Religion Today

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Religion and Biology

The University of Wyoming had a distinguished visitor last week, biologist E. O. Wilson.
Wilson has the usual kinds of academic achievements and awards, only more of them: More books, more articles, more speaking engagements, more honorary degrees. He has won many scientific prizes and awards, and research institutes and ships are named after him. Wilson is the person who coined the term, "biodiversity."
Edward Wilson also founded a field called sociobiology. It has become a major force in the study of living organisms, but has also brought him much opposition and criticism. Prominent scientists have written entire books arguing against his approach and research, and although his writings sell widely (even earning him Pulitzer Prizes!), it is often easier to find negative reviews of them than positive ones.
The primary reason for Wilson's UW visit was to give a talk about the need for people of all walks of life to join together to save the planet's biodiversity. He had two main points. First, it is the biodiversity that is being threatened, not just habitat. Humanity needs to work to preserve the many different species found in an area. While this will necessarily require the preservation of habitat, it is the variety of species that is important.
Second, Wilson recognizes that religion and science will never agree on questions such as creation, the origin of human beings, and the beginnings of the universe and our world. However, he argues, we all have a stake in preserving it. If we believe it is God's handiwork, then we should be working to honor and continue it. If we believe it is the result of evolution but necessary to sustaining human life, then we should be working to preserve it as well.
This second point has become a key message for Wilson in recent years: That we need to work together for the sake of humanity, despite our differences. There is much that biology and religion do not agree upon, and Wilson himself has been keen to point that out during his career. Indeed, more than a few of his writings evidence a scientific triumphalism at the expense of the belief and faith of religion. But if truth be told, it is also at the expense of humanism, the humanities, the fine arts and the social sciences.
The science of sociobiology, Wilson is not shy about pointing out, will transform the study of the human organism. Evolution was the mode of biological explanation of the 20th century. Sociobiology will take our understanding of life far beyond that.
Sociobiology has the capacity to transform the rather vague guidelines of biological evolution, even as applied to humans, into detailed specifics about human emotions, values and motivations that are transmitted from generation to generation through human genes. That means that aspects of the way we shape our societies, our beliefs, are impacted by our genetic makeup.
Under evolution, a common example of biological development was humans' acquisition of an opposable thumb. This enabled us to grasp and hold a variety of objects and to develop not only tool-using but tool-making. Sociobiology takes that kind of evolutionary thinking into human personal and social behavior. For example, you know the common evangelistic phrase, "we all have a god-shaped hole in our hearts which we seek to fill"? Well, sociobiology would put it this way: "The predisposition to religious belief is an ineradicable part of human behavior." (Quote from Michael McGoodwin.)
In other words, humans have evolved a tendency toward religious beliefs and practices. Religious behavior, sociobiology argues, is part of our biological human nature, not just part of our social organization or personal behavior and belief.
And that is sociobiology's challenge to the social sciences and the humanities, to theology and religion. It is redefining the biological definition of human nature, and in detailed specifics. That new understanding of humanity's biological character will bring on shifts in our notions of human nature, and that change will not come without serious debate and disagreement. We are in for a ride.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Religion is Irrational. So what?

A common charge leveled against religion is that it is irrational. Although this charge has been around for centuries, it has recently gained new currency through proponents such as Ayn Rand, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins -- and now apparently Stephen Hawking.

What does it mean to say, "religion is not rational?" That's a good question, because rationality itself has many different definitions. They range from notions so vague that every thought not markedly insane is rational to formulations so strict that no idea is rational unless it meets several philosophical tests.

The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences gives its initial characterization of rationality as requiring "justified beliefs and sensible goals as well as judicious decisions." The three criteria here suggest an answer to our question. Since most religions and religious people are capable of formulating sensible goals and making judicious decisions, it must be the justified beliefs where the problem lies.

The Enlightenment of the 18th century attacked religion - Christianity in particular - for having "beliefs" that could not be justified or proven, such as the belief in a god, which it labeled as a superstitious fantasy.

On the one hand, this intellectual movement was highly successful, for it became the basis for the scientific and technological revolution that shaped and continues to shape our modern world. On the other hand, although the Enlightenment demonstrated that there was no rational proof for a god's existence, it failed to prove there was no god or gods. It ran into the problem that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The Enlightenment showed by its criteria that religion was irrational, but it did not demonstrate that religion was wrong.

So religion is irrational. So what? Do human beings live such rational lives that religion should be seen as a detriment?

Of course not. Humans base surprising few of their decisions and actions on rationality.

What is your favorite color or ice cream flavor? Which sports team do you root for, or do you detest sports?

If you are married, did you pick your spouse on a rational basis or did you fall in love? Was it "love at first sight"? That's not rational!

What about your friends? Did you rationally choose them out of a list ranking their best qualities, or are they just people you happened to meet and hang out with?

What do you do as a hobby or when you are relaxing? What are your favorite TV shows? Are these rational choices or just what you enjoy?

You know you should loose weight, but just one more cookie . . . .

