Steven Pinker is wrong on religion

Gene Expression
By Razib Khan
Oct 16, 2007 10:19 PMNov 5, 2019 9:25 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Sort of. I assume that part of this is delivery and the nature of a short interview format. But, I think it is important to highlight a point of mild disagreement between Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein in their Saloninterview:

PINKER: Exactly. I would be opposed to a requirement on astrology and astronomy, or alchemy and chemistry. Not because I don't think people should know about astrology. Astrology had an important role in the ancient world. You can't understand many things unless you know something about astrology -- the plays of Shakespeare and so on. What I'm opposed to is equating it with reason or science.

But can you really equate religion with astrology, or religion with alchemy? No serious scholar still takes astrology or alchemy seriously. But there's a lot of serious thinking about religion.

PINKER: I would put faith in that same category because faith is believing something without a good reason to believe it. I would put it in the same category as astrology and alchemy.

Pinker is alluding to the floating of a "Reason and Faith" requirement at Harvard. He makes the point that there are many things out there that a well rounded education should include and he sees no reason to privilege religion. I tend to agree with him here because I'm not sure that a religion course would add much value in the grand scheme of things; rather, the marginal return on a required course in statistics, a laboratory science or economics might be far greater (in part because people have fewer preconceptions in these areas). But I think Pinker is a little too casual in equating religion with astrology & alchemy. On one level he is correct, on another level he misses the forest from the trees. Religion, astrology and alchemy are human universals. Astrology & alchemy are found across widely disparate cultures when those societies attain a particular level of sophistication; they seem intuitively appealing ways of organizing and explaining the world. Religion is no different, there are broad similarities in religious sensibility which likely derive from universal human cognitive intuitions. This is one reason that belief in astrology, alchemy and religion are all extant at appreciable levels across modern societies. Unlike astrology and religion views on alchemy are not often surveyed, but my own impression from talking to most people and speaking as someone with a chemical education is that alchemical intuitions remain strong. They are part of the root of the non-scientific opposition to genetically modified foods for example. Nevertheless, it is true that astrology has generally been expelled from elite discourse while religion has not. That indicates that there is some important distinction between the two domains. I would argue that religion encompasses a far larger suite of behaviors and beliefs, and in many religions astrology is a subset of the religious system (e.g., Hinduism). So even if there are aspects of religion which retreat before modernity other dimensions remain robust or even expand in their vigor. And of course these persistent religious beliefs have material consequences in the lives of those who are not religious in a way that astrology and alchemy do not. The analogy may offer insight in an ontological sense, but it elides the practical reality of the world as it is. Consider Monopoly money and conventional paper currency. Substantively they're the same. Both are processed cellulose inscribed with ink which represent scalar economic values. On an ontological level there essentially equivalent. But in practical terms they are very different. For $10,000,000 of paper currency a minority of humans are likely willing to kill, and a larger number willing to engage in unethical acts. In contrast Monopoly money doesn't inspire the same sort of response. Why? Simple, government fiat and popular collusion give paper currency symbolic value which can be traded for material good and services. Similarly, whether Shiva or Yahweh exists may be as sensible a question on the merits as whether there is an Invisible Pink Unicorn, but in practical terms there's a big difference because the rest of the world doesn't treat Shiva & Yahweh as equivalent to the Invisible Pink Unicorn. In some ways I feel that the attitude of many atheists toward religion resembles that of someone who accepts the ontological argument for God's existence as irrefutable; the conflation of a philosophical point for the point of it all. Most atheists who encounter the ontological argument find it ludicrous. Similarly, the attempt that some atheists make to trivialize religion through definition, analysis and refutation seems totally missing the point for the religious. Of course a theist will find the ontological argument compelling, the logic reaffirms prior beliefs. Inversely, the theist will find reasoned analogies which show similarities between their religious beliefs to obviously irrational systems of thought absolutely unpersuasive. A rational decomposition and comparison set against the experience of the believer will always lose. A pragmatic accounting for the fact that believers believe and that what they believe has real world implications is not an exotic idea. After all, forums such as Internet Infidels focus on Christianity, and especially particular flavors, as opposed to the entire sample space of supernatural belief. Why? The common response is simply that Christianity is what is relevant to unbelievers in the United States, where Internet Infidels tends to focus its energies. That was also Richard Dawkins' rationale for focusing on the Abrahamic faiths in The God Delusion. That is also why atheists don't spend much time disproving the Invisible Pink Unicorn; though the analogy has some force the reality is that implicitly atheists understand that theists resist the equivalence and therefore a full frontal deconstruction of the God Hypothesis on its own terms is necessary. A fruitful debate has to be across axioms of agreement. Analogizing religion to astrology is important for the atheist to make clear their own axioms to the theist, but ultimately it is only a first step in clarifying one's own position.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.