Some Thoughts About Bridge Building Between Religious And Other Conflicting Cultural Groups

The following is a lightly edited version of the note I sent to a physicist/neuroscientist with whom I participate on a science and religion e-mail list. I have immense respect for this fellow. However, we have been politely disagreeing with regard to the strategies that are most likely to be helpful to people who want to try to take the sharp edges off religious behavior. My friend has taken the position that some of the insights into fundamental reality offered by quantum theory, quantum mechanics, etc. may be helpful in that regard. I had earlier indicated to him that I did not believe quantum theory to be relevant to the realm of human perception and behavior (he agreed), and therefore did not believe strategies based on the mystery, beauty, etc. of the quantum world were likely to be helpful to changing the way in which the religious aspect of the human world works. He asked me to set out my alternative suggestions for change. I responded as follows:

Thanks Stan. I have several quantum mechanics (QM) for laypeople books at home, but am always interested in hearing recommendations from people whose opinions I respect. You and Helmut both certainly fall into that camp.

A clarification with regard to my view of QM. As far as I can tell, there is nothing speculative about the basic data and theory. It appropriately describes both what is known, and what is speculated about the atomic world. What is clearly speculative (and at this point likely unjustifiable) is any posited relationship between QM and how the brain functions or any other aspect of human behavior. I was referring to no more than that. So, again, in my view it is not helpful to try to use something that is probably irrelevant to the world of human behavior and perception to help people to better understand that world, or build bridges from one part of that world to another.

As to how we might best go about our bridge building, I don’t think there is a silver bullet and so favor a variety of approaches. Human social evolution is so complex that many different strategies are likely to have positive effects. As Helmut indicated earlier this morning, thankfully our species is so diverse that many different kinds of people will be inclined toward different approaches in this regard. Some will be more productive than others. It is accordingly worthwhile to evaluate each proposed approach in terms of its potential efficacy, and encourage those that are likely to be effective. As already indicated, I have not been able to find an approach based on QM that will in my view likely be effective.

Here are a few of the approaches that I think are interesting.

– Emphasis on praxis (behavior) as the important attribute of religious (and social) behavior, and de-emphasis of the importance of belief. Karen Armstrong and others have been recommending this for a long time. As religious systems mature, this appears to be a natural part of their evolutionary arc. By focusing on this, we can perhaps accelerate the process. Raising the consciousness within each religious group of respected historical figures with those groups that used this approach is one of the best ways to soften current literalist attitudes. Most members of most religious groups overestimate the stability of belief and behavior patterns within the group over time.

– Emphasis on privileging the scientific view to the extent that it is relevant to any topic. This will entail a movement away from literal religious belief and toward metaphor. Again, demonstrating how this is a part of the history of the religious group in question will likely be helpful. Most religious groups have a history of gradually letting go of literalist beliefs as they are challenged by science. Galileo is usually helpful in this regard. On the other hand, the strident approach taken by the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al) on this point is generally unhelpful, even though they are for the most part correct in principle.

– Emphasis on the importance of moral belief and behavior that embrace the largest possible group and longest possible time frame. This amounts to breaking down small tribe boundaries, and encouraging a large tribe (global, multi-generational) morality and worldview. Again, it is usually possible to show how this has happened already to a degree with the group in question.

– Emphasis the issues that unite humanity, such as what we face regarding the population and ecological crises. Nothing creates alliances among enemies better than a common threat. This will probably be an important strategy relative to the establishment of a large tribe, long-term, ethos. This is also related to the praxis versus belief approach in that praxis will be the large tribe concept, while encouraging metaphysical belief, ritual, small tribe history, etc. as important distinguishing features that enhance the texture of our global social fabric. I like the approach advocated by EO Wilson and others like him in this regard (see…).

– Misperceptions (new false beliefs, for example) are sometimes helpful in getting us off older, and worse, beliefs. Some aspects of QM may work to an extent in this regard. For example, the belief in some sort of fuzzy, QM version of deity may help some people let go of their much more toxic, literalist beliefs. However, this still replaces one false literal belief with another. While this is progress of a sort, I do not believe it is wise to consciously go down this road. Many people will go down it in any event.

