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We need a strong scientific culture that understands the world the way it is, and then we need to interpret these facts with good values. It's interesting to go back to the founding fathers of this country. What did they think about religion, and why was the separation of church and state so important?
It was important because most of these guys were irreverent. They were nothing like the religious zealots of today. They thought that religions were good on an intermediate scale, in providing services for their own members, but religions were a problem when you thought about the larger social unit. That's why the separation of church and state was so important. Yes, the world is full of intolerance, and atheists are despised in our culture, but when it comes to doing something about it, this is where it helps to think like an ecologist. An ecologist and evolutionist tries to explain human diversity in the same way that he explains biological diversity.
What does that mean? In biological communities there are many species because there are many niches, and every niche calls for a different strategy for survival and reproduction. If you ask, what is the environment that favors the kind of society that we would like—a society grounded in good facts, informing a good value system—the only environment in which such a society can survive is a wealthy, stable environment.
That's what you find in Europe. I won't talk about America for the moment. In Europe, you're born into a safe environment; you have lots of resources; you can pack your individuals with education; and you can expect to live until you're in your late seventies. You can figure stuff out. The consequences of failing aren't so bad. This is where liberalism thrives. A lot of what you're talking about isn't religion versus non-religion.
It's conservatism versus liberalism, just as there are liberal religions and conservative religions. I like to quote someone who converted from a conservative religion to a liberal religion. Now, where do conservatism and authoritarianism thrive? They thrive in dangerous, chaotic environments, where people don't have the resources to educate themselves. This is where you have a society in which people are told what to do.
Other parts of the world, such as Europe, are becoming more secular, because the environment is favoring that. But the world as a whole is becoming more religious, more fundamentalist. It's because it's becoming more dangerous and chaotic. Governments aren't providing the services that people need, and religions are. Again and again you hear about these so-called terrorist organizations providing services for their people. When I hear my respected colleagues, such as Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins, talk about religion, I think they are smart people doing something which is not so smart.
They ask, "How can people believe such dumb stuff? If you think of these systems as successful in some environments, but not others, then you can isolate the environmental factors. If you want liberalism to thrive, religious or non-religious, then provide the proper environment, and it will grow spontaneously.
You said you weren't going to refer to the United States just now. Can you put the United States back in your equation? The United States is an anomaly for people who study religion because it's an affluent society, and yet, it's highly religious. The idea that it's a free religious economy doesn't work out very well, because if this were the case, then Australia and New Zealand should be like the United States, and they're not. Another possibility is that the income inequality and inequality in general are so great in the United States that we combine an affluent nation like Europe, with a third world nation.
There are many people who are not getting the fundamental ingredients of life, financial, psychological, or sociological, and who then turn to religion. I came here prepared to say "a plague on both your houses. There's a lot about science that has the trappings of religion, but at the end of the day I want to disagree with you. I'm a veteran of the group selection wars. There are a lot of heresies in science, a lot of stuff that's taboo.
Science is often taught by rote, and one could use religious terminology to describe the process: Dan Dennett makes this point himself. Much of what we know we take on faith. We take the theory of relativity on faith; we can't derive all the equations from scratch. But at the end of the day, no matter how complicated it is, and how filled with paradigms and incommensurability, there is something about the scientific method that makes our representation of the world converge on what's actually out there.
This is a magnificent thing, and, unless it was the goal of science, it wouldn't happen. Individuals won't do it by themselves. The mind is full of all sorts of distortions. Unless you have a culture that says, "It's our goal to have beliefs that accurately represent reality, and then a procedure—a set of procedures—which converge to reach that goal," there is no way you will achieve scientific knowledge. They try to disprove their own pet theories. This is what the controls are all about. You know that you do have a lot of pre-conceived notions, and you have to fight against them all the time.
Really good scientists will do that. It's an ideal; obviously hard to reach. It's an enterprise that's being performed by people in all different cultures, all over the world, and they're sharing their results. This circle has been widening, so that scientists are working in all sorts of countries that we otherwise would have little contact with. These scientists are working together. There's something very powerful about this; it's really kind of amazing.
