Today fundamentalist Muslims assassinated cartoonists in France, inciting understandable outrage among my friends at not just the act but dogmatic religion in general. A friend of mine blamed religion and insisted it had to go. After making my usual disclaimer that I deplore literalist religion and superstition, I added the following to his Facebook thread, with some impatience for his blanket condemnation, which I think is not only wrong but impractical:
We’ve discussed this to the point that I obviously exhausted your patience. I’ll sum it up again here anyway.
1. There are foundational values not amenable to logic and reduction; they’re bequeathed to us by evolution, but we didn’t evolve a system for reliably ordering those values, for, say, promoting altruism over selfishness, at least not for assembling large groups that are coherent. All evidence shows that the more primitive societies are the most violent. Savages are not peaceful and noble, and Margaret Mead was duped.
2. Religion is the practice of foundational values. It’s not logical, and you can’t replace it with science, which is value-neutral.
3. A practice of values that is based on some high-minded secular-humanist aesthetic requires the support of a society already potentiated by religion. Can religion — at least superstitious, literalist religion — simply fade away once it’s gotten civilization going? That’s an interesting question. I don’t think it can, but I’m open-minded. However, that fading away would require a huge investment of energy in lifelong education and the arts, and we’re a long, long way from it as a species.
4. In the meantime, we should have some humility and gratitude that we get to ignore religion if we choose, that we’re in that privileged position.
Somewhat of a tangent: I’d been thinking about Taoism and the problems with equating God with the Tao, and also with determinism (inspired and troubled by my always-insightful friend Loren Rosson’s recent blog post), and I went looking to see what other people had to say about these things. I stumbled on this. I’d never heard of Raymond Smullyan before, but he seems an interesting guy.