Why is belief is all-important?

 

Kurt Andersen in his book FantasyLand argued that it was necessary to go back 500 years to explain the New World. He started with the new religion that was born—Protestantism. It was of course just a version of the old Catholicism, but it had some important innovations that had important long term consequences. Martin Luther was particularly vexed by,

the regional archbishop, in order to cover the costs of celebrating his elevation to cardinal, has encouraged local Christians to pay money to be forgiven their sins (and the sins of deceased loved ones), thereby reducing or eliminating the posthumous wait in purgatory.”

 

After all it really didn’t make sense that paying money for prayers would put us in front of the line in heaven.

Luther was also upset by the holy relics found in his local church. Most of them of course were fake. The relics included:

 “a piece of straw from baby Jesus’s manger, threads from His swaddling clothes, a bit of Mary’s breast milk, a hair from adult Jesus’s beard, a piece of bread from the Last Supper, and a thorn from His crucifixion crown. The young theologian, appalled by the church’s merchandising, writes an impassioned three-thousand-word critique in proto-PowerPoint form, nails it to the door of the church on All Saints’ Eve, Halloween, and for good measure sends a copy of his screed to the archbishop himself.”

 

The church had been selling fake news. It’s not popular now; it wasn’t popular then.

The manifesto that Luther published in 1517 also had a profound effect. Andersen described its genesis this way:

“Luther’s main complaint had been about the church’s sale of phoney VIP passes to Heaven. “There is no divine authority,” one of his theses pointed out, “for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately [when] the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.”

That didn’t have much to say for itself either. But Martin Luther had 2 extremely important ideas that actually had some long-term pernicious effects. The first of those ideas was that,

clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for him- or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.”

 

This allowed everyone to create his or her own truth. While I am no advocate for relying on authority, this idea had some dangerous consequences. Some people in time abandoned the notion of truth entirely, or at least substituted the idea that anyone could claim truth for any idea, no matter how hair-brained.

Luther had a second important concept to bring forth. This was the idea that belief or faith was all-important. It did not matter what one did, if one had the right faith or belief. You could not buy your way into heaven but why were beliefs or faith so important? I have never quite understood that. Maybe someone can explain.

 

Andersen describes the new attitude of Protestantism this way:

“…out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything. The footings for Fantasyland had been cast.”

 

Good ideas are not often enough to launch a revolution in thought on their own. In Luther’s case he took advantage of an astounding new technology—the printing press. As Andersen said,

“No new technology, during the thousand years between gunpowder and the steam engine, was as disruptive as the printing press, and Protestantism was its first viral cultural phenomenon.”

 

Reminds me of the disruptive effect modern technologies like social media have had. Are we on the brink of another revolution in thought? What will it’s long term consequences be?

Facts are not stubborn enough

 

The election of a new president in 2016 was the culmination of a 500-year history of disparagement of reason. That is the point Andersen wants to make in his book FantasyLand. As he said,

“Despite his nonstop lies and obvious fantasies—rather, because of them—Donald Trump was elected president. The old fringes have been folded into the new center. The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable. As particular fantasies get traction and become contagious, other fantasists are encouraged by a cascade of out-of-control tolerance. It’s a kind of twisted Golden Rule unconsciously followed: If those people believe that, then certainly we can believe this.”

 

Andersen argues, that a 500-year history of denigration of facts and reasoning in favour of belief without reasons has gradually led us to our particular modern circumstance where some can claim, truth is dead. He puts it this way in his inimical style:

“Each of the small fantasies and simulations we insert into our lives is harmless enough, replacing a small piece of the authentic but mundane here, another over there. The world looks a little more like a movie set and seems a little more exciting and glamorous, like Hitchcock’s definition of drama—life with the dull bits cut out. Each of us can feel like a sexier hero in a cooler story, younger than we actually are if we’re old or older if we’re young. Over time the patches of unreality take up more and more space in our lives. Eventually the whole lawn becomes AstroTurf.”

