Response to the New York Times Op-ed “The Moral Animal”

Note: This post was written when I had a pretty naive “New Atheist” view of religion. It no longer represents my opinion!
In an op-ed in the Times, rabbi Jonathan tries to articulate why  New Atheists’ “withering” attacks on religion haven’t resulted in its demise. Instead of trying to argue for the correctness of religious beliefs, he treats religion as just a system of morality and cites research that indicates that frequent church-goers are more altruistic. He also provides evolutionary arguments about why humans developed altruistic nature.

He poses a question that apparently puzzled Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, himself: why does natural selection favor altruists instead of the ruthless. He posits:

“Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.”

He continues:

“[Religion] reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray.”

The reality couldn’t be more different. The new atheists, in particular, make a very good case about how religion poisons everything. Claiming to be the purveyors of altruism, religious people and institutions in the past have murdered non-believers, stifled free inquiry and science, treated women as inferior, condemned homosexuals, allied to racism and anti-Semitism. As an example, the Roman Catholic Church burned heretics alive at stake. Before the Age of Enlightenment, the terror of such fundamentalists was so widespread that non-believers could not publicly profess their non-belief lest they get killed. If you find yourself saying “but that’s the past,” try to remember the violent outrage over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. After a fatwa was issued against him, a translator of his book was stabbed to death, while a publisher and two other translators were severely injured in attempts to assassinate them.

The distinction between religion and morality becomes even clearer when expressed in the form of the Euthypro dilemma:

Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?

Having understood that being religious is at least not moral per se and plausibly immoral, claims that religion is good because it makes people more altruistic start to fall apart. Jonathan says,

“Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood…”

Even if we grant this premise (which we shouldn’t knowing the harms done by religion), it doesn’t make religion and its claims true. Although this op-ed doesn’t go further enough to answer this fundamental problem, the answer that believers generally give is quite akin to the one given by promoters of pseudosciences like homeopathy†: it makes people feel happy, so what’s the problem? Humans are fundamentally inquisitive and curious to know the truth. Arguably, even though ignorance and indifference towards truth may cause happiness, but that happiness is of lesser value than facing what’s true. Moreover, when one accepts that proposition: “something which causes happiness or is beneficial should be believed irrespective of whether it’s true or not”, they stop trying to know what’s true. This may seem not so obvious, but when talking to believers, I notice that they almost never argue about whether, lets say, God exists or not, but whether believing God exists is beneficial (just like those who cite research that supports the claim that religious people are happier, in defense of religion). Or, they shift the matter to why they’ve the right to believe whatever they want and one should not try to change their minds.  Thus, religion manages to stymie critical thinking, because freethought requires questioning all our core beliefs, and how can that happen when one of the core belief “God exists” is seen to be so necessary to a believer’s happiness and is thus unquestionable?

†Homeopathy has no plausible biological mechanism of action and consistently has been found no better in efficacy than placebos, in clinical trials till date.

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4 thoughts on “Response to the New York Times Op-ed “The Moral Animal”

  1. You have quoted the writer wrongly in the starting lines of your response- “religion hasn’t declined Jonathan,a rabbi claims in this op-ed”. He never claimed that. In the op-ed he gave the exact numbers to show that number of people denying any religious affiliation has doubled in a decade.Isn’t that a decline? I think it is. And Mr Jonathan made no effort to hide this fact. However he says that this decline is truly incredible. All the hostiliy religion has faced and is facing ,it should have met its demise by now. The fact that it is still alive is surprising(and intriguing) for Mr. Jonathan. He goes on to probe how does great faiths last even when the way of thinking of people and society has changed radically with passing time.

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  2. First, I must concede that he doesn’t say that religion isn’t declining but rather claims that it hasn’t died. (I’ll fix this.)

    Despite having the appearance of being an analytic article about why great faiths last, it carries explicit suggestion that the society needs religion to tackle individualism and that religion makes a person altruistic. I’ve tried to make it sufficiently clear in the post that why religion doesn’t equal altruism, and that the way science has falsified religious myths, humans should not be expected and in fact, should not cling on to them, even if believing them led to happiness.

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  3. “Although claiming to be the harbingers of altruism, religious people and institutions in the past have murdered non-believers….while a publisher and two other translators were severely injured in attempts to assassinate them.”
    I must agree there have been instances in the past when religion had a bit of a fall but i hope by mentioning these events(quoted above)you are not trying to prove that religion does not favor altruism. That would be preposterous. Altuism features predominantly in most of the religions(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altruism#Religious_viewpoints)and hence people practising religion are more likely to be altruists then others.I guess this can also explain the findings of Mr. Putnam’s research.

    “it expects others to “respect” it and say nothing that offends the religious, thus stripping humanity of its right to expression. How moral can all this be called?”
    Not moral at all.Such things happenned in the past and maybe still happening in some non secular states. But can you claim the same things(quoted above) to be true for free states? Can you deny when Jonathan Rabbi claims-“the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.”I think he was right when he said that because in a free society no one forces anything. If people want to believe in a certain religion then that’s their choice.And such people will probably be more altuistic and will only benefit the society in some way.Is that bad?

