a question of faith and indoctrination

September 11, 2009 — 16 Comments

Here’s a question prompted by the sudden surge of articles in the UK press trying to recycle the idea that it’s only natural to believe in the supernatural and humans are innately born with a belief in a deity. If faith is such a basic part of life, why do we need organized groups which exist solely to indoctrinate their faithful? Why do religious denominations begin indoctrinating new members while they’re still in diapers? And why is it that a Christian group invests a great deal of time, money and effort in spreading their beliefs on college campuses rather than simply trusting nature to take its course and allow humans’ innate beliefs to win over education?

crusade for cthulhu logoAs pointed out by Dr. Bruce Hood, one of the scientists who’s work is being mangled to stir up an instant controversy, people do have a predisposition to accept the religious indoctrinations to which they have the most exposure and it’s thought to be an evolutionary trait to help us work together in large groups and maintain social order. But it’s not the mythical God gene sought by theologists. Rather, it’s the result of our brains looking for causality and logical patterns even if the system we’re trying to logically examine is totally chaotic.

As much as the defenders of the “God is in our nature” idea hate to admit it, the purpose of religious indoctrination is to take advantage of that susceptibility to accepting supernatural causality and frame it in the way the organization says is correct. We could explain why we have so many faiths by the variation in how our “God genes” would work, but if they really affect us enough to shape our worldview and give us so many different answers to the same questions, it seems that the entire construct is useless because it doesn’t achieve any particular goal other than a feeling of something being there. What deity would benefit from crafting a the desire to believe and give us all different instructions as to what to believe and how?

So what really happens is that religious orders propagate by getting to new members as soon as possible, trying to convince anyone in earshot that they’re right. After its members and priests dedicate an entire lifetime to their beliefs, they have a very deep-seeded need to keep new generations adhering to theirs. Otherwise, if they’re wrong and the future generations reject all their teachings in favor of another way to explain complex, existential causality, to what did they devote their whole lives? We’re locked into theistic faiths not just because we need to explain the why’s and how’s we don’t know yet, but because of our need to validate our ideas.

Need proof? Take this example of a religious acolyte saying to Richard Dawkins that he can’t afford to live a lie and demanding that his beliefs are at least given some compassion by the professor. And how about all those constant appeals to the popularity of religion and mentions of how our perfectly sane ancestors were all believers too, summoned by religious writers and bloggers? The longer religious movements exist, the more power they gain, the more they need to remain in charge and the more they need to indoctrinate as soon as possible and for as long as possible. If they’re rejected, all that work and all that effort seems wasted and the believers become angry that they based their lives on something that wasn’t real in the end.

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  • Thorne

    This one video of Dawkins has led me to dislike the man. While I agree with much of what he says, both here and elsewhere, I felt like the manner in which he handled this situation was boorish. Certainly the audience member was clinging to an illogical belief, and just as certainly there is little that Dawkins, or anyone else, could say that would convince him he is wrong. But it is possible to at least be tolerant. Especially in the light of this latest development, showing that we are predisposed to accept these kinds of beliefs, I felt that Mr. Dawkins could have handled the situation much less cavalierly.

  • Greg Fish

    Religion being a result of an evolutionary trait in social mammals is a actually a pretty old idea. It’s just being repackaged by religious apologists with renewed fervor.

    As for how Dawkins handled the question, what should he have said instead? The man was begging him to validate his personal beliefs. No matter how gently he would’ve tried to handle it, the end result of the conversation would be that the man would be crushed because his beliefs weren’t validated by a scientist and Dawkins would still be the bad guy.

    Was it harsh? Yes. But was the answer expected? I would say so.

  • Thorne

    Was it harsh? Yes. But was the answer expected? I would say so.

    Oh, the answer was definitely what I would expect. I don’t have sound here at work so I can’t replay the video, but if I remember correctly, Dawkins called the man an idiot, or something of that sort. I just don’t think that was necessary. Tell him he’s been wrong all his life, but you don’t have to call him names.

