Thursday, March 19, 2009

Response to Sebastian's discussion of monotheism

Religion is not a topic I've really discussed in my blog before. It's a hairy issue that I usually don't feel like bringing up but am generally willing to debate if the topic arises. This post is solely a reply to a post that Sebastian made in his blog that presents a respectful criticism of religion, particularly monotheism (read it here). I was going to respond simply in a comment on the post, but when I passed the 1000 words mark, I thought I'd keep it out of the otherwise concise comments and just make a response post here. It's really only a response and not an essay itself, though. I didn't format it in a logical way or provide full explanations of what I'm talking about, so you have to read his post to understand some of what I'm arguing.

Response to Sebastian's "One God to rule them all… and in the darkness bind them":

Oh boy. You couldn't pick a simple topic, could you? Let me start by saying that I'm agnostic, so the only thing I feel strongly about in regards to religion is that we don't know anything. When someone makes an argument either way, my tendency is to play devil's advocate... or, I guess, God's (or gods'... I won't be exclusive) advocate. So this response is supposed to be a scholarly criticism of your arguments, not an attack on your ideas. That said, I have not studied religion or history very extensively (I'm a scientist by trade), so in some cases I may question but not know enough to criticize your argument.

You said that our urge to attribute *everything* to some higher power makes us susceptible to religion in general, and monotheism in particular. Why monotheism in particular? I'd think that it would be easier to explain *everything* by having different gods to explain *everything*. For example, if there's a god of peace, why would that god allow wars to happen? Well, because there's an opposing goddess of war who sometimes dominates. A god of everything--including both war and peace--seems awfully fickle. Now, you can probably produce an argument to explain why monotheism explains *everything* better than polytheism does, but it is not so obvious that you should lightly make that claim without a defense.

So I'm guessing that you assume that lions don't believe in a higher power (though they do believe that the great kings of the past look down from the stars), and thus they don't feel the need to be humble. You ask if lions don't, why must humans? There are a lot of things that humans think about and feel that lions don't. The intelligence and emotions of various animals themselves spawn heated debates, and I don't want to get into it, but let's just say for the sake of this argument that empathy, true altruism, planning for the future, communicating history, and morality are uniquely human (I don't really believe all of that, but there are some that do). Why then is it so strange that humility would be another uniquely human trait? Perhaps pride is a virtue in lion... uh... prides (sorry, I had to do it), but humility I think serves a valuable function in the large cooperative societies that humans live in. I mean, how much do people hate a braggart? We have trouble working together when a member of our group is really full of themselves. No, we don't necessarily have to attribute things to God, but if that helps us be humble and thus get along together, then it's not all bad or unreasonable.

"It might be argued that religion has killed more people over the past 2000 years than it has saved."
1) You're picking on Christianity there (at least, it's the only major religion I know of that started around 2000 years ago). Why? Did religion not kill people before that?
2) "It might be argued" is pretty weak language. How might this be argued? Are there people who have made this argument with a comprehensive presentation of convincing numbers? Maybe there is. Maybe you should provide references. Without references, I'm doubtful. While there are a number of prominent wars and mass killings that can be blamed on religion, they might have been committed for other reasons if religion hadn't existed, plus it is hard to measure the many small instances where people have been saved because of religion (e.g., a poor person not starving thanks to donations from the church).

Here my lack of historical knowledge fails me, but was monotheism really necessary for trading? Did they really not trade during ancient Greek and Roman times? And did China have to take up Christianity before the West would trade with them? I don't remember this from history class. You imply that somehow it makes sense that people had an easier time trusting traders who believed in their vengeful, monotheistic god. But why couldn't people just all swear on some god of trade or commerce, like Waukeen--uh, I mean, Hermes?

Furthermore, was polytheism really just about explaining things? And was only monotheism about controlling people? There are many types of polytheism and monotheism, of course, so it's hard to make generalizations (all generalizations are false). Maybe there are some brands of polytheism that are just "god of trees makes the trees grow" etc., and some kinds of monotheism that are just about telling people how to act. But though my knowledge of religion is pretty weak, I think there are polytheistic religions that tell people how to live their lives. Maybe Hinduism and its link to the caste system? I don't really know enough to give a good example, but I'm sure one exists. So maybe Hinduism and Greek and Roman polytheism didn't have the definitive texts that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have. But is it just a kind of coincidence that Judaism started out with a prominent text of comprehensive laws, and Christianity and Islam, which built upon Judaism, followed suit with their own texts? If the only three monotheistic religions we know enough about to bring into our discussion (that is, unless you're considering other unrelated monotheistic religions as well?) are related to each other, can we really attribute any trend to monotheism? Do you think there is something about polytheism that makes it less suited to controlling people than monotheism?

Basically, you're singling out monotheism here, but I'm not sure I've seen enough evidence to support you. Was polytheism really less dangerous than monotheism?

