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What Believers and Atheists Can Learn From Each Other (co-written with Sam McNerney)

Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman: It’s inherently challenging for believers and atheists to have productive conversations. Discussing topics such as belief and nonbelief, the potential irrationality of religion, or the limits of scientific knowledge is difficult since each side often ends up more firmly entrenched in their own worldview.

But one bright person interested in broadening the conversation is Sam McNerney, a science writer who focuses on cognitive science and an atheist interested in religion from a psychological point of view.

I found Sam through his writing on ScientificAmerican.com, and started reading his blog Why We Reason and his posts on BigThink.com. We discovered that even though we approached religion from different perspectives, we had great respect for each other.

So as two people with different religious outlooks we wondered: what can we learn from each other?

Sam McNerney: There are many things we can learn. Let’s take one: the role of authority.

A recent New York Times article points out that secular liberal atheists tend to conflate authority, loyalty and sanctity with racism, sexism and homophobia. It’s not difficult to see why. Societies suffer when authority figures, being motivated by sacred values and religious beliefs, forbid their citizens from challenging the status quo. But a respect for authority and the principles they uphold to some degree is necessary if societies seek to maintain order and justice and function properly. The primatologist Frans de Waal explains it this way: “Without agreement on rank and a certain respect for authority there can be no great sensitivity to social rules, as anyone who has tried to teach simple house rules to a cat will agree.” (Haidt, 106)

Ironically, atheists’ steadfast allegiance to rationality, secular thinking and the importance of open-mindedness blinds them to important religious values including respect for authority. As a result, atheists tend to confuse authority with exploitation and evil and undervalue the vital role authority plays in a healthy society.

Geoff: You accurately bring up one aspect of why organized religion can be so complicated: it is intertwined with power. And I’m glad you note that authority and power are not inherently bad when it comes to religion. In fact, as you also say, a certain degree of authority is necessary.

To me, the real problem arises when religion adds another element into the mix: certainty. It’s a toxic combination to have religious authorities with the power to influence others claiming to “know” with 100% certainty that they’re right and everyone else is wrong.

One thing I learned from several atheists is the importance of skepticism and doubt. Indeed, while certainty leads to arrogance, uncertainty leads to humility. We open up the conversation and value diverse experiences when we approach the world with a perspective of “I’m not sure” or “I could be wrong.”

Recently, astrophysicist Adam Frank wrote a beautiful piece on NPR’s blog 13.7 about how valuable uncertainty can be:

Dig around in most of the world’s great religious traditions and you find people finding their sense of grace by embracing uncertainty rather than trying to bury it in codified dogmas…

Though I am an atheist, some of the wisest people I have met are those whose spiritual lives (some explicitly religious, some not) have forced them to continually confront uncertainty. This daily act has made them patient and forgiving, generous and inclusive. Likewise, the atheists I have met who most embody the ideals of free inquiry seem to best understand the limitations of every perspective, including their own. They encounter the ever shifting ground of their lives with humor, good will and compassion.

Certainty can be seductive, but it hurts our ability to engage with others in constructive ways. Thus when religious people talk about God, belief or faith, we have to approach the conversation with a little humility and recognize that we don’t have a monopoly on the truth. In the words of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, we need to realize that another person doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right.

This doesn’t mean believers and atheists will agree on the role of religion in society, the validity of a particular belief system, or even the very existence of God. In fact, believers and atheists will almost certainly continue to vehemently disagree about these questions. But we have to remember that not all disagreements are bad. Some arguments are quite beneficial because they help us gain a deeper understanding of reality, encourage clearer thinking, and broaden people’s perspectives.

The Rabbis even draw a distinction between two different kinds of arguments. Arguments they call “for the sake of Heaven” will always be valuable, while arguments that are only for self-aggrandizement will never be productive (Avot 5:20). So I’m not interested in arguments that devolve into mocking, ridicule, name-calling or one-upmanship. But I’d gladly participate in any discussion if we are arguing about how we make ourselves and this world better, and would actively strive to involve whoever wants to be part of that endeavor, regardless of what they may or may not believe.

Sam: You are right to point out that both atheists and believers under the illusion of certainty smother potentially productive dialogue with disrespectful rhetoric. What’s alarming is that atheism in the United States is now more than non-belief. It’s an intense and widely shared sentiment where a belief in God is not only false, but also ridiculous. Pointing out how irrational religion can be is entertaining for too many.

There’s no doubt that religious beliefs influence negative behavioral consequences, so atheists are right to criticize religion on many epistemological claims. But I’ve learned from believers and my background in cognitive psychology that faith-based beliefs are not necessarily irrational.

