Friday, May 04, 2007

Jim Woodward: Empirical Study of Religion and Harm

In this weekend’s discussion of the Beyond Belief 2006 presentations, we will be looking at a presentation from Jim Woodward, Professor of Humanities at the California Institute of Technology. The organizers at the conference set up the morning of the third day for a discussion on the relation between morality and religion. This started with Sam Harris' presentation (which I discussed last week) and goes through Woodword and Melvin Konner (to be discussed tomorrow).

Once all three presentations are done, we will have a general discussion of the relationship between religion and morality (next weekend). Finally, we will move into closing remarks, then end the conference.

So, the end is in sight.

For the moment, however, we will be looking at Woodward’s contribution to the relationship between religion and morality.

Woodward begins with a disclaimer that his research interests are more in the realm of philosophy of science than in moral philosophy. However, in that light, he begins by chastising others for making empirical (scientific) claims without backing them up with scientific evidence.

Two of these empirical claims are:

2) Belief in God (or religious faith or particular religious doctrines) is responsible for bad outcomes like suicide bombing, interference w. scientific research like stem cell research, science education.

3) It is a good, practical strategy to try to ameliorate those bad outcomes by converting the world to secular humanism.

These, Woodward said, are empirical claims that require investigation in accordance with “ordinary scientific standards of evidence and assessment that would be insisted on in other context.”

Belief in God Is responsible for Bad Outcomes

Woodward brings up the problem that suicide bombing is a variable phenomena, while the content of the Koran is a fixed phenomena, and, scientifically, “You can’t explain a variable with a constant.” That is to say, you can’t explain the variability in dispositions for suicide bombing across time and in different locations by appealing to something that they all have in common – the content of the Koran. You need to find something that is co-variable with what you want to explain.

I have another example independent of Woodward. Both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins said that religious people cherry pick the moral conclusions that they draw from religious text. For example, very few American Christians advocate the stoning of a rebellious child, the killing of somebody who would try to convert another to a non-Christian religion, or the execution of those who work on the day of the Sabbath. Many people claim to get their opposition to homosexuality, early-term abortion, and stem-cell research from scripture. However, if this is true, then why do they not have other attitudes that scripture also commands?

By Woodward's argument, it makes no sense to blame scripture for the condemnation of homosexuality - even though those who condemn homosexuality often quote scripture. Because, if scripture were the true cause of the condemnation, these people would also be advocating the death of those who work on the Sabbath. The evidence suggests that trying to use scripture to explain attitudes towards homosexuality fails to qualify according to “the ordinary standards of evidence and assessment that would be insisted on in other context.” This opposition towards homosexuality comes from some other source. Biblical references are then thrown up as a smoke screen, as a legitimate-sounding reason that hides the real reason. The real reason, in turn, explains why these same people do not advocate killing those who work on the day of the Sabbath.

By the way, the same is true of attempts to blame atheism for Hitler and Stalin. Many athiests have standards that are completely opposed to those of Hitler and Stalin. Explaining these tyrannies by reference to atheism also falls victim to the problem of explaining a variable in terms of a constant.

In fighting prejudice against homosexuality, there is certainly some value in showing the smoke-screen of scripture for what it is. However, this is a different project than the project of arguing that scripture really is to blame for people’s attitudes towards homosexuality. It cannot be both, at the same time, a rationalization for attitudes that come from another source, and the source of those attitudes.

Note: For some people scripture may be the actual source of their condemnation of homosexuality, but that set is as large as the set of people who advocate stoning of disobedient children.

In other words, ‘scripture’ cannot explain the fact that, when theists cherry-pick their moral principles, they do not leave the condemnation of homosexuality behind as a bad cherry, along with endorsement of slavery and killing those who work on the day of the Sabbath.

Harris and Dawkins need to do better science.

Conversion to Secular Humanism Will Prevent Bad Outcomes

The claim that putting an end to faith, or an end to the God delusion, will make the world a better place is also an empirical question that needs the same standards of evidence used in science generally.

