Faith and Reasons: Two Authors Explore the Persistence of Religious Feeling


An Origin Story

By Jack Miles


Faith in Human Nature

By Melvin Konner

Jack Miles’s new book opens with a question: What is religion, as we know it? Having edited “The Norton Anthology of World Religions” in 2015, after decades of teaching, this Pulitzer Prize-winning author is well aware of the difficulties of finding a workable answer. Here he focuses on this: How have we, in contemporary culture, come to separate religion from what we think of as ordinary, secular life? How was that artificial separation made for the first time?

Finding this separation problematic, Miles then offers a quick, sophisticated dash through world history, especially Western history, to account for it. Recognizing that “Western culture has long approached religion” — including Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist traditions — “in a way profoundly shaped by Christian assumptions,” Miles demonstrates the point. He suggests this distinction originated some 2,000 years ago, among groups of Jesus’ earliest followers, after Christians appropriated a Jewish set of ideas that they then “universalized … creating a new social entity, the church.”

As Miles tells it, Jesus’ followers “acquired very early the habit of thinking of their religion as a separate domain” from ordinary life, since joining required converts to reject worship of gods of the Roman world. He says the church grew “quietly but steadily” for more than three centuries, and Roman magistrates regarded Christians’ rejection of Roman piety as a rejection of Roman sovereignty. When they “began intermittently to persecute the church,” Christians increasingly separated their religious practice from the rest of their lives.

Following this account, Miles begins to summarize 2,000 years of intellectual history, from medieval times through the Reformation, the rise of science and Western Christians’ recognition that other cultures existed besides their own. In the mission statement of the World’s First Parliament of Religions, meeting in 1893, he finds evidence to support his conclusion: that contemporary views of religion originated in Christian assumptions.

Noting that countless people who engage in practices we’d define as “religious” do not separate such practices from secular ones, Miles, formerly a Jesuit seminarian, clearly appreciates a holistic perspective. So he concludes his ambitious historical summary by coming full circle to contemporary life, praising as “brilliant” Mark C. Taylor’s contention that what is often termed the disappearance of God, or the disappearance of the sacred, in modernity, is actually the integration of that aspect of human experience with the rest of modern experience.”

While Miles’s account apparently selects data through the lens of “history of ideas,” a clearer sense of the social and political dynamics in the historical conflicts he mentions could add depth to his analysis. Historians of Judaism, for example, have shown that before the time of Jesus, many Jews throughout the world, forced to accommodate to domination by foreign armies — Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman — sought to separate their sacred practices from the demands of occupation forces. From the first century of the Common Era into the second, Jews, including many of Jesus’ early followers, benefited from an “atheist’s exemption” to demonstrate loyalty to Rome by paying taxes and offering sacrifice for the emperor’s welfare in their own temple.

And while Miles pictures Christians “gradually … developing a habit of thinking of the church as a separate domain,” Jesus’ earliest followers saw this separation as necessity — with nothing less at stake than their lives. Not long after Jesus’ crucifixion, three prominent leaders of the movement also, reportedly, were killed: James, his own brother, stoned by a mob; his leading disciple, Peter, crucified; the Apostle Paul, whipped and beheaded. Later converts who could read and write, such as Justin (from the year 150) or Tertullian (some 40 years later), wrote passionate manifestoes, ostensibly to persuade magistrates that Christians could remain loyal citizens, while showing Christians how to meet government demands without compromising their participation in what Tertullian called “the new Christian society.”

Does Miles’s account owe its tone to a minority of historians who emphasize that persecution was, as he repeats, only “intermittent,” and that relatively few people actually suffered arrest, forced labor or death? At least one scholar has suggested that martyrdom stories fueled a “myth of persecution” that Christians like Tertullian, they would say, and many ever since, love to exaggerate.

