Monday, November 12, 2007

The Black and White Mistake

This week's Economist has a great little piece on a recent report with the unwieldy title, "Civil Paths to Peace: Report of the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding."

The report, which is the work of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, along with Kwame Anthony Appiah, Adrienne Clarkson, and Lord John Alderdice, takes the common practice of reducing the world into black and white categories (e.g. "Muslims" and "Americans") and tears it a new one.

"People who are trying to put an end to conflict—be they soldiers or nice peace-brokers—often fall into the same trap as the belligerents, by assuming that people naturally divide into simple categories.

Instead of addressing, say, Protestants and Catholics and urging each “side” to think better of the other, it may be wiser to remind them that they have lots of other identities too: as parents, sports enthusiasts, believers in a political or economic ideology, music fans or whatever."

The principle articulated here is simple, but critical. We all have a very human desire for simplicity which manifests itself in Manichean "good guys and bad guys" thinking. I'm as likely as anyone to start chanting "U-S-A" when the Olympics roll around, or to demonize Yankees fans.

But the kind of chauvinism which seems like harmless fun in the sporting world (unless you have the misfortune to encounter British soccer hooligans) becomes far more sinister in the real world, where demogogues have always excelled in getting people to focus on a common identity and a common enemy in order to wield power. Whether Hitler's focus on Germans versus Jews, Vladimir Putin's dichotomy of Russians versus Westerners, or Pat Robertson and Lou Dobbs' division of Americans versus everyone else, the purpose is to present a simple story that requires little effort to swallow and follow.

Moreover, the real insight here is that even peacemakers are far too apt to fall into this black and white trap. Trying to reconcile the two sides of a conflict implicitly assumes that there *are* two sides. You end up treating the symptoms, while ignoring the underlying cause, which is the politics of division.

This gets to the heart of something which has always bothered me, but which I couldn't articulate until now, which is the way that political correctness actually reinforces the divisiveness it is supposed to combat.

If you're trying to fix the problem of racial prejudice of one group against another (say, whites against African-Americans), perhaps your first step should be to stop treating the two groups as two distinct and monolithic groups. The tendency of activists to emphasize group identity via the concept of "pride" is simply the other side of the bigot's coin. Two wrongs don't make a right.

"The existence of lots of competing affiliations which pull people in different ways is the best hope of silencing gloomy talk of a “clash of civilisations” (with religion, and Islam in particular, often seen as the defining characteristic for giant global blocks). Such thinking is “deeply flawed on a conceptual level and deeply divisive in practice,” the report says.

As everybody knows deep down, the authors suggest, people belong to lots of categories (family, language, personal interests, political ideology) and spend their time shifting between them—unless some conflict arises in which a detail of family history becomes a matter of life and death.

At a minimum, say these authors, the authorities who are trying to keep inter-communal peace should not empower people whose authority depends on keeping divisions sharp. "It could be argued that, in Britain and America, attempts at engaging against terrorism...have had, at times, a perverse effect of magnifying the voice of extreme approaches make it more difficult for politically secular Muslims to speak out against terrorism and violence."

I recall reading that even in that most intractable of conflicts, Israeli vs. Palestinian, projects that have brought the various residents of Israel together in a different context (youth basketball, etc.) help the participants realize that they all share similar interests and experiences, regardless of how their various governments and politicians attempt to keep them apart and at each others' throats.

Why is it that we focus on national, religious, and political identities, rather than universal ones like "father," "sister," "teacher," or "student?" Are we simply too lazy to deal with the potential ambiguity? It's all too telling that the only movies that depict all nations banding together generally involve alien invaders or killer asteroids. Why do we need a "them" in order to be "us?"

The next time you're tempted to think in terms of "us" versus "them," or even more insidiously, as "these" versus "those," step back, and try to remember all the identities that they have in common, rather than the ones that divide them.

P.S. Why on earth isn't the full text of the report available online? One would think that such a work should be disseminated as widely as possible!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Problem With Religion

For years now, I have been promising to write about religion. While I have touched on the subject before, especially in the context of positive psychology, I have never dealt with it directly.

Until now.

The Economist's recent special report on religion does a fantastic job of taking a balanced, reasoned look at the role of religion in today's world. It makes my job as a blogger much easier, because it provides a wealth of concrete data and context for thinking about religion.

It also provides a useful word of warning that I'll echo: "Given the emotion the subject arouses, the chances are that some of what follows will offend you."

The Economist's report is well worth reading, but for the sake of time, I'll summarize some of its key points below:

1) Religion and religiousness are on the rise. In 1966, Time famously ran a cover story, "Is God dead?" Believers would note that He certainly has had the last laugh.

2) Religion is now a key factor in politics and policy, rather than simply being a matter of private belief, especially given the rise of sharia law in many states with a majority Muslim population.

3) One of the factors in the rise of religion has been the competitive free market (especially in the United States). Private religions do better than state-sponsored religions. The power of competition lets new religions like Pentecostalism and Mormonism, and even movements such as today's increasingly noisy Atheists gain adherents rapidly.

4) "Hotter" more extreme religions are doing better in the marketplace than "cool" religions that emphasize tolerance and ecumenicism.

5) While religion is rarely the cause of war, it often makes conflicts harder to resolve. For example, when two peoples each believe that their God has granted them a particular territory (Jerusalem, Ayodhya), compromise becomes extremely difficult

6) The "culture wars"--the battle over culture, science, and economics--have drawn religion and the religious into the fray for issues ranging from gay marriage to intelligent design and creationism to capitalism and globalization. Different groups slug it out on different points on the spectrum. Conservative American churches are pro-capitalism, but suspicious of science and modern popular culture. Catholic Europe is mildly hostile to all three, and Muslim fundamentalists despise them.