At this point, Woodword blurts out a straw man - one that others at the conference have also used without anybody questioning it. Woodword states that the project of converting the world to secular humanism, even if it would be a good thing, is simply impossible. He responded to the idea by saying simply, “Good luck with that.”

The straw man is that nobody is talking about “converting the world to secular humanism.” Woodward treats this as an all or nothing proposition, and insists that the “all” option is impossible. He is right in this. However, it is, as it turns out, equally impossible to convert the whole world into believing that rape is wrong. Yet, the impossibility of complete success does not argue that no action should be taken to reduce the numbers of people who see no wrong in rape.

The real position that Woodword needs to argue against is that, “To whatever degree we are successful in converting people into believing that rape is wrong, to that degree we are safer.” Against this, Woodwords comment of "Good luck with thta" is impotent.

However, Woodword's next response is quite potent. This real position is still an empirical statement, and as such needs to be proved by the standards of evidence used in science. In what sense is it true that converting people to atheism in itself will make them more virtuous.

This is an empirical claim. It is a claim that, given the fact that there are horrendously immoral atheists, we have at least some prima-facie reason to believe is false.

It is unreasonable and unjust to reference people such as Hitler or Stalin to show that atheism itself is evil, as I showed above. However, it is perfectly reasonable to point to these examples (or, at least, the latter) as a counter-example to any assertion that atheism entails virtue.

There is some contention these days that Karl Rove, Bush’s advisor and perhaps the man most responsible for the last six years of an ever-growing tyranny in America, actually has no belief in God. If true, this would not affect me or my writings in the least. He would just be another example to point to as proof that atheism does not entail virtue.

I deny that atheism itself is a virtue, or that atheists are inherently more virtuous than theists. I hold this mostly on the basis of theory. Since morality is concerned with the evaluation of malleable desires (virtues and vices), and no belief entails a desire, the belief that there is no God entails no virtue or no vice. Since I am more interested in virtue than in belief in God, I do not waste space in this blog trying to convert people to atheism – I leave that task to others.

Even though atheism is not a virtue, bigotry towards atheists is certainly a vice. Unfair, unjust, and unfounded generalities used to promote the hatred or fear of a group of people independent of their individual differences is something that no good person would do. So, I condemn bigotry against atheists in spite of the fact that atheism is not a virtue, in the same way that I would condemn bigotry against blacks even though being black is not a virtue.

Since I am an atheist, and since I am a victim of this bigotry – my life options have been unfairly and unjustly limited because of this bigotry – I do give it a particular degree of attention.

At the same time, since atheism is not a virtue, and being an atheist does not entail being virtuous, I think that it is important to examine what type of person an atheist should become. Unjust atheism, which can also be called 'vicious atheism' in the sense that it is unvirtuous atheism, can and does exist today. It would not be wise to think that it is impossible, or that atheists are so possessed of virtue that no atheist can be unjust, and no moral condemnation can ever be warranted.

At this point, some may ask if I consider Dawkins and Harris to be ‘vicious atheists’ as I use the term here. In answering this, it is important to be clear how I am using the term. The term 'vicious atheist' may call to mind some type of snarling, rabid dog, and think that the term almost certainly applies to Dawkins and Harris. Yet, I am using the term in its classic sense that means, "the opposite of virtuous; having moral flaws." I think that Dawkins and Harris are vicious atheists to some degree, but not because of their tone. It is because of their content.

Still, when the mass of vicious atheism is held up to the mass of vicious theism, the latter so far outshadows the former as to make the former inconsipicuous, except for those who who are actively looking for it. Vicious theism is rampant, in claims like "there are no atheists in foxholes" and "there is no morality without God" and "the reason we have shootings in schools is because we have removed God from the classroom" and "look at the good that religion has done" (a statement that makes no sense unless one assumes that people would not do as much good if they lacked religion). This does not yet add in religious violence in other parts of the world. Vicious theism so permeates our culture that, like a foul smell one can never avoid, after a while, few of us even notice it.


Woodword had two important points to make. The view that religion is the root of all evil depends on a number of empirical assumptions, many of which have not yet been subjected to the standards of science.

