Chapter 6: Religion

Introduction - pt 1:


In the chapter on war, I discussed the possibility that humans have conflicting genetic tendencies giving them a propensity towards both intense pro-sociality and genocide. Considering that conflict, I can’t help but note a similar conflict in religion that’s always been central to both the attraction and repulsion I feel towards it. More on that below.
Before that, when talking about religion, as about any potentially biasing personal gradient, it is important to make explicit ones beliefs. Unlike some, I don’t believe that religious and scientific perspectives are all that compatible but, instead, that there is often direct conflict between the two world views. Yet I have had very convincing experience in both camps.
The way that I resolve the contradiction is that I don’t.
The metaphor I use to think about this is as follows:
   There is a house on the beach of a jungle island. The house is large and rectangular. The shorter sides are parallel to the waterline of the ocean and are made of floor to ceiling glass windows.
   The view out toward the ocean shows a broad expanse of bare sand, a lagoon, and waves breaking out beyond the coral. The right and left periphery of this view, stretching off into the distance, is a strip of sand and then a wall of palms. The fauna observable: crabs, shorebirds, an occasional fish, perhaps dolphins.
   The view back out the other side looks directly into a jungle of thick trunks and an understory growth of vines and leafy foliage. One can see a riot of organisms: birds, orchids, snakes, insects.
   Both of the other two sides of the house are long solid walls and hence the interface between beach and jungle is unobservable. It could easily be that the beach and the jungle are on different planets and we’re in space station whose tedium is enlivened by two high definition video feeds chosen for their soothing properties. Yet we know we’re on solid earth and these are windows.
So then, how are these two perspectives to be reconciled?
We can speculate, but we won’t know convincingly until we somehow get up on the roof!
Now, I do know one thing: getting up on the roof will be dependent on not deprecating the fundamental experiences and insights of either in deference to the other. Our ladder up will be fidelity to our experience. This is just good science, frankly. Regardless of paradigm, it’s essentially chicken shit to ignore convincing direct experience.
Besides being good science, this is, also, central to my religious ‘faith’. I learned as a spiritual revelation, not an intellectual insight, that it is possible to hold intense contradictions close to the heart without needing an artificial and premature resolution of that contradiction. It is possible, in some sense, to find foundation outside of conflicting perspectives and contradictory models and, therefore, not feel a compulsion to artificially resolve them sacrificing the integrity of one or both.
If we build our house solely of non-conflicting ideas, our foundation is, in my view, necessarily unsound. We are trapped needing over time to give allegiance to particular intellectual constructs and feel distress as they, inevitably, slowly unravel or quickly collapse. Going ‘meta’, even our theory of what science does and what it is good for, will undergo revision…perhaps substantially. Always we have bits and piece of the big circle described in small scaffolds of mismatched straight lines. (I take a certain satisfaction that, as physics got more and more precise, it made less and less sense.) The only spot I have found that can ground us outside any particular set of ideas or beliefs is simple numinous awareness.
As the old saw goes, reality may not only stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine. Perhaps someday we’ll know. For now we need to take our compelling ideas and ineffable certainty where we can find it. In essence, I find myself in the odd position of being some sort of agnostic mystic.

Now back to our conflicting tendencies toward broad compassion and genocidal rage, always in progress.

One of my first thoughts on realizing the ongoing compassion/genocide contradiction in how we humans deal with our conspecific is that religion addresses this conflict quite deliberately and directly. I don’t have a broad expertise in comparative religion. I only feel comfortable discussing Christianity and Buddhism. Let’s start with the former and begin by quoting a little scripture.

From Luke Chapter 10:
 25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
 27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.
 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
 29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
 30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denariiand gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 Theexpert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
 Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
To understand this passage, Samaritans need to be put in context. Wikipedia’s article on the parable does that concisely. I’ll append the link and a bit of text from that. Needless to say, the choice of a Samaritan was quite deliberate.
What that leaves, in my mind, is a core tenant that seems to confront our tendencies to make conspecifics into the something other and deliberately extends the tribal connection out to the whole the species reinforcing one deep tendency and using it to confront and override the other.
It is worth noting in passing that-- while there is a conflict in the fundamental paradigms of religion and science with quite different beliefs about the nature of entities and forces, about which questions can and can’t be asked and answered, and about teleology or lack of it in the universe-- the actions prescribed (compassion and worship) don’t undermine the actions required to do good science. Nothing in this particular bit of scripture would prevent fidelity to observable data, hypothesis testing, and working to understand the world with a framework of evidence and logic.
[to be continued]
 “Samaritans were hated by Jesus's target audience, the Jews, to such a degree that the Lawyer's phrase [not included in the passage I quoted] "The one who had mercy on him" may indicate a reluctance to name the Samaritan. The Samaritans in turn hated the Jews. Tensions were particularly high in the early decades of the first century because Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish Temple at Passover with human bones.”