Paradigm Shifts and the “Science” of Religion

We’ve witnessed a remarkable paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences in the last couple of decades in the aftermath of the collapse of Blank Slate orthodoxy.  A similar one has happened in politics with the collapse of Communism.  A significant fraction of our species are attracted to messianic ideologies as moths to a flame.  For many years, Communism was the brightest flame around.  However, it suffered from the Achilles heal of all secular religions.  It promised paradise, not in the realms of the spirit, but here on earth.  Predictably, it couldn’t deliver, and so eventually collapsed.

That left something of a vacuum for those hankering to be the saviors of mankind.  No new secular religion was waiting in the wings to take up the slack.  But nature abhores a vacuum, so they had to make do with one of the traditional, spiritual religions; Islam.  The resulting ideological paradigm shift has presented us with one of the most remarkable political spectacles history has to offer.  On the ideological left, former Marxist true believers, militant atheists who scorned religion as the opiate of the masses, are being displaced by a new generation of activists who find to their dismay that radical Islam is, at least for the time being, the only game in town.  The result has been a grotesque love affair between the would be liberators of the oppressed masses and one of the more obscurantist forms of religious fundamentalism on the planet.  Those who once despised religious belief have now become some of its most outspoken apologists.

I found one of the more comical manifestations of this strange love affair in an article, embellished with all the jargon, references, and other stigmata characteristic of the stuff that appears in academic journals, posted on the website of the reliably leftist BBC.  Entitled God and War:  An Audit & An Exploration, it purports to debunk the New Atheist claim that religion is a prominent cause of war.  Taking an attitude towards religion that would have been an embarrassment to any self-respecting progressive in the heyday of socialism, it notes that “…at a philosophical level, the main religious traditions have little truck with war or violence. All advocate peace as the norm and see genuine spirituality as involving a disavowal of violence.”  It continues,

One organising feature of this article is what it calls the ‘Religious War Audit’. BBC asked us to see how many wars had been caused by religion. After reviewing historical analyses by a diverse array of specialists, we concluded that there have been few genuinely religious wars in the last 100 years. The Israel/Arab wars from 1948 to now, often painted in the media and other places as wars over religion, or wars arising from religious differences, have in fact been wars of nationalism, liberation of territory or self-defense.

This is a typical feature of the recent crop of articles emanating from the apologists for religion on the left.  Just as good Marxists or defenders of “Confederate Heritage” will tell you that the U.S. Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, even though at the time it actually happened the leaders and population of the south, the leaders and population of the north, foreign observers of U.S. politics, and, no doubt, any aliens who happened to be hovering around in their flying saucers would have agreed it was about slavery, they tell us that many of the wars that merely seem to the casual observer to be about religion are really caused by nationalism, imperialism, territorialism, etc., etc.  If nothing else it’s a safe strategy.  Take any war you like and, no matter how much the actual participants had deluded themselves into believing they were fighting about religion, any historian worth her salt will be able to “prove,” based on abundant citations, references, and historical source material, that it wasn’t about religion at all.  Ostensibly secular wars can be transmogrified into “religious” wars just as easily.

As the article cherry picks the historical record, so it cherry picks the holy books of the various religions to show how “peaceful” they are.  Predictably, this is especially true of the Quran.  For example, quoting from the article,

The Islamic tradition provides for limits on the use of force in war similar to those found in the Christian tradition: ‘Never transgress limits, or take your enemy by surprise or perfidy, or inflict atrocities or mutilation, or kill infants’; and ‘Never kill a woman, a weak infant, or a debilitated old person; nor burn palms, uproot trees, or pull down houses’. The Koran also provides for the humane treatment of prisoners of war: ‘And they feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive’ [Koran 76:8-9].

As with most religions, one can “prove” the opposite by a judicious choice of verses.  For example,

Quran 5:33

The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.

Quran 8:12

I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.

