In relation to this previous post, I’ve been thinking a bit more about Matthew Alper’s book, The “God” part of the Brain. You know, I have to admit I’ve never really given atheism and agnosticism much serious thought. I’ve always considered the existence of God to be intuitively obvious even when joined with a concurrent faith in the scientific method, so most of the apologetics I’ve bothered to follow have been focused on intra-Catholic and inter-Christian debates. I’ve never really looked at Christian apologetics in confrontation with atheism before, but it might be time, because my kids who are in public high school and middle school are telling me that aggressive atheism is very much in vogue with kids these days, and I’ve also heard that a sizable segment of a recent confirmation class in our town was openly challenging the pastor as to whether or not God was even necessary in our lives anymore.
I found Alper’s book to be challenging and very interesting, despite the fact that there are some obvious factual errors in it. For example, this website takes him to task for faultily claiming that if mass (matter) is accelerated to the speed of light, it will become energy (page 26). And in a dubious and highly “unscientific” chapter in which he suggested that religious belief leads to material and social backwardness, he observed that the most prosperous and advanced countries in the world were the ones in which religious practice was statistically low (meaning Scandinavia, Northern Europe, Canada, Japan and so forth), and that the poorest countries in the world (meaning India, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East) were the ones in which religious adherence was statistically high, and while endeavoring to explain why the United States is the anomaly to this trend (by claiming that we are presumably the progeny of spiritual seekers with a dominant set of “God” genes), he claimed that George Calvert’s charter for the Settlement of Maryland in 1634 was the “first Roman Catholic settlement in the New World” (page 200). Hmmm.
Leaving that aside for a moment, I guess we are to infer that having an overdeveloped set of spiritual genes makes us slothful and lacking in creativity as well. It’s funny… I used to hear the same kind of specious arguments applied to the difference between Protestant and Catholic countries (with Catholic countries supposedly suffering from the lack of a “Protestant Work Ethic”), the difference between countries that had and had not ever been colonized, the difference between countries that benefited from having “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” and those that lacked the flora and fauna to support the benificent development of these, and just today I heard a radio program flatly putting the difference on the temperature. Apparently, it’s just plain harder to get productive work done in those hot equatorial zones. :-/
One of the most amazing claims of Alper’s is that humans are the only species that murders its own kind. I can’t believe there are people out there who claim to be of a scientific bent who are still saying this. I used to hear this nonsense all through my school years, but it has been known for some time now that intra-species killing is quite common. This is an important point to contest, because like a lot of the “new atheists,” Alper lays a lot of the blame for human violence on religion.
In our frivolous attempts to either oppose or escape unavoidable death, we channel our energies into a morbid array of self-destructive behaviors. In our futile efforts to oppose the unopposable, we have become the only animal that will needlessly kill one another as well as our own selves. Unlike any other creature on Earth, we are capable of acts of suicide, genocide, sadism, masochism, self-mutilation, and drug abuse, along with a multitude of other disturbed responses, all of which result from our species unique capacity for self-conscious awareness and with it an awareness of death…. Generally speaking, humankind’s spiritual propensities are pretty harmless… It’s really only when our spiritual sensibilities get bound up by some restrictive and dogmatic religious creed that problems arise… For all the advantages of possessing a religious instinct, for all the social cohesion it brings, the sense of community it fosters, and the alleged purpose and meaning it provides, religion has proven itself, time and again, to be a potentially hazardous impulse in us… religion continues to act as a divisive force, promoting discrimination and intolerance, inciting enmity, aggression, and war… Moreover, our religious functions instill us with an inherent belief that we are immortal. Because each religion possesses its own unique interpretation of what immortality represents, each religion views every other as a threat to its notion of an immortal soul… As a result, our species tends to engage in what could be termed religious tribalism, a predisposition to justify territorial conquest in the name of one’s Gods, a tendency that has marked our species violent and bloody history…. How many more times must we justify acts of cruelty, murder, and genocide in the name of God and religion before we learn to tame this destructive impulse in us… Only once the human animal comes to terms with the fact that it has been born into a mental matrix – a neurological web of deceit – will we have a chance of offsetting this potentially destructive impulse in us….It is time that the study of spirituality and religiosity be taken out of the hands of philosophers, metaphysicians, and theologians and “biologized.”This is a recurrent theme that’s been showing up in the last few years, especially in the wake of September 11, 2001. It’s the same type of argument we see coming from Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins…. That religion is a destructive impulse which is to blame for the genocide and endless war and violence we see in the world, and that the self-knowledge to be found in the study of scientific Darwinism supplies the only hope we have to keep from destroying ourselves.
There are a number of things wrong with the statements made by Alper above, such as the sweeping generalization that all religions have a notion of an immortal soul, and that they can’t abide competing truth claims with respect to their own conceptions of immortality. Some religions have very little or no concept of an afterlife at all. Some are universalist. Some believe that salvation is not limited to their own sect alone... I also think Alper goes a little too far in his book in stating that humans are the only creatures with highly developed self-consciousness. I think apes have a sense of shame and are self-aware enough to pick up the idea of universal mortality. They are not the only ones. Elephants mourn.
