Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Moral Animal, by Jonathan Sacks, is deceptively terrible

The Moral Animal
The New York Times

IT is the religious time of the year. Step into any city in America or Britain and you will see the night sky lit by religious symbols, Christmas decorations certainly and probably also a giant menorah. Religion in the West seems alive and well.

But is it really? Or have these symbols been emptied of content, no more than a glittering backdrop to the West’s newest faith, consumerism, and its secular cathedrals, shopping malls?

I think the Rabbi is looking at Christmas decorations through Jewish goggles. In our faith everything is symbolic of something, but that's us.
 Not them. Though the manger scenes and cross always had religious content, other symbols of the season like lights or trees or poinsettias never represented anything religious per say. They were merely signs of the holiday - like greenery at Shavuos as opposed to esrogim -- and they still are.

At first glance, religion is in decline. In Britain, the results of the 2011 national census have just been published. They show that a quarter of the population claims to have no religion, almost double the figure 10 years ago. And though the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago.

Given that the religion that is losing ground is one that has been unremittingly hostile to the Jewish people, these stats are something to celebrate. I won't be sorry to see Christianity go, and any Jew who knows his history also prays it will disappear speedily and in our days.

Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.

The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.

The superpowers don't last because they aren't flexible and can't evolve. The religions that last are able to survive only because they adapt. 21st Judaism may resemble 1st century Judaism, but they aren't the same. We've added and dropped both practices and doctrines. So religion does survive, but it survives the way any living thing survives: By changing.

Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants.

Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.

But that happened - if it happened, the science is still out - via evolution. Acquiring those mirror neurons provided us with a survival advantage.

The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.

A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.

The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.

If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track.

How? The chief Rabbi doesn't say. And really? The history of religion is the history of war and destruction. The Crusaders, for example, were deeply religious, but were they on anyone's "slow path"?

 It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. 

Whoah. What? This is so much wishful thinking. How does a prayer change my neural pathway? How does waving a lulav make me more altruistic? None of this is explained. We're just asked to accept it.

Elsewhere @efink suggestst that what Rabbi Sacks means here is that religions promise a payoff for restraint  and as a result this important lesson is internalized. But where does Judaism offer a payoff for restraint? Judaism doesn't promise a payoff for restraint. It promises a pay off for chanting incantations, purchasing expensive fruit and unleavened bread, and demonstrating OCD behavior around the house. Where is the payoff for restraint?

It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism,

Maybe recently. But historically, religion didn't invite altruism and it bound individuals into groups the same way an affinity for the Jets binds individuals to groups. It wasn't about altruism. It was about being part of the same team, regardless of what the team did. 

creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.

The type of religion described here is perhaps 2000 years old. Christianity spread and flourished, at first, because it demanded that Christians extend special privileges and special expressions of love to each other. You became a Christian, in those early days, in part because the existing Christians treated you like a king, and because it was easier to live and easier to travel with other Chirstians looking out for you. But that was a new development. The human species has existed for several hundreds of thousands of years. If the lovery-dovey expressions of religion matter so much, how did we survive for so many hundreds of thousands of years before the the lovery-dovey expressions of religion developed. Ancient religion wasn't about altruism. It was about community and teamwork and appeasing the Gods. No about acts of charity or expressions of love.

No one has shown this more elegantly than the political scientist Robert D. Putnam. In the 1990s he became famous for the phrase “bowling alone”: more people were going bowling, but fewer were joining bowling teams. Individualism was slowly destroying our capacity to form groups. A decade later, in his book “American Grace,” he showed that there was one place where social capital could still be found: religious communities.

Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.

Here's where this article dies. What the chief Rabbi identifies here is a correlation not a cause. People do things, much research has shown, because of peer pressure and peer support. And a religious group is able to provide both in spades. But it is that - pressure and support - the makes people do good (or bad) things. Not the religion.

Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.

And here's where the article decides the logic is a luxury it can do without. Because even if I will concede that individualism needs to be balanced, I don't have to concede that religion is necessary to provide that balance.

Jonathan Sacks is the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and a member of the House of Lords.

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