It is within this context that I'll examine what I believe is the central problem with religion.

There is no question (despite the writings of Hitchens, Dawkins, et al) that religion can be a powerful force for good. In the 20th Century's great battle against totalitarianism, religion and the clergy played a critical role. Religion has played a similar role in attacking other evils, and in relieving suffering and providing aid.

Happiness research shows that religious faith and regular church attendance are two of the most powerful predictors of happiness. For millions of people, religion is an integral and largely positive pillar in their lives.

Yet as described above, religion has also been a powerful force for evil, and has been used to justify all manner of atrocities and violence, including the oppression of women, minorities, and gays and lesbians.

Clearly, there is no simple way to decide whether religion is "good" or "bad." What I do believe, however, is that there are certain characteristics of religion that are more dangerous than others.

Ultimately, the problem with religion is a matter of certainty and accountability. Religions that emphasize certainty and believe that one's primary accountability is to an unseen God are fraught with potential danger.

Certainty, especially a certainty born of faith, is a loaded gun that falls all too easily into the wrong hands. I believe in approaching everything with a healthy skepticism. I've been wrong far too many times to believe that I know the answers. The same holds true for mankind. We've been around for millions of years, and we laugh when we look at the mistaken certainties of previous generations. Yet you can bet the farm that our descendants will think the same about us.

Anyone who is absolutely certain about a belief is likely to be wrong. And in the case of people who are certain that theirs is the one true God, it's a virtual certainty. If there is one true God, and one true religion, the vast majority of humanity is barking up the wrong tree. Even Christianity, the world's most popular religion, accounts for only 20% of the world's population--and that's not even taking into account the various flavors of Christianity.

Even worse, if you have perfect certainty, logic dictates that 1) debating the point is a waste of time, and 2) you should attempt to convert as many people to your belief as possible. If you are truly certain that your religion is the one true faith, you shouldn't waste time looking for evidence, and nothing should stop you from trying to help as many as possible to see the light.

In that sense, the very behavior that secular atheists cite as showing the illogical nature of religion is actually the very logical result of certainty.

By the way, the problem of certainty is by no means limited to religion--it is a problem for politics, science, and those doomed souls who are fans of the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys. However, the issue of accountability makes it especially dangerous in the context of religion.

Another eminently logical conclusion resulting from belief in a supreme being is that you are ultimately accountable solely to God. If God is all-knowing, all-powerful and can choose to either welcome you to paradise or condemn you to damnation, you'd have to be pretty dumb to do anything against His (or Her) wishes. God knows better than you what you should do.

This accountability would be fine if all of us had a direct line to the almighty, and we received crystal clear instructions. The problem is that George Burns or Morgan Freeman notwithstanding, God tends not to manifest Himself as a kindly older man who tells us exactly what to do. Instead, we generally work through intermediaries like the Torah, Bible, and Koran, or through popes, priests, and imams.

The problem is that ancient texts don't have much to say about many modern issues, and that people, no matter what their title or what kind of uniform they wear, are all too fallible. You may be accountable solely to God, but if someone else is acting as God's interpreter, you are ultimately accountable to that interpreter moreso than to God.

To ascribe infallibility to an all-powerful God is circular, but self-consistent. To ascribe infallibility to a human being who claims to speak for God is logically inconsistent and probably a bad idea. Because God doesn't issue press releases or answer customer service calls, there's no way to be certain that you are doing His work.

Then, when you mix in the concept of an unknowable but all-important afterlife, religion becomes explosively dangerous.

If a religious leader tells his followers that God has promised victory in battle, that is a provable hypothesis. If the battle goes poorly, you can be fairly certain that many of those followers will rethink their belief.

On the other hand, if a religious leader tells his followers that A) their earthly lives are unimportant in comparison to the glories of the afterlife and B) God will reward those who obey his commands by welcoming them into paradise, that is an unprovable hypothesis. No matter how many people that religious leader sends to their deaths, someone who truly believes in A) and B) will continue to obey, believing a horrible death in this world to be a far preferable fate to eternal damnation in the next.

Bad enough, but it gets worse. Once you start to believe in fates worse than death, death starts to become a pretty good alternative, both for yourself, and for others. Better to kill the unbeliever or convert him at gunpoint, than to let him damn himself with false beliefs.

I've joked many times that starting a religion is a marketer's dream. Salvation is the ultimate product--the cost of goods sold is zero, and the buyer's willingness to pay should be infinite. Logically, it is better to spend every last dime to ensure salvation than it is to die a billionaire and be damned. Forget contextual ads; selling indulgences is the ultimate business model.

People rightly find this prospect repulsive, yet it is the logical conclusion of believing in an all-important yet unknowable afterlife.

I respect faith and religion, but we can't ignore the fact that some religions or religious leaders employ a potent and dangerous mix of certainty and accountability to the unprovable. Belief in God and a higher purpose are incredibly powerful, but can be turned into negatives if misdirected.

I believe the world would be a vastly better place if people approached the subject of religion with less certainty (and that goes for you too, Atheists!), and with an emphasis on accountability in this world, rather than the next.

What troubles me is the fact that it seems like those religions which emphasize certainty and zealous obedience to God are the ones that are winning in the marketplace. As someone with a near-religious belief in free markets and the freedom of choice, I'm very uncomfortable that we may be collectively making a choice that is antithetical to both, and doubly uncomfortable that I'm not sure what we can do about it without violating my own principles.

Perhaps what the world needs are some marketing geniuses to sell the world on skeptical, tolerant religions. Any volunteers?