How to Counter Religion’s Toxic Effects

Edward O. Wilson and Daniel Dennett advocate new ways to think about religion that can have a profound impact on how we as humanists define our ideology and how we strengthen our public influence. In short, these honored humanist philosophers believe that we need to ground our thought and action not on a complete rejection of religion, but on a scientific understanding of it.

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dennett specifically challenges his readers to find ways to use science to combat what he calls “toxic religion.” In addition to past holy wars, inquisitions, persecutions, “and all the wretched abuses of superstition and theocracy,” toxic religion currently threatens secular society by seeking to control our “moral” behavior-denying access to contraception while outlawing termination of pregnancy, criminalizing sexual acts between consenting adults, banning stem cell research, refusing the terminally ill access to assisted death, preventing inoculation of young girls against cervical cancer, and degrading science education with religious doctrine. Dennett’s central policy recommendation is that we-and by “we” he is certainly addressing humanists-educate the people of the world, both gently and firmly “so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives.”

Wilson’s classic, On Human Nature, challenges the world’s science enterprise to explore the underlying genetic and cultural determinants of religion, which, he argues, “are powerful, ineradicable, and at the center of human social existence.” Wilson contends that the human mind necessarily creates morality, religion, and mythology and empowers them with emotional force. “When blind ideologies and religious beliefs are stripped away,” he theorizes, “others are quickly manufactured as replacements.” His strategy for countering toxic religion then is to rationally harness what he calls the “mythopoeic drive” to inspire humanistic social outcomes and to concede that “scientific materialism is itself a mythology defined in the noble sense.”

Wilson’s newest book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth illustrates a way to harness the mythopoeic drive. The book takes the form of a letter to an imagined Southern Baptist preacher from whom he seeks cooperation on dealing with global environmental threats. His strategy here makes no attempt to change the pastor’s commitment to God’s revealed word. Rather, he redirects the pastor’s understanding of scripture as creating a duty to save humanity from global warming. The implied logic here is that God loves humanity and wants us to save ourselves from self-created threats. But to earn the preacher’s trust Wilson must concede that he too shares the mythopoeic drive. In order to cooperate, he and the pastor must learn to understand and tolerate the fact that each must make decisions that align with their respective mythic frameworks. Thus Wilson reduces the philosophical chasm to a routine matter of religious tolerance in a pluralistic society. He is then able to say to the pastor: “You and I are humanists in the broadest sense: human welfare is at the center of our thought.” And while the book is Wilson’s monologue, we can imagine the pastor responding: “You and I are God-fearing in the broadest sense because we care about humanity’s future.”

At this point some readers may wonder, what in the world is going on here? Does Dennett really believe that the scientific study of religion will empower us to make secular humanists out of committed Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims-however “gently and firmly” we argue? Does Wilson really believe that science has mythic premises, and that his Baptist pastor is a humanist? Have these honored senior humanists somehow lost their way down a primrose path?

No, Dennett doesn’t believe we can convert people to secular humanism. Nor does Wilson believe that his pastor is a secular humanist. Dennett wants people to learn from science why religion produces toxic effects-and to apply it. Wilson draws on his powerful scientific understanding of human genetic and cultural evolution to recognize (1) that even atheists have genetically programmed religious impulses, (2) that even theists have rational (if not always scientific) impulses, and (3) depending on their intellectual flexibility, members of both groups can share key ethical values.

Genetic and Cultural Religious Impulses: Awe, Wonder, and Myth

Wilson would have us recognize that our shared genetic and cultural impulses of awe, wonder, and myth are actually our most valuable assets. When Wilson asserts that scientific materialism is itself a mythology, he doesn’t imply that science is a false pursuit or that awe and wonder are mystical experiences. For him “myth” isn’t the same as mysticism or factually false beliefs. Rather, myth is any story, factual or not, that motivates thought and action. Myths employ metaphors that translate the beliefs and ideas that unite a people, sanctify their social order, and define right and wrong. Likewise, myths aren’t merely stories about gods and spirits. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy are real people whose stories stimulate the mythic imagination.

Awe and wonder are emotional responses to certain experiences that overwhelm our mind’s ability to fully comprehend them with logic and reason. Even Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, acknowledges from personal experience that “a quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief.” Dawkins is content to leave it at that. But for Wilson and other scientists, the study of human nature itself inspires awe and wonder that challenges us to understand our own humanity.

Joseph Campbell, the preeminent scholar of human mythic behavior put it this way in Myths to Live By: “We must now ask whether it is not possible to arrive scientifically at such an understanding of the life-supporting nature of myths, that in criticizing their archaic features we do not misrepresent and disqualify their necessity-throwing out, so to say, the baby (whole generations of babies) with the bath.” Although mythic stories such as the Genesis account of God’s creation of the world and its early people are fictional, Campbell informs the reader that such universally cherished figures of the mythic imagination must represent facts of the mind.