I also have a Master's degree in religious studies from a Methodist seminary. I can see both scientific and theoretical approaches to religion. Part of the problem with this debate is the fact that there is no universally agreed upon set of terms for defining religion. Many societies don't even have a term for religion, because what we, from a scientific perspective, consider to be a religion is so embedded in their worldview and social behavior that it can't be separated from the rest of their culture.
Evolutionary models for explaining the origins of religion have been around since the end of the 19th century, but many of these have been criticized for their ethnocentrism. Part of the problem with this whole "religion versus science" debate is that it seems to preclude other forms of religiosity that do not depend on empirical thought—such as Buddhism.
I think there's a problem with Christi-centric and dogmatic views of religion. We're evolving toward this supreme form of rational thought, and Western rationalism determines what this highest form is. It's akin to scientists arguing that evolution is progressing toward what we have already attained.
That was a nice comment. It reflects a lot of background and knowledge in anthropology. I think that salvaging an old idea that's been rejected is much more difficult than coming up with a new idea. I know this is true in biology, because I have spent quite a few years trying to salvage the concept of group selection, which was a heresy for much of the 20th century.
The same is true for theories of religion in anthropology. Most enduring cultures are impressively organized to manage the affairs of their people. I think this can explain some of the things you're pointing out—the great diversity of religions, for example. This is exactly what you would expect from the postulates of evolutionary theory. There can be many different ways to organize groups of people, a huge diversity of ways.
So we don't expect uniformity at that level. Without plunging into an academic discussion, I think that what's so exciting now is that we can revive some of these old ideas and return to a concept in which society means something. I have a written question here in front of me.
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In an age of fundamentalism and excess, such as our own, this leads to lots of people killing other people in the name of religion. Is this inevitable or avoidable? People killing each other in the name of religion—which we see a great deal of lately, don't we? I think it is not inevitable; it is avoidable.
Do we have to get beyond religion to get to that point? If what David is saying is true, that if we have stability, which tends, naturally, to give rise to a more secular perspective, then we have a chicken and egg question. How do you attain this stability if you still have religious fundamentalists? At which point in the system do you intervene? Do you do it through political will? How do we get to this great stabilizer that will prevent people from damaging society?
I'm amazed at how many suicide bombers appear everyday. I thought there might be a limit. But persecution seems to be attracting more people. This is a scary development. Sam Harris talks about this, how terrifying it is to have super powerful weapons in the hands of people with ancient beliefs. How do we stabilize things? Does anybody know this? Can anybody in this audience tell me how? One of the pleasures of studying a subject scientifically, including religion, is to find answers to these kinds of questions.
I've studied a random sample of religions. I went to an encyclopedia of world religions, the sixteen-volume set compiled by Mircea Eliade, and I wrote a little computer program that picked volume numbers at random and page numbers at random within volumes. In this fashion I more or less grabbed a sample of religions, thirty-six religions, totally at random from this encyclopedia, without reference to any particular hypothesis.
So I can answer the question, how many religions in this sample were spread by violent conquest? How many do you think? It turns out that the minority were spread by violent conquest. It didn't spread by violent conquest. Think of early Christianity. Mormonism might be thought to have spread by violent conquest … if you were a Native American. You don't want to lay this at the doorstep of religion do you? Were Mormons different from anyone else?
Do you think that the atheists among the pioneers weren't displacing Native Americans like everyone else? A lot of the people who came over were businessmen …entrepreneurs. The religiosity within the pioneers was much less than we think. By no means were there only pious puritans who came over. Do you remember Garrison Keeler's quip on this subject? Does religion exacerbate between-group conflict? Or, when you look closely at religious conflict, do you see sociopolitical conflict lying behind it?
Religion might only be framing the debate. To pick suicide bombing as an example, this is a strategic move. There is good literature on how this tactic is employed by Marxist groups, such as the Tamil tigers, as well as by religious groups. So the idea that you get infected by this religious fervor which causes you to strap a bomb on yourself is not true.
