Church viewed from The Pub, Kandy
Today is Christmas. Even in Sri Lanka, this is a holiday, and celebrated (albeit not much). Every country in the world follows a Judeo-Christian calendar. The years start from Jesus’s death and each ends, roughly, with his birth. This is one small way that religion gives us order.
That is just one way that religion makes our social lives more orderly and, by extension, gives us better lives as human beings. There’s a book coming out called ‘The Faith Instinct’ that expands on this idea.
According to Wade, a New York Times science writer, religions are machines for manufacturing social solidarity. They bind us into groups. Long ago, codes requiring altruistic behavior, and the gods who enforced them, helped human society expand from families to bands of people who were not necessarily related. We didn’t become religious creatures because we became social; we became social creatures because we became religious. Or, to put it in Darwinian terms, being willing to live and die for their coreligionists gave our ancestors an advantage in the struggle for resources.
Personally, I think that religion is a great step forward for humans. People say that it’s the root of all evil and wars, but by the same token then I suppose it’s responsible for good. Furthermore, it’s something many of us feel quite keenly, especially in times of trouble. To quote a beautiful Regina Spektor song,
No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God
When they’re starving or freezing or so very poor
This book posits that this feeling is indeed genetic, something like a God gene. He doesn’t offer biological evidence for this, just reasoning, but it seems reasonable. In reading the Koran I was struck by how sensible many of its thoughts were, and how revolutionary they were in terms of the tribal factionalism that came before. In reading this great book Destiny Disrupted (about Muslim history) I was struck at how Islam organized disparate people and made them into an empiric force.
Many would say that’s not what God is about, which is perhaps true. The scuffle among for control after Muhammed’s death and the eventual schism in Sunni and Shiite is one example where the power is there, but flows funny.
However, at some level, I do believe that religion delivers on the promise of a better life. We have a Christian calendar that structures time. We have Hindu/Buddhist principles of non-violence that have inspired movements from Gandhi to Sarvodaya to Martin Luther King. And, of course, we have had religious wars that – for better or worse – have determined the power structures of today.
Wade argues that our religious disposition can enhance social and national unity, manage scarce resources, even solve the tricky problem of how to get young men to die for the greater good when that’s called for. But Wade also knows that the faith-based preference for the group has engendered genocide, mass suicide and maladaptive cargo cults. Perhaps that is why he declines to draw one inference that proceeds from his arguments: that individual religions can be compared and ranked and, well, approved or disapproved of, since a religion can be good only insofar as it’s useful.
That is to say, rather than being a weird superstition, religion may actually be the software that enables morality and values to be communicated among a group of people. Like Windows if you will. Buggy and nonsensical at times, but it gets the job done. That ability to coalesce around some value system gives a social group power, and their individual components better health, marriages, and the stability to provide a better life for their children.
In that way I think that religion, organized religion, really can deliver. At the least, however, intellectuals and scientists would be wise to give religion the respect they give any other object of study. It is there, and we should try to understand it. I don’t think positioning science in opposition to religion is really an accurate way of perceiving reality. Religion does exist, and we should ask why. The obvious reason is because it works. The less obvious reason is because it’s absolutely true, but that, I suppose, remains a matter of faith.