Exactly how scripture molds beliefs (as opposed to having beliefs one acquires elsewhere molding one's interpretations of scripture) is unknown. The effects of converting people to secular humanism are unknown. (The argument that athiesm entails no virtue because beliefs entail no desire is my argument, not Woodword's.)

At least some attempt should be made to study the phonemena, form theories, make predictions, and verify or falsify those theories, before we put too much weight on them. Otherwise, we are acting on faith, and not on reason.


Sheldon said...

"By Woodward's argument, it makes no sense to blame scripture for the condemnation of homosexuality - even though those who condemn homosexuality often quote scripture. Because, if scripture were the true cause of the condemnation, these people would also be advocating the death of those who work on the Sabbath."

Mmm? Perhaps I am confused? In some sense Woodward's argument supports Dawkins and Harris' more limited claim that religionists cherry pick their morality from scripture. That is exactly what cherry picking means. Finding the evidence or support for rationalizing what one wants to believe. Is it not? The accusation of "cherry picking" is an accusation of inconsistency.

In the case of Islam, the jihadists find support for their attacks in the Koran when other variables lead them to take that course of action. When those circumstances are not in play, those versus in the Koran have less significance.

But the overall general point does stand. It is overly simplistic to find cause in only the belief.

An aside. Dawkins and Harris are supposedly scientists, and science is supposedly materialist. From theoretical perspectives found in social sciences however, such as cultural materialist or Marxist, Dawkins and Harris would be accused of committing an error of idealism. That is they put ideas as primary causal factors without adequately theorizing the material factors that animate those ideas.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yes, Woodward's argument takes the "cherry picking" accusation as fact. Indeed, it is so clearly observed that it would be difficult to question.

However, the phenomenon of cherry picking is inconsistent with the accusation of scripture being the source of moral attitudes. If scripture is not the source of moral attitudes, then "scripture is the source of moral attitudes for religious wrongs" is fundamentally unsound.

Dawkins and Harris advance two claims which are inconsistent: that religious people cherry-pick their moral principles (which they get from someplace else), and scripture is bad because religious people get their moral principles from scripture.

olvlzl said...

I'm curious, Sheldon, where in life do you find people who deal with the information contained in very large anthologies of disparate writings, some of them compilations if not pastiche assembled into what are mistaken for discreet "books", produced over many centuries in their entirety? And then live their lives in accordance with their results. The fault of these pop-atheists is that their arguments necessitate ignoring the fact that the explicitly non-literalist view of the Bible goes back at least to Augustine. This might make things more complicated than can be dealt with in a book of best seller length, but that doesn't change the fact that is the range they will need to address in order to face the reality of the situation instead of their cartoon version of the views of a huge number of people.

It's kind of an irony that Dawkins school of evolutionary psychology is often said to "cherry pick" beginning with its insistence on the primacy of selection as the determination of, well, just about everything. Gould and Lewontin's points about the blinders this school of science wears might be an interesting comparison.

If those who talk about Christians who "cherry pick" when they don't misinterpret the meaning of the few passages traditionally used to promote the long pogrom against gay people knew even the slightest bit about the long and complex history of that collection, they wouldn't say such foolish things. As an example the story of Lot and the strangers used as the earliest example to prove the depravity of gay men. In Jeremiah the "sin" of those in Sodom was explicitly identified as inhospitality. You can certainly find a lot more about that subject, online, if you want to look into it.

I entirely disagree with your statement "science is supposedly materialist". A scientist can be a materialist or not. "Science" can only deal with the material universe, it is a set of procedures and tools expressly developed for dealing with the material universe but "science" isn't something apart from the entire body of people who "do science". "Science" doesn't have an ideological position or a personal philosophy. Science doesn't belong to materialists of any kind, it doesn't belong to idealists or any others who espouse a philosophical position. It would be better if people would remember this.

Sheldon said...

Thanks for the clarification.

"is that their arguments necessitate ignoring the fact that the explicitly non-literalist view of the Bible goes back at least to Augustine."