You talk about how humans wrote religious doctrines, trying to pass their ideas off as God's. I'm totally with you there. Drives me crazy when people trust "God's word" without question. That said, not everyone who believes in god or considers themselves to be religious blindly follows religious doctrine. You know this, obviously, but it's important to acknowledge the limited applicability of some of your statements.

A couple things not in your actual post, but in the comments that followed...

On prayer: Ambles already beat me to most of this, but... If a loved one dies, chocolate may not cut it. You might need to talk to someone about it. Therapists make tons of money for asking, "And why do you feel that way?" with the assumption that just talking about your worries and thinking about their sources can help. Maybe prayer is a kind of therapy, a way to talk and think about your problems or priorities. And God doesn't charge by the hour. There are different definitions of meditation, but assuming it means self-psychotherapy, then sure, this could also serve the same function. But sometimes, some people just need someone to talk to, whether it be a therapist, God, or... a girlfriend. And going along these lines, can you really fault someone who has just lost a loved one for hoping that there is some way that they might talk with that person again, or see them again in an afterlife?

If looking to a higher power is "programmed into us genetically," is it really irrational? If God programmed us, then sure it could be, but if we evolved it, maybe it served some function and isn't totally irrational. I guess a virus could have inserted the religion gene it into our ancient ancestors' DNA or something.

I'll just conclude my extensive comment with a question. When did we stop needing religion? I think you implied in your argument, and I tend to agree, that in past times, religion was a benefit to society. But today, you argue (I may agree but am kind of neutral on this--it's complicated) that we don't need religion. When did this change occur? And why? I guess in the past, people needed religion to teach them moral living. When did we develop morals for the sake of morals rather than for the sake of not angering the gods? Did we just wake up one day? Or were there always some people who didn't need religion to act morally (and the definition of "moral" is of course ambiguous and another entire debate), and some time in the last century or something we crossed some critical threshold (like, 75%) of people who fit this description, so we don't need religion anymore? Just a thought.

Sorry I've said so much. You make an interesting case, much of which I agree with, contrary to how it might appear. It's just a debate that I enjoy, unless it stops being scholarly and turns mean and winds up hurting people as it does in some venues, but I don't expect it to on your blog (or mine, for that matter). Now... discuss.


Sebastian said...

(I had to read it once through tonight... but I'll read it again properly tomorrow, and tear you a new one!)

((Just kidding, of course, pookie.))

Eleni said...

When do you sleep, man?! What time is it there?

Sebastian said...

(Sorry for the rather fractured response, I wrote it all in this crappy little Blogger comment box, so I can't really see what I was talking about a few lines previously...)

I tend to sleep between 4 and 11am :) It's a remnant of my early MMORPG days when I used to play on American servers!

First, let me just remind you that it's a blog. There's a reason I chose the format of a blog entry, rather than an academic paper. If I wanted to write academically, I would've stayed at Cambridge and obtained my PhD last summer! Instead, I decided I'd had enough of standard, institutionalised education and walked away with just a degree.

You probably guessed my next line: the joy of a blog is that I don't feel compelled to cite all of my references. Most (if not all) of what I said was from some kind of source, I just didn't cite it -- I closed the tab of my browser, or shut my book without noting it down.

Citing adds a certain, labourious element which I would really rather avoid! I'd rather focus on the WRITING! And the MEANING! Of course it's good if I get everything 100% accurate, but I'd be lying if I pretended to be right all of the time!

With that out of the way (which basically indemnifies me from everything -- gotta love blogging!), I should probably try to tackle 1 or 2 of your rather pertinent (and perky) points:

The reason I chose monotheism is because it hinges more on human intervention -- the prophets, and the high priests. Polytheism could certainly cause violence, or discontent, but the numbers involved are so much smaller.

As I explained, polytheism basically died out as cities became larger and larger. If a small tribe of 100 decide that their God of War wants them to wipe out another tribe, that's nothing compared to God telling the King of England to go and wipe out a million Arabs.

Polytheism lacks the control structure of one, vengeful God. If you don't like what one God says (i.e. what one high priest says), you can always go to the next, or the next, until you find something agreeable.

'The past 2000 years' -- I was talking about the Crusades, the persecution by the Roman empire, and any of the modern-day 'crusades'. I'm sure religion killed people before... at least as ritualistic sacrifices :)

The discussion of whether we need, or will need, a God (or higher power) is a topic for another day, and deserves more than this little text box.

I'm not going to touch the prayer vs. chocolate bar argument, as it's rather obvious that some people 'need' prayer/faith (on a genetic level?), and I am certainly not the person to swagger in and say 'NO MORE PRAYER!'.

I would just ask people to stop and ask if it really is God they're talking to, or if they are just falling back on a primitive need to believe in something greater than ourselves.