The evolutionary scientists and philosophers (say, Dawkins & Dennett) seem to be predicting religion is steadily on its way out, quite independently of any immediate ills and conflicts laid at its door, people are finding less reason to believe.
Actually I think they may be wrong, but let’s hold off thinking about what might be meant by religious belief in such a future. Suffice to say for now, [after Nick Spencer] think of scepticism as the antithesis of dogma, rather than as the preferred alternative to faith.
Philosopher, theologian and ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks certainly begs to differ and, interestingly, bases his argument on Darwinian evolution. Listening to him last night at Spectator Events, talking and then answering questions with Andrew Neil, made it two nights in a row I heard the human social evolution story from animism to monotheism by way of Robin Dunbar. However you treat the ideas of an actual Dunbar number being meaningful, and the realities or otherwise of group selection, that story always sounds reasonable and I’ve never found reason to challenge it. And notice it’s an entirely naturalistic view. Let’s call it the “Dunbar Cycle”. The point is if those evolutionary processes and pressures are real, where are they leading now? History is one thing but prediction, especially about the future (as the saying goes) is much less certain.
Sacks picks one line of reasoning that has been central to my agenda here since the start – communication of information. Evolution is fundamentally about transmission and replication of patterns of information, including those patterns of information we use as thinking tools to interpret and manipulate information further. Major revolutions in the Dunbar Cycle are attributable to step changes in communication – physical exploration and movement of peoples, the advent of printing, electrical and electronic telegraph, radio and TV, and now the ubiquity of the internet and social media.
“Of course current violent climate ‘has to do with’ religion
but no point setting one religion against another or against none.”
Long story short, there is a string of tweets (linked below) summarising my highlights of Sacks thesis. Just a couple of the less obvious points I’d like to further record here, before we get to the conclusion.
After psychoanalysing the psychoanalyst, Sacks concludes Freud denied his own sibling guilt, when he placed Oedipus’ maternal relationship at the core of human conflict. Sibling rivalry is the real culprit. The Abrahamic monotheisms are frankly siblings of each other. Their closeness makes the conflicts over differences all the greater.
Secondly, monotheism has evolved dualistically, if that’s not an oxymoron.
“Dualism could be the most murderous doctrine ever thought up by human-beings”
Whatever god is in these religions, it’s one good version set against an evil other. An otherness all too easily transferred to problematic rivals in any context, common enemies counter to internal group cohesion. Sacks sees this as a perversion of what monotheism originally evolved to be, a truly inclusive and receptive – loving – monism.
Again, whatever values of living stem from such a monotheistic monism, and however they are either codified in moral law of that religion, or as transferrable parables in their good books, mass communication has taken the mediation of scholars and shamen and elders, and “authoritative” spokespeople and commentators out of the loop of interpretation. Unmediated freedom of thought and communication – totally free at point of evaluation – inevitably leads to a subjective form of moral relativism – one thing Neil did take Sacks to task over in the interview.
This is a particular problem for Islam, which has not yet had its “30 years war” to settle once and for all which internal differences to leave behind. 9/11 was one of the symptoms of suppressed conflict, but the war itself has started with the “Arab spring” and the Islamic civil war is now playing out around us. Despite the speed-of-light communications, you’d need to be an optimist, said Neil, to predict Islam reaching its “Westphalia” deal anytime soon. In fact despite highlighting the accelerated pace of (potential) evolution, Sacks himself saw this as something that will take “a generation” to reach a conclusion. [Something very reminiscent here of Thomas Kuhn and Kondratiev cycles of change in science, technology, economy and society.]
Sacks’ prediction that truly monotheistic religion will be the conclusion – some totem against which to nail our flags of value. Whether it’s called a religion, and whether it features anything recognisable as a supernatural god is of course moot. So far as “we” will need a recognisable set of values, however captured from best available interpretation and maintained conservatively as “moderator rods” in the reactionary cut and thrust of democratic freedoms of thought, expression and action – I agree already.