Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Explaining Religion

Last night Betsy and I attended this year's Wiegand lecture at Victoria College (part of the U of T) entitled "Explaining Religion." The Wiegand lecture is always exploring the intersection of science and religion, and this year's speaker, Professor Harvey Whitehouse of Oxford, was applying cognitive science and anthropology to explain the phenomenon of religion. In other words, his life's work is based on the premise that the universality of religion across cultures is the result of the human brain working in a certain way that gives rise to the religious impulse.

On the face of it, the idea that the human brain is wired to interact with a spiritual dimension to life is not a problem for me. I'm not offended by the notion that brains are part of the God thing, which is why it sometimes puzzles me when people freak out when they hear that stimulating certain parts of brain can make someone feel "spiritual" in one way or another. Really, I don't think this undermines the claims made by faithful at all.

But the methods and presumptions that Whitehouse makes in his effort to "explain" religion have a lot of problems. For one thing, the whole category of "religion" is really a modern, Western concept that would be unrecognizable in many other cultures and times. So to arbitrarily group one set of human behavioural and cognitive phenomenon is to determine the outcome ahead of time. Second, he is critical of previous attempts by great thinkers in the humanities to "explain" religion (cf. Freud, Marx, etc.) because they attempted to put the origin of religion on too simple a concept. But even though Whitehouse is arguing for a variety of cognitive features of the brain that give rise to a variety of religious thoughts and behaviours, it's still, at the end of the day, possibly naive to think that all aspects of religion can be explained by a sufficiently complex understanding of cognitive science. In other words, just because you have an excellent dictionary doesn't mean you can "explain" literature. The notion that something like religiosity can be "explained" is also possibly naive.

Another thing I found problematic was the notion that religion is a kind of primitive thing that society and individuals "grow" out of. There was a tendency to infantilize the "primitive" tribes he studied. When a questioner compared them (and Roman Catholics) to "children" he did not correct the notion, but instead cooperated with this line of reasoning. Telling was the questioners ignorance ("as far as I'm concerned the Roman Catholic Church's only purpose is to launder money for organized crime") which made the whole auditorium murmur. Again, Whitehouse felt no obligation to defend the people he studies.

He also excuses himself from existential questions. When one person challenged him on the need to engage notions of value and meaning, he brushed these off like a 19th century botanist compiling a taxonomy of exotic orchids. BHe really believes that he can break down every category of human religious belief and practice and that once he does so he'll see clear connections between these and how the brain is structured. Interesting, but I'm not sure it's possible. Whatever categories he uses will probably turn out to be too arbitrary to allow the kinds of patterns he wishes to see emerge.

Still, he had a couple of things to share. For one thing, there is an inverse relationship between the emotional intensity of a ritual and the frequency with which individuals do it. In other words, the more intense the ritual, less frequently it is performed. This makes a sense, though you might have thought there were communities of people that dedicated themselves to frequent, emotionally arousing rituals. Apparently, we humans aren't built that way.

Another thing he has discovered is that people's tendency to give meaning to ritual (exegesis) is related to the emotional arousal. The more emotionally arousing the ritual, the more people give it meaning. Again, this seems intuitive, but has implications for those of us that make a living acting out rituals.

I really regret that I never took the ritual studies course at Yale. But there was only one year when I could have taken it, and the professor teaching it didn't like me very much (which was weird, since I was a big supporter of hers). Betsy took it and got a lot from it.


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