Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Different John Gray

John Gray -- not the one who understands the genders through some interplanetary calculus that escapes me -- has an excellent review in the January issue of Harper's (probably off all newsstands by now; sorry) called "Faith in Reason: Secular fantasies of a godless age." In it, he considers three books -- A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, Secularism Confronts Islam by Olivier Roy, and The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West by Mark Lilla. He begins with a summation of a certain type of argument about religion's fate:
There exists a widespread belief that as people become more modern they become less religious; that the ongoing growth of human knowledge contributes to the development of human reason, with the result that societies become ever more secular. Religion retreats as science advances, and the end point of this process will be a world in which the traditional faiths of humankind disappear. This was the expectation of John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, along with many other political thinkers, and in the twentieth century the same expectation had a powerful influence in the social sciences. Religion, in this view, is not the expression of a primary human need; it is a by-product of ignorance, or else the result of poverty or political repression. Once these adverse conditions have been overcome, religion will vanish from human life, or at least dwindle into insignificance.
He's careful to contrast this idea ("secularization") with the less radical idea that the public role of religion should be limited ("secularism").

It once hit me (long after it should have hit me; I'm a bit dull) how strange it is for evolutionary biologists (like Richard Dawkins) to recognize religious impulses as some kind of brain activity and then get angry at people for not...having different brains? It's not unlike the few, mystifying people who I've heard describe homosexuality as both genetically determined and immoral. I do believe that religion is very often an "expression of a primary human need," and while it's perfectly reasonable to think that the nature of the expression can (even should, in some cases) change, the primary need doesn't strike me as a likely candidate for extinction any time soon.

Most trenchantly, Gray sees a specifically religious tint to the work of the New Atheists:
In pre-Christian Europe, history was seen as a succession of cycles similar to those that occur in the natural world; it had no overall purpose or goal. This is a view shared by such non-Western religions as Hinduism and Buddhism, which understand salvation not as an event in time but as liberation from time itself. Christianity, by contrast, has always viewed history as having an end point -- when salvation is granted to believers. ... Ironically, the modern belief that the terminus of historical development will be a universal secular civilization could have arisen only in a culture shaped by a particular kind of religion.
It's a long(ish) review, and my post doesn't cover all its salient points -- just the one I found most interesting.


Blogger Fox said...

Sounds like a great article and I hope to get my hands on it. I once was trying to explain the basic tenants of Buddhism to a woman who went on to become a priest in the Episcopalian church. "Well the first thing is that Buddhists believe that life is suffering", I said. "No it's not!" she said, and the whole conversation died.

It might be that the religious impulse is a primary need of human beings but that is no endorsement of its beneficial nature. Dawkins gets so riled up because he believes that impulse to be harmful, not just not useful but detrimental to the person. There are many examples of behavior that we now eschew that has its roots in our early development.

On our long slow transition from animals, and all that means, to conscious beings capable of compassionate thinking, the superstitious religions of the past and present which fulfill that primary need, that still has a hold on us, weak though it is becoming in certain quarters, will undoubtedly morph into something that embraces reason and our increased knowledge of the natural world.

9:53 PM  

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