience, we call religions but that could scarcely differ from one another more. It might seem sufficient, for the purposes of research, simply to identify general resemblances among these traditions, but even that is notoriously hard to do, since the effort to ascertain what sort of things one is looking at involves an enormous amount of interpretation and no clear criteria for evaluating any of it. One cannot establish where the boundaries lie between religious systems and magic, or folk science, or myth, or social ceremony.

There is not even any compelling reason to assume a genetic continuity or kinship between, say, shamanistic beliefs and developed rituals of sacrifice, or between tribal cults and traditions like Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, or to assume that these various developed traditions are varieties of the same thing. One may feel that there is a continuity or kinship, or presuppose on the basis of one’s prejudices, inklings, or tastes that the extremely variable and imprecise characteristic of a belief in the supernatural constitutes proof of a common ancestry or type. But all this remains a matter of interpretation, vague morphologies, and personal judgments of value and meaning, and attempting to construct a science around such intuitions amounts to little more than mistaking "all the things I don’t believe in" for a scientific genus. One cannot even demonstrate that apparent similarities of behavior between cultures manifest similar rationales, as human consciousness is so promiscuously volatile a catalyst in social evolution.

Moreover, the task of delineating the phenomenon of religion in the abstract becomes perfectly hopeless as soon as one begins to examine what particular traditions of faith actually claim, believe, or do. It is already difficult enough to define what sort of thing religion is. But what sort of thing is the Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths? What sort of thing is the Vedantic doctrine that Atman and Brahman are one? What sort of thing is the Christian belief in Easter? What is the core and what are the borders of these phenomena? What are their empirical causes? What are their rationales? Grand, empty abstractions about religion are as easy to produce as to ignore. These, by contrast, are questions that touch on what persons actually believe, and to answer them requires an endless hermeneutical labor-an investigation of history, and intellectual traditions, and contemplative lore, and so on and so forth-which ultimately requires a degree of specialization that few can hope to achieve; even then, the specialist’s conclusions must always remain open to doubt and revision.

Dennett, incidentally, is conscious of this "herme-neutical objection," but he truculently dismisses it as an expression of territorial anxiety on the part of scholars in the humanities who fear the invasion of their disciplines by little gray men in lab coats. His only actual reply to the objection, in fact, is simply to assert yet more stridently that human culture’s "webs of significance" (in Clifford Geertz’s phrase) "can be analyzed by methods that critically involve experiments and the disciplined methods of the natural sciences."

Well, if Dennett is going to resort to italics (that most devastatingly persuasive weapon in the dialectician’s arsenal), I can do little more than shamelessly lift a page from his rhetorical portfolio and reply: No, they cannot. This is not a matter of territoriality or of resistance to the most recent research but of simple logic. There can be no science of any hard empirical variety when the very act of identifying one’s object of study is already an act of interpretation, contingent on a collection of purely arbitrary reductions, dubious categorizations, and biased observations. There can be no meaningful application of experimental method. There can be no correlation established between biological and cultural data. It will always be impossible to verify either one’s evidence or one’s conclusions-indeed, impossible even to determine what the conditions of verification should be.

What Hart is saying is that the very term "religion," when applied in a generic sense, has little defining value. Yes, sure you can make some generic statements ("religion is a world view inherently focused on the supernatural"), but those are of pretty limited use for the kind of scholarly inquiry that both Dennett and Boyer have in mind.

If the two of them are truly interested scholars (and I have absolutely no reason to believe they are not; Dennett wrote me quite cordially a year or so back when I posed some questions about the book), then this is the first challenge: join with historians, philosophers, and even (!) theologians to produce the world's first working definition of religion before you start trying to perform an autopsy.

Just offered as food (starchy to be sure) for thought.

Speaking of food; here's today's trivia challenge: what the hell has this image got to do with the foregoing?

[No, Dana, you don't get to play, you're a professional.]


Duffy said...

"I have seen nothing in Hitchens' work that suggests anything more than an Ann Coulter-type huckster looking for the quick buck."

I've always viewed Hitchens as a professional contrarian. I don't think he's pretending or even being hyperbolic as Coulter is. Rather, his natural inclination is to swim against the tide, no matter which way the tide is going.

Steve Newton said...

I agree in general about Hitchens being a professional contrarian; my language was unclear. It is only with respect to "God is Not Great" that I make this argument.