Saturday, 12 October 2013

Big Gods for Big Societies

I think there is something scarier than the coming end of the world by global warming. It is the end of religion (just my Christian bias). And this religion-slayer comes in a more insidious form nowadays. I’m afraid many may not even see it coming because it is not your typical in-your-face kind of atheism that denounces all religion as evil, poisonous, fraudulent, hopeless, delusional, hypocritical, self-serving, exploitative, brainwashing, chicanery, violent, perverted, imaginary, baseless, wishful thinking, and oppressive. 

People like Dawkins and Harris wear their anti-religious disgust in their sleeves and you can spot them miles away. You can even whiff up their feral scent from afar. But the atheism that I am referring to comes like the Trojan horse of the Homer’s Iliad, Helen of Troy. I call it the Trojan Horse Atheism (“THA” in short and I am using this term arbitrarily to suit the purpose for which I am writing this article).  

THA doesn’t insult your religious sensitivity. It is in fact friendly to religious rituals, doctrines and practices; almost sympathetic, nurturing, and apparently encouraging. THA endorses religion as a necessary aspect of what made us what we are today. Our modern civilization may not even evolve without religion, so says the THA advocate. The latter’s definition of religion is even instructive, “Religion is a system of emotionally binding beliefs and practices in which a society implicitly negotiates through prayer and sacrifice with supernatural agents, securing from them commands that compel members, through fear of divine punishment, to subordinate their interests to the common good.” 

Not entirely scripturally inspired, I know, but the above definition at the very least acknowledges these familiar religious experiences like “emotionally binding beliefs and practices”, “prayer and sacrifice”, “supernatural agents” and some fear connected to “divine punishment.” The THA camp can even quote scriptures to warm the believers’ heart, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)

Of course, that scripture has to be put in its proper context. It is against this foremost principle that the context draws its relevance, “watched people are nice people.” This accounts for the scriptural passage, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.” This is also where the THA advocates reveal their agenda - just in case the die-hard believers are still starry-eyed about them. They are of the view that religion plays a cultural evolutionary role on our society. By this, they are saying that religion gives a community the distinct advantage over the other communities that profess no religion at all (or believes in a religion whose gods are anti-social, impotent and largely disinterested in human affairs). But then, how does it all work?

In the book, Big Gods, the author and psychology professor Ara Norenzayan writes, “Still, human beings are the only known species that underwent a radical transformation from small, tight-knit groups (Gemeinschaft, or community) to large, anonymous societies (Gesellschaft, or civil society), which practice sustained cooperation towards anonymous genetic strangers on a massive scale…It turns out that a big force leading from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft was prosocial religions with Big Gods.”

There you have it: Big Gods made for Big Societies. The subtlety of this proposition is not in the truth of religion (if not a scientific fact, then a credible one, even plausible) but in using religion as a means to an end. In other words, whether gods exist or not is not what the THA advocates are interested in. Whether they are personal, loving or self-sacrificial is besides the point. And I don’t even need to talk about Calvary, the resurrection and the redemptive blood of Christ. THA proponents are only intrigued about how religion facilitated man’s purpose and not the other way round. What is essential to their understanding of religion is that the latter exists to serve the development of communities from hunter-gatherer societies with their tribal spirits and deities to modern nation-states with their monotheistic Abrahamic, Christian and Islamic gods. And who can really fault their sincerity in studying this religious phenomena, that is, why watched people are generally nice people, right?

If you think about it, it is not untenable. We humans are conscious people. Unless you are mental up the wazoo, it is not in your psychological makeup to commit a moral wrong (or a crime) when being watched. Most of us will behave ourselves when big brother is watching and nothing keeps us – as believers - on our best behavior as when we are religiously conscious of the presence of a supernatural watcher in the sky. This is demonstrated, according to the author, by the Sunday Effect.

In the book (Big Gods), the question asked was, “Do Christians behave better on Sunday? Are they more charitable during the weekend?” No brownie points for guessing. The result was foregone. In one social experiment, it is noted, “On Sundays, appeals to charity were 100 percent more effective for religious Christian individuals compared to non-religious individuals.” (Deepak Malhotra) In the eyes of THA, this study and many others confirm how conscious awareness of a supernatural policeman inclines the believers to act in a morally delineated way.

