Nature or Nurture? The Argument You Just Can't Win

Atheist Movies pores over the Net to bring us YouTube and other clips depicting topics of interest to non-believers, with a decided emphasis on evolutionary science.  In their latest email link, they take us to evolutionary biologist Lewis Wolfert's new work, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief, which I hope to get to when I finish things like Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt.  I say "things like" because I set works aside to read periodicals like Church and State from the folks at Americans United (for Separation of Church and State), and sometimes start back up on another work and eventually work back to whatever I am reading.  When I finish a book I have a somewhat read one lying around waiting to be finished.  I know, this is no way to treat books, and I have little doubt that they will soon rise up against me.

Whenever I think about the issue of Nature versus Nurture I am forced to take the position that, say, alcoholism, is neither Nature nor Nurture but both.  My great grandfather was a Rebel officer later honored for his humanity to Northern troops, saving them from the worst of the marauders, Quantrelle.  The Northerners, from Illinois, sent him a round trip train ticket for their reunion after the war, and he was wined and dined like a King in the best of Chicago's hotels.  He had attained to the rank of colonel and was so beloved of his troops that they gave him a nickname, one that stuck with him from then on.  To his troops, Col. Leland Martin would forever take the parenthetical middle name "Big Drunk."  His grandson was a lush, as was his great grandson.  When I left my uncle's house as a boy after a Sunday visit to eat Navy pancakes, I asked my dad what sort of work his brother was in, and my dad said "real estate."  I shrugged, replying, "That's funny, I thought he was a teacher."  To my father's incredulous "Why?" I responded, "Because he has a bottle on the counter with the word, 'Teachers' on it."  I would later learn that other people had uncles named Jim Beam.

I last had a drink of alcoholic spirits 18 years ago.  When I quit, I was on tequila.  About a pint a night chased down with two or three beers, the ritual of lime, salt, shot, more lime, and a swallow of cerveza, what I liked to call "Mexican boilermakers."  (Ironically, the same addiction once beset actor Anthony Hopkins, and it's amusing nowadays to look at his old films with the knowledge he may have been sloshed when he shot them, as was the late Richard Burton.  What is it about the Welsh and the usquebaugh?)  Needless to say, I was out of control.  And although I could take the easy way out and claim that I was predestined to my addiction, I placed only some blame on the biological factor, and an equal portion on environment.  I feel much the same way about sexual orientation, gender identity, and other human traits. 

We now know a bit about the origins of belief, and I would wager that Wolfert would agree that although there is a bit of a religious inclination in our DNA, we are far more influenced by our environment when it comes to suspension of reasonable disbelief in favor of the wholly irrational: myth, superstition, and dogma.  I occasionally think back to childhood experiences and and astonished at how I was exposed to a great deal of brainwashing in protestant Christianity to have wound up protestant only in the sense that I protest.  I was, after all, an Episcopal acolyte, a boy soprano in the church choir, Joseph in the Christmas pageant, &c. &c., even as I would skip Sunday school lessons and go down the embankment from the church to a local drive-in restaurant called Mac's to sip cherry cokes with friends and poke fun at the Sunday school teachers, none of whom practiced what the minister preached. 

I clearly doubted from an early age.  When I got to college and debated religion with classmates, one of them refused to believe I was skeptical.  When I pointed out that he could only prove his God by faith alone, which is no proof at all, he responded that even I accepted many things on faith.  He pointed to the light switch in the dorm room and said, "Take that, for example. You have faith that when you enter a dark room and flip the light switch, the lights will go on."  How can one argue with such illogical people?  Has it not been said that true communication is only possible among equals"?  When asked what proof they have that God exists, many tell you the Bible says so, and if English was good enough for King James, it's good enough for me."  They refuse to believe what they do not want to believe.  Few of them know that the Bible was written in Koine Greek, which had no punctuation such that "God is Now Here" might also be "God is Nowhere." 

As I had gone to a church-subsidized university (TCU), I was required to take three hours each semester, Old Testment first, then New.  I did quite well in these courses and went on to take enough religion to minor in it.  I especially delighted in learning about American minority religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, and many others.  This ultimately led to flirtations with all manner of Eastern faiths and moral systems (Theravada Buddhism is not a faith, per se), and I came to the conclusion that not a one of the world's religions was a bit better than any other one, and each had its blinds and contradictions.  What I am left with is sheer amazement at how belief systems, instilled in childhood, can lead to what I call ostrichization: willful ignorance of science, willful defiance of reason.  I suggest that Nurture is far more significant in the making of a dogmatic bigot, as all or almost all dogmatists appear to become.

