Hitting & Missing

After a week at the beach I’ve been catching up on blog relevant readings and thought I’d share. There are more hits than misses.

In this curiously flat review, atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel assesses theist philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Nagel takes at least some of Plantinga’s ideas seriously and gives him a fair reading. Though I haven’t looked, I’m betting that Jerry Coyne has also read Plantinga’s book and scorned it appropriately.

Nagel, by the way, has his own new book with an eyebrow raising title — Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Ever since Nagel first wondered what it would be like to be a bat, he’s been fascinated by the irreducibility of consciousness and mind-body problem. I suspect he is on to something and some of his ideas may overlap with those of complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman. While at the beach I read Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, a book which has me thinking about “religion” as an emergent phenomena.

In this delightful piece, philosopher Simon Critchley takes New Yorkers to task for their blithe anti-Mormonism. While I won’t go so far as Critchley and declare love for Mormonism, I have recently confessed a grudging admiration for the faith. After reading Critchley’s nuanced account of Mormonism’s audaciously immanent theology, I’ll give them even higher marks than I did here. At the very least, it seems more appealing and alive than the frozen in time or historically static theology of other faiths.

At the New Yorker, Anthony Gottlieb gives evolutionary psychologists another skewering so richly deserved. It seems to have been prompted by David Barash’s slapdash book, Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature. When it comes to evolutionary religious storytelling, Gottlieb is skeptical:

Going by what Barash has to say about religion, Darwinian thinking isn’t likely to transform our understanding of it anytime soon. We do not even know why we are relatively hairless or why we walk on two legs, so finding the origin of religious belief is a tall order. Undaunted, Barash explores various ways in which religion might have been advantageous for early man, or a consequence of some other advantageous trait. It might, for example, have been a by-product of our curiosity about the causes of natural phenomena, or of our desire for social connection. Or maybe religious beliefs and practices helped people coördinate with others and become less selfish, or less lonely and more fulfilled. Although he does not endorse any of these ideas—how could he, given that there’s no possible way to know after all this time?—Barash concludes that it is “highly likely” that religion owes its origin to natural selection. (He does not explain why; this conclusion seems to be an article of faith.) He also thinks that natural selection is probably responsible for religion’s “perseverance,” which suggests that his knowledge of the subject is a century out of date. Historians and social scientists have found quite a lot to say about why faith thrives in some places and periods but not in others—why, for the first time in human history, there are now hundreds of millions of unbelievers, and why religion is little more than vestigial in countries like Denmark and Sweden. It is hard to see what could be added to these accounts by evolutionary stories, even if they were known to be true.

While I don’t share Gottlieb’s skepticism about the value of evolutionary history, I empathize with the idea that simple adaptive or byproduct stories about the evolution of religion aren’t very enlightening (and can be seriously distorting).

Over at The Guardian, Andrew Brown correctly observes that you can’t dance to atheism and that ideologies which serve as societal glue are much like religions. His first point riffs Nietzsche, who famously commented: “I would believe only in a God who knows how to dance.” All similarities to Nietzsche end there. Brown is smitten by the Durkheimian and group level selectionist idea that religions function as transcendent social glue. While it may have this function, especially in post-Neolithic societies, religion isn’t required to bind small-scale societies together. For that, language and extended or fictive kinship will do just fine.

In this depressing miss, we learn that African elephants are being slaughtered in record numbers. Why? In part because there is a booming trade in ivory icons, which are deemed by some (especially Filipino Catholics and Asian Buddhists) to be especially sacred. They call it ivory worship. I call it soulless.

For an in-depth look at the papyrus fragment igniting Jesus marriage debates in the contentious Christian world, Ariel Sabar’s Smithsonian story can’t be beat.

Finally, I have no idea what this book by a Georgia pastor is about but the cover art may be unintentionally subversive:

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