Further, in another study, a researcher, Benjamin Edleman, came to this finding, “…porn consumption rates in religious (US) states followed a particular ebb and flow: the rates went down on Sundays, only to go up again on other days of the week. On average, regular churchgoers consumed similar amounts of porn as others; however, they abstained more on Sunday and shifted their porn consumption to other days of the week.” (emphasis mine) Taken at face value, the impression given here is that atheists generally lead a more open and authentic life than churchgoers. 

Although the studies have their flaws, I cannot deny that the THA advocates have a point about how religion goes some way to keep its believers on their toes. I guess that is why media guru Laura Schlesinger said, “it’s impossible for people to be moral without a belief in God. The fear of God is what keeps people on the straight and narrow.” 

And mind you, it is not just any tom, dick or fairy that fits the bill of playing the role of the supernatural monitors. The faith of the people in these gods have to be such that they perceive the divine as omnipresent (this is obvious), omnipotent (all powerful), and omniscient (all-knowing). 

In addition, all those divinely-accorded traits will not amount to much without this most-delectable finishing touch: Meanness. The gods must flare up by the nostrils occasionally. They have to mean what they say and say what they mean. They must show themselves to be seriously pissed off with immorality because mean gods, with peeking-tom-like ability, translates to good people. But how do they enforce the punishment?

Well, this is where hell and heaven comes in. To the author (of Big Gods), the influence of hell is stronger than the attraction of heaven when it comes to enforcing good behavior. But this doesn’t mean heaven is redundant. You see, hell may make people good but it is heaven that makes them feel good. So like cookies and cream (or heat and light), hell and heaven, as a religious concept (or meme), can be seen as a double whammy for a believer. The fear of hell keeps him looking over his shoulder for possible personal condemnation while the reward of heaven keeps him looking above his shoulder for that heavenly mansion in the sky or that much-craved-after harem of black-eyed virgins. And the idea of eternity in heaven and hell is just the icing on the religious cake for believers to play nice in this life.

From here, the author proceeded with his next point in the cultural evolution of religion as captured in this phrase, “Trust people who trust God.” I recall a judge once made this passing remark about a local priest convicted of embezzlement, "If you can't trust a priest, who can you trust?" Throughout our history (esp. the last 12,000 years, "the Holocene Epoch"), we have been taught (or programmed to think) that religious leaders are generally beyond reproach. They can readily be trusted. Therefore, no background checks are needed. It is in our hereditary bloodline (I guess this is so because between a man who tells you that he can be trusted and that he has the creator of the universe as his main sponsor and a man who tells you the same thing but you'll just have to take his words for it, no heavenly sponsorship whatsoever, who would you cast your vote for? No brainer right?). 

To illustrate this, the author recounted the dilemma of the travelling salesman. “In 1904, on a long railway journey throughout America, the German sociologist Max Weber was sitting next to a travelling salesman when the conversation turned to religion. In a now famous quote, the man said: “Sir, for my part everybody may believe or not believe as he pleases; but if I saw a farmer or a businessman not belonging to any church at all, I wouldn’t trust him with fifty cents. Why pay him, if he doesn’t believe in anything?” This fifty-cent trust scenario is no different from this question posed in another way, “If you were strolling down a dark alley, and a group of rowdy youths were walking towards you, wouldn’t you be comforted to know that they had just come out of a bible-study session?” (to which an atheist rebutted, “Well, it wouldn’t help much if they had just come out of a religious meeting with remote-triggered bombs strapped up to their chest, wouldn’t it?”).

But the point here is this, and as a matter of perception, religious people generally makes for better trusting agent than those who profess to no religion at all. This is strange in modern times I know but it is taken as a given throughout our evolutionary history (and whether this is a result of cultural evolution or genetic cognitive god-bias, or both, is something that no one knows for sure).

