Two Americas: Rationalists and Arationalists

twoamericasFrom Jeff Schweitzer, a marine biologist, neurophysiologist, and the author of Beyond Cosmic Dice:

Before imploding in the face of his sordid extramarital trysts, presidential candidate John Edwards based his campaign on the idea of two Americas, one rich the other poor. He was right about the idea that America is divided, but wrong about the nature of the division. The deeper and more important split is defined by religiosity, not riches. The barrier separating us is defined by the unbridgeable gulf between God and rationalism. This is not a culture war, but a cosmic battle between theism and humanism.
Those who accept the idea of God tend to divide the world into believers and atheists. Yet atheism, meaning “without God,” is really a pejorative term that defines one worldview as the negative of another, as something not what something else is. The word atheist is analogous to the denigrating word “colored” to describe black people, which was meant to say they are colored relative to the pure “standard” of white; atheism is similarly meant to describe rationalists against the pure “standard” of belief. Both terms are the result of ignorance and bias about what constitutes the baseline for comparison. Just as we thankfully no longer use the word “colored,” we should abandon the term “atheist.”
If we insist on defining one group as the negative of another, then the world would better be divided into rationalists and “arationalists”—those with reason and those without. But a more reasonable and neutral description of the two worldviews would be theists and rationalists (or humanists, take your pick).
Perhaps the clearest distinction between theists and rationalists is found in the perception of which group best defines and protects our moral values. The association between morality and religion has been established so firmly over the past 2,000 years that the link largely goes unquestioned. Churchgoers tend to believe that they have a leg up on moral behavior relative to humanists, or worse, that rationalists are a threat to morality. In that environment of religious fervor, any attempt to shift to a strictly secular model of morality strikes many as heretical even today, on par with Galileo’s transgression so long ago.
But cold statistics prove the association between religion and morality wrong. A recent paper published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology concluded that societies with the lowest measures of dysfunction are the most secular. How did the author, Gregory Paul, arrive at this conclusion? He analyzed 25 indicators of “social dysfunction,” including rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, unemployment, and poverty. He compared those rates to religiosity as measured by self-professed beliefs and frequency of church attendance within each country studied. According to these indicators, the two most religious countries, the United States and Portugal, turn out also to be the most socially dysfunctional.
Paul’s conclusions have been challenged by some skeptics who claim the results are a consequence of “selection bias” in what data were collected and analyzed. There is likely some truth to that since social and behavioral studies can only rarely completely eliminate the bias of self-reporting. Yet in spite of the study’s flaws, the conclusions seem fairly robust. Society has the association of morality with religion inverted. Humanism is the guardian of morality.
Traits that we view as moral are deeply embedded in the human psyche. Honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, kindness to others, and reciprocity are primeval characteristics that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could thrive only in cooperative groups. Good behavior strengthened the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. Morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development, not a gift from God.
Our inherent good, however, has been corrupted by the false morality of religion that has manipulated us with divine carrots and sticks. If we misbehave, we are threatened with the hot flames of hell. If we please God, we are promised the comforting embrace of eternal bliss. Under the burden of religion, morality has become nothing but a response to bribery and fear, and a cynical tool of manipulation for ministers and gurus. We have forsaken our biological heritage in exchange for coupons to heaven. That more secular countries suffer less social dysfunction is not only unsurprising but fully expected.
Religious morality is also flawed because it rests on the false notion of human superiority. For millennia, peoples of nearly all cultures have been taught that humans are special in the eyes of their God or gods, and that the world is made for their benefit and use. This is revealed clearly in Genesis, which gives humankind the mandate to fill, rule over, and subdue the earth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Of all visible creatures only man is “able to know and love his creator.” He is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake,” and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity.

Blinded by this deeply ingrained religious bias, we keep forgetting that our highly developed cerebral cortex does not confer upon us any special status among our living cousins. We easily embrace the idea that humanity is set apart from all other animals. But nothing could be further from the truth. Humans are nothing but a short-lived biological aberration, with no claim to superiority. If evolution had a pinnacle, bacteria would rest on top. When the human species is a distant memory, bacteria will be dividing merrily away, oblivious to the odd bipedal mammal that once roamed the earth for such a brief moment in time. Our self-promotion to the image of God is simply embarrassing in the face of the biological reality on the ground. There is a loss of credibility when you choose yourself for an award.
Somebody who believes in God cannot possibly comprehend a world in which God does not exist. Somebody who understands God as a myth cannot pretend to grasp a world controlled by some higher power. So theists and rationalists keep shouting incomprehensibly at each other in a growing cycle of incivility.
Both sides are guilty of shouting, but that reality misses an important point of volume. According to a 2008 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than 78 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Only 4 percent are self-proclaimed nonbelievers (1.6 percent are atheists and 2.4 percent are agnostics). A yelling contest is not exactly equitable. The humanist cry is like a mouse peep measured against the roar of a jet engine.
Yet in spite of these massive, overwhelming, deeply embedded majorities, Christians today often speak in the dialect of victimhood. Many feel under attack by secular humanists threatening them with gay marriage, abortion, and moral decay. Can the views of a few really be a threat to the many? This is like claiming the noise of the turbine engine is being drowned out by the poor rodent’s squeak. It’s an absurd idea.
Coming together and singing “Kumbaya” would be great, and as time passes, there will be short-term victories for each side. But for now, a deep chasm remains between those of faith and those of reason. We are a nation divided. That is the reality.