– There is a variety of recent evidence, based in social psychology and neurology, that we can change conscious processing and behavior by bringing subconscious processes into conscious view. For example, the more aware we are of the way in which our instincts are affected by historical and cultural factors (like our instinct to eat too much, exercise too little, favour our own race and accept the opinions of authority figures within our group), the less effect these forces have on us. I think this research may be helpful in terms of developing strategies to change individual perception and behavior, and therefore social dynamics, with respect to each of the issues noted above.

– Perhaps most importantly, we should emphasize the way in which group rules and conditions influence individual belief and behavior. For example, there is a strong correlation between the strength of the social safety net, and the declining strength of the dogmatic, small tribe oriented, religious groups. If universal healthcare and better unemployment insurance/job retraining/welfare systems were put into place in the United States, for example, over the course of a generation or two, this would probably weaken to a significant extent the tendency toward which relist religious belief, and allegiance to many now powerful dogmatic religious groups. The more I learn about complex systems theory and what they probably demonstrate with regard to human social behavior, the more inclined I am to focus on attempting to change the foundational rules of our social groups as a means to changing what are perceived to be our deepest and most individual beliefs and choices.

Finally, to sound a few realist notes, there is strong evidence that bridge building works for the most part on a generational basis. Effort directed toward adults will be far less productive than effort directed toward children. In particular, we should try to change the structure of society and the educational system in particular, that will influence the formation of belief and behavior during childhood.

I also think that this is how the emphasis on praxis versus belief, and the privileging of the scientific worldview over dogmatic worldviews, are likely to make their effects felt. In each case, these changes are likely to occur on the basis of a phase transition. That is, we should expect a lot of energy to go into the system without the perception of much change, and then for a large amount of change to occur over a relatively short period of time. And the efforts made now are unlikely to show much effect until, at earliest, the generation of children who are influenced by our efforts come of age.

This is one of the most important points Daniel Dennett has been pushing — basic change to the way in which our educational system works. I posted here a while ago something with regard to Québec. It is the first jurisdiction in North America to adopt mandatory religious studies courses for high school students. As I understand it, this is common in Europe. This is the kind of change that has the potential to change religious perspectives and behaviors.

My final realist thought is to note the evidence that a multiplicity of social forms are necessary in order to create the material from which social evolution will construct the forms best suited to deal with changing environmental circumstances. This is an application of evolutionary theory at the human group level that is derived from the necessity of creating an abundance of forms, many of which will not survive, so as to provide a sufficient array from which functional forms can be selected by the environment as it changes. This applies, so far as we can tell, to all phenomena that are subject to evolutionary theory. This means that many social groups, and the individuals within them, have a high probability of dysfunction and failure. The forces of evolution care as little about this as they do about the impact of the vast majority of genetic mutations. In each case, the fate of the individual (whether a virus, bacterium, or human being) affected by the mutation does not matter from an evolutionary system point of view, whereas the diversity of form created by the mutations in totality is crucial.

This principle helps to explain the power and ubiquity of our faulty perception (including the cognitive biases and what we call denial) and how this tends to bind human individuals into often obviously (to outsiders) dysfunctional groups. That is, dysfunction at the individual level ironically creates important function at the level of the human species on a long term basis. There are many examples of this. One of the best known is the irrational belief of individual investors (including the best professionals) that they can beat the publicly traded stock markets. Yet if every investor accepted the market’s wisdom and stopped investigating and betting on individual companies, the wisdom of the market (the aggregate of all that investigation and betting) would cease to exist. Hence, the irrationality of investors (a lower order dysfunction) creates the market’s wisdom (a higher order function). There seems to be a deep, hive kind of intelligence directing our actions in this regard.

Similarly, diversity of human social group form (conformist v. individualistic; communist v. democratic; etc.) and the beliefs that maintain those forms are required in order for a wide range of possibilities to exist as our species attempts to cope with an evironment that changes radically from time to time. A force similar to (if not the same as) what is responsible for the irrational market behavior described above appears to be responsible for the way in which individuals tend to resist information that is rationally sufficient to disclose the dysfunction and/or irrationality of their group’s foundational claims and basic behaviors.

Hence, if history is insufficient to make us modest in our aspirations to get people to agree with each other as to the best way to believe and live, the deep forces just described should do the trick.

In short, we face certain basic limitations in our bridge building efficacy.

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