I have a question for Natalie. In the beginning, you took scientists to task, saying that they should make a bigger deal out of all of the untruths in religion. Could you explain what you have in mind? How can they do this in a way that won't exacerbate the "us versus them" phenomenon that draws the ranks of the religious even tighter and seems to be so counter-productive?
What is it exactly that's at stake? Is the scientific enterprise at stake? Is our future as scientific leaders in the world at stake?
If we allow this kind of irrational thinking to spread into all areas of academic research, then the integrity of the scientific enterprise is going to be compromised, along with our economic future, which is built on it—and I believe this. We're concerned that a spreading irrationality is affecting scientific progress. Scientists are willing to speak out against part of it. They criticize people who do Ouija boards and horoscopes. They say, "That's ridiculous," but for some reason they think they shouldn't speak out against creation science and other religious beliefs that are even more commonly believed by Americans.
If this is the approach that scientists are going to take, then it seems to me that they're not going to accomplish what they set out to accomplish, which is to encourage people to think scientifically. The scientific way of thinking and of understanding the world has an economic, rational, and perhaps even a pacifying aspect to it.
I recognize that scientists have done terrible things. We have the nuclear bomb because of Oppenheimer. Scientists are speaking out now and asking, "You guys in the media, why don't you help us here? So when it comes to criticizing superstition, do we carve out an exception for religion?
Is it bad to have creationism taught in school, or isn't it? Scientists seem to think it is. Is it bad that there are horoscopes in almost every newspaper in the United States, while at the same time they're closing down their science sections? I think these are decisions that we have to make as a society. I think the reason that social units became larger in Europe is because of the widespread print media …newspapers and so on. People were addressing common issues, and that's true even more so now. Communication can be a nervous system that creates larger groups, but it's important to say that that's not inevitable, by any means.
There are all kinds of dystopic scenarios. Just because the scale of things has become larger does not mean that we're going to turn into a great big organism. It could go the other way. We could turn into a big group in which some elements take over, and we get permanent inequality. This is another reason why I think it's important to study religions respectfully. If we're going to understand how society might work at a large-scale, we damn-well better understand how it works at a small-scale.
That's the only model we have.
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Then we can try to take some of those elements and scale them up. Our best models for large-scale cooperation are smaller-scale groups in which cooperation does exist. Basically, when humans were hunter-gatherers there was one despotic alpha who kept everyone in order, and then, as we evolved to become cooperative hunters, we created the ultimate alpha—God—who keeps us all in line. We have evidence for this in the submissive gestures that most religious groups make to their God, kneeling and bowing their heads and so on. T hat's not quite right. Many of the high gods or moralizing gods didn't come into existence until later on, with larger-scale societies.
Hunter-gatherer societies are very egalitarian. They don't need to have a high-god in the way that we envision it. But Morris did make one good point in his discussion of monotheistic religion. Why did monotheism come about? Its origins lie in cultural dislocation. Humans used to be born into a culture. You had no choice about joining another culture. In this world, there was no need to distinguish between religion and other aspects of society.
It was all merged together, and you could have many different deities and spirits orchestrating various aspects of your life. Modern religions do things differently. They have to get people to join the religion, and the religion has to monitor its members. The group is larger. There are many more people, so the opportunities for policing, for people to survey each other, are more limited. At this point, the idea of a deity that's all-seeing comes into play.
Natalie Angier describes a slippery slope in many versions of religion toward authoritarianism. Yet, as I listen to David Sloan Wilson, he seems to be describing a happy version of ecology, in which religion does a lot of good in terms of spreading values and bringing good things to groups. I'd like to hear from both you—maybe just one more time—if, in your view, religion exacerbates conflicts between peoples or affirms values and community?
I think in this country it's tending toward exacerbating conflict. The problem is that it's no longer sufficient to be a vague believer in religion. You have to show evidence of belief. This is what I meant when I talked about religion veering toward authoritarian and extreme positions, and this is why I finally felt compelled to speak out. Public figures didn't used to have to declare their religious beliefs. Now, even Al Gore has to put himself on display. He gives this fantastic scientific presentation about understanding the world and understanding the atmosphere.