 

That history has landed us squarely and uncomfortably in FantasyLand. It is a world where we can believe whatever we want. Again, our wants are supreme. In the 1700s John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things.” But the fact is they are not stubborn enough. Fantasy can trump facts. No one knows that better than Trump.

 Instead of being bound by facts, as Andersen says:

 

“…we are freer than ever to custom-make reality, to believe whatever or to pretend to be whomever we wish. Which makes all the lines between actual and fictional blur and disappear more easily. Truth in general becomes flexible, a matter of personal preference. There is a functioning synergy among our multiplying fantasies, the large and small ones, the toxic and the individually entertaining ones, the ones we know to be fiction, the ones we kinda sorta believe, and the religious and political and scientific ones we’re convinced aren’t fantasies at all. Scientists warn about the “cocktail effect” concerning chemicals in the environment and drugs in the brain, where various substances “potentiate” other substances. I think it’s like that. We’ve been drinking bottomless American cocktails mixed from all the different fantasy ingredients, and those various fantasies, conscious and semi-conscious, intensify the effects of others.”

 

Andersen does not deny that fantasies are abundant elsewhere too. A quick look around is all you need to realize that. Yet, for some reason, fantasy does seem to be deeper and more powerful and all consuming in America than anywhere else in the world. As Andersen said,

“This is not unique to America, people treating real life as fantasy and vice versa, and taking preposterous ideas seriously. We’re just uniquely immersed… nowhere else in the rich world are such beliefs central to the self-identities of so many people. We are Fantasyland’s global crucible and epicenter.”

America is awash in fantasy and the world is awash in America. This is Andersen’s précis of 500 years of American history that has brought it to become the lord of fantasy:

“America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckers—which over the course of four centuries has made us susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem hunting witches to Joseph Smith creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to Henry David Thoreau to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump. In other words: mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled…how deeply this tendency has been encoded in our national DNA.”

 

The result is the modern world. Goya says “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters.”  The modern world is here to prove him right.

 

That is the real problem.

Why do we so often prefer fantasy to reality?

 

According to Kurt Andersen, we live in a world of fantasy, often paying scant attention to the world of reality. After all, the real world is a lot less fun and much more troublesome. Why bother with reality?

 

Canadians share many of these fantasies, but here is one example mentioned by Kurt Anderson in his book FantasyLand that is particularly American and less Canadian:

“We stockpile guns because we fantasize about our pioneer past, or in anticipation of imaginary shootouts with thugs and terrorists. We acquire military costumes and props in order to pretend we’re soldiers—or elves or zombies—fighting battles in which nobody dies, and enter fabulously realistic virtual worlds to do the same.”

I do not want to suggest that Canadians are immune to these fantasies. It is just less common here. We must remember that most of Andersen’s book was written before the tumultuous events of 2016 when the people of the United States, through the zany machinations of the Electoral college, elected as their president a man who breathed fantasies as the rest of us breath air. Andersen described that change this way:

“And that was all before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.”

 

Why did this happen? That is the really interesting part. Andersen’s book explores why and I found that exploration endlessly fascinating. But he did give a short answer:

“The short answer is because we’re Americans, because being American means we can believe any damn thing we want, that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.”

 

The even shorter answer, I would submit, is Americans wanted to believe that. In the American ideology wants are supreme. Facts are puny.

Andersen says the historic institutions that kept unreason at bay have over the last few decades in particular, been eroded. It is not just American democracy that has paid the price. The American people have as well. They have lost their way. Instead of helping to constrain unreason this is what happened:

“Yet that hated Establishment, the institutions and forces that once kept us from overdoing the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, politics, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—has enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the last few decades.”

 

Many of those institutions are commonly mocked and we all pay a very high price for that. Most of us are complicit. And it is not getting better. That means that things are likely to get much worse.

