31 October 2013

The Swedish Atheist: The review – part 2

Now things are getting a little heavier, with a discussion about how cultural influences shape religious belief. Sheridan seems convinced of something much like what Richard Dawkins said in a response to the question, "What if you're wrong?" after a reading of The God Delusion in 2006:
Well, what if I'm wrong, I mean — anybody could be wrong. We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the pink unicorn and the flying teapot. You happen to have been brought up, I would presume, in a Christian faith. You know what it's like to not believe in a particular faith because you're not a Muslim. You're not a Hindu. Why aren't you a Hindu? Because you happen to have been brought up in America, not in India. If you had been brought up in India, you'd be a Hindu. If you had been brought up in Denmark in the time of the Vikings, you'd be believing in Wotan and Thor. If you were brought up in classical Greece, you'd be believing in Zeus. If you were brought up in central Africa, you'd be believing in the great Juju up the mountain. There's no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian god, in which by the sheerest accident you happen to have been brought up and ask me the question, "What if I'm wrong?" What if you're wrong about the great Juju at the bottom of the sea?
Randal also gives a quick nod to John Loftus' 'Outsider Test for Faith'. The gist of the chapter is the notion that Christians (and religious folk in general) aren't as self-critical as they should be about the extent to which culture influences their beliefs.

I'm just gonna lay it out like I see it: I think Randal's response here is terrible. It's aimless, misguided and flat-out wrong on several counts. Let's begin:
"All our knowledge and beliefs are shaped by our cultural environment. Take vision, for example." With that I stand up and walk over to a young man sitting on a couch studying intently for final exams. On the table is a stack of books on psychology, including Lionel Nicholas's Introduction to Psychology.
"Nicholas is helpful on this," I say to Sheridan, "because he recounts the findings of an anthropologist named Turnbull that illustrate the extent to which perception is shaped by culture and environment. Let's see ... here it is. `Turnbull stated that when he was accompanied by a pygmy guide (who had spent his entire life in the dense jungle ... never entering the plains in any manner) onto the open plains, they observed a buffalo (which the pygmy had only ever seen at a maximum distance of 30 meters in the jungle). When the pygmy was shown the buffalo at a distance he asked what kind of insect it was. When told that it was not an insect but rather a buffalo, he stated that it could not be a buffalo as it was too small .-3 
"The point is that sensory perceptions are distributed over geographic regions in much the same way religious perceptions are. As I said, people living in the jungle interpret a particular sense experience as seeing an insect, whereas people on the plains interpret that same sense experience as seeing a buffalo. What you perceive depends on the culture and environment in which you were raised. Who knows to what extent living in North America today might have shaped our perception of things? But even though we know that perception is shaped by our culture and experience, we don't thereby cast doubt on all our perception. After all, the guy that reported he saw a buffalo was correct. Instead we should adopt an `innocent until proven guilty' attitude, recognizing that perception is generally trustworthy even if it is not infallible. Why not think about religious beliefs in similar terms? Couldn't they also be generally trustworthy even though they too are shaped by culture and environment?
Randal gets off to a perfectly respectable start by pointing out that all our beliefs are shaped by our cultural environment, not just our religious ones. But I think that Randal is greatly underestimating how unique religion is in this regard. According to research by the Pew, people do often change religious affiliation, but most retain the religion of their childhood. Of those who change, the vast majority simply change to some other permutation of that same religion. The number who become 'unaffiliated', though apparently growing, remains small. This suggests that, like Dawkins suggests, growing up in a certain faith has a very strong impact on your faith as an adult. No surprise there.

But where Randal really falls of the wagon is with the statement, "The point is that sensory perceptions are distributed over geographic regions in much the same way religious perceptions are." Randal gives a couple of other example, but they're not examples of people seeing different things but rather interpreting data differently. This where Randal needs to be a bit more nuanced. Of course culture influences how we interpret sensory data, whether it's the kind of music we like or the type of plant or animal we think we see from afar. But it's ridiculous to suggest that sensory perceptions themselves are subject to the same kinds of cultural distribution biases as complex religious dogmas. Erroneous sensory perceptions can be easily identified, corrected and controlled for using scientific methodology; the same cannot be said of erroneous religious claims.

In any case, Randal doesn't appear to take exception to the notion that religion is heavily biased by cultural influences, but he doesn't see that as being unique and, accordingly, as a reason to be unusually skeptical of religious claims. But we can draw a parallel with science. Sheridan tries, but his atheist caricature is pretty lost:
Sheridan lets a disdainful puff of air escape his lips. "Look, scientists agree about what they perceive. Religions don't."
Oh, Sheridan. You poor make-believe atheist. Of course it's not true that scientists agree about what they perceive. Debate is a bedrock of scientific inquiry. What scientists do have that religion does not is a methodology by which they can, over time, demarcate reliable truth-claims from unreliable ones. That is why many scientific discoveries have been made independently – that is, more than one person (or team) in separate parts of the world, despite having no contact with each other, were able to use the scientific method to come to the same conclusion. That's probably what Sheridan was getting at with his clumsy retort.

Importantly, there is no such example in religion. Not one. Not ever. Because there is no methodology in religion for demarcating truth from falsehood, no two cultures who are geographically isolated, and no two theologians who are not part of the same religious subset, have ever come to the same conclusions about the nature of God. Broad generalities are to be expected – one god versus many gods, angry god versus peaceful god, etc. etc. – because there are only so many permutations of deities that are believable. The anthropologist Pascal Boyer goes into quite a bit of detail on the cognitive psychology behind successful concepts of gods in his book Religion Explained. Diving into it here would be a big project unto itself, but I think the point is well-established.

So clearly, there are some non-trivial differences between religion and the interpretation of sense perception, or religion and scientific methodology. But if we are going to critically examine one belief system that's heavily influenced by culture, shouldn't we examine them all?

[Randal:] So if I accept your outsider test in religion, then it applies here as well, and you need to test your political convictions with the outsider test as surely as does the Afghani, North Korean or Saudi Arabian."
Sheridan thinks for a moment. "I have no problem with that, I guess."
"Really? But applying it consistently to all our beliefs is impossible."
"Impossible? Why?"
"Just think about the implications for politics. Even if you could defend representational democracy over and against other systems, you wouldn't be done. In fact, you'd just be getting started! Then you'd have to defend your chosen political party. After all, party affiliation is also deeply influenced by geography.
Again, there are relevant differences between political systems and religion. It is of course a good idea to think critically about representational democracy's strengths and weaknesses compared to other political systems. But unlike religion, political beliefs do not require their followers to accept the existence of things for which there is little or no evidence, or which is by definition immune to evidence and argument. Moreover, political ideologies are often based on ideals which are not necessarily grounded in objective facts about the world – such as the extent to which the government ought to be involved in social or corporate welfare, or when it is appropriate to engage other countries in war.

It's ironic that Randal's 'Sheridan' character consistently fails to grasp nuance, because that's precisely Randal's problem. There are relevant differences between sense perception, religion, political affiliation, and whatever else one can think of (monogamy?). While our culture shapes our experience in all, only one of them requires its followers to accept things as true not only in spite of, but often because of a lack of evidence. In the absence of evidence, childhood indoctrination remains an effective tool for the transmission of religious dogmas, as the Pew research demonstrates.

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