Thursday, July 26, 2007

'The Cancer of Superstition'?

As returning readers may be aware, we at Ghooric Zone central are not afraid to take the occasional meander down avenues somewhat tangential to our favoured Lovecraftian topics. This post being no exception (although I will justify it as being in the spirit of Lovecraft materialist atheism).

Guardian readers out there will no doubt have encountered Gordon Lynch's piece berating Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett popular books on religion (published Saturday 21st July 2007) which can be found here.

It seems to me that, as one commentor to the article has already noted, Lynch has constructed something of a straw man argument: invalidating Dawkins and Dennett's claims not by what they have said, but what they have failed to say. In all, this seems to be a case of sour grapes on the part of a sociologist of religion who is a bit miffed that his particular field of expertise has not achieved popular recognition in the way that Dawkins and Dennett have popularised their take on religion.

The problem here (or so it seems to me) lies in the 'crisis of representation' afflicting the social sciences since the 1980s (especially in the wake of Clifford & Marcus' 'Writing Culture'). In brief, this 'crisis' (which has led disciplines such as anthropology to argue themselves into a corner) was the consequence of concerns surrounding how a range of literary and rhetorical devices were being deployed (in anthropological writings, for example) as a means of presenting partial and culturally-biased 'data' as scientific fact. This was highly problematic because of the way anthropological writing in particular presented often deeply ethnocentric views of other cultures (views which implicitly asserted the 'superiority' of the Western anthropologists' own culture) as 'factual'. Further to this, postmodernist and poststructuralist trends in the social sciences have also emphasised the folly of pursuing 'objective' knowledge, and have maintained that 'Western' science is a myth or 'discourse' (an approach which fails to take into account the fact that centres of scientific thought have, of course shifted geographically across the duration of human history), and that 'rationality' is a culturally and historically contingent product of the European Enlightenment rather than a panhuman propensity. Don't get me wrong - there are sound and important epistemological issues being addressed here, not least of which is the way politics, ideology and knowledge become intertwined. As an anthropologist, I absolutely recognise the many problematic ways in which my discipline is founded on - and has been used to support - colonial expansionism and the exploitation of people's across the globe. Furthermore, 19th Century pseudo-scientific anthropological theories (outmoded even in the 1920s) were brought to bear as 'scientific proof' of Nazi racial doctrines. Thus Nazi scholars used anthropological pseudo-science to justify the Holocaust. More than enough reason to exercise caution when one encounters claims that a particular set of ideas is 'scientifically proven' (New Agers take note).

A consequence of these debates is a kind of epistemological double-bind meaning that social scientists become complicit in their own marginalisation. Eschewing explanations of human behaviour - particularly those grounded in the 'myth' of science, rationality and reason - many social scientists have come to favour self-conscious and reflexive 'interpretations' of human behaviour. Said interpretations also favour an outmoded view of a)the mind as tabula rasa and b)the social and the cultural as forces which exist external to human beings.

As mentioned above, there are good reasons for this turn away from science in the social sciences. However, emphasising the role of the social on our behaviour has enabled social scientists to dispense with the need for investigating 'human nature' or to have outright rejected the notion that such a thing might even exist. I personally don't doubt that culture and society have a profound part to play in shaping our behaviour; however, if one goes looking for books on human behaviour, what one tends to find on the shelves of most major bookshops these days is a range of popular science texts written by biologists and geneticists offering 'hardwired' explanations of said behaviour. It is unsurprising that ideas about human behaviour have eclipsed sociological and social anthropological thinking about the same issue, because said texts offer concrete explanations of human nature. Social and cultural anthropologists, on the other hand, tend to offer very wooly semi-autobiographical musings about (to paraphrase Clifford Geertz) their own interpretations of other peoples interpretations about what they think they might be doing.

For all their rejection of science, social scientists have tried to write themselves out of this mess via an elistist retreat into obscurantism which, paradoxically, legitimises itself through the deployment of 'technical' and quasi-scientific jargon (for an excellent critique of this - though one generaly rejected by the social sciences - see Sokal's 'Intellectual Impostures') disguised as genuine knowledge (a huge generalisation, I know, but we of the Ghooric Zone are not known for out impartiality). I should know, as I've been guilty of this myself on more than one occasion. To be frank, I find this obscurantism both patronising and incredibly hypocritical given that it almost wilfully re-instates the very problem that responses to the aforementioned 'crisis of representation' sough to address. This, of course, compounds the problem of the marginalisation of the social sciences because people who might otherwise be interested in what anthropologists and sociologists have to say are quickly put off after encountering even the most 'basic' of introductory texts. Compared to the mass of popular texts about human behaviour produced by natural scientists like Dawkins, I can think of only two popular books written by social anthropologists in the past twenty years.

The accessibility of the social sciences is further compounded by the claims iterated by Gordon Lynch in his article (and nicely summarised by another commentor on the Guardian website): that to fully understand the issues in their depth and complexity, one must have read X,Y & Z. While a broad knowledge of the intellectual history of a given field is always desireable, failure to take into account the breadth and depth of that history doesn't logically invalidate the claims of Dennett and Dawkins.