Consider a clever study recently conducted by Kevin Rounding of Queen’s University in Ontario that demonstrates how religion helps increase self-control. In two experiments participants (many of whom identified as atheists) were primed with a religious mindset – they unscrambled short sentences containing words such as “God,” “divine” and “Bible.” Compared to a control group, they were able to drink more sour juice and were more willing to accept $6 in a week instead of $5 immediately. Similar lines of research show that religious people are less likely to develop unhealthy habits like drinking, taking drugs, smoking and engaging in risky sex.

Studies also suggest that religious and spiritual people, especially those living in the developing world, are happier and live longer, on average, than non-believers. Religious people also tend to feel more connected to something beyond themselves; a sentiment that contributes to well-being significantly.

It’s unclear if these findings are correlative or causal – it’s likely that many of the benefits that come from believing in God arise not from beliefs per se but from strong social ties that religious communities do such a good job of fostering. Whatever the case, this research should make atheists pause before they dismiss all religious beliefs as irrational or ridiculous.

Geoff: It’s interesting — that actually leads to another area where atheists have pushed believers in important ways, namely, to focus less on the beliefs themselves, and more on how those beliefs manifest themselves in actions. And to paraphrase Steven Pinker, the actions that religious people need to focus on are less about “saving souls,” and more about “improving lives.”

For much of human history the goal of religion was to get people to believe a certain ideology or join a certain community. “Being religious” was a value in and of itself, and was often simply a given, but today, we live in a world where people are free to choose what they believe in. So now, the goal of religion should be to help people find more fulfillment in their own lives and to help people make a positive impact on others’ lives.

It’s important to note that people certainly do not need religion to act morally or find fulfillment. But as Jonathan Haidt writes in his new book The Righteous Mind, religion can certainly make it easier.

Haidt argues that our mind is like a rider who sits atop an elephant to suggest that our moral deliberations (the rider) are post-hoc rationalizations of our moral intuitions (the elephant). The key to his metaphor is that intuitions comes first (and are much more powerful) and strategic reason comes afterwards.

We need our rider because it allows us to think critically. But our elephant is also important because it motivates us to connect with others who share a moral vision. Ultimately, if we are striving to build communities and strengthen our morals, we cannot rely exclusively on either the rider or the elephant; we need both. As Haidt explains:

If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, institutions and relationships that work primarily on the elephant to influence your behavior. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for…a society that no longer has a shared moral order. [And w]e evolved to live, trade and trust within shared moral matrices. (Haidt, 269)

Since religion is a human construct, with its “norms, institutions and relationships,” it can be used in a variety of different ways. It can obviously be used to shut down critical thinking and oppress others. But as you mention, religion has positive effects on well-being, and religious beliefs correlate with a sense of fulfillment. Perhaps the job of religion, then, should be giving us a common language, rituals, and communities that reinforce and strengthen our ability to become better human beings and find joy and meaning in our lives.

Ultimately, we don’t have to agree with someone in order to learn from them. As Ben Zoma, a 2nd century Jewish sage, reminds us: “Who is wise? The person who learns from all people.” (Avot 4:1) When we are willing to open ourselves up to others, we open ourselves up to new ideas and different perspectives.

Indeed, I have come to believe that our purpose as human beings – whether we identify as a believer, an atheist, or anything in between – is to better ourselves and our world. And any source of knowledge that leads us to that goal is worth pursuing.

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Does Religion Make Your Brain Happy? An Interview with Science Writer David DiSalvo

Quite often, what makes us happy and what is actually good for us are directly at odds with each other. What worked for us evolutionarily over the millenia frequently becomes counter-productive in our current world. For example, fat was a scarce and valuable resource when Homo sapiens evolved on the African savannah, but with vending machines, Starbucks Trentas and the KFC Double-Down, what made our bodies happy millions of years ago are now things we should be trying to avoid today.

But if those same issues arise with our bodies, what about our brains? What do we do with our evolutionary cognitive history?

David DiSalvo, who writes about science, technology and culture for Scientific American, Forbes and Psychology Today, has a new book coming out entitled What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. I had the opportunity to interview Mr. DiSalvo, exploring questions about the cognitive aspects of religion and atheism, hope and faith, certainty and doubt, and the creation of meaning.

1. You recently wrote a piece asking, “Religion vs. Atheism: Which Fights Dirtier?” If we wanted to tone down the anger on both sides, what would help facilitate a more productive discussion?

DD: I think the major thing would be for all of us to realize that we’re operating with essentially the same cerebral hardware, with all the foibles and biases contained therein. We often begin difficult discussions about belief (religious or otherwise) as if we are somehow set apart from the biases that plague the other person. In truth, we are all swimming in murky water, and there is nothing flawless or absolute about the iterative process of learning to navigate the waters with more clarity.