That may be true, but there are plenty of beleivers that do at least pretend to a literalist view of the Bible.

Regarding materialism and science. That is why I said "supposedly". Of course, there are many types and levels of materialism. The natural sciences are generally methodolgical naturalist, i.e. they look for causation in the natural/material realm. The science Harris and Dawkins practice, neuroscience and biology certainly are materialist in that sense. This doesn't neccessarily commit one to ontological or metaphysical materialism. Which is what I think you think I was implying.

The meaning of materialism in the social sciences does not translate directly into what it might mean in the natural sciences. However, my point was that Harris and Dawkins overly emphasize ideas in trying to explain the behaviours of say Islamic jihadists without considering the broader contexts of those ideas and behaviours.

olvlzl said...

Actually, has Harris produced even one scientific paper, published in a peer review journal yet? I've been listening to him going on about science without having seen any from him for quite a while now.

My point about Dawkins re "cherry picking" is that it is an intrinsic part of his particular school of biological determinism. I was suspicious of Dawkins before he began his avocational career as the Don Quixote of romantic atheism exactly because his "evolutionary psychology", rescued from the damaged ship Sociobiology was unnecessarily reductionist and dishonest. I had a major concern about one part of the methodology of "explaining" the evolutionary basis of "behaviors" through explainatory fables, generally, as pointed out by some of their critics, without any fossil or other physical basis supporting the entertaining tale. It is exactly the same thing as the "historical" books of the Bible and especially those parts of Genisis which they mock religious believers over. I will point out that while the e.psy. fables are taken by their audience for science the Biblical fables are only taken that way by the rankest fundamentalists. Many, perhaps most, religious believers who use the Bible see them for exactly the kinds of alegories that they were probably intended to be in the beginning.

Kinderling said...

Complex life evolved from simpler life.

Ergo, complex societies and complex religions evolved from simpler ones. Children are awash with unquestioned cultural behaviours and modern media propeganda.

For the emerging mind it is how well it is able to detach from hypnotic suggestion.

The harm is not religion but new religion. For every generation, every child comes to it anew. Old Religions die in the abatoir of ritual. It has to be alive and suggestible. Feminism and homosexuality are just a two of many new religions. How do I know that? Because they claim they were born into it. A birth right. They had no choice.

That marks the difference between the life of a humanist and the life of an animalist.

Sheldon said...

My apologies for drifting the discussion outside of your original post.

I don't know if Harris has published a peer reviewed article yet. But give him a break, supposedly he is or was s Ph.D. student in neuroscience, and presumably if he finishes or has finished his doctoral research, then a published paper would probably result.

I share your skepticism about evolutionary psychology, however I think you overstate your charge of its mythological status. Alot may be bunk, but not all.

Evol. psych. is in part inspired by Darwinian approaches to animal behaviour, which has been tested quite rigorously. From there they take a basic premise that particular behaviours should confer reproductive success as opposed to other behaviours. Often there evidence are some suggestive and interesting correlations. When confronted with anamolies like homosexuality, they offer some pretty weasely post hoc explanations.

I think we can agree that human social behaviour is far to complex to be explained only by reference to Darwinian/evol. psych.

olvlzl said...

Sheldon, Gould, defending himself against a hit job by Daniel Dennett made a pretty good case that the reductionist view, what he referred to as "Darwinian Fundamentalism" actually ignored that Darwin himself believed that selection couldn't be the only factor in evolution. Gould regretted this because he suspected that the idea of "an evolutionary psychology" was probably useful.

The creation of explainatory myths by Dawkins and his close associates is certainly relevant to his hobby career since it supposedly sprang from the opposition to the superstition of creationism. If I was going to make a second career of mocking religious myth, used by most Christians and Jews as metaphores I wouldn't create new ones to support an allegedly scientific position. I've always thought that Dawkins was held to a far lesser standard by his fan club and they constantly reinforce that suspicion.

As to Harris' not producing. Maybe if he didn't spend all of his time on producing romantic nonsense for profit he might get time to write and defend his dissertation.