Religious belief is more than an evolutionary affliction

A new book attempts to ground a defence of religious freedom in cognitive science, but in doing so it reveals a lack of faith in freedom itself.

Dolan Cummings

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Should medical staff be allowed to opt out of involvement in providing abortions on grounds of religious conscience? Should couples be allowed to adopt children if their religious beliefs lead them to insist homosexuality is a sin? Should religious institutions be exempted from normal rules and social expectations when their beliefs put them at odds with prevailing values, even those expressed in law? Roger Trigg, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick and academic director of the centre for the study of religion in public life at Kellogg College, Oxford, argues that while religious freedom is never absolute, there are at least two good reasons to give it special weight when considering such modern dilemmas.

First, drawing on cognitive science, Trigg seeks to show that religion is not an irrational set of ideas or a merely subjective world-view, but a natural human faculty. For this reason, it is not enough to treat religion like other ideas, protected by the same principles of free speech and association within the law as any other opinion or matter of conscience. For Trigg, the deep-rooted nature of religious beliefs and practices means they must be protected even when they come into conflict with other cherished values, notably equality. Trigg’s second main argument is that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is the intellectual and moral foundation on which other values rest. Thus, religious freedom is not simply to be balanced against other freedoms and demands for equality, but must be recognised as a special, foundational, case.

While Trigg’s first argument depends on insights that are actually too basic and generic to seem relevant to specific religious controversies, his second is more interesting for what it reveals about the illiberalism of ‘secular liberal’ thinking than for what it says about the role of religion itself.

To make the case that religion is essential to human nature, Trigg takes the traditional Christian idea of a natural comprehension of the divine, what Calvin called a sensus divinus (and understood to be God-given), and seeks to root it in contemporary cognitive science. He refers in particular to the claim that we are all endowed with a ‘hypersensitive agent detection device’ (HADD), a natural tendency to attribute events to active agents. Of course, as Trigg acknowledges, there are obvious evolutionary reasons why our minds should work this way – better to misattribute the sound of rustling leaves to a predator than to dismiss it as random noise and get eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger. Nonetheless, he points out that this trait also makes it natural for us to imagine supernatural agents at work in the world. He also considers ‘theory of mind’, pointing out that young children begin by assuming those around them to be omniscient, and have to learn to take into account the fact that other people have limited perspectives and understanding. Thus, the idea of an omniscient God is not so strange or elaborate, but comes naturally.

Trigg’s point is not to prove the existence of God – others use similar examples to explain away belief in God – but instead to demonstrate that religion is irrepressible. ‘Arbitrary attempts to stifle basic religious freedom’, Trigg writes, ‘will come up againts basic facts of human nature. It is like starving people, or refusing them shelter.’ This is persuasive up to a point – religion undoubtedly expresses something universal in human nature – but neglects the fact that grown-up religion and non-religious thought both mediate such basic facets of human cognition in sophisticated ways. Developing a realistic theory of mind (understanding that other people have different perspectives) is an essential part of child development, whether or not we retain a belief in an omniscient God. And unless we learned to keep our HADDs in check, we would all go mad.

Trigg also cites the American psychologist Deborah Kelman’s suggestion that children have a natural belief in teleology, attributing purpose to all kinds of natural phenomena, as further evidence for a natural bias towards religious belief. Again, the focus on children being somehow more representative of human nature than adults is troubling, especially as their childish thinking is presumably influenced by adult culture, and in particular language, as well as nature. Kelman apparently reports that when asked why some rocks are pointed, children are more likely to imagine a purpose (‘so animals won’t sit on them’) rather than a physical cause (‘bits of stuff piled up over time’). This is hardly a mystery. Young children know the word ‘why’ usually implies purpose, and respond accordingly, but older children and adults understand that in this context it doesn’t mean ‘for what reason’, but ‘how did this come about?’. Ask even young children the latter question unambiguously and they are surely far less likely to speculate about purposes.

The claim that religion as we know it is a spontaneous expression of human nature, even a basic human need, is far from obvious. And Trigg’s resort to cognitive science seems defensive rather than persuasive, rather like the claim that we should respect gay people’s lifestyles because they were born that way. The search for meaning and purpose in the world can take forms other than religion, while religion itself is a long way from the naïve assumptions made by children.

Trigg is on more solid ground when he argues that religion is the source of other values. Certainly in a Western context, the idea of equality first came in the form that we are all equal in the sight of God. Similarly the modern ideal of individual freedom developed through appeals to the sovereignty of God, a higher power than any secular authority. That much is historical fact. Trigg concludes his book by asking ‘whether a strong conception of human dignity can survive long without the Christian roots that have undoubtedly nurtured it’ . In other words, are the Christian roots of modern secular values merely historical, or is religion still required to nourish the ideals of freedom and equality?

