Saturday, October 24, 2015

HT to Mockingbird: the problem with the Alpha God hypothesis
Maybe we can detect a clue in Garcia’s method. Early in Alpha God, Garcia notes that one of his data sets for the case he is making against religion is “world history.” In noting that religion has been spotted skulking around the scenes of the crimes of patriarchy, genocide, and imperialism, he turns to a dizzying and impressive range of historical and textual case studies, from the lust and violence of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur’an to the sexual exploits of Pope John XII and the god Krishna to the bloody Spanish conquest of the Americas to the 30 Years War to the tit-for-tat Muslim-Hindu purges in Gujarat to Aztec penis modification.

But there is a serious liability in this approach. In mobilizing such a massive data set, we can tell any story we want, precisely because religion is a background figure almost everywhere in human history. A case for religion’s involvement in oppression is as plausible as a conspiracy theory that notices that every human society with a monetary system eventually goes to war: it takes two broadly identifiable features of human societies (religion + oppression; currency + aggressive expansion) and assumes that they must have a causal relationship. And it arranges the data in such a way that historical moments that don’t share those features recede into the dark. Hence the long history of religious concern with the welfare of members of other groups, such as the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, religious alliances with workers, and the recent surge in environmental activism on the part of religious believers, are almost invisible in Alpha God. These categories of religious activity aggressively contradict the alpha god thesis—even to the point of overruling the claim that religious morality is usually in-group directed at the expense of the out-group. In bringing every dimension of human history and culture into its purview, Alpha God has enough material to justify any accusation, even after carefully paring away the innumerable data that don’t fit its narrative.

Throughout Alpha God, Garcia suggests that we need to raise the correlation between religion and our ancestral impulses to the surface so that we can move beyond our “primate motivations for violence.” This reflects another flaw in the selfish gene paradigm, going back to Dawkins’s 1976 book: it talks as if the way to build better societies is to cease to be animal. But as de Waal writes, “[s]ocial animals relate to each other at a level far more basic than scientists previously suspected. We are hardwired to connect with those around us and to resonate with them, also emotionally. It’s a fully automated process.” We need to recognize that this “rational” departure from animality is itself deeply inscribed within our animal blueprints. At the same time as we note that primate (and other animal) societies are marked by moments of domination and violence, we must give other primates ample credit for their ability to form complex societies in which social goods like nurturance, altruism, care, and affection form the structuring bonds. If our selfish genes really predispose us to optimum reproductive strategies like murdering the children of our rivals, why do only a slim minority of species present this behavior? Far more often we see social animals aiding, nurturing, cooperating, and accompanying each other. Our efforts to steer our societies away from war and oppression are not a renunciation of our animality, but an amplification of certain aspects of our animality. The values that we use to guide these processes are themselves eminently animal. Religion raises them up no less than it spotlights the aggressive and the domineering facets of our animal being.

Alpha God tries to unwrap one of the puzzles of our time—the link between religion and violence—using productive scientific tools. It’s important to keep Garcia’s background as a psychiatrist specializing in trauma—especially combat PTSD—in the foreground here. One cannot doubt that Garcia’s work healing combat veterans and other PTSD patients motivates his effort to try to root out the sources of war.

Karen Armstrong, if memory serves, has lectured at least one on how religion has been a historic catalyst to promote war but that war has never been started over religion but over resource competition. South Park, if you're into the show, had a memorable two-parter "Go God, Go" that riffed on this by showing a world in which everyone is an atheist but they're still fighting over resources and the proper way to label people. Anyway ...
To Dennett’s argument that religion carries with it the side effects of war, oppression, and obscurantism, Geertz rightly points out that these are, in fact, “the time-proven side effects of being human.” Garcia’s error is the same. Even more than Breaking the Spell, Alpha God takes the entire data set of human history and pulls out a narrative that makes religion the perpetrator of a long list of horrors and atrocities. And he’s right—religion happens to be in the vicinity of all of those crimes. The problem is that religion is in the background of almost everything we do and have done, bad and good. To blame the evil acts of our history on religion is as absurd as blaming them on politics, sex, food, or any other constant of the chronicle of our species. And it’s as absurd as the claim by wide-eyed champions of religion that we can award religion exclusive credit for morality, science, art, or civilization. We could splice together a Zapruder-film narrative that shows religion lurking in the crowd by the grassy knoll for any of these, too. Fundamentally, the semi-scientific criticism of religion creates a reed-thin account of religious history, correlating religion only to its searingly negative aspects and ignoring everything else that what-gets-called-religion has going on, from the admirable and the glorious to the banal, the boring, and the irrelevant.

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