The downside of religious doing
Research into the effects of group belonging suggests that its powerful binding effects may have a darker aspect

Madeleine Bunting, like many others, is fed up with the New Atheists, the media attention their best-selling books have garnered, and the debates they have re-ignited. I am not. I read Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, and mostly find myself nodding in agreement. Unsurprisingly, I disagree with a lot of what Bunting has written about religion and atheism, old and new. Yet I also sympathise with some of the points Bunting makes, along with Karen Armstrong and John Gray whom she approvingly cites.

Aside from the alleged intellectual arrogance and hubris of the New Atheists, Bunting has another beef. This issue is not about whether the empirical and logical arguments of the New Atheists are sound, but how these thinkers see religion in the world of real people, and how they approach religion as target of criticism.

Bunting endorses Karen Armstrong's claim that "We need to get away from the endless discussion about wretched beliefs; religion is about doing – and what every faith makes clear is that the doing is about compassion". So let's abandon talk of "wretched beliefs" for the moment, and look at "religion as doing". The first question is what religion does, and what it's for. Armstrong suggests that it facilitates, and perhaps underscores, compassion. That's a tidy and pleasing answer, but the truth is likely to be a lot more complex.

Some of this complexity is brought out by recent work in social and moral psychology. The nature of religious belief is in many ways similar to moral belief. For a start, while some general moral prohibitions probably have their origins in an innate, emotionally driven aversion to harming or killing other people, many specific and sometimes culturally localised moral norms are picked up through socialisation and participation in daily social life, like religious beliefs.

And just as religious belief is not fundamentally about uncovering objective truths about the nature of the universe (though it does, of course, make such claims too), our moral psychology is not concerned with revealing universal and eternal moral verities. Both religion and morality are about "social doing" rather than "truth finding"; practice rather than propositions.

So what are the social effects of moral and religious systems, and what sorts of behaviours do they promote? The relevant empirical work on these questions is in its early stages, but there are already some telling results (incidentally, it is this sort of potentially taboo-breaking empirical research that New Atheist authors such as Dan Dennett call for, and which is required for the sort of conversation Bunting and Armstrong want to have). Our moral sense is often focused on certain groups of people, and our moral resources of empathy and compassion are not invested in everyone equally. Though we are clearly capable of signing up to universally applicable ethical precepts, we often practice a particularly parochial from of moral concern.

Read the rest on The Guardian.

Tags: atheism, compassion, conflict, empathy, in-group, morality, morals, out-group, psychology, religion, More…theism

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