He has this incredible ability to synthesis enormous amounts of information. But at the end of his talk he feels compelled to speak about the creator. Where is this coming from? Why is this happening in this country? We can't just leave it where I thought it was—evolving toward a place where you say, "OK, let's put religion aside. This is not a healthy development for this society. People are starting to see the United States as compromised by the rise of extreme religiosity.
I believe that science in America has been an incredible enterprise, and I think scientists have to protect it, not just when they feel immediately threatened, but as a general thing. This is the direction we need the country to go in—the exploration and adventure that everybody can participate in, not just those who show their fealty to something. This is not a good thing going on here. Of course, I think it's terrible what's going on in the Middle East.
It's much more complicated than religion, and I understand that. Economic systems are a part of it, too. I don't want to sound like some kind of simplistic idiot just thinking you can blame it all on religion. And I say, "Don't you think that this outbreak of irrational thinking has a larger cause than just the creation scientists? We want to end on a note of agreement. Much of what's going on here is a dismantling of the separation of church and state. Instead, we should be cultivating the attitude that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin had, that it's perfectly acceptable to be an atheist, that an atheist could be elected to public office, and that all religious faiths should be open to criticism and public discourse.
I haven't mentioned stealth religions yet, but they're all over the place. If you think of nationalism, if you think of free-market economics, these are stealth religions. The "invisible hand" of the markets is not invoking a supernatural agent, but it is pure fiction. If you really think everyone operating in their self interest is going to make large-scale society work well—this is funny.
And yet people will defend this idea to the death. If you look at intellectual movements, academic movements, what the hell does it mean to be politically correct? What it means is that there's inadmissible stuff that you can't believe, and if you do, you're out of here. Many aspects of intellectual and academic culture are just as intolerant as any fundamentalist religious movements. I think what we need to talk about is the nature of belief of all kinds. All the things that we're talking about in respect to religion, we need to think about more broadly, in order to diagnose these problems that we both agree are problems.
Skip to main content. Bass David Sloan Wilson. It was written, not in the s, but in the s, by a member of the Hutterite faith, who said: Natalie, to even up the score here, you have three minutes. We have a question from the audience. Is which part inevitable and unavoidable? Were there any atheists among the pioneers? Has communication advanced past group selection? Pulitzer prize winning science writer for The New York Times. SUNY distinguished professor of biology and anthropology, Professor of English and Journalism, State University of Beyond Edge Natalie Angier's Website.
David Sloan Wilson's Home Page. The Bizarre True Story The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Experiences in which I felt universal empathy and compassion for all creatures wandering through this same labyrinth of creation. I also realize that spirituality has a dark side. I personally believed some version of most of these ideas at some point in the past, so I know how attractive they can be. This attitude creates a paradoxical internal situation rife with cognitive dissonance: It places you in a position of being at war with yourself.
This attitude is toxic. It creates a sense of guilt and a feeling of being trapped in a hopeless predicament. But relinquishing the ego is monumentally difficult, perhaps impossible. And would we actually want to? It creates the space to stop living reactively, which increases freedom. In doing so, one comes to see the ego as more of a wily friend, a tool, an amoral container of individuality, and a bundle of sometimes useful, sometimes counterproductive processes. This distancing process can be seen as a means of overcoming the ego without demonizing or destroying it. Knowing that you are fine just as you are does not preclude the possibility of continuing to learn, grow, and walk an ever healthier and more meaningful path.
Your ego is not evil. It is not your enemy. Observe its peculiar movements. This is definitely understandable. Suddenly, an obviously deranged person leaps out of a bush wielding a knife. He takes one look at my daughter, raises the knife, and starts charging toward her with a wild look in his eyes. In this situation, an absolute pacifist would hold that I should not defend my daughter.
I should simply try to run away or reason with the violent individual. This seems self-evidently absurd. We can make this even more clear-cut. In my hand, by some great fortune, I have a remote control. If I push the button on the remote, a device previously implanted in the terrorist will activate, and he will be poisoned to death.