In any case, I reject the idea that a religious gene or set of neurological functions is responsible for human violence, and I will attempt to take the Alpers of the world on in their own terms…
Let’s accept Alper’s basic premise and accept this argument:
Essentially, what I'm suggesting is that humans are innately "hard-wired" to perceive a spiritual reality. We are "hard-wired" to believe in forces that transcend the limitations of this, our physical reality… Here lies the origin of humankind's spiritual function, an evolutionary adaptation that compels our species to believe that though our physical bodies will one day perish, our "spirits" or "souls" will persist for all eternity. Only once our species was instilled with this inherent (mis)perception that there is something more "out there," that we are immortal beings, were we able to survive our debilitating awareness of death.This is not especially troubling to me, it doesn’t surprise me that God made us and “hard-wired” us to want to know Him, but what does trouble me is the accusation that this religious impulse is the source of human violence that may someday annihilate us if not curbed somehow.
Alper says that “we have become the only animal that will needlessly kill one another as well as our own selves." He may have the suicide part right, but we are not the only animal that kills it’s own kind “needlessly.” Intra-species killing has been seen in lions, wolves, and spotted hyenas, but most importantly in our closest relative, the chimpanzee, with whom we share 98% of our genes, as evolutionary scientists are fond of pointing out (we also happen to share 50% of our genes with bananas).
I suppose Alper may know something about intra-species violence, which is why he tried to make a distinction around “needless” killing. Let’s have a look at the chimps...
Chimpanzees have long been considered by humans to be playful, impish, gregarious and peaceful primates, and to a large degree they are, but we’ve had some misconceptions about them too. It wasn’t known until the last few decades, for example, that chimps will occasionally hunt and eat meat. The renowned primatologist Jane Goodall was also distressed and saddened when during the course of her decades-long study of chimpanzees she observed that they will at times practice a sort of rudimentary form of raiding tribal warfare against each other. Over a period of months in the late 1970s, in Tanzania’s Gombe National Forest, she and other researchers witnessed a band of chimpanzees systematically hunt down and kill all the members of a neighboring group, one by one. This type of behavior has since been noted by other primatologists as well.
Chimpanzees have also been seen to cooperatively hunt down, kill, and eat the red colobus monkey, even though they have other sources of protein in their diet. The killing seems to be more of a social group exercise than it is a matter of necessity for them. It’s almost as if they are getting enjoyment out of the hunt, as if it was recreation. Is this “needful” or “needless” killing?
In foraging and hunting-gathering human societies, a type of raiding warfare is seen in patterns not very unlike those of the chimpanzees. If we share this type of behavior with our primate cousins, and if, as Alper claims, the self-conscious religious impulse is unique to humans, what accounts for this behavior in other primates? Mustn’t the roots of aggression and violence lay elsewhere, rather than in our religious and spiritual impulses?
A religious, or a political crime?
The Slaughter of the Innocents, by Carl Bloch (1875)
This is not to suggest that humans have a “beast lurking within,” but like the primates with whom we share a common ancestry, we are highly social creatures whose cooperative bonds also introduce pressures not found in less social species. Matthew Alper himself points out that every evolutionary adaptation that has a benefit may also have a cost. The chimpanzee violence in Gombe seemed to be related to an accompanying stress on resources. As William F. Allman points out in The Stone Age Present: How Evolution Has Shaped Modern Life – From Sex, Violence, and Language to Emotions, Morals, and Communities.
One of the key roles that aggression plays in society is, ironically, to keep the peace, Aggression helps maintain the complex pecking order that typically characterizes primate groups… While being a dominant doesn’t necessarily guarantee exclusive rights to food and mates, such hierarchies typically dictate who among a group will have first access to essential resources. Studies show that encounters in which a monkey peacefully defers to a more dominant monkey occur three times more often than incidents involving overt aggression between the two… The importance of the group’s hierarchical structure in keeping the peace is evident when a newcomer tries to join the group. When a young monkey tries to join a new group, his presence results in a jostling of the social hierarchy as he tries to work his way into the social ladder, and this often leads to fighting… Other studies suggest that aggression within a group is often focused on those individuals who act selfishly… Ironically, it is our own species’ supreme powers of cooperation that make war possible. Chimpanzee group-against-group conflict is similar in principle to warfare among small-scale human societies: Both are carried out by coalitions of males, both are the result of imbalances of power among neighboring groups, and both have their ultimate roots in males’ desires to gain access to females. In the case of the group-group conflict among the chimpanzees at Gombe, the “aggressor” chimps took over their victims’ territory and incorporated several of the females who were attached to the other group into their own community. A comparison of the warfare patterns in forty-two foraging societies worldwide reveals that when people live near vital resources such as fertile land or watering holes, the group-against-group aggression is typically over control of these physical resources. Yet, ultimately, these resources are also tied to access to females: Those individuals in the society who accumulated the most wealth typically had the most wives, and so gaining resources is an important factor in access to women.According to Alper, Dawkins, and Harris, religion provides the impetus for human violence. According to Allman, it's all about… well, to be coarse and blunt about it… it’s all about the wood.
