Saturday, October 13, 2007

Stark Lunacy - Part 2

Okay, time to continue on with my running commentary of Rodney Stark's new book Discovering God.

In tracing the evolution of religious beliefs, Stark tackles the task of trying to determine the religious beliefs of primitive peoples. Most of this chapter is of little interest to me until Stark examines the various explanations given for why belief in god or gods seems universal throughout all human cultures worldwide. Stark breaks the possible explanations down into three categories: biological, cultural, and theological.

In the area of biology, Stark mentions and critiques a number of well-known works. Among them are:

Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I had heard of this book but was not familiar with its subject matter. Jaynes theorized that until fairly recently in human history, the left and right sides of the human brain were not synthesized, so that "voices" from one side of the brain were believed to be external communications. Humans had no sense of an "I" and their natural state was not unlike that of a schizophrenic. Stark dismisses the evidence that Jaynes offered in support of his argument, which rested on his interpretation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Jaynes noted that in the Iliad, many of the characters engage in a dialogue with the gods, whereas in the Odyssey, which was written about a century or so later, the gods are absent. Stark chalks this up to a literary convention and by way of analogy retorts that one could claim that early humans were only two dimensional beings because they appear two dimensional in the earliest depictions by human artists. With the caveat of not having read Jaynes book, I am inclined to agree with Rodney Stark on this one.

Next up is Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Again, as with Jaynes book above, I have not read this work, so I am largely at the mercy of viewing it through Rodney Stark's subjective interpretation. As explained by Stark, Boyer's argument proposes that for purposes of survival, human brains evolved to detect purpose or agency in our environment. For example, seeing the potential for danger in a deadly predator animal that happens to be sitting motionless. According to Boyer, this detection system is biased to overdetection, which causes humans to perceive what they interpret as purpose in the their environment, and that the source of this purpose is some supernatural entity or god.

Stark serves up Boyer's definition of religion, which reads "Religion is about the existence and causal powers of nonobservable entities and agencies." Stark then responds to this by arguing that "real science embraces many unobservables - no one has ever seen gravity. Of course, Boyer would respond that gravity's effects are observable. But proponents of Intelligent Design would answer, so are the effects of a Creator!" I can't help but feel that Stark is acting like a smart ass with such a quip. Not only are gravity's effects observable, they are also measurable. To give an example, astronomers expected to find the planet we know as Neptune because of perturbations detected in the orbit of Uranus. On the other hand, an Intelligent Design proponent can argue that the complexity of life on Earth is valid evidence in support of the existence of a Creator, but the ID proponent cannot offer any measurable evidence for the existence of such a Creator. Where does it live? What does it look like? How does it create matter?

On the heels of Pascal Boyer, Stark proceeds to the eminence grise of the present day atheist movement, Richard Dawkins. In particular, Stark focuses on Dawkins popularizing the concept of memes. Stark's condescension towards Dawkins seeps through like baby's piss coming through a urine soaked diaper. As with Boyer above, the gist of Stark's criticism of Dawkins is that if religion can be reduced to memes, so to can scientific ideas. Stark concludes his brief discussion of Dawkins by noting that one of the positive blurbs that appear on the back cover of The God Delusion (which I have read btw!) are from the magicians Penn and Teller. Stark also devotes a mere paragraph to Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which I also have not read, though I have seen Dennett speak on C-Span. Stark dismisses Dennett's book as just a rehash of Boyers and Dawkins.

In discussing the cultural origins of religion, Stark gives a favorable cite to a man named Paul Radin, who wrote Primitive Man as Philosopher. Stark sets forth, rightfully I would argue, that early humans should be viewed as rational and intelligent creatures, and not as dumb brutes as they are popularly depicted.

Stark posits, again correctly in my opinion, that religion originates with "unusual individuals" whom Radin calls "religious formulators" but whom Stark prefers to call "religious innovators." Stark defines them as "very gifted individuals who appear from time to time and introduce new religious culture." He goes on to observe that "even though innovators are scattered across time and space, their new formulations are remarkably similar." To this, Stark offers two possible conclusions, either these innovators were responding to universal human predicaments, or "perhaps they are similar because each is responding to a revelation from the same divine source." Of course, we already have a pretty good idea by this point which explanation Stark is leaning towards.

While correct in his statement that primitive peoples had very practical fears, he adds that by calling on the supernatural, "they acknowledge the fundamental principle that the supernatural is the only plausible source of many things that human beings greatly desire." (Bold mine). On what does Stark base his claim that the supernatural, or god, represents the only plausible source for the things that we desire? He does not say.

Due to the late hour I am going to pick this up again, wrapping up the rest of chapter 2 and all of chapter 3.

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