Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Pious View of the Evolution of Piety

In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates arrives at the courthouse to face indictment and encounters a young man who is there to sue his own father for the murder of a hired hand.  This is an astonishing act in view of ordinary Greek morality.  Murder was conceived of as a crime against families.  The role of the court was to reconcile the families with some kind of settlement.  Euthyphro explains that he is acting out of a piety that transcends familial obligation. 
This setting is extraordinarily informative.  It gives us a sense of how much distance some Greeks had achieved from their traditional, pagan moral view.  It also allows Socrates to cross the stage as it were.  In Aristophanes’ the Clouds, Socrates’ teaching brought a young man to assault his father.  In the Euthyphro, he defends the father against the son. 
The question of the dialogue is ‘what is piety?’  Euthyphro’s first answer is that piety is what the Gods love and impiety is what the God’s hate.  This quickly leads to a difficulty, because Euthyphro accepts the traditional myths in which the Gods quarrel.  If they quarrel, Socrates points out, then what one God loves another will not love and so the same thing will be both pious and impious.  Socrates allows the two of them to paper over this problem with the revision that piety is what all the Gods love and vice versa. 
Then, however, Socrates asks a cleaving question.  He is my revised version:
Suppose that some act is pious.  Does God love it because it is pious or is it pious because God loves it?
That question drives a wedge between philosophy and religion, opening a gap that will never again be fully closed.  If what is right is right because and only because God loves it, then justice begins and ends with determining God’s will.  This leads to something like the Judaism of Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903–1994), who argued that an act can only be religious because God commands it and for no other reason.  That an act is socially or medically beneficial is religiously irrelevant. 
If, however, God loves the pious because it is pious, then one can look for additional reasons why it is pious.  This leads in the direction of philosophy and of course it is the route that Socrates takes. 
I note that one can try to have it both ways.  That is the strategy chosen by Thomas Aquinas.  Some of God’s law is valid only by revelation (remember the Sabbath Day) and some of His law can be explained rationally (do not murder).  Thus philosophy becomes the handmaiden, if not the ally, of faith. 
If the pious is loved by God because it is pious, what makes it pious?  Socrates has to provide Euthyphro with a lot of help, but they agree that pious is a kind of justice and justice is in general a kind of benefiting.  When we take care of other people, that is a form of justice in the ordinary sense.  When we tend to the requirements of the gods, that is pious proper.  The problem here is that the gods are presumably self-sufficient.  They are, after all immortal.  To understand piety as tending to the needs of the gods would mean that the gods are needy.  That would imply imperfection and defect.  Neither Socrates nor his young interlocutor are willing to accept this. 
The dialogue ends with Euthyphro’s exasperation.  All I can tell you, he tells Socrates, is that piety is serving the gods in a way that saves cities and families.  At that point, the young man is out of steam and walks away from Socrates and the Porch of the King.  Socrates has successfully defended the father. 
Although the dialogue ends without a decisive answer to the question, an answer is implied.  We cannot understand why God or the gods care about human beings or are concerned about what we do, if indeed we understand the divine as Socrates did and as did the great Christian theologians.  God is perfect.  He cannot need us to do anything.  We can however understand why we need the gods.  The ubiquitous presence of religion in human history leaves no doubt that our turning to the divine is a turn motivated by human neediness. 
Scott Atran has a piece in This View of Life that speaks to these issues.  He is arguing with Sam Harris (a worthy cause). 
Harris’s views on religion ignore the considerable progress in cognitive studies on the subject over the last two decades, which show that core religious beliefs do not have fixed propositional content (Atran & Norenzayan, “Religion’s Evolutionary Landscape,” BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES, 2004).
Indeed, religious beliefs, in being absurd (whether or not they are recognized as such), cannot even be processed as comprehensible because their semantic content is contradictory (for example, a bodiless but physically powerful and sentient being, a deity that is one in three, etc).
It is precisely the ineffable nature of core religious beliefs that accounts, in part, for their social and political adaptability over time in helping to bond and sustain groups (Atran & Ginges, “Religious and Sacred Imperatives in Human Conflict,” SCIENCE, 2012). In fact, it is the ecstasy-provoking rituals that Harris describes as being associated with such beliefs which renders them immune to the logical and empirical scrutiny that ordinarily accompanies belief verification (see Atran & Henrich, “The Evolution of Religion,” BIOLOGICAL THEORY, 2010).
This strikes me as largely correct.  It is precisely the incomprehensible element in religious beliefs and doctrine that saves families and cities, or as Atran puts it, helps “to bond and sustain groups.” 
I would not endorse the term “absurd,” however.  If core religious beliefs lack propositional content, that is based on a more or less conscious proposition.  What is proposed is that world time (time, space, and comprehensible causation) is not a closed system.  The divine is something outside the world of nameable, which is to say, rationally knowable things, something that has an impact on that world.  We can nonetheless respond to that thing.  That is why God refuses to name Himself to the shoeless Moses. 
This led Moses Maimonides to conclude that the only theology possible is a negative theology.  We cannot say anything about God except to say what He is not.  He is not mortal, not limited in power…etc.  Likewise, we cannot understand why God loves the pious, but we cannot understand why we love it.  The abstract of Atran’s paper on “Religion’s Evolutionary Landscape” is informative. 
Religion is not an evolutionary adaptation per se, but a recurring cultural by-product of the complex evolutionary landscape that sets cognitive, emotional, and material conditions for ordinary human interactions.
Again, that strikes me as correct.  This does not in any way answer the question whether the Kosmos is or is not a closed system, which is to say, whether the Divine is real or not.  Instead, it recognizes the limits to human thinking.  That, in itself, is a kind of piety. 

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