After this exegesis of the holy books, the article provides a pair of tables purporting to show that the role of religion in the wars prior to and during the 20th century has been minimal.  In the case of the 20th century, for example, the role of religion is supposedly zero on a scale of 0 to 5 for World War I and one on the same scale for World War II.  In fact, in the case of WWI, the war was explicitly declared a religious war (jihad) by the religious leaders of Turkey, one of the major combatants.  Many tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, frozen and starved in pogroms or as they were forcibly removed from areas stretching back many miles from the front lines by the Orthodox Christian rulers of Russia, and over a million Christian Armenians were murdered by the Moslem rulers of Turkey.  By all accounts, the assurance that the war was not religious did little to relieve their suffering.

In the case of World War II, the role of religion depends entirely on how you define religion.  I doubt that our brains have any hard-wired ability to distinguish immortal gods from mortal ones.  At least as far as evolutionary biology is concerned, the distinction between traditional spiritual religions and modern secular ones, such as Nazism and Communism is, then, entirely artificial.  Every essential element of the former has its analog in the latter.  From that perspective, World War II was almost entirely a “religious war.”

Suppose, however, that we refrain from such unseemly quibbling, nod apologetically to the many millions even the authors agree have been killed over the years in religious wars, and accept the authors’ premise that, for all that, warfare really has played a “minimal” role in promoting warfare.  Alas, the role of individuals in shaping historical events can be great indeed. After reading page after page establishing the benign role of religion in modern society, the authors inform us, to our dismay, that there is reason for concern, after all.  An evil religious zealot of truly gargantuan power and influence appeared on the scene quite recently, almost single-handedly setting at naught the calming influence of religion as an instrument of peace.  And who might this evil bogeyman be?  Think, dear reader!  The article we are discussing emanated from the left of the ideological spectrum.  That’s right! The warmongering jihadi in question is none other than George W. Bush!  Quoting a noted psychologist, the authors inform us with a shudder that,

…however much Bush may sometimes seem like a buffoon, he is also powered by massive, suppressed anger towards anyone who challenges the extreme, fanatical beliefs shared by him and a significant slice of his citizens – in surveys, half of them also agree with the statement “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”

Gee, and I always thought he seemed like such a nice guy.  How wrong I was!  Reading on we find,

He hated his father for putting his whole life in the shade and for emotionally blackmailing him. He hated his mother for physically and mentally badgering him to fulfill her wishes. But the hatred also explains his radical transformation into an authoritarian fundamentalist. By totally identifying with an extreme version of their strict, religion-fuelled beliefs, he jailed his rebellious self.  From now on, his unconscious hatred for them was channeled into a fanatical moral crusade to rid the world of evil.

Damn!  Now I finally understand why my sister never liked the guy.  The authors provide us with the laconic conclusion,

As the commander in chief, Bush dominates US foreign policy especially in regards to the war on terrorism that is presently the US government’s major military commitment. His plans, however influenced by advisors, arise from his personal view of the world and his concepts of justice, retribution and peace. Clearly his past and his relationships impact these views and ultimately help shape those of the American state. Therefore individual leaders’ psychology is perhaps an underrated area of study in the debate on God and war and could do with further analysis.

What an understatement!  Why, that crazed religious fanatic had his finger on the nuclear trigger for eight years!

How wonderfully ironic!  After spending so much time and effort to create an ideologically driven mirage of religion as benign and peaceful, in the end the authors upset their own apple cart because they couldn’t stifle their ideologically driven need to portray Bush as the personification of evil, complete with all the religious fundamentalist trappings.  By their own account, religion nearly inspired, not merely a war, but the mother of all wars, a nuclear holocaust that might have exterminated our species once and for all.  “Further analysis” indeed!  Maybe we should have listened to the New Atheists after all!