Yet as totalitarian leaders have always known — and as recent Saudi and Russian assassinations of journalists remind us — killing even one prominent member of a group terrorizes countless others. Numbers matter less than publicity; random incidents work better than predictable ones; and news travels fast. Elsewhere, Miles characterizes conflict between Catholics and Protestants as a “religious game of impassioned mutual rejection then being played,” although we don’t usually think of games as involving war or execution, much less genocide. But since social and political history are not, of course, his main point, readers intrigued with the questions Miles raises will find his new book, and especially his “concluding unscholarly postscript,” filled with a prominent scholar’s provocative insights.

In “Believers,” the anthropologist Melvin Konner takes on a different question: Why is religion still around? Challenging those he calls “the Quartet” of “belligerent atheists” — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris — who see in religious traditions nothing but willful ignorance, Konner sets out to investigate the persistence of religious belief. At the outset, he identifies himself as an atheist who, after adolescence, left behind his own religious upbringing, and draws upon his experience as an anthropologist living among hunter-gatherers in Botswana. Then, in each of the following lively chapters, he explores an astonishing range of perspectives.

Konner begins with the psychologist William James’s classic “Varieties of Religious Experience,” declaring that he shares James’s interest in creating “a science of religion.” Recognizing deficiencies in what James wrote to counter Sigmund Freud’s dismissal of religion as infantile illusion, “the neurosis of the human race,” Konner agrees that Freud, like members of the Quartet, overvalued rationality, urging people to seek answers only in science and to dismiss questions that science can’t answer.

Noting that the death of religion, so long predicted, has failed to arrive, Konner asks “what it is about the brain … that has made this so.” He relates how earlier anthropologists exploded the myth of some single universal underlying the diversity of all cultures. Then, noting that “theorizing about religion’s origins is now a cottage industry,” he dives into scientific and social scientific papers that investigate related questions, and offers a series of marvelously readable chapters to summarize the research they present.

After these preliminary discussions, Konner (who also has a medical degree) explores neurological experiments in “brain mapping,” as some researchers seek particular brain circuits that may respond to experiences seen as religious. Next he investigates reports of experiences catalyzed by mind-altering drugs in religious rituals, as well as in laboratory experiments; not only what he calls “Marx’s opium,” but also cannabis, peyote, ayahuasca, amanita, coca, tobacco, alcohol and chocolate. After summarizing the findings, Konner comments that “each overlaps with some non-drug-induced religious experience, and each has been used in somebody’s religion.” From there Konner proceeds to survey research by cognitive and social psychologists, social scientists and philosophers seeking to understand how religion is formed not just in the brain, but in the mind. Attempting to include as complete a picture as possible, he also considers studies of evidence for religious behavior in some animal species, as well as in children, interspersing reports of these with anecdotes drawn from various traditions.

While introducing these varied perspectives and noting the insights that many can offer, Konner reminds the reader that people, even within the same culture or, indeed, within the same family, respond to situations differently, complicating any attempt to generalize about what one might say about any specific “human need” for religion — whether for psychological reassurance, social cohesion or any other of the most obvious answers.

Best of all, Konner refrains from offering a simple answer, which people asking questions about religion often expect. Instead, like Charles Darwin, he notes that “such a huge dimension of life must serve many functions.” Some readers may take this to mean he is ducking the question; yet the energy and passion the book articulates belie that charge. In his final chapters, he clearly states his conviction that religion is “a part of human nature,” and so “very persistent, and, in my view, will never go away.”

Konner’s “Believers” offers a terrific running start for anyone who shares his excitement about the questions he raises. And in his bibliography, he offers much more: a list of over 40 pages of recent articles and books discussing each topic — which leaves this reader eager to dive into that trove of sources he cites.

Finally, his book calls to mind a story — apocryphal or not! — that some physicists love to tell of the great physicist Niels Bohr: A colleague, visiting him at home in Denmark, was startled to see a horseshoe nailed over the barn door, and exclaimed, “Surely you don’t believe in that stuff, do you?” Bohr answered: “Of course not! But it works whether you believe in it or not.”

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