Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Religious evolution and progress

There is one more point that, though I touched on it earlier, I need to emphasize in concluding: religious evolution does not mean a progression from worse to better. We have not gone from "primitive religion" that tribal peoples have had to "higher religions" that people like us have. [Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), xxii-xxiii]

... There are three great defects with most attempts at this genre, coming, as they largely do, from Europe and America.

  1. There is a strong tendency, even in Kant, the most universalistic of early modern philosophers, to deal with humanity in terms of a radical dichotomy: us (Europe, later Europe plus America) versus them, and divided not only culturally, but alas, even by Kant, racially. The white race is taken to be superior, even biologically superior, to all the others, though the other races can sometimes be seen as capable of learning to be more like Westerners. Even when the distinction between human groups is seen culturally rather than racially, dichotomy is still the primary way of categorizing: civilization versus barbarism. When distinctions between the less civilized were made, the distinctions between them was still minimal; "Orientals" may be superior to primitives, but they are still categorized as sharing a single, static, and in particular, despotic culture: thus Oriental despotism. One needs look no further than Edward Said's Orientalism to see how recently such a dichotomy has dominated Western though.

  2. This basic dichotomy can be put into time, sometimes evolutionary time, as a distinction between earlier and later, with the later, namely us, distinguishing ourselves from the others by a higher degree of progress. All existing societies can be arranged in terms of stages of progress, with Europe or Euro-America at the apex. Imperialism was justified as educational, bringing the possibilities of liberty, after a suitable (long) period of tutelage, to those without is. Again we are disappointed to find John Stuart Mill, who most of his adult life worked for the East India Company, as did his father, James, giving eloquent expression to such views, and in his great essay On Liberty, no less. Freedom, we find, is "meant to apply to human beings in the maturity of their faculties," whereas "despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement and the means justified by actually effecting their end." British rule in India is, in Mill's words, "good despotism." After all, "the greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history, because the despotism of custom is complete. This is the case over the whole East."

  3. Past or present horrors can be justified as necessary preconditions for a better (democratic? socialist?) future. McCarthy notes that Walter Benjamin was particularly eloquent in finding unbearable "the thought of history's countless victims being nothing more than stepping stones along the path of development." McCarthy notes that both Kant and Mill said repeatedly that no act that infringes on the dignity, much less the existence, of another human being is ever morally justified. Yet each of them, and countless others less schooled in moral philosophy, found ways of justifying the unjustifiable. This part of our (Western) heritage, in McCarthy's view, calls not only for apology, but for reparation for those who are still suffering from the results of what we have done.

(Ibid., 597-9)

If evolution is true, then not only do human biologically evolve from proto-apes, but all other features of human society must be explained as the product of evolution. Language, culture and religion — the things that mark us as human, must be explained as to how they have came into being. Why and how would a bunch of animals develop such complicated apparatus, while other creatures generally do not do so?

But before we look at the issue, I find it interesting that the author of this work on religious evolution is actively disavowing the notion of progress, a term we normally associate with evolution in general. Bellah prefers to see it as a change from simple to complex, but simple could be better than complex according to him. In the concluding chapter, Bellah briefly traces the superiority complex that has marked previous discourses concerning religious (and cultural) evolution, and deplores them as being imperialist at best and racist at worst.

Bellah's move is certainly in line with the times. Yet, I do wonder how effective such sentiments are in light of the fundamental assumption of evolution Bellah is working with. Bellah is of course correct that complex does not necessary mean better, for the simple bacteria is much more resilient than complex animals in regards to survival. But this caveat does not really help his case for opposing cultural and racial superiority. Survivability is after all not necessarily the most lauded attribute. It is indeed true that evolution's notion of survival of the fittest does laud survivability, yet if conditions allow for a variety of lifeforms for example to survive, complex adapted organisms are generally taken to be superior. Regardless of the fact that viruses can kill off entire populations, we have yet to see anyone saying that viruses are the pinnacle of evolution. Rather, the notion of evolution lauds the growth in complexity of species into their various fitness peaks. Complexity is thus lauded as being good, even though complex creatures are generally less adaptable compared to their simpler progenitors (e.g. the dinosaurs in the mainstream evolutionary narrative).

It is nice and well for the times that Bellah disavows imperialism and racism. Social Darwinism after all has garnered quite a lot of bad rep due to the actions of people like Adolf Hitler. But how can anyone escape the charge of imperialism while holding on to the evolutionary narrative? Presumably, Bellah (and all historians of religion) intends to persuade everyone else of their new view of cultural relativity. Yes, they gave voice to non-Western cultures, but they do so by depicting their developments as development from simpler to complex socio-religious structures. In other words, the Axial age is still superior to the earlier ages (Neolithic, Tribal Archaic) regardless of the culture. Bellah surely does not think that having a mindset that is seen as belonging to the earlier ages is valid in today's world. And even the whole notion of an Axial Age is a western concept. So instead of the previous imperialistic concept whereby non-Western cultures are seen as regressive, the current notion that Bellah supports is that aspects of non-Western cultures (i.e. its Axial forms which are determined by the West) is superior to the regressive forms of non-Western cultures (i.e. all non-Axial forms). How is that not imperialism being somehow smuggled through the backdoor?

Interestingly enough, the Axial forms of culture and religion in the first few millennia of human history covered by Bellah are oftentimes strong in their claims of exclusivity. So presumably, the 21st century must belong to a somewhat different age from the Axial age, since Bellah is most certainly against taking any of their claims of exclusivity seriously. If one sees the notion that one must be inclusive or relativist with regards to cultural and religious claims, then by definition, there IS progress from the Axial age to whatever age we in the 21st century are in. There is a certain sense in which claims of exclusivity (proper in the "Axial Age") are to be regarded as improper in the 21st century, and thus those claims are to be regarded as regressive.

So whichever way one looks at the matter, it does not seem that Bellah, and historians of religion, can ever escape the problems related to progress. Evolution teaches progress and development and those more evolved are (for that time) the inheritors of the earth. When the environment changes, an organism best fitted for the old environment might be ill-adapted to the new environment and thus perish in favor of a previously less fit species. Likewise, in religious evolution, the most Bellah and others can say is that the current superiority is bounded to the current environment, yet progress and superiority must be admitted to be there. It helps no one to claim to fully disavow any notion of imperialism and racism, while ignoring the fact that one's very commitment to evolution as a narrative necessitates holding to superiority and progress, despite those concepts being time-relative.

Lastly, we must say that the embrace of evolution implies that Bellah's premise concerning the evolution of religion relativizes his advocacy of interfaith tolerance. There are no actual omega points in evolution, so Bellah cannot in principle rule out that this very notion of interfaith tolerance and cultural and religious relativity (in the early 21st century) cannot be superseded by claims of religious exclusivity sometime in the future. If he were to claim it as devolution, upon what basis can he say that? Evolution is blind, and perhaps a version of cultural and religious exclusivism might be the next progression in the evolutionary stage.

In conclusion, as we have seen, Bellah's disavowal of progress does not hold. Rejection of past applications of theories concerning religious evolution, due to moral revulsion at the hubris of 20th century Social Darwainism, only tells us that 21st century historians of religion find those implementations morally repugnant, but it does not address the question whether 20th century implementations necessarily follow from the concept of evolution the 20th century Social Darwinists held to. Unfortunately for Bellah and other historians of religion, I do not see how they can avoid the problems associated with progress other than to emote abhorrence at 20th century implementations of evolutionary theory, but emoting does not a logical argument make.

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