Absolute pacifists would say that I am not justified in pushing the button. We can assert with near certainty that nothing short of violence could have deterred them from this mission. An absolute pacifist would be forced to conclude that the Allies should have simply surrendered, ran away, hid, or tried to reason with the Axis powers. It is the greatest crime of our time. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs… It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany… As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions.
In some cases, violence is necessary to neutralize an evil enemy attempting to take innocent lives. Hence it was that I took part in the Boer War, the so called Zulu rebellion and the late war. Hence also do I advocate training in arms for those who believe in the method of violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honor than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor.
As a final example, consider the most clear-cut case I can think of: A terrorist has gotten his hands on a molecular nanotechnology weapon. Unless he is stopped, he will unleash a swarm of self-replicating nanobots that will promptly convert the biosphere into a heap of trillions of nanobots, destroying all life on Earth.
Ten reasons millennials are backing away from God and Christianity
You happen to be a sniper who is watching the terrorist from a mile away. You either shoot him and neutralize the threat, or you allow the complete destruction of life on Earth. Anyone who would not pull the trigger in this situation seems to me to be profoundly unethical. I think violence should be used only in rare and extreme circumstances.
Cultures and societies are inevitably somewhat oppressive for everyone who exists within them. This is because if for no other reason they come with a whole bunch of norms—standards of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors—and they pressure the people existing within them to abide by these norms. And invariably none of us fit perfectly into these societal molds; we have plenty of whims, desires, ideas, fantasies, and dreams that are considered out of bounds.
It creates a lot of suffering. Jordan Peterson has noted that society is simultaneously a tyrant and a wise king. The tyrant is the oppressive side that forces you to conform in ways that conflict with your true desires. The wise king, however, is the side that many anti-establishment types overlook. Humans are known to have a negativity bias: Nowhere does this seem more true than in discussions of culture and society among countercultural folks. But what about all of the miraculously good, life-improving aspects of our modern cultures and societies?
These things were painstakingly invented over the course of centuries because we created this walled garden called civilization that shielded us from the vicious death-maze of the natural world and freed up a lot of our time to work on making cool shit to improve our lives. Our cultures and societies represent an age-old legacy, a birthright passed down through countless generations. And yes, we should keep imagining ways to make it all much better. And yes, it sucks to feel the pressures of society.
Meditation is a tool for self-awareness and self-liberation that has been used for thousands of years. Numerous scientific studies have suggested a number of marvelous benefits that come with meditation practice. And meditation challenges form the core foundation of our course, 30 Challenges to Enlightenment. With that being said, many people have a misconception of what meditation is or can be. Meditation is associated with inner peace, realms of light, a transcendence of darkness and worldly concerns. But meditation is not all fun and games. This might be your experience for years.
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In essence, advanced forms of meditation are means of directly observing your own mind, drilling down into your psyche to see yourself and your existence as clearly as possible and to accept reality non-judgmentally. Meditate for long enough and you will be confronted with your deepest fears. You will come face to face with the fact of the inevitable deaths of you and everyone you love. You will uncover your own shadow —the parts of yourself that you reject, repress, and normally refuse to look at; the memories, impulses, urges, and desires that your society deems taboo.
You will see yourself clearly, in all your beauty and hideousness, and you will need to find a way to accept who you are. This is not to be taken lightly. Granted, on the other side of this hell you may realize mythical levels of spacious awareness , acceptance, and freedom. But getting there is no joke. This side of meditation is rarely discussed. But this is the truth, and more people need to be aware of it. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.
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Religions are massive ideological and cultural structures undergirding a colossal amount of human activity in the world today, and we need to be able to distinguish between them in order to criticize their unique flaws and applaud their unique boons. This view was expounded especially eloquently by the late Alan Watts:. Alan Watts and others rebelled against this status quo, calling attention to the interconnectedness of all things and the ambiguous nature of the boundary between the self and reality.
Typically, monists say that the universe is equivalent to God, so you are actually also God. As you realize everything is totally connected, you develop the ability to affect anything you want. This is the ultimate fantasy of power and invulnerability. When the fantasy collides with reality, monists retreat into a make-believe magical world.