Religion Running Scared

Posted by on July 23, 2011 in Thoughts | 20 comments

Religion is running scared from advances in science, particularly brain science such as neurology. Why? Because the brain is the final frontier in uncovering the reasons for belief in superstitions, religion and a higher power. After all, the brain is what interprets everything we see, read, think, do or believe, and also it determines how we react to these things. The brain is the start and the finish of our life experiences, the alpha and omega of any and every action we make in our lives.

But why should religions be scared of this? That’s pretty obvious, because if what I said above is the case, then the soul lives in the brain, as does God and the supernatural. If the brain is all there is, then there is no need to explain God, because he inhabits a part of our brain that interprets and controls our wants and needs to believe in a higher power, and that our lives are somehow pre-destined toward a particular end.

In a Huffington Post article I read, posted to Twitter by SamHarris.org by , the opening paragraph claims that neuroscience is “in”, as if to discredit neuroscience as just being a trend that will pass. He goes on to talk about an article by Patricia Churchland, a retired professor at UC San Diego, who has noticed that oxytocin is the active chemical in the formation of morality in the brain. He then attempts to deride this information by saying that “For one who is seeking guidance on how to live his or her life, there are no answers here.”

That is completely correct, Rabbi.

Nobody has ever claimed that neuroscience, or science for that matter hold the answers to what is right and wrong. Those are judgement calls, made in the brain, based on other factors which have been interpreted in the brain, and the outcome, which we call morality, also comes from, you guessed it, the brain. (EDIT: I must admit that Sam Harris has said that science can be used as a basis for morality, based upon the assumption that “well being” is a quantifiable and universal fact. I think this is a bit misleading, and has been used to claim that science is, in and of itself, a moral framework.)

What Rabbi Yoffie has done here is create a strawman, by using Churchland’s research as a claim against religion, instead of looking at what is actually being discussed, which is that the brain has certain chemistry which makes us make decisions of a moral nature. And this is where I see religion running scared. Rabbi Yoffie illustrates this here:

“For Churchland, morality does not come from God or from philosophical intuition. She is opposed to the idea of grand ethical systems because they are not, in her thinking, biologically based. As (Christopher) Shea points out, morality for her seems to be largely a matter of prudence, emerging from the unique circumstances of each particular group.”

Well Rabbi, even though you are trying to use this statement as an illustration against the natural sciences, I think this statement nails it on the head. As Sam Harris has pointed out, morals are relative to where you live and in what culture, under what common set of rules and your own personal upbringing. This is precisely why moral judgements vary from culture to culture, and it disproves any kind of universal morality in one simple statement. But Rabbi Yoffie ignores this, and goes on to say “Churchland’s moral relativism is absolutely chilling, not to mention internally inconsistent.” Why is this chilling? Because God is no longer part of this picture, and Rabbi Yoffie has a lot to lose if god is no longer in the equation, namely his job, his respected position in society and his influence on people. People like Rabbi Yoffie are fighting hard, coming up with logical fallacy after logical fallacy, trying to justify their belief in God as being patently obvious, when to those of us who do not see the world that way, nothing could be farther from the truth.

But Rabbi Yoffie has shot himself in the foot with the closing statements in his article. He illustrates the flaws in his thinking, the holes in his argument, and the fallacy in his viewpoint in two short paragraphs (my bolded parts for emphasis).

As a rabbi, I welcome research into neuroscience but believe that as much as we are the products of biology, we also transcend it. I make choices about right and wrong by studying sacred texts that record a 2,500-year history of men and women struggling with God’s message and with each other as they attempt to define what is moral and what is not. I also draw strength and inspiration from a religious community that cares about values and deepens its search for the good through the practice of ancient rituals and traditions.

I don’t believe in easy answers to moral questions. As a liberal person of faith, I reject simplistic moral codes, and I am aware that different religious traditions arrive at different conclusions about good and evil. Nonetheless, the process of moral decision-making that my tradition offers has left me convinced that, as Jonathan Haidt has argued, there is a moral structure to the universe, and despite our differences, the great religious traditions largely agree on what our moral foundations are. And in the moral world in which I live, infanticide and wife burning are always, always wrong.

Wow, way to end an article there rabbi. At this point I should give you a moment to get some ice from the freezer to soothe your self inflicted facepalming injury, then continue.