GM Response: I think DiSalvo is right — recognizing that we are all “swimming in the same murky water” allows to focus the question differently. Rather than asking someone, “Why do you believe in God?” or “Why don’t you believe in God?”, we can ask, “What do I believe? What is leading someone else to believe something different? And what are the consequences of my beliefs?”

My rule of thumb whenever I talk with anyone (believer, atheist, or anything in between) is, “Will this be a productive conversation?” I have rarely had productive conversations with people who are totally certain that God has told them what to do, and I have rarely had productive conversations with people who are totally certain that there is no God (and there’s a big difference between “being certain there is no God” and “not being certain there is a God”). But I have had many wonderful conversations with people across the spectrum of belief about the question, “How can I create more fulfillment in my life and make a more positive impact on the world?”

So he’s right on — we all need to realize that we are not set apart from the biases others have. Accepting that none of us has absolute truth and that we all see the world through our own imperfect lens is what allows us to engage in fruitful dialogue, rather than vituperative attacks and counter-attacks.

2. You say in the introduction to your book, “If we could live our lives without bias, distortions and delusions involved, the world would truly be idyllic.” Yet hope and optimism — which certainly bias and distort the way we view the world — are crucial aspects for our drive to make ourselves and our world better. So when do we need to look at the world as it is, and when do we need to envision the world as it could be? How do we reconcile those two ways we look at the world?

DD: The “bias, distortions and delusions” I discuss in the book are outcomes of mismatches between several of our brains’ evolved tendencies and our social and cultural environments. My contention is that cultural evolution moves much faster than natural evolution; as a result, the built-in leanings of our brains are frequently as odds with the situations we face on a daily basis.

Hope and optimism are “biases” of a different sort – arguably, they are adaptive responses to the constant undercurrent of adversity we face as self-reflective, sentient beings living on this planet. Recently a solid body of research has emerged suggesting that optimism is actually an evolved trait (cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot’s work comes to mind).

Another way to describe the difference is by way of comparison. Would we be better off without, for example, restraint bias, which leads us to believe we can expose ourselves to more temptation than we can actually handle? Probably so. Would we be better off without the transformative power of hope that drives us to overcome obstacles and adversity in our lives? Certainly not.

GM Response: Actually, Tali Sharot’s book The Optimism Bias was one of the inspirations for this question. And I love the image on the cover of her book — a pair of glasses, with one lens clear and the other rose-colored.

And I think we need to look at the world through both of those lenses. The scientific lens can help us see the world as it is, since it strives to give us objectivity. The religious lens can help us see the world as it could be, since it strives to help us examine the subjective nature of our experiences.

It’s important to remember that hope and optimism are primarily subjective experiences — they cannot change reality, but they can change how we look at reality. They change how we feel about our lives, and they give us fuel to keep going when life becomes difficult. And in fact, I think that’s what draws people to religion — a desire to find a sense of purpose, meaning and hope, all in the context of a supportive community.

So as DiSalvo implies, even if hope and optimism aren’t rational, they are valuable. So yes, when it comes to objective truth, science needs to be the way we look at the world. But religion can help us enhance our subjective experiences, as it allows us to make moments powerful, to create deep connections with others, and to find hope and purpose.

3. You mention that one of the problematic things our brain does is to create meaning out of coincidence. But there’s a difference between believing that meaning is inherent (such as thinking that “clearly this was God’s plan”) and believing that we create meaning (such as asking, “How can I make sense of what’s going on?”). So do the same problems arise in creating meaning as they do when we believe meaning is inherent? What would it imply if “meaning” arose in different ways?

DD: Your question highlights one of the more frustrating aspects of being human. It is precisely because our brains evolved to “makes sense of what’s going on” that we stumble on pattern-based biases like the clustering illusion, and are prone to stringing together coincidences in search of an explanatory pattern. In a sense, we can’t escape this tendency no matter how aware of it we become, because pattern identification is so central to our brains’ reason for being.

What we can do, however, is short-circuit pattern detection on the verge of, or already going, haywire – as is the case, for example, with people who live their lives around certain sequences of numbers appearing as signs telling them how to think and act in given situations. Psychics and other hucksters exploit these sorts of tendencies, in effect making a living on peoples’ absorption in patterns.

Frequently, believing meaning is inherent goes hand-in-hand with searching out patterns to make sense of what’s going on. Once, for example, someone invests confidence in a psychic to tell him what the patterns in his life mean, it’s a short journey to believing that someone or something must be producing the patterns. Whether that thing is thought to be a personal God, or some impersonal force (“the universe” etc.) depends largely on the socio-cultural context that person lives within.

