Studying religion with a degree of seriousness

Brian Bethune of Maclean’s magazine conducts a fascinating interview with Dr. Lionel Tiger, the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and one of two Research Directors of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.  Dr. Tiger has spent four decades trying to bridge the gap between the natural and social sciences.  Most recently he has done the religious and irreligious a favour by examining humanity’s adherence to religion in the light of cognitive science, and treating it with a respect and seriousness of purpose that is usually lacking.

Q: From the outside, then, it’s not religion’s strangeness you see, but its naturalness?

A: I’ve been on panels a couple of times with Richard Dawkins and invariably we come to the point where Richard will go on about how terrible religion is, and I’ll say, “Richard, are you a naturalist?” And he says, “Well, of course I am.” And then I say, “Would you agree, as you’ve in fact argued in your books, that over 90 per cent of people have some religion?” and he finally says, “Yes.” “How can you be a naturalist and assume that the great majority of the species is not natural? That doesn’t make any sense.” As a social scientist I wanted a deeper explanation for this otherwise remarkable activity. When you think of the cost of religion—the buildings, the tax exemptions, the weekly offering—it’s not trivial, it’s simply not trivial. If only out of respect, one has to pay attention to this.

— Bethune, Brian.  “Maclean’s interview: Lionel Tiger.” Maclean’s, 4 March 2010.

I appreciate the doctor’s candour and lack of condescension.  Too many opponents assume that those with religious beliefs were raised into it, or are mentally deficient, and thus have no other framework for understanding the universe (i.e. those poor, ignorant religious dears).  I find that reductionist assumption more than a little simplistic.  As a child I was not raised in any such faith tradition and did not attend church regularly.  I had a general familiarity with the superficial aspects of Christmas and Easter (i.e. presents and chocolates), but we did not attend church on those holidays.

I came to my beliefs partially because of the good and humble example of religious neighbours, and a spur-of-the-moment decision (previously detailed in this space) to find out whether God was really out there.

The frequently-debated aspects of religion (whether the universe was formed according to a literal reading of Genesis, or not) I find a little tiresome.  It is like debating whether all vehicle operating manuals are worth reading because the specific instructions for a 1930 Rolls-Royce Phantom can not be applied with equal validity to a 2010 Aston Martin Vantage.  I do not read Genesis for its astronomy and biology any more than I would read the Guide Star Catalogue for its insights into human interpersonal relations.  It was not compiled for that purpose.

So it is with some relief that I find that a scholar takes the examination of religion (and not just one of them, either) with a high degree of seriousness.  My own perception is that every human is religious about something, whether or not they consciously understand it as a manifestation of that impulse.  There is always an instrument, activity or pursuit to which a person repeatedly devotes their focus, and draws from it a sense of enjoyment, fulfilment and renewed purpose.

Clearly, it is a phenomenon that the species finds useful, and we will continue to find it present wherever humans are.  Imagining this species without its religions is like imagining one without happiness or sadness or love.  Religiosity appears to have a significant physiological component, not merely a social one; we are not likely to evolve beyond it even in many millions of lifetimes.

UPDATE 220239Z MAR 10: I forgot to note that the interview was conducted as part of a book review; the book being God’s Brain, by Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire.

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One Response
  1. lionel tiger says:

    thank you for an eloquent and thoughtful comment. it was a joy to read. perhaps you can write to amazon.com, to tell people about the point of view and the book.