However, the author proposes that this may be so because the successful monotheistic religions that have survived today (that is, Christianity and Islam for example) empower or endow its believers with a strong element of believability. This so called believability comes in the form of costly signaling and extravagant display of loyalty. This is how the author explains it. “For every year considered in a 110 year span, religious communes were found to outlast secular ones by an average factor of four. Not surprisingly, religious communes imposed more than twice as many costly requirements such as food taboos and fasts, than secular ones. Importantly, the number of costly requirements predicted religious commune longevity after accounting for population size, income, and year the commune was founded.”

In other words, major religions in the world impose on its members a high price for believing and this is manifested in the specific manner they conduct themselves like the elaborate ritualistic sacrifices, occasional marathon fasting, all night prayers, tithing and offerings, and even the prevalent festivities involving body mutilations (like Thaipusam), nail-piercing reenactments and self-castrations to achieve sexual purity. This believability adds credence to the belief and to the believers, and this in turn causes many to convert and to endorse their practices.

You can in fact see it this way. It is basically about working feverishly hard for what you believe in and the fruits of one’s labor in the self-flagellations and the self-inflictions demonstrate to the public at large the believability of the object (or subject) of the devotees’ worship. The secular communes clearly lost out on this level. They are simply not interested. They do not have an invisible means of support. They are too busy minding their own business to ever care about minding the businesses of the big gods. You can  compare a religious practitioner as someone who launches out a giant blip in the sky with full colors and lights, and an atheist as a beach vacationer, sipping a slink, and enjoying the sun, minding his own business. Who do you think gets the attention (and affection)?

Here's another point to note and it is in what the sociologist Emile Durkheim once called the “collective effervescence” of religion, which further strengthens the hold of religion on its members and enlarges their estate. This collective effervescence is made up of religious worship, music, dances, their rich culture and history, and their charismatic preaching. All this only goes to deepen their charm and ensure their growth over the centuries; thereby making a society with prosocial religion of big gods a formidable force to reckon with.

And finally, there is no better way of signaling one’s religious commitment and the believability of one’s faith than martyrdom. The offering of oneself for his religion is a great billboard advertisement for it. If a picture paints a thousand words, then a death or two literally hangs the rainbow in the sky for all to see.  

So, when you add the cultural tendency of people to “trust people who trust God” to the evolutionary tested observation that “watched people are nice people”, what you get is a fast evolving, culturally adaptive, highly competitive and religion-driven society that would be fit and selected by nature to survive and thrive. 

Of course, all this begs the following questions. Why is it that atheists cannot be trusted to be good without god? Why is it that in our ancestral past, before the advent of the enlightenment and science, a godless community cannot develop into a large-scale, flourishing society? This is where the author admits that throughout our history, atheists generally get the short end of the stick. A study was done to see how an atheist is perceived as compared to a theist and the atheist is generally seen as less trustworthy. 

In the book, many polls were done in America on this and the trend has been unmistakable. This is what the author observed, “Over time, we see an encouraging patterns of increasing social acceptance of almost all groups that have been historically marginalized. In 1948, only 48 percent of Americans said they would be willing to vote for an African American presidential candidate. By 1999, that number had almost doubled, to over 90 per cent. True to these numbers, Americans elected in 2008 the first African American president. Catholics, Jews, women – in fact, every single group polled, including gays, who only a few decades ago were excluded by the majority of Americans – have crossed the critical 50 percent mark already in 1999 – except atheists, who even today, cannot garner the approval of a simple majority. The singling out of atheists is something that is found repeatedly by pollsters surveying American social attitudes.”  (emphasis mine)

Ironically, atheists shares the same rung of social acceptance (or rejection) as rapists! This is further compounded by the fact that members of one religion would rather trust members of another religion than to trust atheists as a whole. So it seems like believing in a “wrong” god is far better than believing in no god at all, so remarked the author. 

If we put it altogether, the general proposition of the THA advocates is that a society who believes in a supernatural watcher would thrive because the people in such society would perform more altruistic acts not just for their kin but also for their kith and even strangers. Furthermore, they are generally trusted people and they set the moral example for others to be assimilated into their fold. This ever expanding circle of goodwill, influence and charity, inspired by the fear and reward of religion, makes for a stronger, more resilient and competitive society as against other godless or god-impotent communities. 

