Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Is religion a good idea?

When I reviewed Newberg's book Why God Won't Go Away (review here), I mentioned in passing that one of Newberg's good points is that man is a religious animal. You hear this rather a lot. Surely the mere fact that religion is a universal human trait means that atheists should accept that it is there for a reason. Man has evolved to be religious and unless religion provided a selective advantage then we wouldn't have it. I am talking biology here, not culture. Our brains are wired to be religious which is why we tend to come up with alternatives even when real religion is taken away (hence the ubiquity of celebrity worship and other kinds of religious displacement activity). The only alternative is that religion is a by-product of some useful trait that has such a high survival value that it is worth the price of having religion as well. Quite what this trait might be, no one knows and it looks like clutching at straws.

A slightly cannier atheist might claim that we needed religion once but we don't need it anymore because now we have (drum roll) science. All I can say is that all the attempts to get rid of religion have resulted in worse alternatives. Given atheists are supposed to have great faith in empirical results, I would have thought they would have accepted by now that they are better off sticking with the traditional religions. Some have realised this. Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist and atheist, says so in an article in this week's Sunday Telegraph. It is an interesting reflection on what happens when you get rid of traditional religions. Naive secularists dream of a republic of reason. Unfortunately, that's been tried a few times, first of all during the French Revolution when they replaced Catholicism with reason and set off an orgy of freethinking violence. Nowadays you get superstition, new age lunacy, sex and shopping. That's preferable to massacres but not a good return on abandoning traditional religion.

So, it is certainly true that man is a religious animal. Unfortunately the original quotation comes from that master of the snide one liner - Mark Twain. The quotation in full reads:

Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion - several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight.

This just goes to prove that if you mine for quotes selectively enough, you can even get Mark Twain to speak sense.

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