Therefore, in regard to Alper’s refrain, which Harris and Dawkins would gladly chime in on…
“Our species tends to engage in what could be termed religious tribalism, a predisposition to justify territorial conquest in the name of one’s Gods, a tendency that has marked our species violent an bloody history…. How many more times must we justify acts of cruelty, murder, and genocide in the name of God and religion before we learn to tame this destructive impulse in us?”
...We suffer from a sense of tribalism to be sure. Religion itself, however, seems to have very little to do with it. As Allman has shown, we have inherited a tribal instinct, a hard-wired predilection to be wary of strangers and those who are different from us and may pose a potential threat to our resources, whether that perceived threat is rationally based in fact or not. Those differences could be based upon religion, but also on a host of other factors as well, such as nationality, race, ethnicity, language, or politics. We all know about September 11 and the religious wars throughout history. The conflicts of the 20th century were the bloodiest and the most lethal by far. How many of them were really based on religion? Very few, I’d say.
How many of these massive conflicts, for example, were based on religion?
The Napoleonic Wars? The French Revolution which had occurred earlier had swept away the rights of the clergy along with the rest of the ancien regime. Napoleon, who had made himself an emperor by snatching a crown from the hands of a pope and placing it upon his own head, raised the very first nationalized citizen army with his Grand Armee from within the borders of the first modern nation-state, and swept across Europe all the way to Moscow and back.
The American Civil War? Both the Union and the Confederacy expected a short conflict. The ensuing cataclysm shocked them both. Wisely, Abraham Lincoln, upon seeing the cost of this endless savagery, heard the pleas of the abolitionists, and gave the war a moral purpose in the ending of slavery. It was only religion that was able to give meaning to what would have been an otherwise meaningless and senseless slaughter over a States-rights vs. Federalism squabble, and it was reflected in the Battle Hymn of the Republic
In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in his bosom
That transfigures you and me
As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make men free
While God is marching on...
World War I? In the age of modernity, wars such as this were supposed to be a thing of the past, even though the European nations blundered into it after a period of relative peace with a shared belief that war was somehow “inevitable,” and the Darwinian conviction held by many that men had grown effete and soft, and needed to be blooded and have their moral fiber restored by the great chivalric adventure of war.
World War II? Out of the ashes of World War I, and from the disillusioned and disgruntled veterans rose the “New Fascist Man,” a man with the willingness to devote his life in sacrifice and service to the state and to the “Fatherland.” Communism, in actual practice, operated upon the same principle. Democracies were literally forced to prove that they had the mettle to survive in the face of these ideologies.
In those instances and to this day, extreme nationalism still provides much more fuel for conflict than religion does. As I’ve said before, I’m convinced that if everything else could be evened out somehow, people could still be convinced to take up arms with each other over something as innocuous as eye color.
Maybe there’s another way Matthew Alper should look at the religious set of genes and how it may have served as an adaptation towards reproductive advantage. Rather than causing tribal conflict, maybe the “God” part of the brain ameliorates the worst aspects of our tribalism. One of the questions frequently asked within the realm of religion is “How should I treat my neighbor?” A corollary to that is “Who is my neighbor?” In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is the “other” who acts justly, the one from the despised tribe who shows compassion and love for a stranger from “our” tribe and cares for him. Perhaps those with a strongly spiritual bent, those who could empathize with the “other” from a different tribe, had a better chance at survival than those who were willing to take up arms and fight with strangers at every opportunity. Perhaps the “God” part of the brain made us more fit for survival, and provided something more useful than just a means of coping with the prospect of death.
If the roots of violence lie in our own sense of tribalism, a tribalism which is spurred by our protective instinct towards resources and mating possibilities, perhaps that is a better place for those like Alper, Dawkins, and Harris to concentrate upon. Granted, some people can identify their tribe by their religion, but when the President of Iran says that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, is that really the “God” part of the brain speaking, or is it actually just the “tribal” part of the brain?
If we need self-knowledge, and need to learn how to thwart our worst inbred instincts, rather than the “God” part of the brain, perhaps we should look at the "tribal" part of the brain instead.
Or is it the “We should get rid of everyone who doesn’t think like me” part of the brain?
If they concentrate on religion only, they can’t be too serious about eliminating violence. It must be a bigoted and deeply ingrained bias towards religion only, because apparently there are times when violence must be useful to them. Ask Sam Harris, who openly speculates on the usefulness of torture, and the possibility of having to commit genocide against Muslims.