Now let’s look at this. Rabbi Yoffie admits that his biggest determinant of right and wrong is writings of the people of his faith, and the religious community which are also of his faith. He claims that his religious community cares about values, and right and wrong. He points out that his tradition, which is also his faith, convinces him that there is a universal moral structure to the universe. And he points out that despite there being a difference in morality between different people, that some things are seen as morally reprehensible by the larger part of society. But what he has done here is actually point out how blinkered he is to seeing outside of his own tradition, and that, no matter what, he will continue to believe in a universal morality as hinted at in religious texts, despite the fact (which he points out several times in his article) that morality is NOT in fact universal.

It seems to me that the ammunition that religious leaders once had, an exclusive ownership of all things moralistic, is running out. As we make more and more advances in the sciences of the brain, we are steadily filling the God-gaps with real explanations, physical explanations of not only how we think what we do, but why we think what we do. The answers to the “Why” questions also used to be the exclusive realm of religions, and as these questions are answered, we see religion becoming less and less relevant.

This is why they are running scared.

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20 Comments

  1. The “mind/brain” is the new frontier of exploration. Hopefully we make leaps and bounds in the understanding of why some people need to believe in fairy tales, past, present, and future.

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  2. You missed another line to throw back at the rabbi when he states “there is a moral structure to the universe.” If that were true then science *could* theoretically determine that structure. 

    HuffPo articles are great blog fodder, huh? Logical fallacies abound!

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  3. And… in the moral world in which I live, stoning to death is always wrong, cutting off part of someones genitals without medical necessity is always wrong, even ASKING (much less commanding) someone to sacrifice their child is ALWAYS WRONG, PERIOD.

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    • Ron Watts Thank you, Dark Star, these issues cannot be mentioned enough

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  4. Ha, poor Rabbi can’t see the pancakes for all the blintz!

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  5. I think extreme religious faith is a form of serious addiction. The rabbi is clearly an addict. Serious addicts are a threat to society and should be rehabilitated.
    That is happening whether they like it or not as more and more people realise what religion really is. The addicts are panicking about where they will get their next fix!

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  6. Hi

    Interesting article, but I disagree on the moral relativism thing. Defending moral relativism allows you to say that what is OK in one society, is OK in that society, regardless of how offensive it may be. So, for example, if circumcision, suttee, burqa, martyrdom, and other potentially obnoxious religious practices are OK in their respective societies, then, by your reasoning, and your defence of moral relativism, you have to OK these practices. America, for example, will no longer be allowed to play ‘world police’ and go around imposing democracy on everyone.

    In the Rabbi’s case, he’s probably thinking about Hitler. If moral relativism is true, then Hitler was OK. Since Hitler was not OK, it follows that moral relativism cannot be true.

    So whence do we derive our universally-felt moral repugnances, e.g. infanticide, to use his example? Well, certainly not from the Bible. Psalms 137:9 “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

    The answer must lie in science. One example theory I’ve seen is primate group cooperation. So the idea runs like this: since primates, such as chimps, display group cooperation, aka morality, morality must be a survival instinct, or evolutionarily beneficial. So it’s actually not that hard to come up with a universalist moral system based in science.

    My 2c.

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    • While moral relativism may be uncomfortable it appears to still be a factual description of how societies work. Based on the human history, there appear to be no moral absolutes. Thou shall not kill for example does not make a moral absolute, otherwise we would not have wars or death penalties. 200 years ago even the most enlighten people accepted slavery as moral and even 130 years ago most accepted the perceived superiority of the white race as a fact. Accepting moral relativism does not mean immoral behavior must be accepted as OK.
      And in fact over the last 200 years activists have continued to raise awareness about moral issues like universal suffrage, racial equality and continue to do so. Moral relativism means that societies have a the capacity to change their moral perspective over time. If the last 200 years are a good indication than it would appear that they are generally shift toward a more liberal and equal society. I may be too optimistic, but I don’t think that moral relativism is inherently negative.

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    • It is instructive to sit down and compose your own ethics. One of my friends based his on his love for the environment while I base mine on the need for good relationships fostering the continuance of life.

