Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Sixteen Strivings for God - A Book Review

The Sixteen Strivings for God – The New Psychology of Religious Experiences by Steven Reiss
Humanists, and non-theists in general, are often puzzled by the ability of otherwise intelligent people to believe in nonsense. This new book by Steven Reiss offers powerful insights into why people adopt religious beliefs.  Reiss identifies, from empirical research, sixteen basic human desires which can be fulfilled in differing degrees by various types of religious belief. 

The list of sixteen basic desires contains nothing surprising (everything from the desire for food to the need for order) but what distinguishes his approach is the way in which it can be mapped onto religions. Earlier theories tend to concentrate on a small number of motivators (such as concern about death or need for community) but Reiss offers a comprehensive range of desires and argues convincingly that the majority of them can be satisfied by all the major world religions. Accordingly people adopt the type of belief that, in the context of their personal circumstances, meets the desires most strongly manifested in their characters. Indeed the contradictions in the major religions are necessary to accommodate a range of characters – people pick and mix the bits that best fit with their own strongest and weakest desires.

Less convincingly, Reiss claims that his position is ‘theologically neutral’ because knowing god would have to be related to human desire. This comes across as a rather weak attempt at apologetics -perhaps necessary for an American academic cornered by the power of his own insights. Clearly his theory does not disprove the existence of god but it does offer an explanation for religious behaviour without the need for supernatural complexity. As Occam would say, the simpler explanation is more likely to be correct. 

Interestingly, based on Reiss’s own analysis, we can predict that religious believers will not be very bothered by Occam as long as their religion meets their own desires. 

For this reviewer the most remarkable feature is that the list of desires does not contain anything that clearly relates to a desire for truth or evidence or the use of reason. The closest is ‘Curiosity’ but Reiss suggests that this can be satisfied by a study of theology. So the result is religious belief is motivated by basic desires and with little concern for truth. This is exactly what is observed – we have all noted that concern for truth is easily put aside amid a fog of irrational arguments and dodgy historical ‘facts’. Humanists, with a concern for evidence, truth and reason simply cannot fit into the religious part of the model. 

This leaves us with a picture of religious belief as an essentially selfish phenomenon that satisfies whatever combination of basic desires is most dominant – even in cases where the dominant desires manifest in positive outcomes. And the outcomes do not have to be positive – the list of desires does not include Truth but it does include Status, Power and Vengeance. This is indeed a theory that fits the facts.

Bring A Book!

At the Stockport December meeting members brought with them a selection of books and films to introduce to the others. Considered or mentioned were:

  • Dreams of Empire: Napoleon and the First World War 1792-1815 by Paul Fregosi. An account of a truly global conflict more than a hundred years before the 1914-18 war. 
  • Battle for Empire: The Very First World War1756-63 by Tom Pocock. An account of the Seven Years War which is considered by many as the very first global conflict.
  • Flight to Afar by Alfred Andersch (1957) a novel which was made into a film in 1986. An encounter between a Pastor, protecting an icon; a communist; and a young Jewess attempting to escape Germany in the late 1930’s.
  • Alone in Berlin  by Geoff Wilkes. An ordinary man’s determination to defy the tyranny of Nazi rule, based on a Gestapo file.
  • Annie Besant 
  • Catch Me Daddy A film about honour killings.
  • Islam and the Future of Tolerance   by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. A dialogue between the two authors, considering: The roots of Extremism, the Scope of the Problem, the Power of Belief, The Betrayal of Liberalism, the Nature of Islam, and Finding the Way Forward.
  • Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-evolutionist Front Line by Jason Rosenhouse. A personal memoir of a scientist’s attempt to come to grips with the evolutionist/creationist controversy by immersing himself in the culture of the anti-evolutionists.
  • The God Argument: The Case Against Religion by A.C.Grayling (2013). Counters the arguments for the existence of god and puts forward humanism as an alternative to religion.
  • The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Isis by Robert Spencer ( 2015). Reveals the inner workings of Islamic State – its recruitment program, financing its expansion, and the ideology driving its success.
  • Hitch 22 – A Memoir By Christopher Hitchens. A citizen of both the United States and the United Kingdom, he has been a foreign correspondent in some very dangerous places. He was a fervent atheist, raise as a Christian by a Jewish mother.
  • Blackham’s Best. Excerpts from H.J. Blackham selected by Barbara Smoker
  • Death of a Prophet, The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam by Stephen J.  Shoemaker. This raises Questions about the way Islamic origins should be studied and emphasises the potential of non-Islamic sources for reconstructing the history of formative Islam.
  • In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World by Tom Hollander. Another book on the origins of Islam
  • The First Dynasty of Islam: The Umayyad Caliphate  AD 661-750 by G. R. Hawting.  An introductory survey of the period
  • Confessions by St Augustine (trans. R.S.Pine-Coffin) Penguin Classics Edition.  An account of how St. Augustine (354-430 CE) turned away from youthful ideas to become a staunch advocate of Christianity and one of its most influential thinkers.

Members brought an ample supply of food to share.