Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Which comes first? The Belief or the Behavior?

I found this article recently as I searched for info about any interaction between Sam Harris and Patricia Churchland.

Author Scott Atran writes: “[C]ore religious beliefs do not have fixed propositional content,” and “People make religious belief – whether Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and so forth – compatible with violence or non-violence according to how they interpret their religious beliefs,” and “That there is a cruel and repugnantly violent contemporary current in Islam, there is no doubt. Factions of the Christian identity movement, the Tamil Tiger interpretation of Hinduism as necessitating suicide attacks against Buddhist enemies, Imperial Japan’s interpretation of Zen Buddhism as a call to a war of extermination against the Chinese, all have produced cruel and barbarous behavior that has adversely affected millions of people. But Harris’s take on such matters is so scientifically uninformed and mendacious as to be a menace to those who seek a practical and reasoned way out of the morass of obscurantism.”

All of this got me thinking…

What if Atran is right, and at some level, people really don’t believe what they say they believe, but they will use passages from various religious texts to simply justify, to themselves and others, actions that they really want to take anyway, for who knows how many other reasons?

This falls in line more with Jonathan Haidt’s ideas about the rational mind being the “rider/press secretary” for the “elephant” that represents the rest of the mind and emotion-driven limbic brain, etc. (Something I forgot to mention in my previous post.) In this example, the press secretary quotes religious texts to make its elephant look good, but the elephant is going to do, or head in the direction of doing, whatever it really wants to do, and the rider/press-secretary just looks for ways to justify the elephant’s behavior after the fact, or after the direction has already been determined. In addition, as I have concluded for a long time now, people tend to believe what they want to believe, even about the fact of their believing in the first place, i.e. "I want to believe that my believing 'x' is good, and that I am good, and even better than others for believing 'x'."

In the case of Islam, it’s unfortunate that the Qur’an and Hadith contain the violence justifying and encouraging passages that they do, because it allows some Muslims with extreme, violent personalities, to justify their own behavior more easily than if they lived in a culture whose religious texts contained fewer if any such easily adoptable passages!

In other words, these are "beliefs of convenience" (my term) - they just happen to support certain already ingrained mindsets and behaviors of the people who claim them.

And sure, there's a cultural feedback loop at work here. If you're raised in a violent culture, you are more likely to become violent yourself. If you are raised with physical abuse as a form of "discipline", you are more likely to be violent as an adult. Doesn't matter if you're Christian or Muslim in this case, except maybe by degree. Most Christians are less violent than many Muslims in part because they do not have as many religious texts that encourage violence that they can use to justify violent behaviors.

So, probably what is more important to recognize and understand apart from belief is what leads people, i.e. their "elephants" to develop violent personalities and inclinations towards violent behavior in the first place.

In addition to Jonathan Haidt, Marshall Rosenberg's work on Non-violent Communication and Compassionate Parenting has a lot to offer to such a discussion, as does Lloyd deMause and his work on  The Origins of War in Child Abuse.

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