 

Promiscuous Devotion to the Untrue

Kurt Andersen in his book FantasyLand diagnosed the problem as an attitude. This is how he described it:

“What’s problematic is going overboard, letting the subjective entirely override the objective, people thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings were just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will. In America those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.”

 

Andersen believes, as I believe, that the roots of fantasy are deep and it is important for us to understand them if we want to understand where we are at in the modern world. As he said,

“Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the last half-century, Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become. The cliché would be the frog in the gradually warming pot, oblivious to its doom until too late.”

And the consequences of giving ourselves over to fanciful thinking are not innocent. They are very dangerous and we are paying the price now. We are paying it bigly. As Andersen explains:

“Much more than the other billion or two people in the rich world, we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and miraculous, in Satan on Earth now, reports of recent trips to and from Heaven, and a several-thousand-year-old story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.

We believe the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous truths from us—concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of AIDS, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.

We stockpile guns because we fantasize about our pioneer past, or in anticipation of imaginary shootouts with thugs and terrorists. We acquire military costumes and props in order to pretend we’re soldiers—or elves or zombies—fighting battles in which nobody dies, and enter fabulously realistic virtual worlds to do the same

And that was all before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole.

America has mutated into Fantasyland.”

As a result of this attitude, 500 years in the making Americans, and to a lesser extent their little cousins, Canadians, have come to believe in a large host of wildly extravagant  beliefs, when you really think about it. About 2 out 3 Americans believe that angels and demons are active in the world. About a half believe that a personal god is looking after them no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary. At the same time about a third of Americans reject the science of climate change even though 97% or more of scientists assure them it is real. In fact many Americans believe climate change is a hoax or an evil communist plot against them. About 25% believe that vaccines cause autism. These are just a few of their wild beliefs. We will look at lot more. About 20% believe that the government adds secret mind controlling technology to television broadcasts. None of these beliefs are benign. They all have consequences. The problem is that Americans and Canadians too, have what Andersen called a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue.”

America has mutated into FantasyLand

 

Kurt Anderson wrote a book that touched on many issues I have been thinking about lately. It is called, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. It describes how a country has gone crazy. He calls it a 500-year history. He goes back to the founding of America. He says during that time the changes in America have been astonishing, but often largely unnoticed because it has happened so slowly. As he said,

 

Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the last half century, Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become. The cliché would be the frog in the gradually warming pot, oblivious to its doom until too late.

 

I think Anderson is exactly right. The war on truth is fueled by a centuries long abdication of reason in favor of faith that has resulted in a persistent American (though not just America) determination to believe without evidence since the time of the Puritan arrival in America.

In recent times the fantasies people have come to believe in have constituted a tsunami. Surprisingly many of them, believe, that the country is under peril from a government that together with its co-conspirators “are hiding monstrous truths from us–concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of AIDS, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.” I have heard these from intelligent people. What has led to this? This is what interests me.

The result has not been pretty. It is damn ugly. As Anderson describes it,

“We stockpile guns because we fantasize about our pioneer past, or in anticipation of imaginary shootouts with thugs and terrorists. We acquire military costumes and props in order to pretend we’re soldiers–or elves or zombies–fighting battles n which nobody dies, and enter fabulously realistic virtual worlds to do the same.

And that was all before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.”

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.

 

I want to emphasize at the outset that fantasyland is everywhere. Not just in America, but it has truly blossomed in America, and I believe that has happened for some important reasons. Part of goes back there to their history as a nation. People lust after crazy stuff!

 

Why is that?

The war on truth: How it All Began

 

I think one of my first blogs was one of the most interesting, but I don’t recall it generated much interest. I posted it 3 years ago. See http://themeanderer.ca/fantasyland-for-real

It was based on an interview I heard by Charlie Rose with someone I had never heard of before—Kurt Andersen. As soon as I heard Andersen expounding my ears perked up. I was hooked. About 6 months later, I bought the book he wrote called  FantasyLand: How America Went Haywire—a 500 Year History. Andersen put into words things I had been thinking about but had never organized into careful thought.