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  7. In a way, God reminds me of the horizon; the more we advance (thanks to Science), the more God retreats….! And that retreat isn’t likely to stop, as long as society is still coherent, which is, alas, not a certainty for ever and eternity!
    I come from a time in which the sound of thunder was actually believed to be litterally the voice of God, and I remember the furore I caused among my classmates when, as a 9-year-old, I had the brutality to question that. Although I was implicitely educated to believe that myth, I refused to believe, that, after each and every flash of lightning, God was “forced” to speak!
    My peers, upset, told the teacher, who looked at me for a brief moment, then looked at his watch and said: “It’s time to go home, kids; let’s say grace!” And the kids were happy to leave class, forgot about God and happily went home. I understood what the teacher did, and why he did it, and said softly to myself; “Clever; smartly done!”

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  8. They ARE running from progress, and the god-gaps are closing. Yet religious morals are shackled to their own particular interpretations of their own particular ancient instruction manual.

    Mr. Roffie says “I make choices about right and wrong by studying sacred texts that record a 2,500-year history.”

    Indeed.

    The morality of most churches is so deeply rooted in pre-historic values and concepts that they will actively oppose progress on all fronts. They will accept their 2,500 year old book and it’s questionable morals; and they will oppose any contradictory knowledge emerging since it was written, despite it’s unassailable veracity.

    Those who define modern morality as the poorly constructed opinions of ancestors who lived over a hundred generations before us – in a different time and a different place, with completely different circumstances – forfeit the right to our respect. We make our own morality now and we have built ourselves an improved framework in which to do so.

    We also have brains in our heads. Some should all use it more.

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  9. Neurology is not “brain science”, but a medical discipline concerned with the nervous system. Which has other parts than just the brain.
    I also highly doubt the premise that “religion is running scared” from advances in science. Religion is not concerned with advances in science, otherwise it would be science. Other ways of knowing, and all that.

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  10. 1) “brain science such as neurology” is what he said. Let me break down what this is actually saying, since you fail at reading comprehension:

    He was discussing, rather clumsily, not neurology or its definition, but sciences that deal with the brain. Neurology is such a science, is it not? He could have added psychiatry/psychology in there as well, and some anthropology, sociology and so on. But he didn’t. The “SUCH AS” means he was indicating that neurology is of a piece with other things, not that neurology studies only the brain.

    Your second point, that you don’t think religion is running scared makes no sense in light of the relgiotards’ behavior.

    If they weren’t so scared, why fight so hard to force their looney make-believe story into science classes rather than letting science teach evolution? Why get so bent out of shape when any teacher talks about evolution? Why have teachers fired for teaching it, or threatened with bodily harm–never mind committing it against teachers who teach, you know, reality?

    As for other ways of knowing, that makes no sense. It certainly doesn’t mean that “another” way of knowing is valid, and religion isn’t valid. It’s premises are full of shit Always have been, always will be.

    Take your ball of stupid and go home. Nobody wants to play with it.

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    • It would seem to me, based on your definition of “running scared,” that atheists are running just as scared as the religious because you fight just as passionately against religion as the religious fight for it. Stupid is as stupid does.

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  11. Shoot–my numbers disappeared. How did that happen?

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  12. @ Dark Star
    God did more than ask for a human sacrifice, he let one happen. If anyone claims there is no human sacrifice in the bible ask them what happened to Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:29-40.

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    • Letting a human sacriice happen does not actually go byond asking for you as your language posits. It actually stops short of it. Wow! Jephthah was a hypocrite in religious devotion, familiar with human sacrifice in other religions and influenced by superstition. Deut. 12:31 prohibits human sacrifice. You err because you seemingly do not understand how to interpret simple narrative versus didactic literature. The historical record in no way impugns God even though you would love it to just that. Your bias is unambiguous.

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  13. So now”:running cared” is how you define “This is nice, but isn’t what we’re all about”?

    No, I don’t expect a respectful answer – not from people who twist not only what the rabbi was actually talking about, but what Torah talks about, too. But I can’t resist remarking that saying “there’s no moral structure to the universe because, if there was, science could find it,” illustrates exactly why none of you will ever get what the rabbi was saying, & clearly don’t want to even bother. Which is fine, but you should just admit it.

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  14. If human beings are going to live together, there are certain things that must be agreed upon. The precise nature of these agreements vary by location and historical period. Generally, one will find prohibitions against murder, theft, and so on. These are practical measures, created by human beings to make organized society possible. They are not things handed down by an invisible, supernatural being. Unfortunately priestly or shamanistic classes will arise and turn the practical into orthodoxy and the ugly grip of religion takes hold.

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  15. nice article, makes sense, though too condescending in nature.. I’m with you on this and even I felt it!

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