So where do science-wise humanists go from here? Do we express our feelings for awe and wonder by imitating the cultural infrastructure of conventional religion with rituals, prayers, dogmas, and doctrines? Of course not. But we do need to understand that even respected scientists may express their mythopoeic drives through conventional religion. They do this for reasons of personal, family, and community identity. Without exception, my rational but conventionally religious friends don’t accept supernatural beliefs as empirical facts, but as metaphors, as symbols of a state of mind encompassing awe and wonder. As such they are natural allies of the humanist cause through organizations such as the Network for Spiritual Progressives.

Science-wise humanists like Harry Willson (publisher of Amador Books) advocate that we explicitly express our own feelings of awe and wonder. In his book Freedom from God: Restoring the Sense of Wonder he explains that he left the Presbyterian ministry not only for its ethical lapses, but for its suppression of the impulse for awe and wonder: “Religions may not be much help in the wonder department even though that’s what they pretend to be all about,” he writes. “The sense of wonder could make our lives so exciting, so vibrant, that it would become unthinkable that we would permit the life-hating forces and powers of religion to spoil everything.”

Returning to the effects of toxic religion, in order to effectively deal with them, we need to focus on influencing the thought and action that the specific myth inspires-not on the myth’s scientific validity. This helps us establish the mutual trust with movements such as the Spiritual Progressive movement in its efforts to detoxify literal scriptural religion. It provides a friendly starting point for dialogue without having to prove or disprove theological or biblical claims. It helps us define a common ethical human agenda for relationships within our own families and in our social and political lives. This is precisely the premise of Wilson’s Creation.

A Matter of Attitude

My concern is that most of us indeed have a limited understanding of how science and religion actually operate internally and externally. For example, we tend to think of science and religion as inhabiting, or being processed by, different parts of the brain. But Wilson and others maintain that religion and science have a common cognitive origin in humanity’s cultural evolution and struggle for survival. By not accounting for those common cognitive origins, we fail to focus on root causes. Nontheists talk to each other about religion’s toxic effects but no one else takes us seriously. Even reviewers who gave Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion five stars on Amazon noted: “He is only preaching to the choir” and that “for a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, he has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe.”

Dawkins represents a core strength of the humanist movement-its traditional focus on the false claims of religion and its social damage. Historically, Baruch Spinoza and David Hume addressed toxic religion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. William James, Erich Fromm, and Carl Jung addressed it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Modern researchers like Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, William Paden, and others have imparted additional scientific method to their legacy. Contributors include many atheists and agnostics, but also religious intellectuals like James Carroll, John Cornwell, and Kevin Phillips who share humanists’ misgivings about the adverse consequences of historical religion. But when we contemptuously attack religion as if it were ideologically homogeneous, instead of learning the whys of its toxic effects, we can’t expect our natural allies to respond warmly. Such attitudes breed bad manners, producing ineffective strategies at best and hostile responses at worst.

How Humanists Can Help Detoxify Religion

Humanists differ in their personal attitudes towards religion. Some believe in God in a deistic or pantheistic way. Some want no part of anything that smells like God. Some are suspicious of what they regard as sneaking mysticism into humanism through the back door by invoking the “spiritual” language of some scientists. Some humanists believe that all ways of believing in God must be expunged if religion is to lose its toxicity. Some can accept Wilson’s view of science as myth in its evocation of awe and wonder, and some can’t.

But I’m not alone in believing that religion’s toxicity has nothing to do with God-belief per se. Much of it stems from genetically endowed aggressive instincts rooted in our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These instincts harness the whole spectrum of beliefs about God, including atheism and agnosticism, for the purpose of control, of which there is ample evidence from science and history. This is the conviction behind the following suggestions for the humanist movement to more effectively combat specifically toxic religion, while not wasting our limited energies on its benign effects:

  • Express our shared experience of awe and wonder to establish rapport with persons of varying theological outlooks who share our ethical and societal concerns.
  • Emphasize the ways that humanism as a philosophy offers a more fruitful pursuit of the emotional responses to existential experience, for which conventional religions provide only dogmatic, less effective, and often harmful solutions.
  • Get beyond our dominant messages about supernatural religion-how its erroneous and superstitious premises are harmful to humanity as a whole-and seek to truly understand its complexity and contradictions, including the historically humanistic movements and tendencies within its traditions. The Humanist Institute’s Curriculum Session 3: Humanist Ideas in World Religion has some good examples.
  • Convey a sympathetic understanding for the humanistic side of religion, while avoiding mutual proselytizing or compromise of our humanist principles. Communicate our concern for the wellbeing of all humanity.
  • Ensure that our local chapters are comfortable places for all humanists concerned with religion’s toxic effects, including deists and pantheists (who accept scientific philosophy as their primary “mythic” framework), and even some ethical theists who don’t.
  • Constructively engage in interfaith dialogue and coalitions grounded on our shared capacity for awe and wonder, ethical concerns, and our mutual interest in human survival.
  • Enhance educational programs at all levels of organized humanism (using classes, books, videos, and the Internet) in pursuit of Dennett’s suggestion that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives.

These are useful pursuits for the humanist movement. They foster realistic models of religion, based on scientific studies, they support our confidence to counter its toxic effects in the personal, social, and political arenas, and they motivate effective approaches that leverage our efforts through political and social alliances.

Tags: ,