Saturday, October 19, 2002

Another contribution to the religion-&-society thread that seems to be emerging here: Jared Diamond's review of Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society in the New York Review of Books. "Religion" is tricky to define; Diamond suggests we break it down into four processes:

"...what we think of as 'religion' encompasses four different, originally unrelated, elements: explanation, standardized organization, moral rules of good behavior toward in-groups, and (all too often) rules of bad behavior toward out-groups. Those elements served different functions; they appeared or began to disappear at different times in human history; and they came together only within the last eight thousand years."

His argument is that religion has been a necessary tool for the development of certain stages of civilisation. The intriguing question this raises, of course, is of the future of religion: have we outgrown it? (Clearly not, on the obvious empirical evidence.) It does seem, though, that civilisation (or "Western" civilisation, at least) has come up with reasonable substitutes for Diamond's four defining processes, via the growth of science, credibly explaining many of the phenomena previously ascribed to supernatural agency; the development of political institutions not requiring divine sanction of their validity (i.e. we've dispensed with the idea of the divine rights of kings); and the evolution of moral philosophy, suggesting motives for right action based on the individual conscience rather than fear of divine punishment, & which do not require the dangerous them-&-us divide. But, again, at the beginning & at the end of the matter is the one enormous question science has not managed to answer:

"From my freshman year at Harvard in 1955, I recall the great theologian Paul Tillich defying his class of hyper-rational undergraduates to come up with a scientific answer to his simple question: 'Why is there something, when there could have been nothing?' ... Religion will thrive as long as there are human beings alive to reflect on the mystery of the First Cause."

(As Taner Edis also admits.)

We're not ready to take up the responsibilities demanded by a godless universe.

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