  • Greg Fish

    “if I remember correctly, Dawkins called the man an idiot…”

    Not in any way. He said that he believes the man’s belief is very sincere but that he’s hallucinating as far as could be discerned. Dawkins is almost painfully polite in all of his interviews and presentations. I don’t know if he might swear like a drunken sailor when the cameras and mics are off but I somehow doubt it.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org RBH

    I’ve watched that clip multiple times. As far as I can see, Dawkins could not have been gentler and still been honest. Harsh? No, I don’t see harshness; I see a plain answer to an incoherent question.

  • Thorne

    I’ll have to watch it again when I get home. Maybe I’m remembering wrong. Damn, it’s getting so that I feel lucky I’m remembering at all!

  • tom

    If faith is such a basic part of life, why do we need organized groups which exist solely to indoctrinate their faithful?

    Answer:
    The religions that didn’t do this could not compete with those that did. Religions compete for survival and those that replicate most aggressively (without killing their hosts) win. In other words, assuming there existed a religion that people DID need, it would still have to engage in aggressive indoctrination.

    But do we need religion? It certainly seems to have given people an edge in the past. Every single tribe of humans in the world had shamans and gods to keep people in line with the group. Not a single group without religion survived. In fact throughout history religion was THE way to: A) keep people from killing each other when the size of the group exceeded the point where everyone knew everyone else, and B) get people to sacrifice themselves in external conflicts for the survival of the group.

    With secular law and government, do we still need religion? Maybe we do, especially when it comes to convincing people to send their children into battle. Do you really think an army made of rational, secular, independent thinkers, is going to perform suicidal battle menuvers without question?

    Not likely.

  • Greg Fish

    “Not a single group without religion survived.”

    Not a single group without religion is known to exist up until now. Atheism was always rare for a wide variety of reasons, atheists themselves used to be killed on a regular basis, and religion legitimized the rule of kings.

    “Do you really think an army made of rational, secular, independent thinkers, is going to perform suicidal battle menuvers [sic] without question?”

    Very few people are going to volunteer for suicide missions without question in the first place. However, I could see how a scientific-minded rationalist would cover a bomb with his body to protect his friends. Rather than expecting a divine reward, he knows that he’s going to die and he’d rather go out helping his friends.

    Being a rational, calculating thinker would probably help in combat because like a wise general once said: “you don’t win wars by dying for your country, you win by making some poor bastard die for his.” Also, military commitments are supposed to be based on the idea of protecting the people in your nation from enemies rather than serving the ambitions of religious leaders which means that it’s not necessary to be a theist to see a good reason for entering military service.

  • milleronic

    Please learn the difference between who’s and whose, it’s and its. A reasonably intelligent piece of writing marred by bad grammar.

  • tom

    “Not a single group without religion is known to exist up until now. Atheism was always rare for a wide variety of reasons, atheists themselves used to be killed on a regular basis, and religion legitimized the rule of kings.”

    Yes. Things are changing now. We are finding that secular law and punishment is enough to maintain the order within a group. Also science has now become a required part of societal makeup as well, since a high tech society easily overpowers a low tech one (predator drones vs rocks). And science is a real religion killer.

    “Very few people are going to volunteer for suicide missions without question in the first place.”

    Soldiers don’t have a choice. Sometimes whole groups of men are sacrificed in combat to attain a larger military win. This is a fact. (i think you may have misinterpreted what I said as jihad style suicide missions. I did not mean that.)

    “However, I could see how a scientific-minded rationalist would cover a bomb with his body to protect his friends. Rather than expecting a divine reward, he knows that he’s going to die and he’d rather go out helping his friends.”

    I’m not arguing that a rational scientist can’t be a good soldier. And in fact you WANT the highest levels of command to be rational. I’m just arguing that an army made up exclusively of thinkers and questioners might not be as effective as an army where the common soldier believes he’s going to heaven.
    Evidence:
    A large percentage of pre-1950 soldiers had combat hesitation (they couldn’t pull the trigger when pointing a gun at someone). This has been reduced to something like 2% because the military now practices intense brainwashing and ritualization. Knowing that the devout are prone to brainwashing and ritualization, the military promotes a fanatical christian attitude within the armed forces: (see http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/26/us/26atheist.html)
    So while America does have secular law and justice, it still seems to be relying heavily on religion when it comes to defense and war.

