Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Gods in the synapses!!

A few months ago, I had an interesting conversation by way of a series of comments & replies on a friend’s Facebook© update. Basically, I got consigned to “burn” for believing in Allah instead of believing in God. I was torn between laughing at the consignor and feeling sorry for the person. But since this was a friend's Facebook page, I restrained myself from making too many more “tongue in cheek” remarks that would have made the discussion more ‘lively’ than it already had gotten. I am still puzzled about what led the aforementioned gentleman to decide that I adhere to that particular set of religious beliefs (or any variety of religious belief for that matter).

But the incident did get me thinking about my personal beliefs in matter of religion. And that, unfortunately is no straightforward matter. For all intents and purposes, I go about my daily activities without much reference to or cognizance of any set of religious beliefs about any variety of ‘great sky-man’ – ooops, apologies, I meant ‘great sky-person’. In other words, religion and Gods are of no consequence for my day to day activities, tasks, likes, dislikes, aspirations, plans, and such like.

Does that make me an atheist? No. I have my grouses with atheists. Firstly, atheists seem to have solved the knotty problem of evil and arrived at the answer – religion. The claim that religion is key cause of evils in human society is at best shallow, at worst facetious, and is not supported by the sort of rigorous evidence that the very ‘science’, which atheists swear by, demands. But the bigger problem with this characterisation is that the purported objective behind ridding the world of religion  – that of bettering the lot of our species – gets shoved into the back seat and religion bashing becomes an end in itself. Pseudospeciation is common and prevalent enough in our species to make many suspect it to be endemic to human nature – religion is just another definition to mark out the ‘in-group’, (along with nationality, language, race and even sexual orientation), and de-humanise the ‘out-group’. In fact, one can argue that religion can tend to ameliorate pseudospeciation by seeking to induct others into the ‘in-group’ by way of conversion!

But that’s not why I am not an atheist. The thing is, just as I do not care to observe any particular religious tenets, I do not particularly care to deny or denounce them either. In short, I don’t just care enough about religious beliefs to denounce them as falsehoods and be an atheist.

So does that make me irreligious? No again. For while I may not care about religious beliefs, I would not say that I do not care about religion. Belief may be the foundation of faith for a large number of adherents of a religion, it is only one attribute. Religion is a complex phenomenon possessing many layers and attributes rich in meaning and metaphor and in my opinion deeply connected to our very humanness.

This last claim may seem surprising, but it seems very possible that there are distinct biological underpinnings behind the tendency of us humans to be religious. Some studies, for instance, seem to indicate that the tendency to acquire religion (any religion, not a particular one) tends to be somewhat highly heritable. Certain anthropological studies also seem to indicate that religious ideas tend to follow certain templated patterns that may be in some sense ‘pre-programmed’ proclivities. The analogy with the ‘language instinct’ may seem obvious here – mental structures and templates for a ‘natural grammar’ ‘hard-wired’ in the human brain making the ‘tendency to acquire a language’ practically universal in our species. Of course, the ‘religious instinct’- even if we very prematurely call it that – is certainly nowhere as well evolved as the language instinct, and is probably, at this stage, highly conjectural. Nevertheless, religious ideas, at the very least, certainly tend to be highly successful, sticky and durable cultural memes.

The many and various social, cultural, economic, political, ethical, philosophical, anthropological, (and many other social-scientical) dimensions of religion are, on the other hand, are almost blindingly obvious. Turning a blind eye to these and focusing on ‘belief’ is a rather narrowly Abrahmic persuasion. Bracketing off the belief to examine the other facets closely can lead to interesting insights about religions. For example, many have argued that religion is not essential to develop a working moral framework for human society. It is plain that several moral principles are common to most religious traditions. Some observers though, have drawn a very perceptive contrast between these ethical ideas common to many religions and undiluted genetic self interest of the individual.

Consider for example monogamy which most religions tend to encourage as virtuous – and some even try to enforce by prohibiting polygamy as sinful! But what monogamy, in fact tends to achieve is to ensure that as far as possible, every man gets at least one wife and every woman gets one husband. And everyone gets a chance to pass on their genes to the next generation – everyone is happy and human society becomes more harmonious. But is monogamy in the best genetic self-interest of individual humans? May be not. The genetic self-interest of powerful and high-status men would lie in amassing a harem and siring scores of children! And the genetic self-interest of frustrated and desperate low status poor men, deprived of legitimate mates by the rich and the powerful would be to seduce – even rape! And what about the women? Well, who is to argue that a woman who gets one-half (or even one-fourth or one-tenth) of a rich, powerful and high status man is really worse off than a woman who gets one-whole of a poor, low-status man? By choosing to be the third wife of a rich merchant, a woman may be securing the prospects of her progeny far better than by being the sole wife of a peasant! So much for self-interest then – but does social harmony stand a chance in such a scenario? Monogamy then is the more stable option – and religion, as the enforcer of monogamy, brings about social harmony, in this example. This is not a very far-fetched scenario. Religion very likely has indeed played such a stabilising role in human cultural evolution – which, apart from the meme theory, could also explain its durability. Religion then is not just a meme, it quite possibly is a sociobiological construct! I would not be hasty in voting for the eradication of religion, my personal non-belief notwithstanding.

