May 02, 2007

Joyous Atheism

I'd love to order the aforementioned Stumbling on Happiness, but I have acquired (even by my normal standards) a ridiculous surplus of books. Off of Amazon, I ordered a ton of used copies from the series Case Studies in Anthropology. (Okay, four.) On the advice of the always engaging Alexandra, I ordered Awakening the Buddha Within -- which arrived today. I'm really looking forward to reading it--I flipped through it and five of the six paragraphs I read at random made me want to read the next one. There's the Robespierre book to read (see here), a 1909 short story collection on the Golem, but, most enjoyable of all, the raucously joyful atheism of Christopher Hitchens in God is not Great: How Religion Ruins Everything.

Those familiar with ideofact will, I hope, be aware that I am generally respectful of religions. I do not insult gratuitously. At the same time, I find that the adherents of various and sundry faiths call for tolerance and respect--but I wonder how often they reciprocate. Hitchens is a gleeful atheist (see here, for example:

Like Muhammad, Smith could produce divine revelations at short notice and often simply to suit himself (especially, and like Muhammad, when he wanted a new girl and wished to take her as another wife). As a result, he overreached himself and came to a violent end, having meanwhile excommunicated almost all the poor men who had been his first disciples and who had been browbeaten into taking his dictation. Still, this story raises some very absorbing questions, concerning what happens when a plain racket turns into a serious religion before our eyes.

His passion and zeal strikes me as matching that of the faithful; if there is to be tolerance of the religious, then there must be tolerance by the religious for men like Hitchens.)

I'm looking forward to reading his book. I tend to think, as with happiness, that religion has an evolutionary function--setting useful moral rules that allow us to live in larger groups and more complex societies than following our "happiness meter" would allow. As I think I've said before, it is not necessary that a religion be true to be moral. In other words, the Book of Mormon can be demonstrably phony (it is demonstrably phony--the archaeological record and DNA evidence proves it), but the cultural norms and expectations of the creed can offer its adherents adaptive advantages over -- why not say it -- worldly wisemen like me. I will be curious to see if Hitchens addresses this question.

But I look forward to reading more passages like this one.

Posted by Ideofact at May 2, 2007 12:16 AM

You wrote: I tend to think, as with happiness, that religion has an evolutionary function--setting useful moral rules that allow us to live in larger groups and more complex societies than following our "happiness meter" would allow

For "evolutionary" I would substitute "historical" since there is little evidence that what we think of as supernatural ideas play that role in hunting-and-gathering societies, in which we evolved as a species. Sorcery and superstition probably don't even count as religion as we understand that term today, while, say, totems, or beliefs in some "great spirit" (if there were such beliefs then, I don't know) may have contributed to the solidarity of the group in its relations with other groups with which it was in competition, but this is quite different from what you suggest.

I guess what I am getting at is that there is no catch-all category as "religion" in a generic sense. Rather, there are three or four "world religions" that have arisen in historical times, which do play the role you suggest, and which build on man's apparent underlying capacity to belief in invisible forces, spirits, etc., but which otherwise are quite unprecedented in human affairs.

Posted by: Luke Lea at May 4, 2007 10:33 AM

I think Napoleon Chagnon reported that the Yanomamo believed they could fool their gods easily when entering the underworld -- you're right that there are vast differences between hunter gatherer beliefs and those of "advanced" societies (which seem to be far less open to innovations). But that was sort of my point -- the more complex the society, the greater the need for absolutes and structured rules.

Posted by: Bill at May 7, 2007 01:05 AM