So, yes, I do think some of the same problems occur whether we are searching out or “creating” meaning as they do in believing meaning is inherent, because the underlying “meaning infrastructure” of our brains is prone to tendencies that we are all, in one way or another, subject to.

GM Response: I think we agree on what “meaning” is — it’s about how we place events and facts into a larger context, helping us make sense of the world. But for me, the most crucial question about meaning is how it arises — is it top-down, dictated and discovered, or is it bottom-up, self-owned and created? Since we all have a “meaning infrastructure,” who do we see as its builders?

Think about how we read a text. The author certainly has an intended meaning. But what the readers find in the text may be very different from what the author had in mind. Now, who owns the meaning of that text? While the answer is clearly both the author and the reader, it’s a major mistake for the reader to say, “I know what this author meant.” Instead, the reader needs to be able to say, “This is my own interpretation.”

So the problem with psychics, hucksters and religious fundamentalists is that they try to prevent the reader from creating their own interpretations. They encourage a top-down approach to meaning, and lead people to say, “This is what God / the universe / the Bible means.” But a bottom-up approach of creating meaning may be able to prevent that system from going haywire, since we can later edit or revise our interpretations.

We will always be looking for patterns and meaning — but I think there’s a big difference between thinking we “discover” meaning and realizing that we “create” meaning, since one implies an eternal, unchanging truth, and the other implies an ability to re-write as need be.

4. Why is doubt so valuable? And since our minds seek certainty, how can we embrace doubt more easily?

DD: Doubt is an applied “checks and balances” mechanism that is not unique to humans. My speculation is that it’s an adaptive trait that began evolving very early (well before human ancestors arrived on the scene) as a means to differentiate beneficial from harmful things in the environment, particularly when the differences were slight. We see this trait evidenced by primates and monkeys in lab studies: when offered grapes under two different conditions, one slightly more cumbersome than the other, a capuchin monkey will quite observably make a doubtful evaluation about the grapes with more strings attached.

In humans, the only true existential animal on the planet, doubt is elevated to far more abstract levels of evaluation (“is there a God?” and similarly high-level questions), but is also useful at lower levels such as determining if another person’s intentions are sincere. In that practical application, among others, doubt can save our lives.

The interesting thing is that to exercise doubt about meaning-laden positions (those involving belief and value judgments), we have to face off against other tendencies of our brains like the desire for stability and certainty. That’s what makes those high-level evaluations so spirited, tense, and frequently explosive. If someone is “certain” that their belief position is correct, someone else introducing doubt about that position is likely to set off fireworks. But it’s important that we have those discussions because peoples’ lives are directly affected by the outcomes.

GM Response: That face-off between doubt and certainty is absolutely one of the biggest challenges we face when we are engaging in conversation about beliefs and values. The challenge is how we embrace stability without it lapsing into absolutism.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, talks about the need to be able to be committed without being certain. The analogy that I like is to a marriage. You are never certain when you get married what the future will bring, and if you are always looking for surety, you will never be satisfied. But at some point, even though you will never be certain, you make a decision to commit to this other person, because that’s how you will build a life and a relationship.

It’s similar to how we need to look at our worldview. In order for us to make an impact on the world, we need to stake our claim somewhere — we need to hold certain beliefs and values, because if we always we go, “I’m not sure, it could be this way, or it could be that way,” we become paralyzed and cannot make decisions.

So the goal should be seeking stability without requiring certainty and clarity — indeed, we can’t ever find certainty in science, religion or life in general. Instead, we need to make a commitment despite the lack of certainty, and use that sense of doubt for (as he says) a mechanism of “checks and balances.”

Because while certainty shuts down conversation and fosters a sense of arrogance, doubt can open up the dialogue and encourage humility.

DiSalvo argues that many of the things that make our brains happy are now more harmful than helpful. And some people place religion in that category, as well. Religion is like fatty foods, they claim — something we should outgrow and move beyond. But I think the better question is, what aspects of religion should we try to outgrow?

Because religion is not one thing. Religion has so many varied parts to it that rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we can try to move beyond the elements that are so counter-productive, and at the same time, try to keep the ones that are valuable.

Clearly, when religion fosters absolutism, certainty and a lack of critical thinking, it is doing more harm than good.

But we need hope and purpose in our life when it seems dark and difficult. We need to find ways to strengthen our commitments when we feel adrift. And we need a sense of community when we feel isolated and alone. Those are the things we can and should never outgrow — and so those are the things religion can and should offer us for today.

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