Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Brains, Beliefs and Religion

I am currently working on a paper in which I argue that the tradition of French atheism, starting with Sartre, presents a much stronger ethical and political commitment than that of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Sam Harris), who typically hold highly questionable political positions, ranging from a kind of status quo liberalism to being downright reactionary. The latter would be Harris, who argues that we should be not be afraid to torture people or install 'benign dictatorships' in order to further our 'democratic' ideals.

However, I often find the science that they utilize interesting. A study by Sam Harris (the same person I just criticized above), et al., is no different in this regard (for a summary, go here, for the study, here). It found that religious beliefs, such as whether God exists, are processed in the brain in the same manner as nonreligious statements such as, Alexander the Great was a very famous military leader.
While religious and nonreligious thinking differentially engage broad regions of the frontal, parietal, and medial temporal lobes, the difference between belief and disbelief appears to be content-independent.
Content independence means that all beliefs are believed by the brain in the same way, even if we have a tendency to divide them by content. This indicates, Harris argues, that there is no distinction between beliefs that are commonly distinguished as facts or values (or faith). From this, Lisa Miller, writing in Newsweek, draws a questionable conclusion:
If a believer's brain regards the Second Coming the way it does every other fact, then debates about the veracity of faith would seem—to the committed believer, at least—to be rather pointless.
Now, remove that caveat between those em dashes, and from Miller you get the same old canard that it's pointless to debate religious beliefs. However, if they are processed like other beliefs, this lends credence to the argument that there is no reason to treat them as a special category (under the rubric of faith). Perhaps then, we can jettison the typical metaphor that faith is somehow deeper than other beliefs. Which is another way into the paper I was working on because the French philosophers I am working on all supply ways to think about truth, belief or ethics, without the appeal to 'deep faith' (i.e. blind faith).

Where I am going to differ with Harris, again, is science's role in all this. In the Newsweek piece, he argues that his results show that science can tell us important things about issues we often call 'values.' And while I agree that science may help us hone our perspective on 'values' it certainly is not the ultimate arbiter as the New Atheists sometimes imply. First, because science is often conducted through research governed by the profit motive (see Dan Hind's Threat to Reason, a must read really), or that science has gotten these issues so absolutely wrong (for example, with eugenics. See Robert Whitaker's Mad in America, and Stefan Kuhl's The Nazi Connection). Nor do I think that science authorizes the view that we should install "benign dictatorships" around the world to further Harris' 'democratic' ideals. That is, Enlightenment does not come at the end of a gun. We ought to treat religious movements in their political context, because they cannot be separated from them. As Marx says, and as the New Atheists ignore, religious suffering is a expression of real suffering, and the abolition of religion suffering demands the abolition of the conditions that create real suffering.

Of course, there is already a tradition of thought that recognizes this, leading from Sartre to Deleuze and Badiou.

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