    Personally I think dependence on religion will diminish as we replace the front lines with hardware and software. Once people no longer need to sacrifice themselves for the group, religion may no longer have anything at all to offer a human collective.

  • tom

    since the link might not work here’s an excerpt:

    To Specialist Hall and other critics of the military, the guidelines have done little to change a culture they say tilts heavily toward evangelical Christianity. Controversies have continued to flare, largely over tactics used by evangelicals to promote their faith. Perhaps the most high-profile incident involved seven officers, including four generals, who appeared, in uniform and in violation of military regulations, in a 2006 fund-raising video for the Christian Embassy, an evangelical Bible study group.

    “They don’t trust you because they think you are unreliable and might break, since you don’t have God to rely on,” Specialist Hall said of those who proselytize in the military. “The message is, ‘It’s a Christian nation, and you need to recognize that.’ ”

  • Greg Fish

    Tom,

    What you’re talking about with military evangelism is more of a controversy tied in a large part to the Army. It’s a major problem because it violates the military’s secular laws but it’s not the modus operandi of the military as a whole. Basic training is an education in technical skills, equipment and physical training. It’s not supposed to have any religious component according to military guidelines.

    However, as the article you linked to points out, there are commanders and soldiers who cross that line and use their position to proselytize on behalf of zealots who see the armed forces of the United States as an “army of God.”

    They are violating procedure but it’s hard to actually punish them because that would technically violate their freedom of speech, putting the whole issue in a bizarre legal gray area that ties everyone’s hands but that of the proselytizers. Funny how that works, huh?

  • tom

    “It’s a major problem because it violates the military’s secular laws but it’s not the modus operandi of the military as a whole.“

    I have my doubts:
    Marines:
    http://www.mcclatchydc.com/251/story/38820.html
    Airforce:
    http://atheism.about.com/b/2008/12/09/air-force-chaplain-capt-christian-biscotti-promotes-hatred-of-atheists.htm

    I also have my doubts that atheists and scientists are as prone to let their kids be sacrificed over what are political issues rather than defense. But I haven’t gathered data on that.

    Anyway it’s obvious religion is past its prime. But I think rational people underestimate the power of religious ideas. Religious memes copy themselves from brain to brain, competing with each other and evolving, and thus may not be so easy to kill.Their success is dependent on how well they reproduce, not whether the ideas make any sense. I think this is confusing for rational people sometimes. And it’s too bad the scientific method does not have an equivalent way to spread itself.

  • http://www.pedant.com pedant

    I have to agree with the respondent who recommended the use of correct grammar. Misuse of language is the most persuasive undermining of any point therein. It denotes a lack of care in communication and is therefore extremely damaging in any form of journalism. One might think it unimportant if the message gets across, but the idea that the message is the most important thing, to the degree that it survives despite delivery without rhetorical rigour, is hearkening to almost religious ideas, albeit those that support what we may, if we choose, call the truth.

    In a nutshell, rhetoric without rigour preaches only to the converted.

    Like I said, I’m a pedant. By the way, I’m also a 6 on Dawkins’ scale.

  • Pporkchop

    I wouldn’t say born with an innate belief in a diety. But definitely born with innate curiosity about where did I come from, why am I here, and who’s gonna love me. Think deeply about it.

  • porkchop

    Oh, on the military question, both my sons are in the military. And I don’t like the idea of them being sacrificed for someone elses idea of what’s important today. The more I learn the more I simplify the questions. Life is a mist . How are you spending yours? Global thinking is always bound to not take into account enough of the concerns of the common person in another culture. No ones mind is big enough to consider all of the consequences of todays actions. Love your family, love other people, enjoy your life and combat bad thinking.