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    1. One of the points that I want to make is that these cases of violence on “offending” speech are not isolated cases and not present just in non-secular states. The cartoons of Muhammed drawn by artists in Denmark (a highly secular state) were meant to mock the whole idea of the restriction against representing any prophet in human form. In response, there was violence and secular and free states including the United States condemned the cartoons, instead of condemning the violence (see http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2006/cartoons/ for the statements).

      For instance, The Pope said

      “The right of freedom of thought and of expression, as contained in the Declaration of Human Rights, cannot imply the right to offend the religious feelings of believers.”

      Hitchens’ take on the cartoon debate:
      http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2006/02/cartoon_debate.html)

      The Satanic Verses is banned in secular states like India, and the current president of Center for Inquiry India was arrested by Andhra Pradesh police solely for distributing “offending” books, among which was this book. The attacks on translators and publishers were done in secular states like Japan, Italy and Norway. And all this hasn’t changed even now. Try to publish a book which offends religious people and be sure that the book would be banned in secular states and there would be a lot of violence.

      The problem is that religious people DO expect others not to offend their (arbitrary) beliefs, thus trumping free speech. Any expectation to not “offend” any belief must be preceded by the justification of that belief. e.g. Monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism believe that God created men and the world, i.e. in creationism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creationism), which is totally at odds with the theory of evolution (given by Darwin) accepted in mainstream science. Not only do the religions take offence at mention of evolution, they try to teach children creationism in schools (e.g. the well-funded Christian groups try to lobby the government in the US) and do so with their children, which directly violates the harm principle (which says that a person can believe whatever they want until it starts harming somebody else). Trying to indoctrinate children with what one believes and expecting the rest of the society to not offend those arbitrary and wholly unjustified beliefs is harming the society and stifling free inquiry. Also, these religions imply existence of psychic and paranormal abilities per se, and leave believers vulnerable to defrauders like Sylvia Browne. (James Randi, a world-renowned psychic debunker has offered a 1 million dollar to anybody who can demonstrate any psychic power in scientifically testable way for many years and no one has been able to do that. Sylvia Browne accepted the offer but never showed up. Randi has also debunked a lot of other fraudsters like James Hydrick, Poppof and Uri Geller who were able to reach stardom by using trickery because of the society’s latent belief in psychic abilities, the reason being religion which implies existence of such abilities (e.g. claims about Jesus and other gods) even though there is no evidence till date.

      There are claims that religions are inherently violent too. Bruce Feiler writes that “Jews and Christians who smugly console themselves that Islam is the only violent religion are willfully ignoring their past. Nowhere is the struggle between faith and violence described more vividly, and with more stomach-turning details of ruthlessness, than in the Bible”.

      In the Bible, Abraham was praised for agreeing to sacrifice/kill his son for God. If the metaphysical claims of religion, e.g. that there is an afterlife, heaven and hell, are taken to be true (as is by believers), many acts of violence appear “justified” (as to many believers) because they seem to be happening to our bodies “and not souls”, which are postulated to live forever. Thus, for any believer in afterlife and soul, violence to the body is less rebarbative than non-believers. Nonetheless, religious people like Jonathan use shaky studies like those done by Putnam as ammunition to push their agenda. (A critic says: “Lately I have come across many studies purporting a positive relationship, sometimes going so far as to claim that it is causal, between religion and altruism. The bulk of the data in these studies comes from self-reporting and is fraught with problems.”
      full text at:
      http://chankyr.com/2012/03/02/religious-friends-altruism/)

      The bulk of my comment tries to show that religion isn’t inherently altruistic. The flaws in studies which link religion and altruism are discussed in length at the above link. Any altruism effects that religion has are discussed by the way congregations bring people close together and providing certainty to believers about the truth (thus, shielding them from the uncertainty inherent in science and critical thinking). This may superficially provide peace to a believer, the end result is being closed-minded. No doubt, these people go on to renounce homosexuals. The ardent believers, like Michelle Bachman, a congressman and woman herself, says that the right place of a woman is in home and not at work. This is the reason, why in a city like New York, parents are free to and indeed circumcise their children at young ages when they can’t consent. There are many more transgressions, which I don’t think I can list in a comment.

      All this discussion would not be necessary if truth hadn’t been devalued in contemporary society by religious propagandists. Instead of discussing why what religions say is wrong or right, we end up discussing whether believing them is beneficial or not. No doubt, religion benefits by diverting the point of discussion just as homeopathy promoters say that homeopathy should be used because of its placebo effect (when the same can be got by a sugar pill). I’ve said before and am happy to reiterate, that believing in something that’s beneficial to believe while ignoring whether its true or not is infringing one’s humanity. More discussion on this in Ophelia Benson and Stangroom’s book Why Truth Matters?

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