In the first chapter of the book, Kurt Andersen, described an extremely interesting political operative. This was Karl Rove the “mastermind” behind the election of George W. Bush who came up with a remarkable statement that is highly relevant to this examination of the death of truth. This is how Kurt Andersen described it: “People “in the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore.

Rowe was saying we are in a post-truth world. Truth does not matter any more. Could this be true? There certainly was a lot of evidence that many people thought that way. Particularly, it seemed to me, in the United States. Of course this phenomenon is world wide but particularly virulent in the United States.

A good friend of mine said something similar: “Americans only have light contact with reality.” He actually told me I said that. I wish I had. First of all, it seems eminently true. I hope to provide an abundance of evidence in this blog. But even more interesting is why? Why are Americans so economical with the truth? Even more important, why do they not even care?   According to the Washington Post Fact Checker, president Trump hit the 20,0000 mark on July 9, 2020, for lies and misleading statements. The Washington Post called it “a tsunami of untruths.” While that is remarkable, even more amazing is the fact that Americans don’t care! That is the real surprise.

I am not saying Canadians are a lot better. After all, Canadians are just Americans on valium. Europeans have the same problem but to a lesser extent it seems to me.

That great twenty first century philosopher Stephen Colbert described the American phenomenon this way when he opined on a word he made up—truthiness. It wasn’t quite truth. It was sort of like truth. Colbert said this on his famous Colbert Report before he took over the Late show on network television. As part of that report he played the part of a right-wing populist character. He said he would use the word “truthiness” whether it was a word or not. After all, as he said,

“Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what isn’t true. Or what didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941 that’s my right. I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart…Face it folks, we are a divided nation…divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart….Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.”

And that is where many in America, and Canada too, are at. We  are impatient with facts.  Many of us  are governed by what we want to be true, not by what is true. And that is exactly the problem.

And this phenomenon, according to Kurt Andersen is not something new. As he said, “this complicated American phenomenon I was trying to figure out had been not just decades but centuries in the making.” It was 500 years old.

Andersen was trying to figure out what happened to America. Me too. I just want to add Canada to the mix. We are not that different from our big brother as we often want to think.

How did we get here? What does it mean? That is the question I want to look at in future blogs.

 

Religion and Morality

Dostoevsky famously had a character of his claim, in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, that if there is no god then all is permitted. I have actually argued, that if there is a god then all is permitted. More on that another time. Is Dostoevsky right? Are religion and morality that closely tied together?

According to Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, groupishness (the 10% bee in us compared to the 90% chimp in us) is what has allowed humans to go from selfishness to civilization. Relying on Emile Durkheim, Haidt says that “what is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to…regulate his actions by something other than…his own egoism.”

I find this very interesting because this is more or less what I have always said religion is. Religion or morality, on this view, is what connects us to others or to the world.

Haidt also offered an interesting definition of moral systems. He said,

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

That is a mouthful and I am not sure what I think of it. It’s a functional definition so it’s a bit outside my comfort zone. I just think that Haidt had some very interesting things to say about religion and morality, and he made me think. That’s a good thing.

Haidt does not say whether supernatural beings exist or not. He believes such ideas may have evolved with humans as they evolved. He does say however, that those groups who believed in such agents and used such beliefs in building moral and cohesive societies lasted and prospered. They used such ideas to elicit sacrifices and commitment from their members and that helped them to suppress cheating and increase trustworthiness and that helped them in their projects. Groups that had gods who promoted cooperation responded to those gods and were helped to rise to the challenges they faced.

In that sense Haidt says religion is a team sport. As he said:

“We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects. That’s what religion is all about.”

That is also what morality is all about. Religion has not always been about those things. Often religion has been an instrument of division not cooperation. Then religion is shorn of what makes it sacred. It is no longer religion at all.