Category: Expert Opinion

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6 Responses

  1. Dan Brannan says:

    Insightful. I found myself squirming while realizing the many irrational claims and actions of my fellow “parishioners” . . . and wondering how I might ensure my own spirituality (or religion) becomes more rational without compromising some core concepts. Tolerance might be a first step. Humility about religious claims could be another.

  2. V.V. Raman says:

    While I am sympathetic to the overall thrust of these reflections, I have serious disagreements with the language and style of the attack on religious-mined people. But I grant that it is one of the many verbal skirmishes between atheists and believers that have become an ugly aspect of scholarly exchanges, let alone in the hypercharged political atmosphere, of our times.

    1. He was right about the idea that America is divided, but wrong about the nature of the division.
    He was absolutely right about the idea that America is (as it has always been) divided on the basis of financial resources, but the division between the rich and the poor is only one of many other lines along which the nation is divided.
    2. The deeper and more important split is defined by religiosity, not riches.
    Maybe in the minds of some atheists, but for millions of others the divisions on the basis of wealth, education, race, and availability of health care are deeper and more important.
    3. The barrier separating us is defined by the unbridgeable gulf between God and rationalism.
    True, but the opposite of belief in God is not rationalism (except from a naïve perspective), but belligerent atheism. Any number of God believers are/have been rational (e.g. Albert Schweitzer, Augustin Cauchy, and Leonhard Euler) and any number of non-believers are/have been irrational (Stalin, Hitler, Mao Tse Dung).
    4. This is not a culture war, but a cosmic battle between theism and humanism.
    This is a culture war: between two groups who claim that their respective worldview is the best for their culture. It is not a COSMIC battle, but a local cultural conflict of no significance whatever to the Cosmos.
    5. Those who accept the idea of God tend to divide the world into believers and atheists.
    Just as those who don’t accept the idea of God tend to divide the world into rationalists and irrationalists.
    6. Yet atheism, meaning “without God,” is really a pejorative term that defines one worldview as the negative of another, as something not what something else is.
    Just as theism has become a pejorative term that defines one worldview as the negative of the other, as something not that something else is.
    7. The word atheist is analogous to the denigrating word “colored” to describe black people, which was meant to say they are colored relative to the pure “standard” of white; atheism is similarly meant to describe rationalists against the pure “standard” of belief. Both terms are the result of ignorance and bias about what constitutes the baseline for comparison.
    I fear this is true. But then, the word “believer (in God)” has become (in the minds of atheists) analogous to the denigrating words “fanatic,” “bigot,” “mindless victim of superstitions,” “person with a Dark-Age mindset,” etc. Such terms are the result of ignorance and bias about what constitutes the baseline for comparison.
    8. Just as we thankfully no longer use the word “colored,” we should abandon the term “atheist.”
    Just as enlightened people no longer use the words bigot and fanatic to describe those who hold different views on various issues, we should abandon such caricatures of believers.
    9. If we insist on defining one group as the negative of another, then the world would better be divided into rationalists and “arationalists”—those with reason and those without.
    If we insist on defining one group as the negative of another, then the world would better be divided into believers in something beyond the world of matter and energy, and those who don’t believe in such entities.
    10. But a more reasonable and neutral description of the two worldviews would be theists and rationalists (or humanists, take your pick).
    But a more reasonable and neutral description of the two worldviews would be enlightened believers (who are inspired to compassion, caring, love, service, and kindness from their religious beliefs, but without deprecating unbelievers); and enlightened unbelievers (who are inspired to the same virtues without any religious belief, but without deprecating believers). The latter are also called humanists.
    11. Perhaps the clearest distinction between theists and rationalists is found in the perception of which group best defines and protects our moral values.
    Both groups are capable, in principle, of upholding and practicing the highest moral values, and individuals in both groups are capable of ruining every element of morality.
    12. The association between morality and religion has been established so firmly over the past 2,000 years that the link largely goes unquestioned.
    The link has been questioned by many keen thinkers all through the ages, but it was only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that those who questioned the link came to have a good many intelligent followers, and they have been gaining strength. They have contributed immensely to culture and civilization, as believers did in past ages through poetry, philosophy, music, and art.
    13. Church-goers tend to believe that they have a leg up on moral behavior relative to humanists, or worse, that rationalists are a threat to morality.
    Not just church-goers (Christians) but many (perhaps the majority of the) followers of all traditional religions hold this erroneous view.
