Atheism, Orthodoxy & Funerary

Terry Eagleton has taken aim at Alain de Botton’s oxymoronic new book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion. Eagleton is bulls-eye on the book, which basically argues that although religions are false they are still useful and we can learn from them. Eagleton correctly points out that this sort of thing is often done, and basically consists of looking at the good things and ignoring all the bad things. Thomas Jefferson’s expurgated Bible comes to mind, as does Karen Armstrong’s ecumenical urge to reduce all religions to ethical golden rules. These are the kinds of sanitized and banal books that drive new atheists insane.

As Philip Kitcher reminds us, people can be ethical and moral without religion. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Most primates, humans included, are intensely social. It’s impossible to be social without simultaneously behaving in ways that are considered “moral” or “ethical.” This aside, there is little to no evidence that religious people in modern societies are more ethical-moral than non-religious people. Moreover, there is little to no evidence that Axial or “ethical” religions have made people or societies more ethical-moral than previous peoples. Our hunting and gathering ancestors were no more or less ethical-moral than “modern” people who have lived in settled societies during the past 10,000 years.

If Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks knew anything about evolutionary ethics and the ethnohistoric record, he wouldn’t be writing silly articles arguing that modern religions are the existential glue that hold societies together. This sort of argument is typical of apologists who believe that history and civilization essentially began with the movement toward angry gods and moralistic religions.

Elsewhere, Juliane von Mittelstaedt reports on ultra-orthodox Jewish women in Israel who cover themselves from head to toe in up to 27 layers of clothes. It is part of a larger story on the fractures these fundamentalists are creating within Israeli society, which is something that caught my attention previously in Ultra-Orthodox Slackers.

Several aspects of the Mittelstaedt story intrigue. First, it appears that most of the women wearing all these clothes have suffered serious abuse; the covering up thus seems linked to shame. Second, ultra-orthodox Jewish men in Israel routinely harangue female soldiers. This is unreal, coming from losers who are exempt from military service. This is a good time to compare and contrast.

Someone in the story astutely observes that if some of these zealots didn’t have religion as cover for their obvious madness, they would probably be institutionalized. While witnessing the antics and ideas of American evangelicals, I’ve had occasion to observe the same sort of thing.

In this mordant piece on the future of funerary, Max Rivlin-Nadler begins with the premise that the industry is in crisis because Americans are becoming more secular and fewer people are willing to pay for the bells and whistles of religious funerals. As evidence of increasing secularism, he notes that some 25% of Americans no longer claim affiliation with a church. As Rodney Stark has been saying forever, just because people don’t go to church or identify with organized religion, this doesn’t mean they are becoming secular. Most are not atheists or non-believers; they simply have alternative “spiritual” beliefs and don’t identify with institutional religion. When funeral directors realize this and begin offering non-traditional “spiritual” funerals, they will be able to tap what Rivlin-Nadlin characterizes as the “secular” market.

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10 thoughts on “Atheism, Orthodoxy & Funerary

  1. Alan

    An entertaining philippic that must have felt right at the time, and from the tone, felt good to write. While yourself and Monsieur Eagleton may feel confident to address the dreams and desires of atheists everywhere, what they need is not a matter of whim nor whimsy – Mother Nature sits as the sole judge of that and through the rituals of science we may uncover darker secrets. Has man any prior experience in foraging the wicked fields of life without the trusty staff of religion? Without the consort of gods or spirits? Methinks you know the answer – they have, and they went extinct long ago. It suits not science to simply ignore the evidence you do not understand.

  2. Cris Post author

    It did in fact feel good; I’m glad you were able to sense it. I spent most of last week writing a difficult piece which finally came together on Friday, so I was ready to write about something or anything else on Saturday. It was cathartic.

    I don’t really know much about atheists, other than that they are a diverse lot and have been around at least since the time of Epicurus and Lucretius, and I suspect much longer. They haven’t gone extinct and in fact are becoming more numerous.

    I’m not familiar with this Mother Nature of whom you speak. Who is she and where can I find her? I would like to ask her some questions about the evidence I can’t find and which I therefore don’t understand.

  3. Alan

    All seriousness aside, good sir, you remember Mother – she was here just last week, and she has always been quite ready with answers, though questions must be asked properly. In the wild, atheists went extinct with the Upper Paleolithic, though they reappear in historic times – primarily in only the scantiest of trace quantities in the most protected environs – roughly proportional to the level of protection.

    Epicurus, living in the illumination of Athens under Macedonian er- protection.

    Lucretius – basking in the privilege of the Pax Romana, and these new-atheiests of whom you speak, lounging in the well socialized states flourishing under this now Pax Americana.

    Let us reflect on another comment – the common morality betwixt the hunter -gatherer and the self professed civilized. While on an individual level, I would heartily agree them peers, on a community level L. Keeley (War Between Civilization) finds them with a nominal homicide rate of 30%. This sits in rather stark contrast to a crude average of 6% for the twentieth century industrialized world or about 0.1% for 21st century Western Europe (1% for our lovely US). This individual morality we perceive does not seem to translate to the community level.

  4. Sabio Lantz

    Cris, you said,

    Moreover, there is little to no evidence that Axial or “ethical” religions have made people or societies more ethical-moral than previous peoples. Our hunting and gathering ancestors were no more or less ethical-moral than “modern” people who have lived in settled societies during the past 10,000 years.