War and the Fantasy World of the Blank Slate

In the introduction to his book The Origin of War, published in 1995, Johan van der Dennen writes,

When I embarked upon the enterprise of collecting literature on human primitive war some 15 years ago – with the objective to understand the origin of this puzzling and frightening phenomenon of intrahuman, intergroup killing – little did I suspect that some ten years later that subject would be very much alive and kicking in disciplines as diverse as cultural anthropology, ethology, evolutionary biology and sociobiology, and the socio-ecological branch of primatology, generating an abundance of novel and intriguing theories, engendering new waves of empirical (cross-cultural) research, and lots and lots of controversies.

At that time, the question of the origin and evolution (if any) of human warfare was a totally marginal and neglected domain of investigation. Among polemologists (or peace researchers as they are known in the Anglosaxon language area), there seemed to be an unshakable consensus that war was a cultural invention and social institution, which had originated somewhere in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago (It actually was, and still is, a curious blend of the credos of the Margaret Mead school of anthropology, the simplistic dogmas of behaviorist psychology, and a historicist sociology – all consenting to the tabula rasa model of human behavior, i.e., the assumption of infinite plasticity and sociocultural determinism – inexplicably mixed with assumptions of a static Human Nature derived from the Realist school of political science). Such a conception precluded any evolutionary questions:  war had a history and development, but no evolution in the Darwinian sense.

He’s right, as anyone who was around at the time and happened to take an interest in the behavioral sciences is aware.  It seems almost incredible that whole branches of what were charitably referred to as “sciences” could have listened to the doctrine that “war was a cultural invention and social institution, which had originated somewhere in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago” without breaking out into peals of laughter, but so it was.  They not only listened to it without cracking a smile, but most of them actually believed it.  One would think the idea that a phenomenon that has been ubiquitous across human cultures on every continent since time immemorial was just a “cultural invention” must seem palpably stupid to any ten year old.  It was, nevertheless swallowed without a murmur by the high priests of the behavioral sciences, just as the dogmas of the trinity and transubstantiation in the Eucharist are swallowed by the high priests of more traditional religions.

The Blank Slate is now dead, or at least hibernating, and the behavioral sciences have made the startling discovery that there is such a thing as human nature, but there is still a remarkable reticence to talk about warfare.  It’s not surprising, given the political proclivities of the average university professor, but dangerous, nonetheless.  In a world full of nuclear weapons, it seems that a serious investigation into the innate origins of warfare might be a profitable use of their time.  With self-understanding might come insight into how we might give ourselves a fighting chance of avoiding the worst.  Instead, the learned doctors feed us bromides about the gradual decline of violence.  A general nuclear exchange is likely to provide them with a data point that will somewhat disarrange their theories.

Perhaps it would be best if they started by taking a good look in the mirror, and then explaining to us how so many so-called experts could have been delusional for so long.  What were the actual mechanisms that allowed secular religious dogmas to hijack the behavioral sciences?  The Blank Slate is not “archaic science.”  It was alive and well less than two decades ago.  Why is it that we are now supposed to trust as “scientists” people who were so wrong for so long, shouting down anyone who disagreed with them with vile ad hominem attacks?  Instead of seeking to understand this past debacle and thereby at least reducing the chances of stumbling into similar debacles in the future, they invent a few self-serving yarns about it, and just keep plodding on as if nothing had happened.

Perhaps we should be counting our blessings.  After all, the idea that war is a mere “cultural innovation” is no longer in fashion.  Occasionally, it is actually mentioned as a manifestation of certain unfortunate innate predispositions, usually along with comforting words about the decline in violence noted above, expanding our “ingroups” to include all mankind, etc.  Given the ferocity with which the spokespersons of the “progressive” end of the political spectrum generally favored by professors of the behavioral sciences attack anyone who disagrees with them, I personally am not particularly sanguine about that possibility.

Well, perhaps if a nuclear war does come, they will finally get serious and come up with some sound advice for avoiding the next one.  Unfortunately, finding publishers to spread the good news might be a problem at that point.