January 31, 2007

God and gorillas and propositional attitudes

There's a fascinating interview in Salon today, with an anthropologist, Barbara J. King, who's just written a book on quasi-religious practices in gorillas and other great apes. What I find so fascinating about this interview is King's understanding of what religion and spirituality are. (Bolded passages in quotations are the interviewer; plain text are King's responses; italics are mine.)

So you're not talking about a set of beliefs? I think that's how most people think about religion.

I'm not talking about a set of beliefs. When I think about religion, what comes to mind are personal relationships with the supernatural, with God or with spirits, and compassionate action. Not necessarily books or texts that you read, but some sort of action in the world. This is coming from Karen Armstrong's work, who has helped me let go of the idea that religion is about a bunch of things in our head that we have to feel and believe. So if I'm going to think about religion as compassionate action, how do you look for that in prehistory? That's the real question that I face as an anthropologist. And the way I approach that is to look at the active expression of this emotional connection in something that I can identify as a spiritual realm.

Contemporary philosophers, especially in the analytic tradition, call belief (and its mirror image, disbelief) a propositional attitude: there's this super-linguistic thing, the sentence `as such', independent of a particular utterance in a particular language, and when the believer believes, he takes a certain cognitive stance towards this thing. This propositional attitude might be connected with action -- I might form a certain desire based on my beliefs, and then act to satisfy that desire -- but it also might not -- I could just sit here, immobile, just believing, without taking any action in the world.

Contemporary analytic philosophers -- even theists -- often take religion to be sets of these propositional attitudes, as though Christianity or Hindu or Islam were, first and foremost, lists of things to believe and things not to believe. Then the fundamental questions of philosophy of religion and theology, on this view, are (a) Are we justified in holding these beliefs? and (b) What are the logical implications of holding these beliefs? And hence the so-called God Wars, which are basically just theists and atheists bickering over how to answer (a).

The problem with this view is that it's a rather rarefied abstraction, radically foreign to the way religion actually works in the lives of actual people. It's the view Daniel Dennett (who critiques religious belief from a kind of evo psych perspective) takes, and King rejects it:

The problem that I see with Daniel Dennett's view is that a meme is this little bit of something that's supposed to live abstracted away from human pairs, groups and individuals. It has a life of its own. For an anthropologist, that just doesn't make sense. It's like taking a gene out of its environment. It's like taking a brain out of its environment. I believe in dynamic relationships with real people having real feelings in real social groups. Sure, we have genes and brains, but we are in a co-creative relationship with all these things. We're not controlled by our genes or our memes or our brains.

So what do we have instead of this view of Religion as Propositional Attitude? A view, drawing on Martin Buber (beloved by many philosophers in the Continental tradition) and not just a little Hegelian, that we might call Religion as Community.

OK, I'm not going to ask whether you believe in God. But I do want to know, do you consider yourself religious?

I consider myself a spiritual person because of the way I feel when I'm around animals in particular, especially apes. The idea that I'm here in this world with other beings who are conscious in different degrees makes me feel part of a very big picture.

Do you think there's a transcendent reality out there?

Define transcendent reality.

Something that might be supernatural. A reality that we can't necessarily experience with our five senses.

I'm always open to that possibility. But that's veering really close to asking whether I believe in God. For me, it's a private question, but even more than that, it's a question that doesn't really reflect the depths of what we are as a species.

Are you saying it's just not an important question, whether there is a transcendent reality?

I think we have evolved to believe in transcendent realities. What we're about as a group of humans on this earth is believing that there's something more than us. It takes many different forms. I don't know that I'd focus on a single transcendent reality. I would say that because we're made to relate, we think and feel that we're in relationship with something bigger.

But isn't that the core question that everyone debates? Did human beings just make up the spirits and gods that they worship? Or is there really some other reality out there?

Yes, in my book I say that's a question I will not take up. I think my stance is rather beautiful because it's about "agnosis"; that means not knowing. That's where I would like to leave that question. But we as human beings have gotten to this certain place because of our evolutionary history.

For King, religious experience is the experience of being part of a community of sentient beings. This is an understanding of religion that does away with the epistemological and ontological disputes, and turns our attention to the important questions of ethics and politics (in the sense of `political philosophy', not `political science'). And, still more importantly, this is an understanding of religion on which all varieties of theist and atheist can come together. When we abandon the requirements of (dis)belief in a transcendent or supernatural reality, we recognise that we (along with non-human animals) are all part of one extended global community. The disagreements between the Muslim, the Christian, and the Secular Humanist fade, as we all come together to make our one community a place of justice, where all its members can flourish.

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