Guys, what about your preference in cars? Or is it trucks or motorcycles? Do you lust after a Lexis or a Mercedes, or would you rather have a Ferrari or a Jag? Sure, you can debate their strengths and weaknesses, but (imagine a low, slow whisper here) what do you really want?

Think about the process of buying a vehicle. We select a few choices (rationally, of course!) and test drive them. We then pick the one we "like" or the one that feels "comfortable." Hardly a rational decision!

Gals, what about your look? You know, the style of clothes you choose to wear, the way you put on your make-up (or not), your hair style? Are these simply rational decisions devoid of feeling and emotion or do they result from aesthetic choices? To put it more simply, do you wear what "looks good" on you?

These observations are offered tongue-in-cheek, but they aim to make a simple point. Humans do not really lead rational lives. Many of our everyday thoughts, decisions and activities have little to do with rationality. Indeed, the real surprise is that we manage to think and act rationally as much as we do. So the accusation that religion is irrational simply means that it is like most of the way we live our lives.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The First Amendment is not Optional

In the political fuss over the New York Islamic community center (with a prayer room) a couple blocks from “Ground Zero,” the Constitution’s First Amendment supporting religious freedom has become a casualty. Some critics have argued that it does not apply, while others have used it as a tool of discrimination giving them the right not to have a particular religion in this place.

Neither is the case. The First Amendment was designed exactly for this situation and it stands solidly on the side of the Muslim association planning to build the center. That judgment may be politically controversial, and many do not agree with it, but it stands squarely in the middle of United States’ law governing treatment of religious groups. The legal position is straightforward.

First Amendment laws prevent the interference of government entities in religious matters and ensure our country’s widely respected freedom of religion. It has been regularly used to uphold the rights of religious minorities against opposition by the majority. Historically, these minorities have included Quakers, Native Americans, Catholics, and most recently, evangelical Christians. Ironically, evangelical Christians, who are generally opposed to the Islamic center’s construction, have in recent decades been highly active in the courts expanding our country’s First Amendment rights of worship and assembly.

The most puzzling aspect of this controversy is the willingness to ignore or reject the Constitution’s First Amendment as if it were optional. Optional! How can such an idea even arise? 

The idea comes from viewing the Constitution like another important document, namely, the Bible. In the generalized, Protestant-derived worldview common in many segments of American society, the Bible is viewed as the founding work of the Christian religion, revealed by God through Moses and Jesus, prophets and disciples.

Similarly, the Constitution forms our nation’s founding document. There is a strong tendency to view the founding fathers who composed it as superior to normal men, possessing a prophetic vision that enabled them to shape this work to last. Although these men were not divine, there has recently been a movement to Christianize them and to downplay their deist and secular beliefs.

Both documents guide the communities for which they constitute the foundation. The United States looks to the Constitution and Christianity looks to the Bible as the ultimate authority. However, both works require ongoing interpretation to remain relevant and applicable to changes in society, technology, and communal growth.

It is the differing character of that interpretation which explains the notion that the First Amendment is optional.

In law, interpretation takes place through court decisions (the application of the law) and legislation (the writing of new laws). Specific interpretation can be challenged, usually through more court cases, but once the interpretations are made, they form part of the law. They become potentially applicable to any and all situations within the country. However individual authorities may treat a particular law, laws are legally not optional and the state provides enforcement means to ensure they are followed.

In religion, interpretation takes place differently. Individuals and organizations (e.g., churches and denominations) can interpret. Sometimes religious organizations have the means to enforce their interpretations of belief and practice (e.g. the Inquisition, pledges of belief), sometimes they do not.

Protestantism began as a rebellion (initially by individuals) against the interpretation of the Bible propounded by (the organization of) the Catholic Church. Protestants also rejected a number of books in that Bible (books now called the Apocrypha).  In other words, Protestantism not only discarded centuries of interpretation of the founding Scripture, it changed the contents of that Scripture. Even as these radical changes took place, however, Protestants elevated the Bible as a whole, claiming that they were being more true to that sacred text.

That legacy leads many Americans whose worldview is informed by Protestantism to view the Constitution in the same way. The First Amendment and its history of legal interpretation can be rejected because they believe it is not “true” to the intentions of the Founding Fathers.

It is the intellectual equating of the Constitution with the Bible, and seeing the Constitution within the Protestants’ interpretive history of Scripture, that enables the notion that the First Amendment and its guarantee of religious freedom can be discarded. But since the Constitution is a legal document rather than a theological one, that position is false. 

Note: I wrote a different column on the NYC Islamic Center near Ground Zero earlier this summer, before it was made into a political issue. Most of my followers missed it. It can be found below.

It’s OK to Pray in Your School

The school year is arriving again. This seems like a good moment to revisit that continually confused and confusing issue, prayer in schools. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding of what kind of prayer is permitted in the public schools of the United States of America. So let me take this column to review what is and what is not allowed with regard to prayer in public schools.

What kind of prayer is allowed in a public school?

Everyone and anyone who goes to a school may pray there. "Everyone," that means students, teachers, staff and administrators, may offer a private prayer to the divine at anytime they choose. "Anyone," that means any person of any religious faith, be they Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon, or Native American, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, or Wiccan. Thus praying in the schools is permitted to everyone there, as long as it is private and personal, and does not interrupt legitimate school activities.

It is also OK for students of like beliefs to join together to pray, whether informally ("let's meet at the west door before the bell") or more formally in a religious club of voluntary membership. This club may meet on school property, such as in a classroom, at times when clubs are usually allowed to meet. The only exception to this is if the school has banned clubs altogether. The rule of thumb is that religious clubs must be treated the same as other clubs.

Similarly, it is permitted for teachers, staff, and even administrators to join together voluntarily to pray. Again, this may occur in formal or informal settings.

What kind of prayer is not allowed in a public school?

It is not OK to pray in a school in way that would knowingly or unknowingly coerce anyone of a different belief to join in. Thus teachers, principals and others in a position of authority should not use that position to persuade, require, expect, or intimidate students or others under their supervision to take part in prayer that they otherwise would not. Schools are inherently hierarchical and those who are higher in the hierarchy should do nothing that would seem to exercise that position to make those below them pray.

Similarly, prayer should not be part of public school functions. Although this rule can be a bit vague, the main principle is clear. A general prayer offered in a manner designed to be inclusive of all present, whatever religion they adhere to and articulating generally positive sentiments agreeable to them, is sometimes acceptable, if not done too frequently. Graduation ceremonies can usually include this kind of prayer. Prayers that adhere to a single doctrinal line or reflect a non-inclusive theology do not belong at school functions, even if said by a student.

In general, prayer should not be conducted in such a way to exclude or stigmatize those who do not participate in or follow a particular religion.

Finally, participation in prayer should not be used as a basis to reward or promote those who take part or to withhold such rewards from people who do not.

These rules, both positive and negative, are designed to ensure every individual's freedom to believe and worship as they choose, and to prevent the power of the state (as exercised by the school and its employees) from interfering with that right. Those who do not follow such rules may be exercising what they see as their own religious freedom, but they will be doing it at the expense of the religious freedom of others.

Ban the Burka?

Governments in the European countries of France, Spain and Belgium are trying to persuade their parliaments to ban the public wearing of the burqa, the veil which some Muslim women wear over their face. In the Middle East, the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Syria have banned burqa-wearing in the universities.

The French government argues for its ban on the basis of respect for the dignity of women. The Jordanian administration focuses on security, showing criminals using the burqa as a disguise when robbing banks. Indeed, many countries seem to be worried about security, since the bulky robes usually worn with a burqa can easily hide explosives or weapons.

What unites these actions is the emphasis on a woman NOT wearing the burqa. That makes sense to most of us in the first world, where we do not have a tradition of female covering. Our secularizing goal is to liberate women from having to wear this outfit. But many Muslim women prefer to wear the burqa or other covering clothing; many consider it traditional. Others find that it enables them to work with male co-workers and be taken as an equal rather than as a sex object. Preventing women from wearing a burqa thus becomes a form of social engineering, of forced behavior, rather than of religious liberty.

So how should a society balance legitimate interests of security or education with each individual’s right to religious freedom?

Religions themselves suggest an answer. Most religions have a concept of sacred space, an area where their god is especially present. Although diluted in modern times, the concept of special places, buildings, cities or even mountains set aside for religious or divine purposes appears in most world religions.

Ancient Judaism believed its Jerusalem Temple was holy because God “dwelled” there. In Islam, the mosque containing the Kaaba in Mecca is sacred. In Christianity, the places where Jesus performed miracles are deemed holy.

Places such as these, as well as lesser religious sites, have rules about preparations or clothing needed for entering them. Muslims should wash before entering a mosque to pray. One should don a yarmulke in a synagogue and in some a prayer shawl as well. Catholic priests wear liturgical vestments when leading worship at the altar. Similarly, Hindu priests must dress in a particular way when worshipping their god or goddess. Women and men are expected to cover their shoulders and knees at Christian religious sites such as the Vatican or monasteries.

In an analogue to the notion of sacred space, non-religious institutions like governments  should have secular sites that are special to it. Like sacred sites under religious control, which promulgate their own rules about dress, these special secular sites government control could have their own dress codes. In many places, such as airports, this already takes place.

Governmental institutions could designate places such police stations or universities as having this status. To enhance security, for instance, they could ban any clothing that hides the body’s appearance, whether worn on the head or face, the torso, or the legs. This would effectively exclude the burqa at a place where that exclusion makes sense. Modern airports already practice something like this during their security checks on passengers.

My point is that the banning of the burqa and the trampling on religious freedom should not be arbitrary. It should apply to only to places where that ban makes sense. All space not designated as special to a government or a religion (or a private home, of course) would thus be public space and people could wear whatever they wanted, whether revealing, modest, or covering clothing. There would only be a few limited places where normal expectations freedom of (religious) dress would not apply.

This would balance each individual’s right to freedom of religious or secular expression (with regard to dress) with the right of a few institutions, secular and religious, to determine the kind of clothing worn on their premises. The banning of the burqa in Syrian and Egyptian universities would fit into these guidelines, but France’s banning of the burqa on city streets would be too intrusive into the lives of private individuals.