What Gordon Lynch does not address here is the fact that Dennett's work (if not Dennett himself) is informed by a wide array of research provided by long-standing and respected anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer, Dan Sperber and Scott Atran - specialists who aware of the history of their field and who do explicitly address the shortcomings of prior anthropological understandings and theories of religion.

American anthropologist Scott Atran (in his book In Gods We Trust), for example, has taken pains to demonstrates the failure of previous approaches in the social sciences to develop anything close to a comprehensive explanation of religion. At heart, Atran's argument is quite simple: every (functionalist) theory of religion can be countered with by an example of religion acting to support an opposed function. For example: 'religion is a way of dealing with anxiety in the face of death'. Yes, but religion also generates anxiety in the face of death (i.e. the threat of what might come in the afterlife, hellfire and damnation and so on). In effect, Atran (along with Boyer) argues that prior explanations of religion are not, in fact, 'scientific' expanations; rather they are a kind of interpretive folk-psychology or folk-sociology masquerading as scientific theories. What Boyer and Atran do instead is to posit a generally non-functionalist cognitive theory of religion: the human ability to conceptualise religious and other kinds of hypothetical otherworlds, spiritual beings etc. is simply a by-product of our mundane everyday cognitive functioning (itself a product of millennia of evolution). What this approach also suggests is (to borrow a phrase from Boyer) 'the naturalness of religious ideas'. In otherwords, religion can be understood not as 'irrationality' or 'superstition' (although of course Dawkins often couches the issue in comparable terms) but as a 'natural' outcropping of our day-to-day cognitive functioning. This is, I think, where people like Dennett and Dawkins fall short and where I probably find myself partially agreeing with Lynch: as an atheist, I can't but help regarding religion as part of what Lovecraft called the 'cancer of superstition'. However, from another point of view I can understand why religion is unlikely to go away: it's simply part of how our mind works, and the production of religious concepts and representations well be tied to the same cognitive capacities (the production of symbol, metaphor and analogy) which allows our imaginative faculties to flourish and which (oddly enough) enabled Lovecraft to produce his visionary but atheistic fictional otherworlds. Of course, simply having the capacity to cognise hypothetical otherworlds doesn't necessarily mean we have to believe in them!

In fact, the general approach of Atran and Boyer (which to my mind is part of a hugely significant, groundbreaking approach to the understanding the origin of religious concepts) is profoundly indebted to the intellectual history of their discipline, starting with 19th century anthropological and psychological theories of religion posited by Edward Tylor, who offered a minimal definition of religion as a 'belief in spiritual beings'. Interestingly, Talal Asad is invoked in the Lynch article as demonstrating the partial and ethnocentric definitions of religion deployed by Dawkins and Dennett. This leads me to raise a point that perhaps addresses some of Lynch's concerns: does Buddhism (a non-theistic religion) not, therefore problematise this presumably ethnocentric definition of religion as a belief in spiritual beings (one based, according to Asad, in the Christianity and philosophy of Western Europe)? Probably not. Social anthropological studies of Buddhism have themselves supported the view that non-theistic and 'rational' forms of Buddhism found in places like Sri Lanka and Thailand are, in part, fairly recent European 'inventions'. In brief, the 'elite' (often middle class) forms of Buddhism found in these areas (which espouse non-theism and demand that Buddha was just an enlightened human being) are, to some extent, products of a Buddhism transformed by European colonialism and reinterpreted by European scholars to fit a 'rational' Western world-view, then fed back to indigenous populations via Western forms of education. However, as the scholar of Buddhism Martin Southwold points out, localised village and rural forms of Buddhism in places like Sri Lanka do in fact incorporate spiritual beings into their beliefs and practices, and various Buddhist scriptures also support the 'supernatural' nature of Buddha. What this brief example hopefully goes some way to showing is that the consequence of reviewing the intellectual history of (in this case) anthropological approaches to religion - and the subsequent recognition that cultural and historical contingencies shape the content, meaning and character or 'religion' - does not necessarily invalidate the apparently ethnocentric claim that religion is concerned with spiritual beings. (Further to this, psychologist Justin Barratt has undertaken a number of research projects which appear to demonstrate cross-culturally that, regardless of what a given doctrine teaches, in informal settings human beings tend to think about religion in terms of human-like but supernatural beings such as gods and spirits).

It seems to me, then, that the argument Lynch employs is typical of the self-sustaining (and condescending) argument marshalled within the social sciences in order to promote the continued neccessity of (increasingly marginalised) social sciences specialists: i.e. we are the only people who have the time and resources to read and properly understand all of this stuff - if you challenge our view or fail to buy our books or accept our ideas that is a consequence of your ignorance, not a failure on our part to communicate our ideas clearly or to support them with hard data.

Again, this is why people turn to the likes of Dennett and Dawkins: they offer concrete explanations (not 'interpretations') grounded in empirical data (not 'discourse'), and couched in an accessible and comprehensible style. This is not to say that such popular reviews of religion are without flaws. However, the emphasis on interpretation over explanation provided by social scientists is generally not satisfactory for the majority of human beings. This latter point is indeed one that anthropologists have themselves recognised. Why is it, then, that they have consistently failed to operationalise in their own field of study? A failure to 'properly' understanding the complex role of religion in the modern world lies not with the Dennett and Dawkins, but with the inability of those who oppose them to mount anything close to sustainable defence.

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