In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explores the institutions and psychology that allow human beings to exist in peaceful society. He says that humans are 10% bee and 90% ape, meaning that 90% of the time, we are motivated by self interest and 10% of the time, we are motivated to protect the group. In his chapter “Religion Is a Team Sport” Haidt discusses how religion taps into the bee part of human instincts.
[R]eligions are sets of cultural innovations that spread to the extent that they make groups more cohesive and cooperative.
In a previous chapter, Haidt discussed collective movements (like marching together or ecstatic dancing around a fire) activate a biotechnology that binds individuals to the group and helps them transcend self-interest to lose oneself in the group. The traditional standing/sitting/kneeling and hymn-singing and chanting in church reminds me of this biotechnology. The ritual of attending church weekly taps into our social instincts. In conclusion:
Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon . . . none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists.
In other words, the thing about religion that someone a better person is the ritual of attending– not faith in God.
So Austin has had some unseasonably gorgeous weather. It actually feels like autumn! So I’ve been adding cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves to my coffee and reading Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.
The book is about belief.
Terry Pratchett always talks about the common people and how they are an immovable sludge that keep doing what they do despite the best efforts of the educated and the heroic. He always does it with a sort of awe and love for those people, because even as he points out their intractableness, he criticizes the main characters for thinking they can make a difference.
Here’s a footnote on Ponder Stibbons, the character who represents comp-sci nerdom:
Credulous: having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.
Ponder Stibbons is smart enough to hold himself above the “credulous” masses, but not quite smart enough to recognize the mystery in the physics that he studies.
Here’s another statement reflecting the perspective of the credulous:
The universe clearly operates for the benefit of humanity. This can be readily seen from the convenient way the sun comes up in the morning, when people are ready to start the day.
This attitude has definitely shaped the way I approach my work as a political activist. I’ve been reading Discworld novels since middle school, so, of course, Pratchett has shaped my understanding of the world. So while there are amazing characters who cannot be constrained by mediocrity (like Granny Weatherwax and Susan Death) those characters must protect the people who reject them (and whom they reject). Because you have to allow people to be stubborn or wrong-headed or just plain stupid. Because if you don’t, you become the villain. You become the person who controls others to get what you want. And that’s evil.