Many critics attack the New Atheists as unsophisticated literalists who don’t understand much less appreciate all of the nuance and subtlety of religion.
By engaging rationally with the truth claims of various religions, the critics say, the New Atheists miss the crucial point that religion is, in the words of Robert Bellah, not necessarily a thing you believe but “a thing you do.”
I’ve always found this approach to the defense of religion curious — and ultimately self-defeating. Jettisoning the doctrine to save the practice seems to me so obviously self-deceptive that I marvel at how easily people do it. If science shows my truths to be wrong, well, then I don’t need them!
Bellah, author of the recent book Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, was interviewed by Hans Joas in the latest issue of The Hedgehog. Despite his reasonableness and erudition, Bellah falls into the “religious faith isn’t faith in anything specific” defense with graceful ease.
In the interview, Bellah accepts that religion must be placed in the context of human evolution, but that religion is no more explained by the details of our genes than language is explained by the evolution of vocal chords. He believes that religion is “primarily a way of acting in the world, but it also involves a concern for knowing in the world.”
Bellah subscribes to a “separate magisteria” division that he traces to William James. He concedes that “we are animals–we are biological creatures.” But he believes that “our deepest moral insights are going to come from other spheres.” He argues that “those who wish to think that a religion can be explained biologically are really devoted to genetic determinism.”
Religion and science are different kinds of knowing. Science is the realm of things, and religion is the realm of morality. We are entirely biological creatures, but religion isn’t biology. It’s something that biological creatures do.
Only self-imposed space restrictions keep me from fully engaging here with the idea that there are several kinds of knowing. This argument always ends up in some version of the claim that knowing and feeling, understanding and experiencing, are equivalent cognitive states. They’re not, other than for people whose way of arguing a point is to reject facts that contradict their beliefs because “that’s just what I feel.” It’s a false equivalency at its best, and a witless statement at its worst.
The argument that since religion isn’t biology, science can’t evaluate religion is either an attempt to introduce a red herring or just plain wrong. Nothing is just biology, but much can be understood and explained by examining how biology works. Religion comes from culture, and culture comes from biology. Where else could it come from? Bellah says that “We owe a lot to biology, but each level we reach has its own autonomy.” This simple truism is undebatably correct, but it’s irrelevant. No one argues that a fruit fly “is” biology. Yet we have the fruit flies we have because of biology. Change the biology, and you change the fruit flies. Religion is no more independent of biology than are fruit flies.
Bellah says that “my point is that religion is situated in the larger context of evolution. I am not rejecting the notion of natural selection or even the notion of the struggle for existence, but I think they are too narrow views of evolution.” He then briefly introduces a version of the group selection of social behaviour as if that would “free” religion from genetic constraint, and thereby free it from the soulless grip of science.
One point Bellah makes with which I have some sympathy is his complaint that “the misinterpretation of people like Dawkins and Hitchens is that religion is just a mistaken proto-science.” This is a roundabout way of complaining that science evaluates the truth claims of religion as if their advocates actually meant us to believe them. Again we see a religionist abandoning the dogma in favour of the culture of religion.
And that’s ok, if you know that’s what you’re doing. If you’re okay with a religion that doesn’t make any truth claims, then you can’t be threatened by science. If what you believe isn’t that there is a God up there somewhere watching over us, if what you believe is that the culture that grew up around the primitive myths of the gods narratives makes people feel good and makes then act morally, no harm done. But it’s a curious way to define religion, to profess a faith in good feeling, based on nothing real.
Bellah seems quite willing to concede this point, noting in the interview that “There’s been an enormous focus in the field of religious studies over the very term ‘religion,’ and half the discipline wants to reject it all together.”
He argues that “religious truth is not something you sit in your private room and decide, ‘oh, does God exist or not?’ You will never understand God unless you are involved in some kind of community where that word begins to make sense in the life of that community.”
So Bellah’s defense of religion is that it isn’t religion. It’s a cultural community organized around faiths that don’t express any real truths. In the end, we understand that when Bellah calls religion “something we do” what he means is that religion isn’t anything other than our experience of the feelings culturally associated with its practice.
Finally, we have something on which we agree completely.