Still working my way, slowly, through Steven Pinker’s THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE. In Chapter 4, The Humanitarian Revolution, he discusses various kinds of violence over human history, beginning with human sacrifice, and then to violence “against blasphemers, heretics, and apostates”. I found this paragraph striking and typed it out. (page 149)
People become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. No one gets upset about the beliefs that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it with their own eyes. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin or that God exists in three persons or that Ali was the second-most divinely inspired man after Muhammed. When people organize their lives around these beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them – or worse, who credibly rebut then – they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.
“Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.”
I just acquired a new book by Tim Crane, THE MEANING OF BELIEF, about which I blogged a week ago about a New York Times Book Review review. The book is petite, smaller than a standard hardcover, with under 200 pages of text. The prose is carefully worded, as written by a philosopher, careful to define his terms and qualify his claims. Crane’s stance is that he doesn’t dispute the issues discussed by the ‘New Atheists’ — Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, as well as A.C. Grayling — but wants to understand, even if the cosmological claims of religions are easily dismissed, why and how religion forms such a fundamental part of the human experience. So I am on his side; my discussions in this blog, about books by E.O. Wilson and Jonathan Haidt and many others, are more to try to understand the human experience, than to dismiss religious claims (which is easy). My theme is the disconnect between human nature, human perception of the universe, how those are understood as protocols for human survival, in a natural selection sense; and what is actually real about the universe, that vast universe we can barely perceive and which is so much more vast than anything imagined by the ancients.
So… here’s Tim Crane’s definition of religion. He waffles for a few pages before realizing he has to define his central term in some sense, before he can write a book about it. Page 6:
Religion, as I am using the word, is a systematic and practical attempt by human beings to find meaning in the world and their place in it, in terms of their relationship to something transcendent. This description has four essential elements: first, religion is systematic; second, it is practical; third, it is an attempt to find meaning; and fourth, it appeals to the transcendent.
He goes on to expand on each of these elements, in this first chapter, and in later chapters.