But, given that religion can tend to bring our tendency for pseudospeciation – intolerance and hatred – in sharp focus, it needs tempering. This can be achieved in two inter-linked ways – the global cosmopolitan liberal outlook embodied in the ideals of democratic regimes needs to ensure swift state action against acts of intolerance and hatred, and the very same global cosmopolitan liberal outlook needs to expand by encouraging people to know about (books and education) and interact with (community initiatives, internet) peoples of other religions, nationalities, races and ethnicities. The more I know about other religions, the more adherents of various religions I socialise with, the less likely am I to pseudospeciate – the interaction would lead to a blurring of the sharp divide between in-group and out-group.

But coming back to me. Neither an atheist, not a religious believer – am I bereft of religious persuasion? A fence-sitter? A waffler? A ‘feel-good’ fluff-bunny new-ager who has contrived a cosy religion of convenience? Neither. By birth, upbringing and now by decision – emphatically NOT by faith or belief – I am Hindu. My beliefs or lack thereof is immaterial actually; I am part of an ancient and profound religious tradition that in the richness of its cultural heritage, depth of its philosophical inquiry, prodigious beauty of its artistic, literary and architectural achievement, is second to none. In the tolerant, inclusive and humane openness that at the best of times it is very much capable of, it is probably unique. I owe it to my fathers, who have lived by and sustained this living tradition before me, to belong to and perpetuate it for posterity. This duty enjoined upon me, I cannot deny or refute.


  1. As someone who read the original exchange, I can actually understand how Mr. Baker thought you subscribed to Islamic beliefs.

    I agree that religion is far more than beliefs, and tend to believe that its value lies beyond strict mental affirmation of certain beliefs.

  2. Anonymous4:50 am

    Enjoyed your article!

    If I were to pick a single term to define your attitude to religion (although, no complex person should or can be defined by a single descriptor)..I would have chosen agnostic.

    I do understand how you feel about being a Hindu..I was born and raised a Hindu, and although I scarcely practice it, I have no problem coexisting with it, if only for the rich social/historical context it offers my family.

    As a biologist, I take exception to the hypothesis that religion has biological roots..rather, I think that as a thinking species, we turn to religion to account what we do not comprehend. The more we know, the less compelling is our need for religion. It is often (although not always) dispensable to a well traveled, widely read, questioning, thinking and critical individual. I have no problem if such an individual chooses to be religious, though. Like Stephen Hawking, I believe that there is no need for God to explain the physical universe, however, if you want one (say for spiritual satisfaction), be my guest.

    I do object to chauvinistic attitudes towards women that religion tends to promote. As a woman who can out-think, out-earn and out-perform the average male/female, I am mortified that many religions do a disservice to 50% of the population who have as much (or little!) potential as the other half.
    Cheers to diversity! May the believers and nonbelievers co-exist.

  3. I have missed your well thought out observations.

    My issues with self-proclaimed atheists are the same as yours... most, by their attitudes and behavior are more anti-theistic, than a-theistic. There is a vast difference.

    Something about stating that you are, by choice, Hindu... pleases me greatly. Don't ask why... it's an emotional thing and emotions are a pain the ass right now.

    the idea of you being a "feel-good’ fluff-bunny new-ager " simply makes me giggle... that would be like assuming that because Charlie doesn't speak up very often it could mean he's a wishy-washy girly-man. Just doesn't fit.

    Again, I've missed your writing.

  4. @Jared - Really? You must explain that to me someday so I can obfuscate better the next time. ;-)

    @madamescientist - Interesting you say that, because "Hindu agnostic" is what I pick when forced to label myself!

    And yes, the biological roots of most aspects aspect of human behaviour - let alone religion - are at present very highly conjectural, but I am disinclined to dismiss them as impossible. I suppose time and more research will tell.

    As an aside - as a biologist - what is your opinion of Steven Pinker's theory of the Language Instinct and a possible 'language organ' in the human mind?

    And yes, chauvinistic attitudes towards women are especially pernicious, as you said it tends to deprive our species of half of its potential. Have you read / encountered Robert McElvain's interesting book called "Eve's Seed"? I think you will find it very enjoyable.

    @Mrs Feathers - Actually one of your recent posts was the immediate trigger for this post - though it has been brewing in my cauliflower for a while! :-)