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What Can Science Learn from Religion?
Steven Pinker on Religious Beliefs & Rituals

On Sunday February 3 the New York Times ran an Opinion Editorial by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, Boston who “studies the ways in which emotions guide decisions and behaviors fundamental to social living.” The essay argues that scientists have much to learn from religious traditions because they “offer a rich store of ideas about what human beings are like and how they can satisfy their deepest moral and social needs.” DeSteno quotes Richard Dawkins, “a vocal critic of religion, has said that in listening to and debating theologians, he has ‘never heard them say anything of the smallest use.’ Yet it is hubristic to assume that religious thinkers who have grappled for centuries with the workings of the human mind have never discovered anything of interest to scientists studying human behavior.” DeSteno continues:

Just as ancient doesn’t always mean wise, it doesn’t always mean foolish. The only way to determine which is the case is to put an idea—a hypothesis—to an empirical test. In my own work, I have repeatedly done so. I have found that religious ideas about human behavior and how to influence it, though never worthy of blind embrace, are sometimes vindicated by scientific examination.

Religious ideas that lead to testable hypotheses, DeSteno proposes, include: meditation (to reduce suffering and increase moral behavior), ritual (leading to greater self-control), and virtues such as gratitude and kindness. He also praises the Jewish practice of Shabbat, which “stems from a divine command for a day of rest and includes ritualistic actions and prayers. But it’s also a cultural practice in which people take time out from the daily grind to focus on family, friends and other things that matter more than work.” While explaining “I am no apologist for religion,” DeSteno concludes: “Science and religion do not need each other to function, but that doesn’t imply that they can’t benefit from each other.”

Also quoted in the essay is the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, whom I queried as to the full context of the quotes. Here is Pinker’s full reply to DeSteno’s question about what science can learn from religion through testable hypotheses about human behavior:

I’m not sure exactly how you’re conceiving of this question.

I assume you’re not referring to hypotheses such as that if a person accepts Jesus Christ as his savior he will spared eternal torment in hell, or that if Jewish men don phylacteries and Jewish women have their pubic hair inspected after they menstruate then the coming of the messiah will be hastened. These will be difficult to test, to put it mildly. Of course one could seek out more testable hypotheses, such as … that people who pray to Allah five times a day are less likely to be struck by misfortune, but I’d give a pretty low prior probability to those.

I assume you’re referring instead to religious practices that have some kind of empirical benefit by accident, such as the idea, going back to Maimonides, that Jewish dietary laws have a public-health rationale, e.g., that pork is traif because it is commonly infected by the trichinosis parasite. There are two problems with this kind of rationalization. One is that most of them, when scrutinized, turn out to be nonsense: as Marvin Harris points out, all meat carries pathogens and parasites, which can be eliminated by thorough cooking: if the prohibition really had a public-health rationale, it would be “Swine of flesh thou shalt not eat until the pink has been cooked from it.” (Other prohibitions, such as using the same plates for milk and meat, are even more dubious, though Harris, a thoroughgoing functionalist, has come up with many ecological rationalizations for dietary practices such as pork avoidance among desert peoples and sacred cows in India. He concedes that for many, the most parsimonious hypothesis is that the restrictions limit social contact with rival tribes.) The other problem is that mainstream religious authorities (in this case, Orthodox rabbis) would deny that religious laws have some ancillary benefit. To look for them is to defeat their purpose, which is obedience to God, for reasons that he knows but we cannot.

Harris’s functionalist approach, which I assume is the one you’re seeking to pursue, may turn up some interesting leas, but to say that it shows that religious practices have ulterior benefits seems to me to misstate the real idea, which is that cultural norms and practices have ulterior benefits. Surely they do, but to single out the ones we call religious strikes me as unpromising, since these are the ones that are more likely to have supernatural or arbitrary rationales as opposed to practical one.

It’s also crucial to avoid the fallacy of equating “religious” with “pro-social,” which you imply when you write, “when it comes to the question of how we might all get along on this planet, that’s an issue religions have been struggling with for millennia.” Well, some religions do sometimes, but the vast majority of religious practices are not about “how we might all get along,” but rather about how our tribe can keep in defectors, punish non-conformists, reinforce ecclesiastical authority, satisfy people’s curiosity about the world in the absence of science, and other rationales. Take this example from this morning’s New York Times: “Muslim Court Canes Malaysian Women for Same-Sex Relationship”. [The women were convicted of “sexual relations between women” and were each punished with six blows from a rattan cane “in front of witnesses in the Shariah High Court in the state of Terengganu.” The article adds: “the women were fully clothed while caned, and that the punishment was not meant to injure them but to provide a lesson for the public on Islamic law.” Thus Pinker’s point above.]

