Cause or symptom?

Over at the blog Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait has a post on September 11th, and on examining the circumstances surrounding the attacks with a critical eye. He makes some great points about distinguishing fanatics from the bulk of a religion’s followers, but says something that I feel misses the mark. I’m addressing it here (instead of in the comments section of his blog) partially because I want to go into greater detail than I should in a comment, and largely because Discover Blog’s spam filters rarely let me through, and I’ve given up trying.

Phil says,

After all, it was science that created the airplanes, science that built those buildings, science that developed the technology to bring the two together at high velocity. You might then say yes, but religion was the pilot; it was the fundamentalist jihadic brand of Islam that guided those men to do what they did.

No. What drove them is undoubtedly something much more complex, and in researching this post I was reminded just how complex this could be.

You see, I was going to point out an article I remembered reading about how US military forces in a relatively underdeveloped location, I believe it was the Philippines, had instituted a counter-terrorism method consisting of revitalizing the people and the economy of the area, thereby taking away their frustration and despair, and thus negating a major factor that terrorist organizations preyed upon when recruiting new pawns. If your life is shit and there’s no visible way to turn this around, suicide bombing actually starts to look like a much more effective way of going out (as opposed to dying in poverty and obscurity). And, it’s well known that the Iraq war has created a whole new recruiting ground for terrorists by destroying an entire economic structure and displacing thousands of citizens within that country, ones that, while they might not have been entirely happy with the former political situation, were still much better off then.

And while being unable to find the article to link to, I instead found a whole lot more information on counter-terrorism – enough to show that the issue is unfathomably complex and completely unable to be pinned down on any simple causes. There are cultures and areas in the world which are far more susceptible to such behavior, typically ones with rampant socio-economic issues, but it’s hard to say that even this is a key factor. Religion, however, is a relatively minor player in the game.

Now, here’s where the blog post took a turn away from my original idea, and bear with me a little. Many different studies of religion from a common standpoint (meaning why religion is common throughout many different cultures, even when the details vary hugely) indicate that religion is an answer to unanswerable questions – you know, the old “Why are we here?” and “What is the purpose of life?” questions. The gist of it is, we’re hardwired to think in terms of these questions in the first place, of finding cause, and we’re uncomfortable with the idea that there probably isn’t any. Religion takes away that discomfort by providing one answer to many different questions. The problem many people have with this, me included, is that it’s a cop-out. It’s not an effective answer, and there’s no reasoning behind it. Resorting to an abstract superlative, an unquestionable perfect being, is simply a way to dodge finding the real answers (as well as lending the idea of an ultimate authority to your words).

Now, here’s the rub. By putting the blame of many of the world’s ills (like terrorism, and many other things besides) on religion, we’re falling for exactly the same trap. We’re settling for a quick, simple answer instead of trying to find the most accurate one, or ones. And we become victim of exactly the kind of thinking that we’re saying religion is guilty of. For most actions, good or bad, religion is not the cause. We’re good to other people because, quite simply, we get an emotional kick from it, an actual chemical reward in the brain, and this most likely was the catalyst for the creation of our cooperative society, many thousands of years ago. And we’re bad to other people because we feel threatened or damaged by them. Religion only steps in there because, as indicated above, it’s a quick answer and it provides an unquestionable authority. But it’s a symptom, not a cause.

This is where I disagree with the standpoint of popular atheists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, both of whom feel that religion is a root cause of many ills within the world, and we would do much better without it. I disagree because I don’t think it’s a root cause – it’s much deeper than that, and has more to do with not thinking critically enough. If we, as a species, accepted and embraced critical examination of ourselves, our motivations and our development, religion itself would likely vanish of its own accord. At the same time, we’d also get better human interactions, stronger cultures, and fewer clashes, locally and worldwide.

Yeah, “If only…,” I know. Such a simple thing to say, but not terribly plausible – getting rid of thousands, if not millions, of years of evolutionary development that created these traits in the first place is not going to happen overnight. But it’s also stupid to think we’re beholden to them, as well. We’ve made remarkable steps towards controlling many of our base instincts (think about it the next time you see a sexy person on the street), and these were accomplished largely because we recognized them for what they were and realized our conscious mind could override subconscious impulses, pretty easily, really. What we have to do, first, is realize that it’s important.

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