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IOT: Approaches to Interpreting Religious Behavior

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Independence of Thought series: Part 2: Approaches to Interpreting Religious Behavior

Religion has been one of the primary sources of questions asked in the human search for truth. But the questions posed by religions don’t address the natural world. When they try, they become bogged down in vague creation myths which may be entertaining but explain nothing. Or religions invent “gods of the gaps” to cover as-yet undiscovered phenomena. But since human beings are–along with animals and other forms of life–products of the physical world, it seems to me that we should focus our attention most intensely on our identities and origins on this earth, before we try to come up with theories about unseen alternative realities.

Toward this end, I’ve been extensively studying human nature, evolutionary psychology, and philosophy. One book that has been extremely helpful to me is called simply “Truth: A Guide” by Simon Blackburn. The book details many of the arguments between the absolutist and relativist camps in terms of epistemology and ontology. One of the first arguments Blackburn discusses regards the veracity of religion. He talks about two different ways of approaching this debate:

The first approach would be the idea of onto-theology, or the belief that religions describe real people, real places, that have yet to be seen or discovered. This sums up the approach of traditional religious beliefs held by the world’s major religions:

  1. They are describing events in what they take to be a distant region of space or time, in which people may one day find themselves.
  2. They are describing events in what they take to be a distinct and disconnected region of space and time, in which souls and spirits exist.

The second approach would be more pragmatic, setting aside the question of whether or not religions are true, and simply setting forth what possible functions and purposes they satisfy in the world—such as the following:

  1. They are telling stories, satisfying fictions, which help to do various things (such as relieve anxiety, honor the dead, etc.).
  2. They are finding metaphors through which to gain some understanding of the human condition.
  3. They are insisting upon or expressing certain emotional reactions to the human condition: hope, desire, consolation, rebellion, acceptance, and guilt.
  4. They are performing, analogously to performing dances and songs, or reciting poetry.
  5. They are promoting the old human favorites: self-interest, self-importance, the will to power, the illusion of control over events.
  6. They are affirming identities, and cementing local loyalties, or separating themselves from others.
  7. They are giving themselves the illusion of a foundation for their morals and their social practices, in the will of a supernatural agent.

While such meta-analysis of religion as a cultural phenomenon has been expounded upon by Dennett and others, these would clearly be fighting words to onto-theologists. As the 2006 cartoon flap showed, they would definitely be fighting words to the world’s Muslims. The Danish cartoonists were simply suggesting that Mohammed was an icon who was being abused to manipulate a society into doing violence.

Let’s forget for a minute about the content of the cartoons. Their content is actually far less damaging than what they imply: that an icon has power independent from what it represents. It shows moreover that it is possible for humans to interfere with the conduct of a religion by interfering with its iconography. If it worked for the cartoonists, it could work for other authorities–opening it up for use as a tool of governance. This practical expedience in turn opens up a huge can of worms of questions about authenticity. It compromises the divine sourcing of scripture and (potentially) reduces it to mere human literature. The idea that a religion could have been “made up” or adulterated by men robs it of its most powerful poison: the connection of scripture and ritual to the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent deity.

We can see just how thin the ice is for the onto-theological position: The barest whiff of an accusation (by implication) that Mohammed’s image could have political expediency as opposed to ultimate reality was so close to the soft underbelly of Islam that it was cause enough for worldwide protest and rioting. The rioting was deliberately instigated by a group of Imams who reprinted the cartoons and distributed them strategically throughout the Muslim world. So there is a double irony. First, we can’t talk about the fact that the teachings of Allah or his ‘prophet’ have been used for centuries to alter human behavior by inciting violence. Second, the caricature images of Mohammed were themselves used to deliberately incite a new round of violence.

There’s a silver lining to that cartoon incident, as well as the more recent tantrums about the knighting of Salman Rushdie and the foiled June 2007 London and Glasgow terror attacks. People are getting the message that both Jihad and the beliefs which support it must be opposed. That freedom of speech and press are incompatible with the untenable notion of ‘respect’ for beliefs. This is a growing awareness, and hopefully it will spread into the collective psyche in ever more powerful ways. Many more people are realizing the menace religious belief itself represents to the world. And they may be getting closer to the day when they may be willing to actually do something about it.


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