Big Picture Religion And Atheism

I found Jon Haidt’s reference in The Happiness Hypothesis to the literature related to ethics of community versus ethics of individuality to be useful. In particular, it was his suggestion that perhaps we would not want to completely eliminate either one or the other that got me thinking about this concept.

There is lots of evidence that the ecosystem is a massive information processor with an immense intelligence. For example, it is teleological in the sense that in many ways it appears to move toward a state that preserves, and perhaps enhances, life. If a certain part of the globe becomes overrun by a particular species of animal or plant, disease and conflict within the population can be counted on to knock it back the point where a more diverse environment can regenerate. These richer, more fecund environments are kept in balance by an intricate series of tension dominated relationships. Predator versus prey; disease versus immune system. At every level, death spawns life and vice versa.

I see the tension between the ethics of individuality and ethics of community perspectives within the human species as analogous to these many other tensions. And, for certain purposes and in certain environments the ethics of community orientation will be much more important than the ethics of individuality, and again, vice a versa. It therefore makes sense to me that the vast ecological system of which we are a miniscule part would wish to preserve both of these attributes of humanity. To lose one or the other would be to lose system strength.

Just as largely undetectable information flows cause Adam Smith’s invisible hand to operate, there appear to be for all intents and purposes infinite other information flows around and within us that cause similar intelligent mechanisms to function. It may be that our behavior is governed to a large extent by our subconscious reaction to some of this information. It may be that we subconsciously sense forces around us that cause our perception to be screened, in much the way important social relationships will prevent people from perceiving evidence that could upset those relationships.

The conclusion I am stumbling toward is that even the most seemingly conscious, high functioning ethics of individuality people among us are still part of a hive mind, and part of the role they play within the vast human organism is to keep the largely disruptive, creative, individual driver alive even during periods dominated by something akin to the Spanish Inquisition. Nature will see to it that there will always be some people who are constitutionally incapable of living in any other than this way. On the other hand, we should expect that even in the most liberal, ethics of individuality corners of our planet during times of plenty that encourage maximal exercise of human freedom, that strong pockets of ethics of community oriented people will be preserved. The religious impulse in this direction is one of many, but historically a strong one. Good times will not last forever, and strong communal fabrics are particularly important during times of struggle. I recall hearing a story about one of the Africancountries in which massive conversions occurred to the Muslim faith during war as a result of the way in which that community nurtured sufferers of all kinds.

As the environmental pendulum swings back and forth from scarcity to abundance, people near the middle of the spectrum will swing one way or the other based largely upon the social dynamics dominant within their group. Of course, they will perceive themselves as reacting to “reality” or “truth” as they perceive it, but when their behavior in large groups over significant periods of time is a viewed from 10,000 feet, they will be indistinguishable from ants reacting in predictable fashion to changes around or within the hive.

This reminds me of Larry Iannaccone’s fascinating paper called “Accidental Atheists”. You can find it at… . There, if I recall it correctly, Iannaccone provides support for the idea that one of the best predictive factors with regard to changes in religious belief is the religious belief of your six closest associates. As people move back-and-forth from the coasts of the United States to the interior regions, you would expect that this would cause a gradual averaging of the theist versus atheist views in those regions. Over a long period of time, that has not been the case. He suggests that this is because (in part at least) that once a critical mass of believers (or disbelievers) has been established in an area, they draw a large percentage of new entrants into their orbit. Of course, the atheist who moved to Utah and has a conversion experience to Mormonism there experiences this as a radical encounter with new truth of some kind, just as does the Mormon and moves to New York City and “loses his faith”. The perception of the experience appears confabulatory, just as is the perception of “being hot” is while shooting a basketball. In one study, some statisticians followed the Philadelphia 76ers around for a season and determined that if a player’s shooting percentage was, for example, 45% that the probability of him hitting his next shot was exactly 45% regardless of whether he reported feeling hot or cold either before or after taking the shot. That “can’t miss” feeling is probably a confabulatory after the event phenomenon. I happen to know a lot about this particular issue, having been a basketball player until recently. The same thing applies for golf and other physical activities, and in its purest and easiest to identify form is experienced by gamblers.

As you know, I am far from an advocate of the overtly religious path, but the longer I study these issues and more value I see in some of the behaviors they manifest.

Another model that fascinates me is Denmark, and other Scandinavian countries. This illustrates how the ethics of community and individuality work at different levels within the same group. These countries at the macro level are among the most socialistic in the world, and therefore strongly oriented toward the ethics of community at that level. Ideologically and intellectually, however, they are among the most ethics of individuality oriented in the world. One of the ways in which this manifests is the formation of countless robust clubs and community associations, which are in Denmark at least, generously funded by the government.

The more I think about these issues, the more attracted I am to the idea of attempting to study religious groups in a way that will allow us to identify the ideological and behavioral main springs of their community of ethics behavior. The trick would then be to see how these can be recreated in secular environments. I believe that the absence of options in this regard in the United States in particular is a significant barrier to people leaving close-knit religious groups.

Returning again to Denmark, the way in which a massive network of clubs and community associations have been encouraged by the government appears to perform much of the role performed by churches in the United States. Canada, which is much less overtly religious than the United States, seems to me to be much like the United States in terms of its secular community associations. That is, nothing special happens in that regard. It may be that our governments could take a significant step toward reducing the power of institutional religion (and I think that is important) while strengthening our communal fabric if more effort was made to encourage and fund the formation of recreational and other secular groups. In particular, the encouragement of the formation of groups and clubs related to preserving the environment, cultural and language exchange, and other activities orientated toward expanding the average level of consciousness regarding the world around us could pay particularly large dividends. These issuesare big enough that they may have a resonance similar to that of the religious groups, and indeed, I think we will see some religious devolve into something akin to secular clubs. The UU are a small example of that. Mainstream protestants who no longer take seriously the Bible’s ahistorical, miraculous claims are haemorrhaging members and looking for a new source of life blood. It would not surprise me to see them move in this direction.

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