Finally, this is what politics should be about as well. Clearly, currently that is not the case in much of the world. Politics is riven by partisanship instead. Everywhere you look people are driven apart by politics. That’s a pity. Together we could accomplish so much. Much more than we could on our own. As every coach knows, it’s teams that succeed, not individuals.

 

Religion: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

 

Jonathan Haidt’s analysis so far does not mean religion is an unmixed blessing. But it does mean religion does some good—some significant good.

Haidt paid attention to scientific work by R.D. Putnam and D.E. Campbell and their fascinating research into religion. That research has revealed some surprising things about religions. One thing it has led to is the conclusion that religion has produced large surpluses of social capital that has benefitted not just religious adherents, but outsiders as well.

Jonathan Haidt has argued, that religions are sets of cultural practices that coevolved with the minds of humans by the process of multi-level natural selection. He has pointed out that to the extent that group-level selection occurred, we can expect religions and religious minds to be parochial. In other words, human minds concentrate on helping the in-group of humans. Yet, this is true, he argues, “even when a religion preaches universal love and benevolence.”

That may be not be intuitive, but Haidt argues that “Religiosity evolved because successful religions made groups more efficient at “turning resources into offspring.” As a result of that Haidt argues, “Religion is therefor well suited to be the handmaiden of groupishness, tribalism, and nationalism.” While those are not entirely benign forces, they can be aligned with beneficial results too. He gave the example of suicide bombing. Based on work by Robert Pape who created a database of every known suicide bombing in the last 100 years which showed that “suicide bombing is a nationalistic response to military occupation by a culturally alien democratic power…It’s a response to contamination of the sacred homeland.” Haidt asks us to look at it as if it were a fist punched into a beehive and then left in for a long time. That is rather a graphic image.

Yet it is admittedly true that most military occupations don’t lead to suicide-bombing because they don’t affect the right ideology that can rally the support of fanatical young men. Not every one is willing to die for a sacred cause. Shiite Muslims were the first to demonstrate that suicide bombing can work, as they used it to drive the United States Marines out of Lebanon in 1983. What does all this have to do with religion? Well according to Haidt,

“Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group, while at the same time demonizing another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited for that task. Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.” Either way, that is not so good.

Haidt analyzes the religious enterprise like this:

“…if you look at the long history of humanity and see our righteous minds as nearly miraculous freaks of evolution that cry out for explanation, then you might feel some appreciation for the role religion played in getting us here. We are Homo duplex.[1] We are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.[2] Successful religions work on both levels of our nature to suppress selfishness, or at leas to channel it in ways that often pay dividends for the group. Gods were helpful in creating moral matrices within which Glauconian[3] creatures have strong incentives to conform. And gods were an essential part of the evolution of our hivish overlay;[4] sometimes we really do transcend self-interest and devote ourselves to helping others or our groups.[5]”

 

According to Haidt, if a person lives in a religious community, he or she has a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work intuitively to influence your behavior without really thinking about what you are doing. An atheist does not have the benefit of that. If one is an atheist one might have a looser community with a less binding moral matrix that requires you to think through an issue. It is not intuitive. It is not automatic. To many, like me, that might actually sound appealing, but it is recipe for a society without a shared moral order. According to Haidt, we have evolved to implement our norms and to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. As Haidt explains, “When societies lose their grip on individuals that allows them to do as they please, and although that sounds pleasant, it actually leads to individuals being less happy and actually leads to increases in suicide. I remember a philosophy professor of mine who use to say John Stuart Mills’ “liberty” is Emile Durkheim’s “suicide.”

As a result, Haidt argues that societies that forgo religion over several generations will suffer. He says we don’t really know that yet since atheistic societies are a relatively new phenomena so we don’t yet have the empirical evidence to back it up, so Haidt is speculating. But it is certainly interesting speculation.

