Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Genetic factors and religious orientation

Research seems to indicate that a person's basic political orientation is largely determined by genetic and very early social-environmental influences rather than rational reflection.* Similar principles apply to religious orientation, and there is a lot of research (including studies of identical twins) which indicates that, in conjunction with environmental factors, genetics plays a powerful role in determining a person's basic religious attitudes.**

The point I want to make here relates to religious orientation - not to the research results themselves but to the implications of the results.

Let us assume (not unreasonably, given the large body of research findings) that genetic and early developmental factors do play a decisive role in setting one's basic religious - or anti-religious - orientation. Surely doubting one's intuitions in the area of religion would be the only rational response.

My intuitions, as it happens, are anti-religious in the sense that I am naturally attracted to 'no nonsense' explanations, to principles like Occam's razor; and I am impatient of (what I see as) mystification on the part of those who seek to elaborate a religious view of the world.

In the realm of religion - as in the realm of politics - polemical arguments are the norm. But - as in politics - virtually nobody is convinced by their opponents. (Richard Dawkins' early books on the science of evolution were far better and, arguably, far more influential than his later polemics against religion.)

If, however, both sides accepted that their (pro- or anti-religious) intuitions had been as it were arbitrarily assigned, we would move into a very different space.

An uncomfortable space, actually. Certainly, I find it uncomfortable. It's much easier - and much more satisfying - (especially if one has strong feelings in the matter) to take sides.

Let me make it clear that I see no reason to accept the doctrines of institutional religions such as Christianity, Islam or, say, Tibetan Buddhism. But I concede that the current scientific view of things is provisional and may have major gaps and deficiencies, and some of the insights of religious thinkers may in time be vindicated.

* I have discussed this elsewhere.

** The quote from Steven Pinker incorporated into this post makes a serious point. And here (PDF file) is something a bit more substantial.