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None of the Above

All the Modern Explanations for Religion Except the Most Obvious

by Denyse O’Leary

Did you know that: Religion is good for you; also, Religion is bad for you; also, Religion makes no difference; also, Religion can be explained by a God gene, or a meme, or part of the brain . . . or whatever the editor of your local paper’s “Relationships” section will buy for this weekend’s edition?

You didn’t know any of those things? Aw, no surprise. But never fear: One outreach of the new atheist movement, currently making its way around the lecture rooms of the nation, is the academic attempt to account for religious belief, and to do so on any basis whatsoever, except one.

We will get to that forbidden one in a moment. First, let’s look at the permitted ones.

Four Rationales

Religion is good for you: In “Satan, the great motivator,” Michael Fitzgerald (Boston Globe, November 15, 2009), relying on his research as a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow, writes:

A pair of Harvard researchers recently examined 40 years of data from dozens of countries, trying to sort out the economic impact of religious beliefs or practices. They found that religion has a measurable effect on developing economies—and the most powerful influence relates to how strongly people believe in hell.

Wow, I didn’t realize that Satan still had a job. But never mind; wouldn’t we be better off to describe the effect noted by the researchers as being due to people understanding cause and effect?

Religion is bad for you:Well, Britain’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, could take all the prizes for that idea, claiming that religion is a form of “child abuse” for example. Here’s his view as described in an article from World News Daily (January 08, 2006):

The God of the Old Testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous, “and proud of it, petty, vindictive, unjust, unforgiving, racist,” he says. Dawkins then criticizes Abraham, compares Moses to Hitler and Saddam Hussein, and calls the New Testament “St Paul’s nasty, sado-masochistic doctrine of atonement for original sin.”

But Dawkins is hardly alone. An influential “new atheist” movement, of which he is certainly a key leader, has authored numerous best sellers on such themes.

Religion makes no difference: According to the University of British Columbia’s Ara Norenzayan, once you remove the feel-good and look-good factors, religious people do not behave differently from anyone else (Vancouver Sun, January 6, 2010). But if that is so, I don’t know how to account for the demonstrated fact that in Canada, religious people are much more philanthropic than most others, whether they are noticed or not. (Some gifts must, of course, be given discreetly. That’s what PayPal is for.)

Religion can be explained by . . . (choose an option): Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade (November 15, 2009) tries to reconcile people of faith to the claim that we are “hardwired” to believe because Darwin’s natural selection favors belief, whether it makes any difference or not. Wade, a science reporter for the Times and the author of The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, announces that

[the fact that] religious behavior was favored by natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of gods. For believers, if one accepts that evolution has shaped the human body, why not the mind too? What evolution has done is to endow people with a genetic predisposition to learn the religion of their community, just as they are predisposed to learn its language. With both religion and language, it is culture, not genetics, that then supplies the content of what is learned.

Okay, so what is missing from this picture?

First, common sense: Suppose I told you that flossing your teeth (1) helped; (2) didn’t help; (3) made no difference; (4) can be explained by . . . (choose an option). What would you reasonably conclude about the state of the evidence?

Revelation Not Allowed

More important point: The fundamental rule of all such studies is that no one can consider the possibility of revelation—that God spoke to man. As in, the Lord appeared to Abraham and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1, NIV).

Or that he appeared to Moses and said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land” (Exodus 3:7­8a NIV).

So, if we can’t consider that possibility, we find ourselves in a house of mirrors in which all indeterminable ideas are a possibility. A good business, perhaps, for some academics. Not good news for a Christian culture, though. 

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