Biology Magazine

Saturday Snippets

By Cris

Terry Eagleton has taken aim at Alain de Botton’s oxymoronic new book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion. Eagleton is bulls-eye on the book, which basically argues that although religions are false they are still useful and we can learn from them. Eagleton correctly points out that this sort of thing is often done, and basically consists of looking at the good things and ignoring all the bad things. Thomas Jefferson’s expurgated Bible comes to mind, as does Karen Armstrong’s ecumenical urge to reduce all religions to ethical golden rules. These are the kinds of sanitized and banal books that drive new atheists insane.

As Philip Kitcher reminds us, people can be ethical and moral without religion. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Most primates, humans included, are intensely social. It’s impossible to be social without simultaneously behaving in ways that are considered “moral” or “ethical.” This aside, there is little to no evidence that religious people in modern societies are more ethical-moral than non-religious people. Moreover, there is little to no evidence that Axial or “ethical” religions have made people or societies more ethical-moral than previous peoples. Our hunting and gathering ancestors were no more or less ethical-moral than “modern” people who have lived in settled societies during the past 10,000 years.

If Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks knew anything about evolutionary ethics and the ethnohistoric record, he wouldn’t be writing silly articles arguing that modern religions are the existential glue that hold societies together. This sort of argument is typical of apologists who believe that history and civilization essentially began with the movement toward angry gods and moralistic religions.

Elsewhere, Juliane von Mittelstaedt reports on ultra-orthodox Jewish women in Israel who cover themselves from head to toe in up to 27 layers of clothes. It is part of a larger story on the fractures these fundamentalists are creating within Israeli society, which is something that caught my attention previously in Ultra-Orthodox Slackers.

Several aspects of the Mittelstaedt story intrigue. First, it appears that most of the women wearing all these clothes have suffered serious abuse; the covering up thus seems linked to shame. Second, ultra-orthodox Jewish men in Israel routinely harangue female soldiers. This is unreal, coming from losers who are exempt from military service. This is a good time to compare and contrast.

Saturday Snippets

Saturday Snippets

Someone in the story astutely observes that if some of these zealots didn’t have religion as cover for their obvious madness, they would probably be institutionalized. While witnessing the antics and ideas of American evangelicals, I’ve had occasion to observe the same sort of thing.

In this mordant piece on the future of funerary, Max Rivlin-Nadler begins with the premise that the industry is in crisis because Americans are becoming more secular and fewer people are willing to pay for the bells and whistles of religious funerals. As evidence of increasing secularism, he notes that some 25% of Americans no longer claim affiliation with a church. As Rodney Stark has been saying forever, just because people don’t go to church or identify with organized religion, this doesn’t mean they are becoming secular. Most are not atheists or non-believers; they simply have alternative “spiritual” beliefs and don’t identify with institutional religion. When funeral directors realize this and begin offering non-traditional “spiritual” funerals, they will be able to tap what Rivlin-Nadlin characterizes as the “secular” market.

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