So religion leads to happier lives Haidt argues. Such societies will be better or more efficient at turning resources into offspring and hence will be more successful than atheistic societies. And remember, Haidt is an atheist.

In my view, this is all very interesting speculation. I am not sure I agree, but it is worth thinking about.

[1] this is what Haidt refers to humans as. By that he means that humans are creature who exist at 2 levels: as an individual and as members of a larger society (group)

[2] by that Haidt means in simplified terms that we are 90% selfish individuals and 10% social members of a group

[3] Glaucon was Plato’s brother who argued that people are only virtuous when they are worried about the consequences of being caught

[4] the bee in us

[5] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, (2012) p. 312-313

Religion can Unite us or it can divide us

 

It goes without saying that religion can be a force for good or ill. We have known for quite some time that religions can unite us, but they can also divide us. No one should know this better than a Mennonite like me. As I have said many times, when religion divides us rather than connects us, it is not actually religion at all. It is something else. In fact when religion divides us, it is not even religion. It is misnamed. It should be called anti-religion.

If the data shows (as I argued in an earlier post) that religions help people to be more generous to members of their own group, how does it help or hinder them to be generous towards non-members of that group? That is an interesting question. Robert Putnam and David Campbell wrote a book that dealt with exactly that. It was called American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. This is where the evidence gets really surprising, because one might think that people who are generous to members of their own group, don’t have enough resources to be generous as well to non-members.

As Jonathan Haidt said,

“Putnam and Campbell found that the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board. Of course religious people give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as the American Cancer Society. They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts.

Putnam and Campbell did not stop there. They were even more explicit:

By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”

 

Frankly this is directly contrary to what I always believed was the case. I first thought about this when I learned that the little town of Blumenort near to us in Steinbach had the highest rates of charitable donations per capita in Canada. At first I thought that was fantastic. It is fantastic. But, on reflection I thought that was only because Blumenort was a primarily Mennonite town and they gave most of that money to their church. I was dismissive for that reason. It turns out, based on this data, that I might be wrong.

Does that mean that my entire view of religion is wrong? The book The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt really made me seriously rethink what I thought about religion! That is amazing. I always thought I was open to new ideas. Now I had proof that this was true.

Now all of this brings up more questions. Fruitful new ideas always do that. That is a good thing. As a result I asked, what type of religion has this result? Is Islam as much a force for good as Christianity? Buddhists better than Muslims?  Are Catholics better than Mennonites? What about less institutional religions? Putnam and Campbell in from their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. did not have answers to all of these questions (darn),  but they did have some useful information about such questions as well.

Jonathan Haidt reflecting on the data of  Putnam and Campbell Putnam and Campbell analyzed the data this way:

“Why are religious people better neighbors and citizens? To find out, Putnam and Campbell included on one of their surveys a long list of questions about religious beliefs (e.g. “Do you believe in hell? Do you agree that we will all be called before God to answer for our sins?”) as well as questions about religious practices ) e.g., “How often do your read holy scriptures? How often do you pray?”). These beliefs and practices turned out to matter very little. Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon…none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people.”

I was not surprised to learn beliefs were largely irrelevant. I have thought that for a long time. Putnam and Campbell reject the New Atheist emphasis on belief and reach a conclusion straight out of Durkheim: “It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”

It’s not doctrines or even faith that matters. What does matter is to what extent does a religion help us to connect to others. Which brings me back to my fundamental principle—religion is something that helps us connect to others or even the world. That goes back to the original meaning of the Asian word religios which means connection.

I would put it this way: the more your religion leads you to feel connected with your fellows the more likely you are to be a better neighbour; the more likely you are to be a better citizen, the more likely you are to be a better person! That is what religion—true religion—is all about. Religion is what connects us to others. Religion is not what divides us from others.

Is religion Good or Bad?

