Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not

A naturalist examines the cognitive and cultural foundations of religion, science, and more

Feeling Sheepish?

Religions employ images and metaphors that never lose their appeal.

image by Amanda Slater
Sheeple

The close up, head-on picture of a sheep accompanying Thomas Sowell’s recent Op-Ed piece, which the Pittsburgh Tribune Review entitled “Sheeple Nation:  We Cannot Allow the Government to be Our Shepherds,” is a potent reminder of just how dim and docile our wooly friends seem.  Sowell, a conservative columnist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, holds that unfortunate consequences force individuals to correct their mistakes, whereas, since government leaders cannot admit mistakes without jeopardizing their careers, governments are far less likely to change bad policies.  He warns against citizens acting like complacent sheep in the face of such conduct.

My aim is not to contest or elaborate Sowell’s argument but, rather, to underscore its imagery and rhetoric.  The rise of comparatively open, representative democracies relies upon fostering a thoughtful and informed public, made up of individuals intellectually capable of bearing the responsibility of participation in civic affairs.  Sowell’s discussion stands in a long line of political writers, since the Enlightenment, who have routinely differentiated such adult citizens from sheep or “sheeple” as the Tribune Review put it.  By contrast, sheeple are compliant, uninformed, and, most importantly, unreflective.  Sheeple are incapable of either exercising the rights or bearing the responsibilities of mature citizens.  Over the past two hundred years in particular, to be labeled a sheep has constituted a paramount political insult. 

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Shepherds and Kings

So, why not with religion?   Gods and religious leaders as shepherds and everyone else as sheep (except, of course, for some goats) arise as often as any images and metaphors in plenty of religions, not just the Jewish and Christian traditions.  Believers are inclined, of course, to stress suggestions about the good shepherd’s nurturance and care of his flock.  But it remains the case that no matter how attentive and loving the good shepherd is, the clear implication of such language is that the followers are sheep.  All of this seems a bit odd in the light of the political discourse of the last two centuries.

Perhaps even more peculiar, though, in a nation that was born of a revolution against King George III, is the attraction of all of the monarchical images and metaphors in American religion.  Various religions look to establish the kingdom of God.  Gods of all sorts sit on thrones.  Jesus is famously described as “the King of kings.”  What are often referred to as the “princes” of the Catholic Church have just met to decide on their next monarch. 

The Religious Exception

My point, however, is cognitive, not political.  Why, for the sake of religion, would people, who are otherwise thoughtful members of the modern world, make such exceptions to their conception of their own humanity?  Why do human beings find such representations so winning in the religious sphere, when they would find them problematic – even toxic – in other areas, such as politics and law?  Why are people perfectly content to be characterized as sheep in religious settings? 

In fact, typically, religious adherents do not merely tolerate such portrayals; they embrace them.  And, crucially, for the most part, they embrace them unreflectively.  They are largely insensible to the tensions between these features of their religious models of things and the views of human beings that inform so many other areas of the modern world in which they live.  The appeal of pastoral and monarchical conceptions, metaphors, and images to the human mind is startlingly undiminished in the face of the changes in our understandings of ourselves that science and modern political arrangements have wrought.

Robert N. McCauley, Ph.D., is the author of Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. He is William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.

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