    14. In that environment of religious fervor, any attempt to shift to a strictly secular model of morality strikes many as heretical even today, on par with Galileo’s transgression so long ago.
    This is a problem, but to compare today’s (Western) world with the Galileo era of seventeenth century Italy is the sort of exaggerated claims that deepen further the divisions that have always existed, instead of attempting to resolve them.
    15. But cold statistics prove the association between religion and morality wrong.
    True, but we don’t need statistics to prove this.
    16. A recent paper published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology concluded that societies with the lowest measures of dysfunction are the most secular.
    Such generalizations exactly contrary findings (to the effect that people in simpler societies in Asia and Africa are far happier than in the so-called modern West have also been published and widely circulated on the internet. In our chaotic and confused world of acrimony, hate for the other, and self-righteousness, such convictions often try to get support from statistics, science, and sociological research.
    But there are a hundred other more valid reasons for the claim that secular societies are in many ways a far better and nobler expression of civilization than theocratic ones.
    17. Humanism is the guardian of morality.
    Enlightened humanism (one that does not disparage non-hurtful religion) has the potential for fostering such global values as social justice, equality, anti-casetism, respect for the other, gender equality, condemnation of racism, etc., whereas religions have the potential for inculcating individual moral attitudes and behavior towards fellow beings. Whether and how far each group succeeds in actualizing its potential is a different question.
    18. Traits that we view as moral are deeply embedded in the human psyche. Honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, kindness to others, and reciprocity are primeval characteristics that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could thrive only in cooperative groups. Good behavior strengthened the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers.
    Valid and scientifically sound statements.
    19. Morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development, not a gift from God.
    It is each person’s prerogative to regard these as a gift of God or as consequences of our genetic evolution, as long as one doesn’t hurt or harass those who hold the opposite view. One does not become rational or irrational on the basis of the choice one makes in this context.
    20. Our inherent good, however, has been corrupted by the false morality of religion that has manipulated us with divine carrots and sticks.
    Broad generalizations like this without reference to the historical context in which such ideas emerged, are not very persuasive.
    21. If we misbehave, we are threatened with the hot flames of hell. If we please God, we are promised the comforting embrace of eternal bliss. Under the burden of religion, morality has become nothing but a response to bribery and fear, and a cynical tool of manipulation for ministers and gurus.
    Too bad these things have happened, but are they not “natural” consequences of our genetic evolution? Then why make such a fuss about it?
    22. We have forsaken our biological heritage in exchange for coupons to heaven.
    When did we forsake and why? It is more important to probe into the reasons for this than to engage in name-calling. If it is because of evolution, who is to blame? After all, it is the law of nature.
    23. But for now, a deep chasm remains between those of faith and those of reason.
    Very true. And the chasm is not going to be bridged by continuing to sling more and more mud at each other.
    Religious people must recognize that non-religious people can be just as good and ethical and life-preserving as religious ones, and are not necessarily evil; non-religious people need to understand that if people believe in a God of their tradition that need not necessarily make them irrational, idiotic, stupid, or evil.
    24. We are a nation divided. That is the reality.
    Very true and very sad. Every person of goodwill, in this nation and everywhere, should seek to find ways by which we can heal the wounds that are tormenting the nation and the world, rather than accentuate them by inflaming their opponents even more.

    V. V. Raman
    A Humanist
    September 2, 2009

  3. Jon says:

    Although he makes several interesting points, I was surprised that the author did not comment on the cited journal articles’s equating of abortion with social dysfunction. I don’t think abortion should be considered a sign of social dysfunction.

    In addition, the author writes, “…since social and behavioral studies can only rarely completely eliminate the bias of self-reporting. ” This is actually quite wrong as the social sciences have been using methods beyond self-reporting for at least 50 years. We use self-report as one of many tools in the social sciences. Someone so ignorant as the author is of social science methods should avoid sweeping generalizations.

  4. I would argue I am not ignorant of the social sciences; if you read what I said, I was quoting the results of a study that INCLUDED self reporting. So your conclusion that social sciences use methods beyond self reporting are completely irrelevant to my statement. Before you accuse somebody of ignorance, you should have your facts straight.

  5. jim says:

    Rationalist and Arationists.. Jeff in your over thinking and over intelligence did you consider this? Everybody on the planet is a bit of both.. Try not to complicate things..

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