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Comment by Daniel W (Sentient Biped) on February 5, 2012 at 1:36pm

James, I suspect we overlap a little regarding  Buddhism except you probably know a lot more about it than I do.  I would be more in the Zen direction, except I too would not be able to meditate.  I practice "puttering meditation" in my yard and garden.  Biking used to be a form of meditation for me, cleared the mind.  That is not likely what the Buddha had in mind. Walking meditation might work for me.  Existentialism is the best way to describe my thoughts on mortality.

Comment by James M. Martin on February 5, 2012 at 1:07pm

Sentient, as I understand it there are two basic forms: Theravada and Mahavada.  The latter is Tibetan in origin for the most part and it is the one that has a spirit world, saints, &c.  I subscribe to Theravada, although I am a horrible practitioner in that I do not meditate.  That is the only praxis in Theravada.  All of the ritualistic stuff is Mahavada.  Zen and existentialism seem to have much in common.

Comment by Daniel W (Sentient Biped) on February 5, 2012 at 9:52am

James, to the extent I understand Buddhism that makes sense to me.  There are so many different versions of Buddhism, depending on the local cultures were Buddhism spread, that it's hard to generalize.  I think some forms of Buddhism have souls and gods, and others dont.  I agree with you, there are Buddhist ideas that appeal to me too, although not reincarnation or karma.   I've thought Zen is appealing,  but I am to Western to accept the work involved.

Comment by James M. Martin on February 4, 2012 at 10:56pm

Steph, this is what the Buddha advised.  Supposedly, on his death bed, Gautama told disciples, "Accept nothing on faith, question everything and make up your own mind," or words like that, in Pali no doubt.  That is the scientific method, too.  As there is no personal soul in Buddhism, and as it is not necessary to have a personal deity (or ANY deity for that matter), I think of Buddhism as an ethical system, not as a faith.  Its only bugaboos are the same as Hinduism's: karma and reincarnation.  I can't go for that.  That smacks of metaphysical forces.

Comment by Steph S. on February 4, 2012 at 8:42pm

Sentient Biped is correct in the nature vs. nurture stance. We do make decisions that affect us daily - and I made the decision to lose that belief system. I questioned everything -- I didn't accept everything told to me. I am still like that -- I question everything.

Comment by Daniel W (Sentient Biped) on February 4, 2012 at 8:22pm

James, as you discuss, there are roles for genetics and roles for environment in human thought and emotion, and behavior.  For someone to think that we all have the same blank slate on which environment creates all of our thought patterns and emotions, is just shallow.  We are not just an operating system to have programs downloaded into us - we have basic temperaments, inclinations, emotional flavors, thought styles, that a mother can recognize in her newborn quickly, before environment can have much of a role.  On the other hand, to think that environment can't play a major role in expression of our basic inclinations is also narrow.  The interactions of our genetics and our environments make us who we are.  For some situations, basic temperament may override other factors, and for other situations environment may be more influential.  Bottom line:  some of us is nature, some of us is nurture, and some is interaction between nature and nurture.  As for choice, we don't chose our genetics, and we don't always choose our environment, but somewhere in there, we do make decisions that affect the course of our lives.

Comment by Steph S. on February 4, 2012 at 6:59pm
I agree that nurture makes the dogmatic bigot - they are indoctrinated.
Comment by James M. Martin on February 4, 2012 at 5:50pm

Loren, I just came across a bio of and interview with Wolfert, whose work I had not known. He is quoted as saying: “I’m not against religion. Invoking God to explain evolution and the origin of life doesn’t help one iota, but it makes people feel better. That’s the point, you see? I’m only against religion when it starts to interfere with other things, like telling people they can’t use contraception, or banning abortion, or stopping euthanasia. These bloody religious nuts in Parliament! Nobody else, other than the Catholic Church, ever went around saying a fertilised egg was a human being, and now people are starting to believe it. Authority plays a big role in our beliefs.”

Comment by Loren Miller on February 4, 2012 at 12:24pm

Of course it is, especially considering that we're all born atheists. One of my favorite videos is one of Richard Dawkins who, in answering a student who asks, "What if you're wrong?" notes that religion is in very large portion a product of geography, specifically the location of your birth and the religion (if any) of your parents.

I suppose nature will have some influence, particularly regarding neural formations in the brain and the resulting liability for certain types of subjective experiences. Still, if you have sufficient external social pressure telling you that such experiences are natural and indeed necessary to your own personal relationship with a dead zombie, some people under such consistent goading will do all they can to manufacture such experiences or at least claim that they have had such.

If peer pressure and superimposed expectation aren't the primary tools used by religion to coerce new recruits, I'll eat my hat.

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