In fact, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson wrote, “Groups are acknowledged to evolve into adaptive units, but only if special conditions are met…in human groups it is often religion that provides the special conditions. Religion returns to center stage, not as a theological explanation of purpose or order, but as itself a product of evolution that enables groups to function as adaptive units – at least to a degree.”  (emphasis mine)

From the perspective of a believer, one cannot help but notice a difference between the hard-core atheists like Dawkins and Pullman, and the THA proponents I have just described. At least, for the latter (that is, THA), they do not rubbish our belief and call us delusional, child-like, immature, dreamers, fantasy-believers and inhabitants of la-la land. At least, most of them are more discreet than the hard-core atheists. But I guess the difference stops there. While the likes of Dawkins will tell you in your face about what they think about your religion, the THA proponents will give you the impression that they are for your religion (or religion as a whole) and everything that your religion stands for, that is, its moral injunctions minus the invisible old man in the sky. This of course does not make them an instant fan of your god. In every way, their dealing with the object of your worship is generally at an emotional arm’s length.

In the last chapter of the book (Big Gods) entitled “Cooperation without God,” the author unveiled a possible future of religion in the rising tides of secularization, “With the benefit of time, when future historians look back at the course of human societies, they may see the prosocial religions as yet another crucial social transition – an intermediate cultural bridge between the small-scale human societies that dominated much of our evolutionary history and the complex secular societies emerging in parts of the modern world. These new institutions and traditions began to erode the foundations of religions with Big Gods. No doubt this is a complex question, and strong institutions and material well-being may have passed a threshold, no longer needing religion to sustain large-scale cooperation. In short: secular societies climbed the ladder of religion, and then kicked it away.” (emphasis mine).

As it stands today, numerous developed countries like Canada, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Australia have already “kicked the ladder of religion away." This is also where the atavistic gods of old are gradually supplanted by the rule of law, the justice system, secular government, police and security infrastructure, liberal values, science and evolution, high per capital income, and a community of educated majority. In Denmark, for example, one could borrow a bicycle free of charge, use it to travel to his destination and leave the bicycle at its assigned distribution center for the next user. When asked whether there is any fear of theft, a Danish replied, puzzled, “Why would anyone steal a bicycle if anyone can borrow one?” 

Indeed, an atheist-majority country like Denmark is thriving in communal security and peace as it is “high on cooperation, social cohesion and public trust.” Mind you, the latter traits used to be what religion does best, so says the THA supporters.

Having reflected on this particular subtle strain of atheism, here’s the bombshell on religion as I see it. If secular societies are really an outgrowth of prosocial religion, then can it be said that at the end of the rainbow of religion is the stardust of atheism? The author in fact offered this quote in the book, “Thus, the monotheisms may have inadvertently planted the seeds of atheism: if people can deny the existence of other gods, it’s only a matter of time before they start denying the existence of any gods.” Imagine that. The history of religion, from polytheism to monotheism, is actually the definitive route 66 that inevitably directs all religious traffic to a cliff overlooking a beautiful sea burial. Wow, what an ironic twist of fate, however outrageous it is!

So, I see a new horizon emerging for the future of religion. I see the end of religion in due course as the world gradually labors under a series of new birth pangs, that is, universal atheism. The supernatural watchman would thereafter disappear for good as humanity would no longer need him to watch over them. As belief in the supernatural dies off, the gods of yesterday would also vanish into thin air. What is left of us is therefore no different from a man who had just awaken from a long pixie-dust dream of fairy-tales, elves and nymphs and is still groggy from the religious effects of a long Rip-Van-Winkle-like sleep. As he regains his bearings, he would have to face a world without god, a world where he alone makes meaning of, and a world where he would have to trust that his neighbors would behave themselves.

If an epilogue is appropriate here, I guess it would be this: Let’s hope that this world would itself be a fantasy embedded in a dream of an atheist who would soon wake up to the “nightmare” of a world still controlled by the supernatural. But this time, in this world, it is not via the fear of punishment that this supernatural creator is inspiring behaviors of morality and charity. It is through the love at Calvary that transforms hearts from inside out. One is then tempted to ask: which outcome is a dream and which is a reality? Mm… I guess the truth is still out there for some. Cheerz. 

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