Trigg quotes Thomas Jefferson asking, ‘Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?’. He explains that Jefferson and his contemporaries ‘did not believe that human rights are important just because we, or some people, happen to agree that they are‘ (emphasis added). But, implying that we have to choose between supernatural foundations and mere whim, this is a caricature of a more historical understanding of liberty. In fact, the liberties secured by the American Revolutionaries were won in reality, not discovered in theory. Moreover, the revolution had as much to do with an assertion of material interests as an appeal to God-given rights; hence the oddly uneven character of liberty at this historical moment, neglecting slavery and the subordination of women, for example.

No doubt many were motivated by the conviction that God was on their side, but as soon as we acknowledge that it is conviction that is decisive, we must be open to the possibility of equally strong non-religious convictions, such as those that animated the French Revolution. That also made history, shifting the balance between social forces, and institutionalising the beliefs of the revolutionaries (in this case at the expense of religious authority). Considering the matter historically – and perhaps especially with an eye to the failure of the Commonwealth in Britain in the seventeenth century – we might as well ask whether the liberties of a nation can be secure when they have no other foundation than religious belief.

This raises questions about the nature of rights. The prevailing model today is legal: appeals are made to the constitution in the US or to human rights law in Europe. Trigg discusses various cases in which these rights conflict with religious beliefs and practices. ‘The paradox is that, the more individual liberty and equality are proclaimed, the more government regulation proves necessary to enforce that equality. Freedom is diminished, as everyone is forced to behave according to state-enforced standards. In the name of freedom and equality, freedom is visibly curtailed (p51).’ This is in fact a fair description of what has happened in many jurisdictions, but it is not a necessary paradox.

To take the case of the Christian hoteliers prosecuted for refusing a room to a gay couple, the question of religion only arose because the state forces private businesses to conform to strict equality rules. It need not – it could allow businesses to discriminate on whatever grounds they like, and offended consumers to respond as they see fit (like boycotting such businesses, or simply going elsewhere). Trigg’s subsequent claim that ‘denying religion any privileged position… undermines the ability of religious believers to live according to their own principles’ is true only if the prevailing standards of secular law are particularly prescriptive.

Trigg inadvertently illustrates a paradox of his own when he laments the US Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the right of Hastings College of the Law, University of California, not to recognise student groups that refuse to abide by its non-discrimination policy. The college’s Christian Legal Society asked members to sign up to a statement of faith, including opposition to gay marriage. Consequently the college refused to recognise the society. For Trigg, this was a violation of the Christian Legal Society’s freedom to set its own rules; in fact, the decision upheld Hastings College’s right to set its own rules. After all, the student society was looking for recognition, not merely the right to exist. One might argue that an institution of higher education ought to have taken a more liberal view and recognised the society in the spirit of free association, but technically it was only doing what the society itself proposed to do in excluding those who did not share its values.

Trigg argues that the student society should be allowed to discriminate against individuals on religious grounds, but the college should not be allowed to discriminate against another institution on the grounds of its own policy of non-discrimination against individuals. My own view is that both should be legally allowed to discriminate, but while there is an obvious reason for a religious society to exclude those who do not share its beliefs, a college has no such justification for excluding a religious student society. In a sense, the problem is not a lack of religious freedom so much as an excess of egalitarian zeal. One might even characterise it as religiosity about equality – the college was effectively requiring student societies to sign up to a credo.

In a similar vein, Trigg cites the case of the London registrar Lillian Ladele, who was dismissed because she refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies for gay couples. Significantly, the case made by her employer, London Borough of Islington, was not that it was impracticable to exempt her from civil partnerships, but that they wanted all registrars to conduct them ‘as they regarded this as consistent with their strong commitment to fighting discrimination’. The issue was affirming a set of values, not simply ensuring gay couples could find a registrar. Trigg believes there should be exemption on religious grounds in such cases, but sensibly puts his case in terms of reasonable compromise rather than fundamental rights. If people’s religious beliefs can be accommodated, even at the expense of a management headache, they should be.

This genuinely liberal view is a refreshing corrective to the shrillness on both sides of the ongoing debate about how to reconcile equality legislation with religious freedom. But Trigg’s argument that religion is a special case is less convincing. Religious freedom should be taken a lot more seriously than it generally is today, but with proper respect for freedom in general, there would be no need to make it a matter of special privileges. Nonetheless, Trigg is right to emphasise the continuing as well as historic importance of belief, religious or otherwise. Technical disputes about competing legislation reveal an impoverished understanding of liberty today. The liberties of a nation are secure only when people genuinely believe in freedom, whether they believe it comes from God or not, and live accordingly.

Dolan Cummings is editor of Culture Wars and an associate fellow of the Institute of Ideas.

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