I originally posted this at my blog Martin S Pribble, and it was subsequently picked up as an "Article" at RDFRS, which made me quite happy. It has caused quite a discussion at both sites, so I thought it would be good to share with you lot also.
Religion is running scared from advances in science, particularly brain science such as neurology. Why? Because the brain is the final frontier in uncovering the reasons for belief in superstitions, religion and a higher power. After all, the brain is what interprets everything we see, read, think, do or believe, and also it determines how we react to these things. The brain is the start and the finish of our life experiences, the alpha and omega of any and every action we make in our lives.
But why should religions be scared of this? That's pretty obvious, because if what I said above is the case, then the soul lives in the brain, as does God and the supernatural. If the brain is all there is, then there is no need to explain God, because he inhabits a part of our brain that interprets and controls our wants and needs to believe in a higher power, and that our lives are somehow pre-destined toward a particular end.
In a Huffington Post article I read, posted to Twitter by SamHarris.org by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the opening paragraph claims that neuroscience is "in", as if to discredit neuroscience as just being a trend that will pass. He goes on to talk about an article by Patricia Churchland, a retired professor at UC San Diego, who has noticed that oxytocin is the active chemical in the formation of morality in the brain. He then attempts to deride this information by saying that "For one who is seeking guidance on how to live his or her life, there are no answers here."
That is completely correct, Rabbi.
Nobody has ever claimed that neuroscience, or science for that matter hold the answers to what is right and wrong. Those are judgement calls, made in the brain, based on other factors which have been interpreted in the brain, and the outcome, which we call morality, also comes from, you guessed it, the brain. (EDIT: I must admit that Sam Harris has said that science can be used as a basis for morality, based upon the assumption that "well being" is a quantifiable and universal fact. I think this is a bit misleading, and has been used to claim that science is, in and of itself, a moral framework.)
What Rabbi Yoffie has done here is create a strawman, by using Churchland's research as a claim against religion, instead of looking at what is actually being discussed, which is that the brain has certain chemistry which makes us make decisions of a moral nature. And this is where I see religion running scared. Rabbi Yoffie illustrates this here:
"For Churchland, morality does not come from God or from philosophical intuition. She is opposed to the idea of grand ethical systems because they are not, in her thinking, biologically based. As (Christopher) Shea points out, morality for her seems to be largely a matter of prudence, emerging from the unique circumstances of each particular group."
Well Rabbi, even though you are trying to use this statement as an illustration against the natural sciences, I think this statement nails it on the head. As Sam Harris has pointed out, morals are relative to where you live and in what culture, under what common set of rules and your own personal upbringing. This is precisely why moral judgements vary from culture to culture, and it disproves any kind of universal morality in one simple statement. But Rabbi Yoffie ignores this, and goes on to say "Churchland's moral relativism is absolutely chilling, not to mention internally inconsistent." Why is this chilling? Because God is no longer part of this picture, and Rabbi Yoffie has a lot to lose if god is no longer in the equation, namely his job, his respected position in society and his influence on people. People like Rabbi Yoffie are fighting hard, coming up with logical fallacy after logical fallacy, trying to justify their belief in God as being patently obvious, when to those of us who do not see the world that way, nothing could be farther from the truth.
But Rabbi Yoffie has shot himself in the foot with the closing statements in his article. He illustrates the flaws in his thinking, the holes in his argument, and the fallacy in his viewpoint in two short paragraphs (my bolded parts for emphasis).
As a rabbi, I welcome research into neuroscience but believe that as much as we are the products of biology, we also transcend it. I make choices about right and wrong by studying sacred texts that record a 2,500-year history of men and women struggling with God's message and with each other as they attempt to define what is moral and what is not. I also draw strength and inspiration from a religious community that cares about values and deepens its search for the good through the practice of ancient rituals and traditions.
I don't believe in easy answers to moral questions. As a liberal person of faith, I reject simplistic moral codes, and I am aware that different religious traditions arrive at different conclusions about good and evil. Nonetheless, the process of moral decision-making that my tradition offers has left me convinced that, as Jonathan Haidt has argued, there is a moral structure to the universe, and despite our differences, the great religious traditions largely agree on what our moral foundations are. And in the moral world in which I live, infanticide and wife burning are always, always wrong.
Wow, way to end an article there rabbi. At this point I should give you a moment to get some ice from the freezer to soothe your self inflicted facepalming injury, then continue.
Now let's look at this. Rabbi Yoffie admits that his biggest determinant of right and wrong is writings of the people of his faith, and the religious community which are also of his faith. He claims that his religious community cares about values, and right and wrong. He points out that his tradition, which is also his faith, convinces him that there is a universal moral structure to the universe. And he points out that despite there being a difference in morality between different people, that some things are seen as morally reprehensible by the larger part of society. But what he has done here is actually point out how blinkered he is to seeing outside of his own tradition, and that, no matter what, he will continue to believe in a universal morality as hinted at in religious texts, despite the fact (which he points out several times in his article) that morality is NOT in fact universal.
It seems to me that the ammunition that religious leaders once had, an exclusive ownership of all things moralistic, is running out. As we make more and more advances in the sciences of the brain, we are steadily filling the God-gaps with real explanations, physical explanations of not only how we think what we do, but why we think what we do. The answers to the "Why" questions also used to be the exclusive realm of religions, and as these questions are answered, we see religion becoming less and less relevant.
This is why they are running scared.
There were quite a few comments at my blog, and I answered one in particular in a follow-up blog here: Moral Relativism – in answer to a comment on “Religion Running Scared”