Likewise, it’s hard to see how human sacrifice, massacring infidels and heretics, and driving heathens off their land counts as “how we might get along.” Sure, there’s the golden rule and prohibitions against murder (at least within the tribe), but those can be found in just about every culture in both religious and secular versions.

So, count me as skeptical. At best one can cherry-pick some practices that capture psychological generalizations or foster social harmony (at least within the tribe), but it’s not clear that this would be true of an unbiased sample of religious practices, particularly when the control group is a sample of non-religious traditional cultural practices.

And of course if the control group consists of modern cultural practices, the religious ones would fare still worse. With modern science and medicine, we live to 80; the average for traditional peoples and their folk remedies is around 30. Likewise, our methods for getting along, such the rule of law and a criminal justice system yield rates of violence of around 1–5 per 100,000 per year, whereas (as I showed in The Better Angels of Our Nature) traditional violence-reduction techniques, like a culture of honor and blood revenge (as recommended by Yahweh), result in rates that are an order of magnitude or two higher.

And more generally, I’m suspicious of the move among many academics and intellectuals to engage in a kind of apologetics for religion by cherry-picking the most pro-social practices they can think of and then spin-doctor them as beneficial, rather than taking a full sample of religious beliefs and practices and scrutinizing them objectively. (Jerry Coyne calls this “faitheism” or “I’m-an-atheist-but.”) Your response to this problem—“But science too can and has been used for ill”—strikes me as a tu-quoque non sequitur. It’s like a post-truth Trump supporter saying, “But facts too can and have been used for ill”—true, but missing the point. I’m not aware of any scientific society that has called for violence or oppression (though of course tyrants can use or invoke science). But religious scriptures specifically call for genocide, mutilation, capital punishment for non-conformity, and so on. Science is not a moral system, whereas religion aims to be.

I hope this is helpful, and doesn’t come across as contrary—as you’ve probably guessed, this is an issue that I’ve thought a lot about. My new book (Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress is an extended defense of humanism and reason as the best source of hypotheses on how to get along; see in particular the final chapter, entitled Humanism.

In a separate email Pinker sent me an addendum on the Sabbath and why even this seemingly anodyne ritual takes on new meaning when viewed from a different perspective. “DeSteno extolls the Jewish Sabbath as a day of rest,” Pinker notes. “This may be true for men, but for women it’s bovine biosolids. This is from someone who knows—Rebecca [the philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Pinker’s wife], in her review of Judith Shulevitz’s book on the Sabbath [The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, Random House, 2011]:

It is the Fourth Commandment of the time-honored Ten. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

And remember it I do. How could I forget? For decades, I was a strict Sabbath observer. As a working mother with a long commute, my day of rest required maniacal activity, especially in the winter months, when the sun sets early. The Jewish calendar, listing the minute for lighting the Sabbath candles, hung on the wall beside the stove, its imperious ukase whipping me into a frenzy to complete the cooking and baking by the appointed moment. At winter’s bleakest, this arrived as early as 4:03. 4:03! The laws of the day decreed that after that instant there could be no food changed from its raw state to cooked, no fire kindled and, by extension, no electricity turned on or off. By the time the minute hand moved into place, three challahs had to have been baked, a multi­course dinner prepared for the evening repast and festive food for the next day cooked as well. The children had to be bathed and dressed—and me, too, since to beautify oneself for the Sabbath is a requirement. The prohibitions of the day itself played havoc with the rest of my week as well. Writing is forbidden on the Sabbath. Reading is allowed, but I could take no notes. Unable even to underline, I devised a system of using hairpins to mark important places in the text (I didn’t dare ask the rabbi for his permission) and cultivated my memory.

So when I remember the Sabbath day, it is with an abiding sense of relief that I no longer observe it—an attitude that would seem to make me an unsympathetic reader of “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.” Judith Shulevitz and I approach the Sabbath from opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Where I am grateful to have finally escaped it—all that rest was killing me—she testifies to a lifelong yearning to enter into it.

What can science learn from religion? Not much.

About Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time and The Atlantic, and is the author of ten books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and most recently, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

About Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of the Science Salon Podcast, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. He is the author of New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His new book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia.


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