Knowing everything you need to know

This satirical article from the Onion, titled "Man Already Knows Everything He Needs To Know About Muslims", is so successful as a work of satire precisely because there is so much truth in what it says. It could easily describe people like Terry Jones, the Koran-burning pastor, or about lots of other people who would rather not let little things like knowledge get in the way of their prejudices.

Of course, the same thing could be said about many others sorts of prejudices as well. For example (and I have written about this before), when noted atheist blogger PZ Myers says that he already knows everything he needs to know about religion (and even coined an argument known as "The Courtier's Reply" to justify willful ignorance), he is illustrating this "I already know everything I need to so don't confuse me with the facts" phenomenon very well. Certainly, this sort of ignorance has resided at the heart of many sorts of prejudices. However, it does seem lately that the prejudice that has become so prevalent, at least in American society, is that which is directed at Muslims. That is probably why I have been writing about Muslims a lot lately in my blog. I think I feel like we who care about inclusion have a responsibility to stand up for those who are marginalized in society, and it does seem like the prejudice du jour seems to be directed at Muslims.

Nicholas Kristof wrote an excellent column in the New York Times recently about the history of prejudice against marginalized groups in American society. He chronicles the various groups in American history who have been subjected to intolerance, over the years, including Catholics and Jews. So there is nothing new in this. Although Kristof ultimately expresses some optimism about the ability of Americans to overcome prejudice, he makes at one point an interesting comment: "Suspicion of outsiders, of people who behave or worship differently, may be an ingrained element of the human condition, a survival instinct from our cave-man days."

Perhaps it goes back even further than cave-man days. I can't help but wonder if our primate genes do lie behind our tribalism. I recently read a book by Vanessa Woods, Bonobo Handshake, that contrasted the personalities of our species' two closest relative: chimps and bonobos. Chimps seem to be plagued by a terribly violent tribalistic impulse. They are not fond of chimps who aren't from their group to say the least. They (or at least the males) will often attack chimps from outside their own group in horrible and bloodthirsty ways that mirror humanity's own warrior brutality. According to the author, this violent chimp tribalism can even take place if you take a group of chimps and divide them up into two separate groupings; after six months or so, the former group kinship will be forgotten and chimps from one of the recently separated groups may attack chimps from the other, even though they all used to belong to the same group.

Knowing this, part of me does despair that we have a little bit of the violent chimp within us. Vanessa Woods writes in her book about chimps and bonobos while also providing background stories about the horrific genocidal wars taking place in the areas near where she researched the bonobos, in Rwanda and Congo. And yet, we humans, violent as we often are, are also more than that. Bonobos, who choose a peaceful, highly sexualized, and matriarchal social arrangement, are also close to us genetically. And what about human altruism? Where does it fit into the evolutionary story, and if tribalism and violence is a part of what we are, can it not also be said that altruism is also part of what defines us? We are often proud of our altruism and even consider it part of what makes us unique. Apparently many scientists had thought that humans were essentially the only species capable of altruism, but Vanessa Woods argues that she has witnessed examples of altruism among bonobos. For that matter, she cites a researcher who claims that chimps, violent though they so often are, are capable of altruism as well. So maybe altruism is also rooted in our primate past.

The upshot of all of this is that it does seem that humans are capable of being inclusive as well as intolerant and bigoted. When prejudices are justified by people insisting that they already know everything that they need to know about those they stigmatize, they are expressing something other than the best that humans can be. That is not to their credit. And yet, while humans have shown themselves repeatedly to be tribalistic and to turn their bigotry against those they consider outsiders from their group, humans have also shown time and again that they are capable of reaching out with compassion and a moral sense of inclusion to those who are different.

What is essential to religion?

Tim Crane (who is an atheist but not militantly anti-religion) writes in the New York Times that "it is absolutely essential to religions that they make certain factual or historical claims,"

Really? Is this true? What are the historical claims that are essential to Buddhism, for example? (If Buddha had not existed, would not the same eightfold path of Buddhism still hold true?) What are the historical claims that progressive Christians who do not believe that Jesus was literally raised from the dead are making? Sure, they do assert that someone named Jesus lived a long time ago, but a lot of non-Christians also believe that.

Isn't Crane offering a narrow definition of religion that is informed by Christian orthodoxy?