 

Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind provided some more shocking insights. At least to me an admitted irreligious person. At least I proved to myself that I have at least a partially open mind to consider his point of view. Actually he changed my point of view about religion more than any other person in quite some time. He began by asking a fundamental question: does religion make people good or bad?

 

Atheists invariably point out that religions cause a lot of wars, genocides, and acts of terrorism. They divide people when they should unite them. Religion has been used to oppress vulnerable groups like women, children (yes children), people of colour, people with perceived deviant sexual orientations, and many others. The track record of religion is far from evenly beneficial. They are not entirely bad either.

Religious believers often claim atheists and sceptics are morally bankrupt and can’t be trusted. A character in one of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov said, “If God is dead all is permitted.”

Where does the truth lie? Haidt has some amazing evidence. He does not rely on faith. He relies on evidence and data. He is a scientific person. I claim to be a person who makes believes contingent on evidence.

First, Haidt points out that it is not a reasonable expectation for religion to produce unconditional altruists. It’s not going to happen. But it doesn’t have to achieve perfection to be a force for good. Haidt put the case for religion this way:

“Whatever Christ said about the good Samaritan who helped an injured Jew, if religion is a group-level adaptation, then it should produce parochial altruism. It should make people exceedingly generous and helpful toward members of their own moral communities, particularly when their reputations will be enhanced. And indeed, religion does exactly this. Studies of charitable giving in the United States show that people in the least religious fifth of the population give just 1.5 percent of their money to charity. People in the most religious fifth (based on church attendance, not belief) give a whopping 7 percent of their income to charity, and the majority of that giving is to religious organizations. It’s the same story for volunteer work; religious people do far more than secular folk and the bulk of that work is done for, or at least through, their religious organizations.”

 

So far I was not surprised. What he told me next though did surprise me. In fact, it shocked me, because it was directly contrary to what I had always thought.

There is also some evidence that religious people behave better in lab experiments—especially when they get to work with each other. A team of German economists asked subjects to play a game. A team of German economists asked subjects to play a game in which one person is the “truster,” who is given some money on each round of the game. The truster is then asked to decide how much money, if any, to pass on to an anonymous “trustee.” Any money passed gets tripled by the experiment, at which point the trustee can choose how many rounds of the game, with different people each time, sometimes as truster , sometimes as the trustee.

Behavioural economists use this game often, but the novel twist in this study was to reveal one piece of real, true personal information about the trustee to the trustee to the trusters, before the trusters made their initial decision to trust. The information was taken from questionnaires that all subjects had filled out weeks before. In some cases, the truster learned the trustee’s level of religiosity, on a scale of 1 to 5. When trusters learned that their trustee was religious, they transferred more money, which shows that these Germans held the same belief as did Locke (about religious believers being more trustworthy). More important, the religious trustees really did transfer back more money than did the nonreligious trustees, even though they never knew anything about their trusters. The highest levels of wealth, therefore, would be created when religious people get to play a trust game with other religious people.

There is actually some real life historical evidence that corroborates this experiment.

Many scholars have talked about this interaction of God, trust, and trade. In the ancient world, temples often served an important commercial function: oaths were sworn and contracts signed before the deity, with explicit threats of supernatural punishment for abrogation. In the medieval world, Jews and Muslims excelled in the long-distance trade in part because their religions helped them create trustworthy relationships and enforceable contracts. Even today, markets that require very high trust to function efficiently (such as a diamond market) are often dominated by religiously bound ethnic groups (such as ultra-Orthodox Jews), who have a lower transaction and monitoring costs than their secular competitors.

This is good evidence that religion does serve a useful purpose. Haidt put it this way:

“So religions do what they are supposed to do. As Wilson put it, they help people “to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.” But that job description applies equally well to Mafia. Do religions help their practitioners by binding them together into a superorganism that can prey on-or at least turn their backs on –everyone else? Is religious altruism a boon or a curse to outsiders?”

My conclusion is simple: People trust religious people! And that is actually quite important. It helps people to do good things together!