    (1) Is Pinker wrong that there was more violence back in the hunter-gather age than now?

    (2) Why the importance of singling out the “Axial” religions? What are they?

    Ooops, I see that Alan quoted some numbers for violence == I am not really up on this debate. But I like Steven Pinker, and he said it. (Isn’t is sad how we weigh our ‘evidence’).

    I essentially agree with you, Cris, but I am interested to find out how I should disagree. :-)
    Nice writing indeed?

    When is that new site coming?? When will e-mail returns work?

  5. Cris Post author

    I was basing that statement on the fact that countless sociological studies show that individuals (not societies) who self identify as members of Axial movements (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist) don’t differ from their non-Axial counterparts in terms of crime, delinquency, altruism, etc. These studies typically rely on survey data and examine the effects of belief on individual action. There seems to be no effect at the level of the individual, which means that religious and non-religious people look very similar in measures of “moral” or “ethical” behavior. I have singled out Axial religious movements because these are also known as the “ethical or moral” religions.

    A religion-improves-moral-behavior-effect becomes apparent only when sociologists take into account the group to which such individuals belong; if most of their friends are similarly religious, then effects start to show. If most friends are not religious, then the individual’s religion has no effect. I wrote about this in Searching for the Elusive God Effect.

    We also need to keep in mind that moral-ethical behavior is not just about the negatives of things like crime/war; the positive side is altruism, cooperation, sharing, etc. On this scale, hunter-gatherers score quite high. I can’t think of any historic hunter-gatherer group which did not find “civilized” nation-state peoples to be selfish and greedy. They were appalled at the lack of community and lack of care for the elderly, disabled, and abandoned. Much better to be an orphan among hunter-gatherers than an orphan in civilized Christian society.

    When thinking about these things, I use the ethnohistoric record of the Plains Indians as a kind of benchmark. For the past 4 years and counting, I’ve been reading heavily in this area and my sense is that intratribal “crime” was very low: killing a tribe member was extremely rare and when it happened, it often caused tribal partitioning or haunted the tribe for decades. Stealing basically didn’t exist. Child abuse was non-existent. There was no neglect and no wife beating. The things we call “crime” were always outward directed toward alien tribes. There is a trade-off here (very low intratribal violence and high intertribal violence), but I’m generally impressed with the ethics-morals of these recent hunter-gatherers, and find them personally preferable to those of modern, Axial societies.

    I think Pinker is addressing a different issue: societal levels of violence. I don’t have problems with his data, but I don’t think it shows or he argues that the decline in violence over time is attributable to Axial religious movements. These movements may have actually increased violence levels in certain times and places. The effect Pinker finds is attributable more to the formation of political entities that monopolize violence, not on any religious character such entities might claim to have.

    Having said all that, I’m not much encouraged by this per capita decline in violence over time. In the world of violent death, absolute numbers must mean something and I’m not comfortable saying that the 45 million deaths due to WWII is an improvement on the 45 deaths during some ancient tribal war simply because the percentage per capita deaths during WWII were lower. I posted about it in Better Angels of Our Nature.

    The new site should go live today or tomorrow; my IT guy will begin working on this site next week.

  6. Sabio Lantz

    (1) I agree: morality does not differ between believers and nonbelievers. This is something that is very difficult for believers to believe. Is this because when they are amongst themselves they feel like they are being better than they are when they are back in the real world?

    (2) It is interesting how you view the Plains Indians so highly. Is there data on that?

    (3) If we are after the survival of humans (and I am not sure if that is valuable), then percentage of violence matters a lot and is suffice. But of course we’d want less number as the society enlarges — that would be BOTH a decrease in percentages and Absolute numbers. Heck, who wouldn’t want that.

  7. Cris Post author

    (1) It seems to be because the dominant cultural or Axial message is: “If you believe in [insert name of ethical religion], then you will be a more moral person.” They self report as being more “moral” than they actually are. Self delusion is a powerful thing.

    (2) When it comes to Plains Indians, we didn’t have ethnographers or scientists out there collecting quantitative data. What we do have is an incredibly rich ethnohistoric record that has been thoroughly rendered into books and articles by historians and others. I base my assessments on overwhelming impressions created by this record. For instance, I’ve read just about everything on the Lakota, and can recall two intra-tribal killings that so thoroughly roiled them that these stories were endlessly told. The data, in other words, is based on a deep qualitative familiarity with the record.

  8. J. A. Le Fevre

    I suspect the claim the ‘axial religions’ have to morality is by virtue of their doctrinal foundations. Written doctrine has a completely different character from oral tradition – the medium completely reforms the presentation. The whole notion of commandments – thou shalt/thou shalt not – requires a written record. An oral tradition requires an entertaining action narrative to be remembered and repeated, else it is forgotten. Doctrinal religions have explicit moral codes because writing allow that – so they look (and sound) more founded on moral instruction. The oral traditions could be argued (though few bother) to be equally morally based, but the lessons are encoded in the action narrative as the wrong doers suffer endless divine retributions for their transgressions. The Iliad, for example recounts the fate of Troy ordained by Zeus for the offence of Paris (seducing his hosts’ wife in a visit at the palace of Menelaus) and the Odyssey a ten year sentence for the hubris of Greece in the sack following their ordained victory.

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