Thursday, February 02, 2006

Salvation is Free

It seems that my post yesterday was overly long, so I am going to post a Cliff notes version.

My intention was to introduce an argument that runs counter to the idea that religion exists to meet an unfilled need for a system of ethics and a meaning to life.

Paul Bloom suggests an alternative theory- religion stems not from this unmet need, but from the human cognitive structure. Based on studies conducted on newborns, there exists two separate systems in the brain- one responsible for appreciating the laws of physics (e.g., if you hold a ball in front of an infant and release it, the infant will express shock if the ball does not drop) and one responsible for appreciating emotions. The existence of these two systems as separate semi-autonomous modules is evinced in infants who suffer from autism (i.e., a lack of emotional understanding) who still possess the system for appreciating physics.

The essential problem with religion is that it does much more than fulfill the need for ethics or any of the other utilitarian justifications for religion. Superstitious beliefs, however useful, are not needed to create a model of ethics. Bloom suggests a reason why human beings are intrinsically superstitious- the higher faculties of reason blur the discreteness of these two systems- if people of emotions, why not read emotions into rocks? It does not take a great leap of the imagination to see primitive man as superstitious- just look at today’s current society.

In fact, if you accept that man is intrinsically superstitious, an Orthodox Jew must ask herself not only from when cometh MY salvation, but from where did pre-Judaic religion arise?

I have heard kiruv klowny arguments that ask my same initial question- if the superstitious tapestry of religion is not necessary, it’s existence must be of divine origin. Bloom’s article is not even needed to rebut this question- the existence of pre-Judaic religions- with their own superstitious tapestry- is proof enough that man is inherently superstitious and could make up that tapestry out of whole cloth.

The human mind is a maze of heuristics and semi-autonomous units. Our poor ability to grasp non-intuitive concepts, especially with regards to the end of our conscious experience (or something as simple as a coin flip) should inform how trusting we should be of superstition and its elements in religion.