Wasting Time With Mumbo-Jumbo

by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

Imagine that you are a naturalist studying the behavior of some very common and quite widespread animal species. In every case you have encountered, over years of research, in every location across the globe where you've found the creatures, and in every individual member of the species, you have observed the animals consistently engaging in some unusual activity, an activity that appears difficult to explain with existing models of animal behavior.

Now imagine that your response to these observations is to throw up your hands and declare, "These creatures are just stupidly wasting their time and energy on a completely pointless habit." Surely, the scientific community would be highly skeptical about your conclusion. If the behavior in question occurs so universally throughout the species, in all of the disparate conditions in which it lives and in all of the widely separated populations yet discovered, it must serve some purpose in the animals' lives. You're job as a scientist is to keep going until you find that explanation, not to write off the activity as inexplicable.

But the flawed modus operandi described above is exactly the one adopted by many "rationalist," science-minded people when confronted with the ubiquity of some form of religious practice and belief among every one of the myriad of diverse human cultures yet studied. A recent example of this failure to maintain a scientific attitude when dealing with the phenomenon of human religion is on display in an article by Ronald Bailey that appeared on Reason Magazine's web site.

The main argument of the piece is that, contrary to the claims made by some intellectuals who are dismayed by modern life, the adoption of agriculture, industry, and the ever-widening scope of trading networks have made mankind less, not more, vulnerable to unforeseen catastrophes such as droughts, floods, epidemics, and so on. Bailey, in my view, makes a good case for that contention.

However, near the end of the essay, Bailey tosses off a little dig at religion as an aside, writing:

"Farming produced storable food surpluses that freed some portion of the population from having to spend every day all day scrounging for their subsistence. True, many of these people wasted a lot of effort on religious mumbo jumbo, but some spent their time inventing pottery, writing, weaving, metal working and so forth."

I suggest it exhibits an extraordinary lack of inquisitiveness to simply write off such a universal aspect of human life as religion as no more than an incomprehensible waste of effort on mumbo-jumbo. Indeed, if Bailey was willing to make a good faith attempt to understand just what all of the hubbub has been about, he would find that there already exist sophisticated theories explaining religion's ubiquity and its vital role in the development of human culture. These theories, offered by such thinkers as Ernst Cassirer, Suzanne Langer, Michael Polanyi, and Michael Oakeshott, while supporting a respectful attitude towards religion, are nevertheless entirely secular theories, standing on their own, apart from the belief or lack thereof in any particular faith or spiritual tradition. (For instance, Cassirer presents a strong argument that the development of language and myth are so tightly related and interdependent that neither one could have advanced in the absence of the other.) Indeed, one could readily accept these findings on the importance of religion in human history while holding that human society has in someway progressed beyond the need for myths and creeds. (At the same time, it should hardly trouble a person of faith to discover that religion has played a crucial role in the advance of human culture in the mundane world, a fact not at odds with the belief that a particular religion may contain unique transcendental truths or spiritual insights.)

The root of this common blindness when it comes to seeing religion scientifically lies, I think, in the struggle engaged in by the leaders of the Scientific Revolution with the (sometimes violent) opposition to their new ideas offered by dogmatic religious authorities, who were fearful of losing their control over European intellectual life. That opposition was misguided and unfortunate, since the new scientific theories were, in fact, irrelevant to matters of faith. One of the results of that conflict is that many supporters of science have formed an instinctual revulsion for religion, to the degree that they are unable even to approach the topic with the same spirit of open-minded inquiry with which they usually engage the physical world. The sad outcome of this situation is that, when it comes to religion, it is quite often the advocates of science who wind up wasting a lot of effort on mumbo-jumbo.

July 7, 2006

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives