Posted by: Dan | March 25, 2007

Is Religion Adaptive?

Fellow Cornellian Allen MacNeill has announced that he is taking on another controversial topic this summer, with a course titled Evolution and Religion: Is Religion Adaptive?. At the heart of the course is a central question – “Is religion adaptive”:

COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar addresses, in historical perspective, controversies about the cultural, philosophical, and scientific implications of evolutionary biology. Discussions focus upon questions about gods, free will, foundations for ethics, meaning in life, and life after death. Readings range from Charles Darwin to the present (see reading list, below).

In 1871, Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man that “…a belief in all-pervading spiritual entities seems to be universal.” A century later, Donald Brown, in his encyclopedic analysis of human universals, noted the same thing: that the capacity for religion is a universal trait, found in all human cultures. However, there is considerable individual variation in this capacity, ranging from people whose entire lives revolve around their religious beliefs to those who entirely lack them.

To an evolutionary biologist, such pan-specificity combined with continuous variation strongly suggests that one is dealing with an evolutionary adaptation. And indeed, in the past few years the publication of hypotheses for the evolution of the capacity for religion has become an explosive growth industry and a hot topic of debate. In this seminar course, we will take up this debate by considering three alternative hypotheses: that the capacity for religion is (1) an evolutionary adaptation, (2) a side-effect of an evolutionary adaptation, or (3) a “mind virus” with no direct evolutionary implications. We will read from some of the leading authors on the subject, including Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Newberg, and David Sloan Wilson. Our intent will be to sort out the various issues at play, and to come to clarity on how those issues can be integrated into the perspective of the natural sciences as a whole.

Obviously, I take an atheist position – that religion was at one point either a beneficial adaptation or a consequence of other cultural phenomenon that were adaptive (albeit very imperfect adaptations); and that in today’s society, many still cling to religion because we are predisposed to be receptive to religious assertions, and to falsely detect higher agencies. (that’s my understanding of evolution of the mind, in any case).

MacNeill closes with a disclaimer of sorts, to keep discussions topical:

We may also talk about whether or not God (or gods, or whatever) exist, but that will not be the primary focus of the course, nor will I allow it to become the primary focus of our discussions. This course isn’t about the existence or non-existence of God (or Darwin or me). It’s about whether or not the ability to believe in things like God (or gods, or whatever) has adaptive consequences. It’s a fascinating topic and I hope that enough people will sign up for the course with opposing viewpoints on this subject to make for as interesting a summer seminar as last year’s was.

I definitely have to hand it to Allen for coming up with outstanding topics for seminar classes.

Update: Interestingly, a very anti-Darwinism blog takes objection to the topic of a course on the question of whether the capacity for religious experience is adaptive (pingback link in the comments, #2). This same blog rants, in an earlier post, that Darwinism leads to immorality – it’s quite entertaining, from the side of both false assertions and the curiousity of why this blogger addresses modern biology under the strawman label of “Darwinism.” (why ignore genetics, which is very post-Darwin?)


Responses

  1. Yup, a very interesting topic, and the students should be in for some good reading. Any conclusion one wishes to draw on the topic must rise above the level of ‘just-so story’ though.

  2. […] Is Religion Adaptive?. […]

  3. Thank you, Dan, and many thanks for all of your work here at Cornell in “fighting the good fight” for rationality and science.

    And yes, I admit that my title for the course is a bit of a “come-on” – it should really be:

    “Evolution and Religion: Is the capacity for religious experience adaptive?”

    But, that title is a little too long, and not as punchy as the one I picked.

    I have a longer comment on this subject at Pharyngula (see:
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/03/no_really_i_doubt_that_religio.php)
    where I go into some of the details of the course, including the difference between “religion” and “the capacity for religous experience.” It’s actually a crucial distinction, and so I may eventually catch some flak for the course title, but if it gets a good, mixed crowd of participants involved, both in the course and online, then I think I’ll be able to live with myself for that slight elision…

    Anyway, thanks again for the shout-out!

    And if you’re not too busy this summer, you might stop by for some spirited conversation (yes, the pun is intentional) over at Mudd Hall; we’ll be meeting on Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the Whittaker Seminar Room (#409).

    *********************************
    Allen D. MacNeill, Senior Lecturer
    The Biology Learning Skills Center
    G-24 Stimson Hall, Cornell University
    Ithaca, New York 14853
    *********************************
    phone: 607-255-3357 (Allen’s office)
    email: adm6@cornell.edu
    website: http://evolutionlist.blogspot.com/
    *********************************
    “I had at last got a theory by which to work”
    -The Autobiography of Charles Darwin
    *********************************

  4. It is ironic, if religion is indeed adaptive, that its subject-matter (spirituality) is held by atheists to be unreal. By contrast, evolutionary adaptations at the physical level are held to be responses by an organism to its real environment. Seems like a contradiction worth pondering.

  5. It is ironic, if religion is indeed adaptive, that its subject-matter (spirituality) is held by atheists to be unreal.

    I’m not sure I would agree with that, but

    1) You would have to define spirituality first. There seems to be a lot of wobble in the usage.

    2) You would have to explain the irony of atheists holding this position. Are you conflating atheism and acceptance of well-supported science?

  6. Allen,
    Thanks for the invite – I will certainly make an effort to attend. In the meantime, I think that your distinctions between “religion” and “the capacity for religious experience” makes a lot of sense. John Bryden seems to have missed this distinction also (not to mention my argument that such capacities are no longer adaptive).

    I’ll be looking forward to these discussions on adaptations of the human condition, to be sure.

  7. Dan, and ivy.

    Thanks for your responses to my loosely-worded question. Probably, I should have resisted the temptation to wade in out of my depth, but curiosity got the better of me, as to what comments might come back, that might throw some light on the matter for me. In case its of any interest, the amateur musings that prompted my comment were along the following lines. An evolutionary adaptation is a creature’s response to its environment, so as to better survive therein. Supposing that (as is claimed) religion (or the capacity for religious experience) is an evolutionary adaptation by human beings, then it is an adaptation to the environment that human beings occupy. The religious believer considers that religious experience is a response to spiritual reality. But the non-believer (from an evolutionary perspective) tends to see religious as experience as largely imaginary, but somehow generated as a function produced in adaptation to certain material conditions. There seems to be a discontinuity between believing that the chameleon’s ability to change colour (for instance), is a direct response to actual phenomena in its environment — while also believing that religion is a fundamentally false response to the human environment. My proposal is that religion (and the capacity for religious experience), are evolutionary adaptations to spiritual reality. But then, I’m no expert in evolutionary theory…

    John

  8. John,
    Thanks for the continued response, and especially for clarifying your thoughts. You said, however:

    Supposing that (as is claimed) religion (or the capacity for religious experience) is an evolutionary adaptation by human beings, then it is an adaptation to the environment that human beings occupy. The religious believer considers that religious experience is a response to spiritual reality. But the non-believer (from an evolutionary perspective) tends to see religious as experience as largely imaginary, but somehow generated as a function produced in adaptation to certain material conditions.

    Indeed. Those conditions – the human environment, society – certainly do create a situation where altruism and the detection of agency appear to have been beneficial for H. sapiens as a species (I question whether detection of agency, i.e. God, is still beneficial, but of course altruism will continue to be important).

    However,

    My proposal is that religion (and the capacity for religious experience), are evolutionary adaptations to spiritual reality. But then, I’m no expert in evolutionary theory…

    That may be. But to support such a possibility, you would have to demonstrate that “spiritual reality” is indeed real, and not merely perceived as being real. For all you know (and I suspect this is true), spiritualism is merely a way for the mind to fabricate conclusions to match its predispositions – little better than superstition.

    Allen goes into much more detail, but just looking at one example – the Dark Ages – it becomes self-evident that not being religious carried with it a high mortality rate, just because of witchhunts and the inquisition, among other reasons.

  9. My proposal is that religion (and the capacity for religious experience), are evolutionary adaptations to spiritual reality.

    A fascinating conjecture. Please supply some evidence of the existence of any “spiritual reality” (which I interpret to mean something supernatural) so we can do an experiment.

    Thank you.

  10. Follow-up for Mr. Bryden:

    Since religion appears in so many different cultures, how many different “spiritual realities” are there? Does the rain god exist? The sun god? which is correct, polytheism or monotheism? Do souls exist? Are they reincarnated? Is the basic timeline of the world linear or cyclical? To cut through all the ****, the lack of convergence of the multitude of spiritual concepts means that 1) All but one of them must be wrong. 2) Any god who cares about delivering an accurate understanding of him/her/it to a majority of humanity certainly does not exist.

  11. Dan & ivy privy (Ms/Mr Ivy Privy?),

    Having been drawn further into this discussion by your engaging responses, I did what I should have done initially, and read up on more of the background, particularly Allen’s course announcement on The Evolution List blog. There, I noted his statement: “As to my biases, I am the first to admit that I have them. I think everyone does, and that to not lay them on the table right in the beginning is not only disingenuous, it is downright dishonest.” Agreeing fully with Allen’s point about the value of being clear and explicit about one’s assumptions, I should explain what motivates my interest here. It is the desire to correlate my (religious) beliefs as a Baha’i with scientific knowledge. The opportunity to learn here from people who are familiar with one branch of science is invaluable. (Praise God for the internet! :) )

    Dan said:

    “… you would have to demonstrate that ‘spiritual reality’ is indeed real, and not merely perceived as being real.”

    Ivy Privy said:

    “Please supply some evidence of the existence of any ‘spiritual reality’ (which I interpret to mean something supernatural)…”

    The meaning of “spiritual reality” that I’m putting forward might be expressed as a dimension of nature / the cosmos, that is not immediately obvious to us but is “behind” all phenomena that are perceptible to the senses. It is in one respect the realm of reality that is discovered by the intellect, which deduces general principles, or scientific laws, from concrete instances. I think Plato was onto a good hunch with his theory of forms. To my mind, nature’s order is a sign that the everyday world we are familiar with is supported by metaphysical structures. (I understand that modern platonism has a strong following amongst mathematicians.) The hypothesis I’m suggesting concerns reality in general, and its testability rests on whether it fits with the facts of reality in general, whether it has predictive power, and other recognised attributes of a valid scientific theory. I’m wanting to apply scientific method to religion.

    For human beings, the environment that we must adapt to consists not only of physical conditions but also intellectual conceptions. The really significant environment, for us, consists of the collective cognitive phenomena of culture, i.e. laws, institutions, literature, economic life, science, etc. Religion, too, is part of the realm of human conceptions. It is part of humanity’s effort to make a mental model of the universe. If we say that religion fails us, then we are saying that the models it offers are unsatisfactory, within the context of the overall model-making enterprise of humankind. Indeed, religion fails, and is called superstition, when it advances beliefs that directly conflict with discoveries in the physical and social sciences, philosophy, etc. But failures by religious thinkers are basically the same kind of thing as failures by scientists, i.e, they are intellectual errors. Consider that alchemy was essentially a rudimentary scientific enterprise that failed in its quest for a means of turning copper into gold, because the alchemists did not have access to the atomic model created in the late 19th and early 20th century. Religion similarly fails in it efforts to develop an effective model of the world when it promotes literalist doctrines like creationism, i.e. an outdated model is in play. Scientific failures do not invalidate science, and by the same token, errors by religious thinkers do not invalidate the need to deal with the dimension of reality that religion deals with. If religion advances, just as science does, it may continue to have adaptive utility well into the future.

    The understanding that religion aims to provide is focused on the meta-context within which all other human activity occurs. It seeks to inform us of our place in the scheme of things and to offer inspiration and ethical guidance that influence laws, institutions, literature, economic life, and science. It appears that traditional religious conceptions no longer provide an adequate meta-context for 21st century humanity. But the need for a spiritual “tent” of some sort to live under remains. Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins are trying to make such a tent from a new kind of cloth. They are treating matters that in the past were the domain of religion, introducing various naturalistic concepts that they hope will serve similar purposes in terms of ethical guidance based on what these writers see as correct knowledge of our place in the universe. From this analysis, religion can be identified with humankind’s adaptation to specific dimensions of its environment. It is part of our efforts to deal with reality. It is not reducible to some quirky tendency to get excited about ghosties and beasties, and things that go bump in the night.

    Ivy – re your last comment, I submit there is just one spiritual reality, but it is vast and complex. The diversity of views about it is a reflection of the difficulty in understanding it. Knowledge is like that – always incomplete and evolving, even in the physical sciences. Concerning God, none of what I have put forward here so far relies on belief in God. Yes, I do believe in God, but I’m not at this point attempting to prove the validity of any particular religious belief, only that religion is involved with adapting to reality.

    Regarding religious experience, from the religious viewpoint described above, all experiences of human beings are essentially spiritual in nature.

    I’d like to develop my theme a bit further, but maybe the above is enough for now (and I’m running out of steam at the end of a full day’s work). Thank you kindly, for indulging these ramblings.

    — John

  12. But failures by religious thinkers are basically the same kind of thing as failures by scientists, i.e, they are intellectual errors.

    So long as you can admit that, fine. Too much of religion has attempted to claim unearned authority for its pronouncements, attributed to divine scripture or revelation. I.e. one claims revelation, then turns out to be wrong, not only is that person wrong but God must apparently be wrong as well.

    The understanding that religion aims to provide is focused on the meta-context within which all other human activity occurs. It seeks to inform us of our place in the scheme of things and to offer inspiration and ethical guidance that influence laws, institutions, literature, economic life, and science. It appears that traditional religious conceptions no longer provide an adequate meta-context for 21st century humanity. But the need for a spiritual “tent” of some sort to live under remains.

    Well now, this is why I asked you above to clearly define “spiritual.” Many people use it to include the supernatural. Sure, p[eople need laws and ethics. You could refer to such needs as “moral” or “ethical,”, but I object to your including them under the tent of “spirituality,” unles sthat term is clearly defined. Because I see no need for supernatural concepts to be involved in ethics.

  13. Ivy – re your last comment, I submit there is just one spiritual reality, but it is vast and complex. The diversity of views about it is a reflection of the difficulty in understanding it.

    As you have no doubt figured out, I believe the simpler, and correct, answer is that all those beliefs about the supernatural were wrong because there is nothing supernatural. Ockham’s razor and what-not.

  14. John,
    If I read you correctly, your description of “spiritual reality” is passable, in my opinion. It seems that you’re defining spiritual as deeply rooted personal and subjective experiences, used to construct a framework with which to view the world. In that sense, yes, theists and atheists alike are spiritual – in my case, as an atheist, I feel that a walk through the woods is “spiritual.”

    What I take issue with, by definition as an atheist, is the existence of a god or gods; and the detection of higher agency and theory of mind (ascribed to cognitive processes, which evolved) which help religious people fabricate a false reality.

    You also said:

    Scientific failures do not invalidate science, and by the same token, errors by religious thinkers do not invalidate the need to deal with the dimension of reality that religion deals with. If religion advances, just as science does, it may continue to have adaptive utility well into the future.

    Yes, some framework that can be described as spiritual or religious is very integral in how we as individuals view the world, as well as how our society is organized. But again, my question is not whether subjective assumptions are useful, but whether the perception of a god or gods as part of those assumptions is useful. One god is no more realistic than many gods.

  15. Have YOU ever thought about the human body? The heart, and all the tiny microscopic blood cells? That seems enough to me to say that there is a God! I mean the world is so beautiful…the trees, birds or the ocean they are all created in exactly the right way and they are all very beautiful. If the earth was an inch closer to the sun we would all die from the heat and if we were an inch farther from the sun we would freeze to death!!!!!!!! That is enough proof to me that there is a God! He loves us and he sent his son to die for us so that we may be with him. There is a God and he is in control of the earth because he made it! I am a sound Christian and you probrably are laughing and think im crazy, but i am only 12 years old and i will teach as many as i can about Jesus’s Love! May God bless you with his love!

    In Christ,
    “behold the Lamb of God,who takes away the sin of the world”

  16. Thank you Juliana, for that lovely bit of superstition. Please try to contribute to the discussion next time, however.

  17. I mean the world is so beautiful…the trees, birds or the ocean they are all created in exactly the right way and they are all very beautiful.

    How wonderful that G– created your mind to perceive those things as beautiful. Ask your science teacher about ichneumon wasps.

    If the earth was an inch closer to the sun we would all die from the heat and if we were an inch farther from the sun we would freeze to death!!!!!!!!

    Yes, that’s why every person on Earth lives at the exact same elevation. By the way, the metric system of measurement is vastly superior to the Imperial system.

    There is a God and he is in control of the earth because he made it!

    B does not follow from A. There’s a book by Mary Shelley you might be interested in reading.

    you probrably are laughing and think im crazy, but i am only 12 years old

    I, for one, am not surprised to learn that you are 12 years old.

  18. As an aside, the creationist at Darwiniana has revealed his true motive – natural selection must be propaganda because it leads to social darwinism. Yes, this fool thinks that bad philosophical implications alone can invalidate facts.

    Are there any other bits of science that this fool is in denial about? Is the Earth too round for him, or the sun not revolving around the Earth fast enough?

  19. Juliana, the fact that you are keen to put your ideas forward shows that you are a thinking person, as well as courageous. Because of this, I suspect that you will grow into an excellent student of how the universe works. The learned persons, Dan and Ivy, are giving you a hard time, basically because the argument you have put forward is based on “intuition”. In other words, you feel a sense of wonderment about some part of the world (the human body), and this leads to you feel that God must exist. Intuition can be useful, and many scientific discoveries have resulted from scientists following up on their intuitions. But they did not get their ideas accepted by other scientists until they gave elaborate logical reasons for these ideas, and demonstrated that their theories work using experiments, and showed that their theories could be useful in leading to knowledge of other matters not previously known. For example (I have read), Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity made it possible to do all sorts of new things, like calculate the exact orbits of the planets around the sun.

    Intuition is only a starting point, and it can be mistaken. For instance you might meet someone who smiles at you, and you feel attracted to the person. You feel this mus be a nice person. But later on, you find out some more facts, e.g. the person was caught stealing, which shows your intuition was wrong. In the years ahead, you will need to gather more facts in order to find out for yourself if your intuitions about God and Jesus are correct, or perhaps at least partly correct. (I do not think that your beliefs are totally false, but probably Dan and Ivy tend to think so.) I wish you well in your efforts.

    Dan and Ivy, it will take me a little longer to get back to you…

  20. P.S. I must have accidentally bolded my last comment. I was not intending to “shout”.

  21. ivy privy said:

    “… all those beliefs about the supernatural were wrong because there is nothing supernatural…”

    Dan said:

    “Yes, some framework that can be described as spiritual or religious is very integral in how we as individuals view the world, as well as how our society is organized. But again, my question is not whether subjective assumptions are useful, but whether the perception of a god or gods as part of those assumptions is useful.”

    The question that Dan raised at the outset was: “Is religion adaptive?” The question was raised in the context of theory that the capacity for religious experience is an evolutionary adaptation, and Dan’s view that this capacity is no longer adaptive (i.e. useful).

    Having read further on the background theory, I summarise it as follows. Human cognitive capacities have evolved in various modules. One of these modules is the ability to detect agency. This refers to the ability to detect entities in one’s environment that are capable of acting purposefully. From the point of view of the individual, some of these entities have benign intentions, such as one’s mother, and some of them have potentially harmful intentions, such as a wild beast. So there is great survival value in being able to detect agencies and to determine whether they are going to be a source of help or harm. Now the capacity for religious experience is said to be built on top of the capacity to detect agency. For instance, Allen MacNeil has proposed that the The Capacity for Religious Experience Is An Evolutionary Adaptation to Warfare. Belief in gods was helpful to warriors in ancient times because it helped them to overcome their fears of death, and fight more courageously. Even if this did not necessarily help the survival of the individual warrior, it helped the survival of the tribe to which the warrior belonged. And it helped the survival of much the same set of genes as those of the warrior, because of his kinship ties with other members of the tribe. (In the nature of summarising, this is a great oversimplification of Allen’s idea.) At any rate, a susceptibility to “religious” experiences, indicative of life after death and the authority of gods, was a trait favoured by natural selection. Allen’s blog article did not mention it, but this idea of the origin of the capacity for detecting agency as the basis for religion, could easily be linked with other aspects of the human environment in ancient times. For instance, agency could be detected in the growth of edible plants (provided by the gods). The hunter might naturally thank the gods whenever his prey came conveniently wandering by.

    It seems that this account is assumed to show that those ancient folks were misguided in their detection of supernatural agencies like the god of war or the god of fertility. Really, there are no such agencies, it is alleged. It was all imagination, pure and simple. Now, is this truly the case? Remember that the cognitive reconstruction of reality (scientific truth), consists of making mental models of the world “out there”. These models are forever provisional in nature, and always capable of evolution and development. Models are in a way, symbolic representations of the things they describe. Provisionally accepting that the capacity for religious experience is based on the capacity for detecting agency, were those people of ancient times detecting “nothing” when they detected the assistance of the god of war helping them in battle, or some helpful god sending prey their way. To the contrary, these gods were symbolic representations of abstract “entities” that actually made a difference to survival. The god of war symbolised the solidarity of the tribe, courage, etc. The god of fertility symbolised the regularities in nature that enable plants to grow and creatures to reproduce. To this day, our models of reality are not totally abstract. The atom is depicted by a graphic symbol of electrons revolving around a nucleus. We look at a painting and afterwards visit the place depicted, and observe that life imitates art, because the abstraction in the painting discloses to us more that is present in the scene than otherwise we would have noticed.

    The thing to notice about the gods of the ancients is that they were symbolic representations of the same realm of existence that I referred to earlier as constituting spiritual reality. They effectively represented abstractions like “courage”, “group solidarity”, and “the regularities of nature”. The “tent” of spirituality inhabited by the ancients was made from the cloth of myths and legends, which from our standpoint may be called false, but only false in the sense of being incomplete and somewhat inaccurate, and not in the sense of having no substance whatsoever.

    It seems to me justified to use words like “spiritual” and “spirituality” to describe this realm of reality, because it is a realm of very high abstraction. Its relation to the “material” world that we conceive out of the data received through the senses, is very unclear. The philosophy of mind has not come to anything like a definitive conclusion on what it is. The word spirituality denotes a realm that is apprehended, as Dan says, during activities like a walk in the woods. But I do not think it is intrinsically and absolutely only accessible subjectively. Because it is the realm at the highest level of order we are aware of, and extremely complex, it is admittedly more difficult to study scientifically than physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology…

    ivy privy said:

    ”As you have no doubt figured out, I believe the simpler, and correct, answer is that all those beliefs about the supernatural were wrong because there is nothing supernatural.”

    Dan said:

    “… my question is not whether subjective assumptions are useful, but whether the perception of a god or gods as part of those assumptions is useful. One god is no more realistic than many gods.”

    I have already suggested how the assumption of gods was useful in the distant past. But is the assumption of “God” still useful in the present and future?

    Historically, the superiority of belief in one God rather than many gods was that it offered an explanation of reality as a unified whole as distinct from a random collection of competing forces. The idea of many gods offered a causal explanation for various phenomena. The idea of one God held that all phenomena are inter-related, as the product of a single Cause. For instance, monotheism denied that fertility was caused by the fertility god, etc., and in this way opened up the way for a more sophisticated understanding of the natural world, as a set of processes set in motion by a single agency. It also denied that the success of your tribe in battle was due to the superiority of your tribal god over my tribal god. Over a lengthy period, this insight enabled larger social groupings to emerge, based on wider allegiances. In the early days of monotheism, God may have been thought of by the Hebrews or the Zoroastrians at times as “their” God, but the trend was towards universalising the concept of God. Christianity and Islam both made major steps forward in this universalising of religion. The Baha’i teachings take it even further.

    The word “supernatural” begs the question as to what is nature. It seems to me that there are drawbacks in the idea that the order of the universe might consist of two levels, namely, the natural and the supernatural. But nature, as a multiplicity of interacting entities, seems to be founded on a realm of abstract principles. Instead of “natural” and “supernatural”, a distinction that perhaps makes more sense is between the obvious world perceived through the senses and the abstract world discovered by reason. Between these two worlds there is a definite although mysterious connection which philosophers spend their lives trying to unravel. These days we do not need God as an explanation of natural phenomena, which can be explained by principles discovered by reason. For example, the existence of life is explained by the principle of natural selection. But that which is inherently and irreducibly unexplainable is being itself. Through reason, we can explain causes and effects. But all causes and effects are enabled to occur because being exists. It kind of makes no sense to ask, what is the cause of being, for being just is. It is uncaused. Pantheists (like the Sufis), have been arguing for centuries with transcendentalists as to whether God, i.e. Ultimate Being, the uncaused ground on which all causes take place, is the universe itself, or is separate from the universe. Either way, the two camps are in agreement that the nature of Ultimate Being is a subject worth pondering. It seems worthwhile to at least have a word for this mystery. I note here that Being seems to be one and single. Even if there are multiple universes, physicists propose that there are connections between these universes, which makes them all manifestations of a single realm of being. The core insight of monotheism, that being is unified, but utterly mysterious, is still intact.

    (Digression: The radical effect of monotheism in its early days was to undermine any appeal to this or that force or authority within the universe as the ultimate power. Do not worship idols made of wood and stone, it said, worship God. Do not fear demons and goblins, fear God. By all means you must obey Caesar, but do not worship him. In effect, to worship God implies worshipping nothing contingent, so as to be open to everything. This is the implication of Jesus’ saying that those worthy of following Him must love Him more than their own family. He also said that the Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath, which is to say that attachment to traditions and customs is harmful if it stands in the way of genuine good. As God’s representative, He stood for a wider loyalty. This principle of putting wider loyalties first is the basis for freedom from corruption. For instance, nepotism, and crime organisations based on family ties, thrive in a culture that puts love for family above the wider good. It appears that some of the motivation for modern atheism is similarly iconoclastic. Atheists are doing a valuable service in pointing out that attachment to traditional religious conceptions is causing huge trouble these days.)

    Back to the nature of Being. The qualities that we can discover in the universe through reason, i.e. the laws and principles governing its operation, are clearly manifestations in some sense of Ultimate Being. Given that being exists, its various qualities are able to exist. In religious language these qualities are called attributes of God. It is observed that the universe gives rise to intelligent beings, therefore Ultimate Being possesses intelligence. It is observed that human beings have qualities like kindness, fairness, etc., and as human beings owe their existence to Ultimate Being, we say that man is made in the image of God, and that human attributes reflect the attributes of God. Now if Ultimate Being possesses attributes of intelligence, justice, and mercy, can we not predict that “It” will provide guidance to humanity. The Baha’i teachings state that God provides guidance to humanity through divinely inspired Prophets, the Founders of religions, who bring a message that evolves from age to age, and yet has a core that is enduringly the same. Religion itself, in all its richness, and its ability to constantly renew itself, is proof enough (for me) belief in God makes sense. The Baha’i conception of “progressive revelation” is only a model, but then, all human thought consists of models. I have enough confidence in this model for it to inspire my way of life. For me, it is useful.

  22. The qualities that we can discover in the universe through reason, i.e. the laws and principles governing its operation, are clearly manifestations in some sense of Ultimate Being. Given that being exists, its various qualities are able to exist. In religious language these qualities are called attributes of God.

    OK, so something exists rather than nothing. “God”, in general usage, implies a “person” with a mind. Saying that the existence of something is equivalent to the existence of a Creator with a mind is to make several shortcuts which do not meet evidential standards.

    It is observed that the universe gives rise to intelligent beings, therefore Ultimate Being possesses intelligence.

    B does not follow from A.

    It is observed that human beings have qualities like kindness, fairness, etc., and as human beings owe their existence to Ultimate Being, we say that man is made in the image of God, and that human attributes reflect the attributes of God.

    b does not follow from A.

    Mr. Bryden, I feel that you have made too many shortcuts in your attempt to transit from a rational foundation to justification of your religious belief. It appears more that you started with the conclusion and worked toward it, rather than followed the evidence.

    Moreover, I value brevity, which you fail to supply.

  23. John,
    Re: Juliana – Intuition is fine, as are feelings. But it helps to be able to express correct facts, too. Not to mention, this post is not about wonderment or intuition, it’s about whether the capicity for such are beneficial in human society – so she’s wonderfully off-topic.

    For the purposes of this discussion, let’s skip the question of what religious experiences you or Juliana might hold, and get back to the question of whether your capacity for such is beneficial or detrimental to you.

    To your reply to Ivy and myself – I’d say that your summary of detection of agency in the capacity for religious experience is very adequate for this discussion.

    John, you continue, however, with:

    It seems that this account is assumed to show that those ancient folks were misguided in their detection of supernatural agencies like the god of war or the god of fertility.

    You also suggest that I attribute such detection of agency to “imagination.” I would suggest “superstition” or “intuition,” however, stemming from attempts to understand situations that were accompanied by insufficient information. It’s a leap in logic, driven by a desire to understand the unknown, and bypasses the utility of gathering more information. You give the example of:

    The god of fertility symbolised the regularities in nature that enable plants to grow and creatures to reproduce.

    Exactly. And that is an excellent example of both superstition and attempting to make sense of the world with limited information, in a very primitive way. Do you not think that worshipping gods of fertility are out-dated and maladaptive in today’s world, with modern knowledge of agriculture and biology at our fingertips?

    I’m certainly in agreement that the gods of the ancients were symbolic, but the ancients also treated them as something beyond symbolic or abstract – they, and today’s religious as well, treat the symbolic as though it were the concrete. True, there are some today who are both religious and recognize the symbolism or metaphor of religion – but again, in today’s world, what good is symbolism when we have more accurate representations of the world around us?

    However, you allude to abstractions such as courage, regularities of nature, and other myths. I think that is indeed a strong defense for the capacity for religious experience, much like Joseph Campbell argued for. Myths capture our attention, and in a way that I’m admittedly not so clear on, appear to perform a very vital role in our society.

  24. Addendum:
    John – sorry, I forgot to close that comment in such a way to bring it back to my starting point, ” the question of whether your capacity for [religion] is beneficial or detrimental to you.”

    We agree that religion contributes a mythology and symbolism to our society – some have described this as the “glue that holds society together.” But does it help us in conducting our affairs, describing our reality, and making decisions? – or does religion occlude our mental faculties with false preconceptions, and direct our decisions based on ideology (as opposed to a more concrete method of decision-making)? Certainly religion is based on assertions based upon intuition, as you say – but is that really a viable substitute for assertions based on evidence?

  25. ivy privy, I accept both of your paradoxical criticisms, i.e. that I made short cuts, and that I went on a bit much.

    About the short cuts, there is not much more I can do in a discussion like this than introduce some ideas for consideration. I do not expect to be able to establish my viewpoint comprehensively, only to state it in a sufficiently interesting way that it adds in some small way to the understanding of participants. I leave it to you to decide if it does that for you. (I fear that if I try to justify belief in God here further in philosophical terms, I will be going off topic. The question here is focused more on the utility of that belief in an evolutionary context. See my response to Dan, below, which attempts to stay on-topic.)

    As to not being brief, there is a saying that it takes more work to write briefly than at length. This is true in my experience. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to explain my thoughts in reasonable detail and also edit down to a more succinct statement of them. Please bear with me on this.

    Dan,Re Juliana, I completely agree with all that you said as to why she was off topic. I simply felt that a 12 year old child attempting to engage in a discussion of this nature, deserves an explanation as to why she is off topic. I attempted to provide one. And it was essentially that she needs to look further into the facts, as you say. It seems worthwhile to give the next generation some encouragement towards rational thinking.

    You wrote:

    You also suggest that I attribute such detection of agency to “imagination.” I would suggest “superstition” or “intuition,” however, stemming from attempts to understand situations that were accompanied by insufficient information. It’s a leap in logic, driven by a desire to understand the unknown, and bypasses the utility of gathering more information.

    Overall I agree. “Superstition” was the nature of the understanding of the world in ancient times, relative to our present understanding. We now have more facts, that were not accessible to them. They did the best they could with what they had. The evolution of thought applies in all fields, not just religion. The role of microbiological organisms in causing disease was only discovered a couple of hundred years ago. In the nineteenth century doctors were still bleeding patients to death (e.g. Lord Byron), on account of a medical model that was superstitious by our standards. But our present capacity for understanding (science), has evolved from the same capacity in the past. We have just gotten more precise about it. The maps of reality that we make have become more exact and comprehensive, and our language more abstract, but essentially we are performing the same cognitive operations. Today’s science will be tomorrow’s superstition.

    Do you not think that worshipping gods of fertility are out-dated and maladaptive in today’s world, with modern knowledge of agriculture and biology at our fingertips?

    Yes, absolutely. My point is that all fields of knowledge evolve, including religion. We do not discredit the cognitive faculties of modern agriculturalists on the grounds that their forebears knew less than the modern ones do. Modern religious thinkers likewise should not be discredited because of the more primitive religious thinking of the past.

    [ancient religious] and today’s religious as well, treat the symbolic as though it were the concrete.

    Yes, the overly concrete thinking of many religionists today is a big problem and even a contributing factor in the present instability of international affairs. It may not have been such a problem for the ancients, since it appears they did not draw a sharp dividing line between the symbolic and the concrete, the material and the spiritual. They had more flexibility than the modern fundamentalists who feel they must stick to their guns (some of them literally), in order to uphold the literal interpretation of every word of the scriptures they adhere to.

    what good is symbolism when we have more accurate representations of the world around us

    First it needs to be understood that all thought is conducted through symbolism. Our “more accurate representations” are fuller and more exact representations of reality, but they are still only representations / maps / symbols. Secondly, the development of much more accurate representations via scientific method has historically been moving up the ladder of complexity of the field under study. The first field that modern science tackled effectively was physics and chemistry, then biology (Newton before Darwin), and it is more recently that fields like psychology and sociology have been approached with scientific rigour. The metaphysical matters that are the domain of religion are at a higher level of complexity still. Religion is obviously next in line for being approached through scientific method. Perhaps the prevalence of discussions like the present one is evidence that this is starting to happen. The “more accurate representations of the world around us” that we have today answer questions about physics, chemistry, psychology, sociology, etc., but they do not satisfactorily answer religious questions. They have not given us a new spiritual tent to live under.

    A scientific approach to religion will have to take into account what the physical and human sciences tell us, just as biology has to take chemistry into account, i.e. the higher-order levels must take the lower-order levels into account. Religion needs to be thoroughly studied and brought up to date, one major reason being that historically religion has been the main unifying agency in society. The conflict and disorder existing today at all levels from global to local, most likely can only be addressed by a form of religion that is up to the job. Einstein proposed that eminent thinkers get together to create some new form of humanist religion without God. This is not how religions emerged in the past, but you never know I guess… For my part, Baha’u’llah is much more convincing than Einstein.

    (Ok, ok, I’m going on at length again… But I need to supply a lot of background. If your discussion was with a “fundamentalist” Christian, you would already know a lot of the background. But the paradigm behind my thinking is quite substantially different from the other well known religious systems in the world. The Baha’i Faith is the only major religion that came into existence after scientific rationality got off the ground.)

    Myths capture our attention, and in a way that I’m admittedly not so clear on, appear to perform a very vital role in our society.

    I don’t think we will ever be able to get away entirely from myth and treat all levels of reality with complete objectivity. We are never going to know enough about everything to reduce it all to scientific language. So our hunches and intuitions will still need to be expressed in allusive, mythical language. Also, stories, poems, the visual arts, etc., express perceptions that really can’t be put in scientific language. They are nevertheless objective representations in their own way, inasmuch as they make explicit the subjective experience of the artist, making it accessible to others.

    Even though there are difficulties and limitations, I suggest that religion can be engaged with objectively and rationally, not just as a purely subjective phenomenon.

    ivy and Dan, My sincere gratitude for your responses. The stimulation is helping me to clarify my understanding significantly.

  26. Dan, sorry, I did not directly address your addendum.

    But does it [religion] help us in conducting our affairs, describing our reality, and making decisions?

    In history, religion has been powerful in performing these functions. Taking Islam as a case study, Muhammad transformed a society held back by tribalism and superstition in such a way that within a few centuries an brilliant civilisation emerged through the influence of his teachings. The problem is, can religion still have such influence? The Baha’i Faith demonstrates that religion can still come up with the vitality and the ideas that are needed now. Its teachings are focused on the unity of the human race, the rejection of violence in the name of religion, the harmony of religion and science, economic justice, etc. And it frames its concepts in modern terms.

    Certainly religion is based on assertions based upon intuition, as you say – but is that really a viable substitute for assertions based on evidence?

    My view of intuition is only that it plays only a part in the development of valid thought. It is the detective’s hunch, that may lead to the crime being solved, or may lead to an innocent being accused. Certainly assertions must be backed up by evidence, for them to be credible. The assertions made by religious thinkers should be subjected to evidentiary tests, and if they fail to make the grade, they should be rejected.

  27. This discussion has gotten much more interesting, and I’m sorry for having missed it for a while – the new baby has been keeping us all busy.

    Anyway, I really appreciate John’s lightning summary of what I mean by “the capacity for religious experience” being “an evolutionary adaptation to warfare.” Indeed, his summary is pretty close to what I mean when I use the phrase. Another way of saying the same thing is saying that the mental capacities wired into the human brain make warfare easier (and especially easier to win) if one believes in a supernatural entity with the characteristics that John lists, above. Many people who have commented on my hypothesis have argued that warfare isn’t adaptive, because people get injured or killed participating in it. Well, it may or may not be adaptive to them (depending on whether their genetic kin benefit from their sacrifice), but warfare is definitely beneficial for the winners.

    As I point out in my long review article on the same subject, Laura Betzig (an evolutionary psychologist in Ann Arbor, MI) has pointed out that the leaders of successful warlike societies have tremendously increased reproductive success, both within their own groups (i.e. “tribes.” etc.) but especially when compared with the people they have successfully defeated in war. So, the capacity to engage in warfare is clearly adaptive for people who are successful at it, and also to the females (and defeated males) who are then incorporated into their social groups.

    Another common misunderstanding of my hypothesis is that religion causes wars. It does not; wars are almost always fought for economic reasons (with revenge following a close second in most cases). However, economic reasons for warfare are analogous to natural selection in evolution: they are “ultimate” causes, not “proximate” causes, and so generally not recognized directly by those engaged in the relevant activities. The same is true for copulation; animals copulate because it feels good/is immediatley positively reinforcing (proximate cause) , but the utimate effect of copulation is to produce offspring, and those who produce the most offspring pass on whatever motivating factors caused them to do so (ultimate cause).

    Religious beliefs make it easier to successfully participate in warfare (by making identification of one’s opponents easier and overriding the fear of death), so the capacity for religious belief and behavior facilitates (but does not cause) warfare in the same way that “feeling good” as the result of copulation facilitates making offspring.

    Finally, another common misunderstanding of my hypothesis is to think that it applies primarily to modern religions (i.e. religions less than a few millennia old). Clearly, the amount of time that has elapsed since the establishment of all but a few of the world’s dominant religions is not enough for any biological evolution to have taken place. However, as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby point out in their primer of evolutionary psychology, “our skulls house a stone-age mind” – the capacity for religion and the capacity for participation in warfare evolved during the Pleistocene, and remain with us today only because selection has not mitigated against them.

    Indeed, selection still appears to favor both participation in warfare and the capacity for religious belief: the baby boom following World War II and the relatively high birth rate of deeply religious people both point to the fact that neither participation in warfare nor the capacity for religious belief are currently maladaptive.

    Therefore, if we are to mitigate the effects of either or both of these capacities, we shall have to hope that our nervous systems are capable of sufficient behavioral and cognitive flexibility to decouple the links between religion and warfare, and to culturally eliminate the underlying causes of the latter. Since religion is not a cause, but merely a facilitator of war (and not always even that), then it may be possible to reduce the tendency to participate in war without affecting the capacity for religion.

    Pradoxically, it appears (based on the history of warfare over the past millennium) that one of the most effective ways to reduce the tendency to participate in warfare is to make it much more lethal. Although they killed many millions of people, the wars of the 20th century were the least lethal in human history, measured as a per capita phenomenon. This drop in lethality has been most conspicuous since 1945, when the introduction of nuclear weapons made warfare potentially maladaptive at the species level. It may be that we shall have to keep some nuclear weapons around, just to convince the leaders of nations that resorting to all-out war is never a good idea.

    If the foregoing seems to indicate that the question of the functionality of religious belief is not necessarily tied to warfare, nor to questions of utility in general, you are correct. Science by itself has not resulted in an increase in human happiness; technology has done that. Technology is the application of scientific knowledge to questions of utility, which is inherently a moral deliberation. If religion has a place in such deliberations, it is clearly as a means of justifying moral judgements, rather than accepting or rejecting scientific arguments.

    This is the true danger of fundamentalism: it conflates moral prescriptions with scientific explanations. Doing so has been deemed illegitimate for over a century, and the fact that fundamentalists continue to do so is a serious indictment of their committment to genuine morality.

    However, the morality that flows from mainline non-fundamentalist religions (such as Methodism, or Presbyterianism, or non-fundamentalist Islam, orBuddhism, or Baha’i, or Quakerism, etc.) is clearly neither reinforcing to warfare nor dangerous in any way to scientific investigation nor technological progress. So, unlike PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, I have no problem with people following those religious traditions, and indeed wish them Godspeed.

  28. Allen, re the baby — been there, done that, know what you’re going through. :)

    Its gratifying that you find the discussion interesting, which compliment, Dan & ivy will also no doubt appreciate.

    There is one puzzle I can’t quite figure out in your theory, and that is, it seems you’re treating “the capacity for religious experience” as different in kind from other cognitive capacities, like e.g. the capacity to identify and treat disease, or the capacity to design implements. Can you shed any light on this aspect?

    Thanks

    John

  29. The ability to infer the existence of things unseen is really what I’m getting at. It’s like gravity, or magnetic force; you can’t see it, but you can see it’s effects. I remember playing with magnets for hours as a kid, delighting in the sensation of repulsion when I put like poles close together. I couldn’t see anything causing the repulsion, but clearly there was something going on – I could feel it.

    In the same way, humans (and most other animals) have the ability to infer the existence of “agency” (i.e. intentionality) in objects and processes in our surroundings. This is a very ancient and very powerful ability, as it underlies our ability to identify and avoid predators/enemies, identify and approach potential mates/group members, etc. It is extraordinarily easy for us to do this, yet it’s extraordinarily difficult to program a computer to do so.

    This argues for the hypothesis that the “wiring” for agency detection in our brains is both extremely efficient and extremely valuable from an evolutionary standpoint. We even know approximately where in the nervous system this detector is: the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), especially in the right hemisphere of the brain. The pSTC “lights up” in brain scans conducted during tasks that require the perception of agency.

    Both Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer link the capacity for religous belief to the “agency” detector (AD). Their hypotheses for religious belief assume that the human AD (and probably of most animals) is “hyper-active” – that is, it is tuned by natural selection to produce virtually no false negatives. This is because false positives (i.e. detecting agency when it doesn’t actually exist) has little or no negative impact, but false negatives are potentially fatal (i.e. the tiger you haven’t detected will kill and eat you, the enemy you haven’t detected will kill you and steal your possessions and mates, and the potential mate you haven’t detected will mate with someone else).

    A hyperactive agency detector (HAAD) will therefore “find” agency (i.e. intentionality) in objects and processes where it does not exist (i.e. in rocks, clouds, trees, etc.) – it will infer its existence and trigger an appropriate response. This at least partially explains why people “find” agents (and especially agents surprisingly like ourselves) in things that have no natural ability to produce intentions or intentional acts.

    Where I differ with Atran and Boyer is on the question of whether the capacity for religious belief is entirely epiphenomenal; that is, a side-effect of our evolutionarily derived HAADs. I believe that once the HAAD evolved, selection could bias its detection algorithms toward human-like intentionality, as human-human interactions constitute the vast majority of our contacts with genuine agents. This would then set in motion a positive feedback loop that would result in the evolution of human-oriented HAADs (HO-HAADs), which would find humanlike intentionality in places where it didn’t actually exist.

    And that is precisely what angels, demons, gods, and all other supernatural agents are: figments of our HO-HAADs. Couple this tendency with the intense selective effects of warfare, and tie it especially to the mechanisms of in-group versus out-group identificaton that characterizes all primates, and you get the kinds of minds we have: minds that conjure both evil intent in out-groups and supernatural reinforcement for our in-groups.

    So, is there a “god-detector” or “religion module” in the human brain? No, but there are wired-in cognitive processors that, when working together under the right environmental conditions, function as if they were.

  30. Thank you Allen. That is a clear and helpful explanation. I will ponder it, but at present don’t have time to come up with further comment. Best wishes with your course. (I’m too far away to attend.) – John

  31. John,
    Thanks for the replies, and for helping to fill in some of the nuances of the discussion with lucid arguments. Skimming through your latest comments on the capacity for religion, I find them rather agreeable. As we’re getting into fine nuances in these comments, I’ll have to take my time and read very carefully before getting back to you some more.

    In the meantime, thanks.

  32. Dan, will look forward to your further comments with interest. It has been a fascinating discussion so far. With a very busy week ahead in my job, I may not be able to be so active in making further comments. But will do my best to keep up with reading further thoughts people have, and respond as time and energy allow.

  33. I note belatedly that John has referred to this discussion elsewhere, in a well-worded article on the role of religion in the human condition. But one commenter there has a better observation, which I’d like to quote here:

    I think the question Prof. Scruton is answering is something like this: “Would mankind be better off than it is now in the real world if everyone who is now religious stopped holding religious beliefs and engaging in religious practices?” And he rightly answers, “No.” That, I suspect, is in part because most of the people who are religious in the world today do not in fact believe in what he calls “evil religions.” That, I’m sorry to say, could change.

    I think the question of whether the answer would be the same if all religious beliefs were radically false is an interesting one. I suppose there are possible worlds (as it were) where a falsehood is _consequentially_ valuable. In fact, a clever philosopher can dream these up all day. At that point it all depends on how much intrinsic value one attaches to knowing the truth whether one wants to say that a person in such a world is “better off” believing a falsehood.

    And indeed, beliefs of all kinds play all sorts of roles in our lives. But on the question of “God,” is it useful to affirm the existence of something which in all probability does not exist?

  34. “Noted belatedly”, not at all, Dan — I posted that comment on Roger Scruton’s blog only yesterday. It seemed like there was a fair bit of crossover between the topics here and there. Will respond to your question (at the end of your comment), after attending to weekend practical chores.

  35. Sounds good, John.

    One follow up thought to my question though – I think that what I’m trying to get at is, that while I agree that belief systems are an unavoidable component to the human condition, I have yet to find any that is satisfactory to myself. The skeptic in me can’t help but be critical of religious doctrines. They’re all based on the revelations and assertions of others, faith that they know what they’re talking about, and are almost universally contradictory to the most thoroughly accepted science that can be demonstrated for me (seeing is believing, and I am a scientist).

    Perhaps that’s a bit harsh – while I’m not too knowledgeable on Buddhism, I am under the impression that that is both holistic faith and compatible with a modern way of understanding of the world. I certainly don’t think the Christianity is compatible with such a point of view.

    Also – and I’m sorry, my thoughts have been wandering all over the place – but I’ve given some thought to how laced the languages of the world are with reference to God(s). Regardless of what we think about the existence of gods, we can’t get away from them. We truly are hard-wired for theism, aren’t we?

  36. Dan, responding to your comments…

    “I think that what I’m
    trying to get at is, that while I agree that belief systems are an
    unavoidable component to the human condition, I have yet to find any
    that is satisfactory to myself. The skeptic in me can’t help but be
    critical of religious doctrines.”

    The openness with which you state your personal concerns seems
    admirable. It leads me to share a little of the story of my own
    experience with religion. Outwardly the present discussion is about
    theoretical matters as to the evolutionary basis of religious belief,
    but what actually animates the discussion is the deeply personal
    interest we have in the here-and-now implications for our respective
    world-views. Your skepticism, I can readily identify with. My
    childhood was spent in Samoa where my New Zealand parents were serving
    with the Congregational Church. In other words, I grew up in an
    atmosphere of strong religious commitment. In my late teens, I found
    that despite my love and respect for a great deal in Christianity, it
    did not work for me as a satisfactory world view. My problems were
    somewhat to do with scientific matters, for I was familiar with forms
    of Christianity that tend to deny certain scientific facts in order to
    uphold the inerrancy of the Bible. However, my parents’ form of
    Christian belief was not of this literal and anti-scientific variety,
    so I was well aware that it was possible to be a Christian as well as
    to accept the findings of science. My greater problems had to do with
    the question as to why I should choose to place reliance on
    Christianity over and above any other belief system. The evidence
    wasn’t strong enough. For example, the historicity of the Gospels is
    controversial. And certain key concepts seemed contrary to reason, such
    as that “salvation” is obtained exclusively through (belief in) Christ.
    I also felt that the philosophical case for the existence of God did
    not stack up. I have to say that it was only through coming across the
    Baha’i teachings that I was able to resolve these difficulties. As to
    science, as a Baha’i I am fully comfortable with modern scientific
    knowledge. As to the historical origins of the Baha’i Faith and its
    teachings, these are easily accessible to investigation, as the Faith
    began only a century and a half ago, and the original writings of its
    Founder have been faithfully preserved. As to exclusivity, the attitude
    of the Baha’i Faith is highly inclusive, regarding the whole human race
    as one family under God. Finding the Baha’i Faith also solved the “God”
    problem for me, in that the concept of God expressed in the Baha’i
    teachings seems to me entirely reasonable; as well as being confirmed
    for me experientially through spiritual practices of prayer,
    meditation, and involvement in Baha’i community life, etc. It seems
    necessary to mention this background as part of my attempt to genuinely
    answer your question, in a way that is not disembodied from the lives
    of individuals.

    “They’re all based on the revelations
    and assertions of others, faith that they know what they’re talking
    about…”

    Revelation is indeed a basic concept in religion, but the kind of
    faith in Divine Revelation that makes sense is not based on blind
    obedience to the authority of others, such as priests and religious
    scholars, but on personal investigation of truth.

    “… and are almost universally contradictory to the most
    thoroughly
    accepted science that can be demonstrated for me (seeing is believing,
    and I
    am a scientist).”
    This is hard to answer adequately without knowing which specific
    doctrines and respective science you’re referring to. A general
    observation I could make is that a lot of religious understanding is in
    denial as to the fact that all natural phenomena are the outcome of
    cause-and-effect processes. There is a misguided itch to identify
    where and how God might be directly intervening in order to make things
    happen. Upon identifying some such supposed intervention, Noah’s
    flood to take an unsophisticated example, the believer seizes on this
    sign of God’s activity as an event to be defended at all costs. Is this
    the kind of problem you are referring to?

    Perhaps that’s a bit harsh – while I’m not too knowledgeable on
    Buddhism, I am under the impression that that is both holistic faith
    and compatible with a modern way of understanding of the world. I
    certainly don’t think the Christianity is compatible with such a point
    of view.

    I regret that I don’t know enough about Buddhism to comment on its
    compatibility with modern understanding. Hopefully I will have the
    chance to learn more on Buddhism in the future. (The Baha’i teachings
    regard Buddha in the same light as Moses, Zoroaster, Christ, Muhammad
    and Baha’u’llah — i.e. as a Revealer of Truth.)

    “Also – and I’m sorry, my thoughts have been wandering all over
    the
    place – but I’ve given some thought to how laced the languages of the
    world are with reference to God(s). Regardless of what we think about
    the existence of gods, we can’t get away from them. We truly are
    hard-wired for theism, aren’t we?”

    As you know, my contention is that we’re not hard-wired for anything
    without it having some close relationship with the reality of our
    environment, so if we’re hard wired for religion, then religion must
    bear some relationship to reality. I realise that I haven’t yet
    accounted for the theory that religion is the outcome of a hyperactive
    agency detector, i.e. detecting agency even when its not there. I
    have some thoughts on this, but right now I’m running out of time to
    elaborate.

    “But on the question of ‘God,’ is it useful to affirm the
    existence of something which in all probability does not exist?”

    Will have to come back to this later. But in the meantime, could you
    help out by clarifying “in all probability does not exist?” Are you
    referring to Richard Dawkins’ argument?

  37. “… and are almost universally contradictory to the most
    thoroughly accepted science that can be demonstrated for me (seeing is believing, and I am a scientist).”

    This is hard to answer adequately without knowing which specific
    doctrines and respective science you’re referring to.

    Sorry, I’ll try to clarify: one example of what I’m talking about is the anthropocentrism of most faiths that I’m familiar with (i.e. Western faiths); another example is that of divinity, with the existence of entities referred to as gods. These are central tenets of the faiths that I’ve been introduced to, and are contradictory to both the apparent unremarkable place that our planet takes in the universe, and our species has in natural history (despite our overhwelming evolutionary success of the last 50,000 years).

    As you note, denial of cause-and-effect relationships is another example.

    Buddhism, as I understand it, is a non-theistic philosophy of “awakening,” and focused on “consciousness” (or where we focus or defocus our attentions). Meditation and concentration are central to Buddhism in practice, as are attentions to aspects of suffering inherent in the human condition.

    “We truly are hard-wired for theism, aren’t we?”

    As you know, my contention is that we’re not hard-wired for anything
    without it having some close relationship with the reality of our
    environment, so if we’re hard wired for religion, then religion must
    bear some relationship to reality.

    Thanks for bringing it back to this – and I couldn’t agree more.

    As to what I meant by “in all probability does not exist,” yes, I was referring to a point often made by Dawkins, one that I happen to agree with: that there is just as much evidence for the Judeo-Christian God as there is for the Greek, Norse, Hindu, Ancient Egyptian, Aztec, etc. versions (that is, none). The same could be said for fairies, the “flying spaghetti monster,” goblins, alien abductors, angels and demons.

  38. Dan,

    Examples you gave of religious beliefs/attitudes incompatible with science:

    “… the anthropocentrism of most faiths that I’m familiar with (i.e. Western faiths); another example is that of divinity, with the existence of entities referred to as gods. These are central tenets of the faiths that I’ve been introduced to, and are contradictory to both the apparent unremarkable place that our planet takes in the universe, and our species has in natural history (despite our overhwelming evolutionary success of the last 50,000 years). As you note, denial of cause-and-effect relationships is another example.”

    The examples you mentioned appear to be instances of a tendency by some religionists to deny the role of process in bringing about phenomena (when it suits these religiionists to do so). Science has conclusively demonstrated that life evolves in a step by step process in accordance with certain principles, “natural selection” in particular. In light of this fact, as you point out, our species has an unremarkable place in natural history, inasmuch as the phenomenon called “human beings” is the outcome of processes that appear to be universal (grounded on “physical laws”). Given that natural law seems always to work consistently throughout our known universe, it would be no surprise to find life elsewhere in the universe, including life forms with consciousness similar to human consciousness, this having been produced by the same processes that brought about life on earth. But some religionists seem to be keen to assert that at particular moments God makes special interventions in order to, say, ensure that planet earth has exactly the right conditions for life, or to bring the human species into existence.

    Concerning nature, Baha’u’llah says:

    “Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise.”

    The first sentence of the above statement attributes the diversification of the “manifestations” of nature (i.e. its phenomena) to “varying causes”. Diversity contains “signs” perceptible to “men of discernment”. Here we have a highly concentrated statement on nature, as it is conceived by scientists, and the possibility of studying its underlying principles (its signs). When God comes into the picture in the next sentence, it is not as the initiator of this or that phenomenon or event, but rather “God’s will” initiates nature as a whole.

    Baha’u’llah’s view seems to me compatible with science and does not fall into the error of anthropocentrism that you mentioned. What Baha’u’llah means by “God” is much different from some supernatural agency that acts from time to time, producing this or that mischief or benefit for humankind. Two statements of his illustrating this point:

    “Know thou that every created thing is a sign of the revelation of God. Each, according to its capacity, is, and will ever remain, a token of the Almighty. … So pervasive and general is this revelation that nothing whatsoever in the whole universe can be discovered that doth not reflect His splendor. … Were the Hand of Divine power to divest of this high endowment all created things, the entire universe would become desolate and void.”

    “… in the station of ‘I did wish to make Myself known’, God was, and His creation had ever existed beneath His shelter from the beginning that hath no beginning, apart from its being preceded by a Firstness which cannot be regarded as firstness and originated by a Cause inscrutable even unto all men of learning.”

    Remembering that Baha’u’llah was writing in the 19th century, the following statement of his is remarkable:

    “The learned men, that have fixed at several thousand years the life of this earth, have failed, throughout the long period of their observation, to consider either the number or the age of the other planets. Consider, moreover, the manifold divergencies that have resulted from the theories propounded by these men. Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute.”

    Here, he is implicitly making nonsense of the idea that the earth is only a few thousand years old, pointing out that in any case there is a whole universe out there that is of unknown age, and putting forward the principle that life is inherent in the universe, not just something that happens to have appeared miraculously on this earth alone.

    (“Every planet its own creatures” I take as expressing of an idea that in principle every planet is capable of producing life. So, although it appears there is no life on Mars at present, there is no reason in principle why there could not have been life on Mars in the past; or that it could not develop on Mars in the future.)

    From my reading of “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, and the views of other contemporary objectors to religion, it appears that the God they are uncomfortable with is not a totally mysterious “first Cause” or ultimate ground of being. They (you?) rightly dislike the popular conception of a God who has an anthropomorphic personality; who is pictured in ways that make him a being amongst beings, albeit the most senior of all beings. Dawkins evidently favours some sort of pantheism. This indicates to me that Dawkins admits there is a certain deeply mysterious element as to what constitutes the ground of being. If “God” is a code word for this mystery, I suspect that this would be unobjectionable to Dawkins and others who are against the God of religion. It is not necessary to “prove” the “existence” of God in order to demonstrate that the question of what constitutes Ultimate Reality is a significant question and has implications for how we live our lives. What religion does is build a bridge, making certain connections between the realm of the Ultimate that is actually unfathomable, to the realm of the everyday situation we find ourselves in. The aspect of the Ultimate Reality question that is most important for us is to do with: what is the overall structure of our environment? Does its orderliness indicate some overall purpose behind it? If so, where do we fit into that purpose? In the light of this, how should we live? Religion (overlapping with philosophy) is the area of thought that deals with these types of questions.

    “Buddhism, as I understand it, is a non-theistic philosophy of ‘awakening,’ and focused on ‘consciousness’ (or where we focus or defocus our attentions). Meditation and concentration are central to Buddhism in practice, as are attentions to aspects of suffering inherent in the human condition.”

    Your description of Buddhism is consistent with the function of religion as I’ve outlined it above. It is concerned with how we should live our lives in the light of an understanding of the overall nature of things. The emphasis of Buddhism on the impermanence and somehow illusory nature of the human condition, and that ultimate reality is nothing (no thing), points to the need to rid ourselves from attachment to limited conceptions of the Ultimate, and involvement in worldly obsessions. Jesus’ exhortation that we should lay up treasure “in heaven” rather than on earth, is in a similar vein. Both were saying that ethical conduct is the true path to human satisfaction; material goals being illusory and transitory. Buddha put his core teachings in an ethical framework, e.g. the Noble Eightfold Path. For a discussion that relates the non-theism of Buddhism to apophatic monotheism, see Karen Armstrong’s book “A History of God”. (For “apophatic” see Wikipedia, “Negative theology”.)

    In an essay I posted a while back, One God, One Word, One World, I have tried to show that the unknowability of Ultimate Reality has been a central theme of monotheism from the start; and that monotheism builds a bridge from that Reality to us, through the medium of Revelations brought by the Prophets.

    Getting back to the hyperactive agency detector and relating it to the above. I make the assumption that there is such a faculty, the assumption being a tool for some reflections on the nature of knowledge.

    An ancient individual catches a glimpse in peripheral vision of a rock rolling down a hill towards him. His agency detector kicks in, and he smartly takes evasive action to escape the malevolent being that is out to get him. He has imprinted intentional characteristics on the inanimate object of a rock. That evening, he makes a sacrifice to the gods, in thanks for their having made him aware of the rock in time for escape. Here, he attributes intentionality to unseen beings. This is not quite the same as attributing intentionality to the rock, which was a physical thing directly apprehended by his senses, earlier in the day. The gods represent unseen controlling forces of a general nature

    “seeing is believing, and I am a scientist”

    There are two ways that the mind makes sense of the world. The primary one is through sense experience. The secondary is through reason. Reason takes the data gained through sensory experience, and makes generalizations about it. It deduces things unseen from things seen. Scientific theories are generalizations, existing in the intellect, where they are not directly perceptible to the senses. Without these generalizations, we are left with only particulars. If ancient individuals indeed were led by a hyperactive agency detector to imagine the existence of gods controlling their circumstances, this step conferred a great benefit upon them. It gave them the rudiments of abstract thought. It enabled them to generalise, not only about the behaviour of one particular rock, but concerning the behaviour or rocks in general. Now the tool they used for their elementary abstract thought was to imagine the world being controlled by beings somewhat like themselves, but more powerful. That is, they took features of the known world, including the characteristics of human personality, and projected them into the invisible world where the mind makes images or maps. That is why I use “imagination” to describe what they were doing. They were using the power of imagination to make mental maps of the world. Science today does essentially the same thing, at a much greater level of sophistication.

    The language tools that we use for abstract thought must be taken from the imagery of the physical world known to our senses. Consider the experience of sitting under a waterfall, feeling the force of the water falling on one’s head and shoulders. Now consider the higher-order more general statement that the force of gravity causes the water to fall. In both cases, we use the word “force”, in each case meaning something the similar but different. We can only talk about unseen things like gravity by analogy with our experience of perceptible things. When we talk about the force of falling water, we know what we’re talking about in a full-on, direct kind of way. But we don’t have the same kind of quality of knowledge about things like gravity or magnetism. Gravity and magnetism are concepts used to describe a variety of effects in a systematic manner. We don’t directly “see” what gravity and magnetism are. They are abstractions.

    God is the ultimate abstraction: a one-word theory of everything. When we talk philosophically about God we are intellectualizing about the general nature of things on the grandest scale. It is even fair to say that the God we discuss exists only in our minds, for the actual reality of the entity that we are discussing is, by definition, beyond our comprehension. The truth-value of the God hypothesis lies in the ability of this hypothesis to give us a coherent understanding of the world as we find it.

    Although these observations have not established that God is indeed a valid hypothesis, I hope they have at least shown that what is meant by “God” is nothing remotely like the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

  39. Regarding Baha’u’llah, you refer to “God’s Will,” etc., quite a bit. What is that, precisely? It strikes me as a euphamism for “The Way Things Just Are,” which is a bit of a tautology. I’m sure that you disagree, but I’m still stuck on the definitely of what “God” is, thinking that it is an intentionally vague illusion. Call them “signs” or “manifestations,” they’re clearly illusory, and more of what I’ve referred to previously as false “detection of agency.” Such assertions are no more real than the predictions of an astrologer.

    I won’t dwell on all your examples of Baha’u’llah’s assertions, other than to ask, what benefit does accepting such statements, at face value, have?

    From my reading of “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, and the views of other contemporary objectors to religion, it appears that the God they are uncomfortable with is not a totally mysterious “first Cause” or ultimate ground of being.

    It’s not that I’m uncomforable with it, it’s that there’s nothing to suggest that it’s actually real. It’s rationalism, pure and simple, and I think it’s a mistake to conclude that Dawkins is pantheistic any more than he believes in the Jedi Force, which is again euphamistic.

    This is the point that you’ve mentioned before, and I totally agree with:

    What religion does is build a bridge, making certain connections between the realm of the Ultimate that is actually unfathomable, to the realm of the everyday situation we find ourselves in.

    But then again, what benefit does this have over saying, more simply, “We don’t know,” when it comes to unfathomable issues? Again, this is my rationalism coming out. Holistic views have their point, I suppose, but such views are usually too abstract and undefined for me to wrap my head around, and strike me as an intellectual shortcut, replacing more accurate descriptions of reality.

    All that said, yes, you’re right, the religions that we’ve been discussing take details, as they’re elucidated, and incorporate them into their descriptions of reality. But they still hold on to euphamisms for the “unfathomable,” detection of agency, etc. Why? How are they useful? It’s emotional, and it’s unifying.

    Is that sufficient to gloss over the question of “but is it real?” This is the point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster farce, to force the issue of validity with an example that clearly is not real.

    But even if God is not real, then is belief in God, as an emotional and unifying concept, advantageous for the human condition? Are we emotional beings, or are we rational beings? Rationality goes without saying. And clearly also, our capacity for emotion IS adaptive – but to the point of clinging to invalid explanations, simply for the sake of having an explanation at all, or in the face of more valid explanations?

  40. Dan, your very clear-headed approach and broad vision are driving me to work hard. I welcome it! On reviewing the whole course of the discussion, I realize that I’ve learned a great deal. As I’m now back in the demanding activity of the working week, I may take a while to respond further. Best regards.

  41. This is just an aside, for the interim. My impression of Richard
    Dawkins having a sympathetic attitude to some sort of pantheism is
    based on statements in his book similar to those on this web page: “Religion:
    Einsteinien or supernatural?”

    Among the statements he makes on this page are:

    “The quotations I gave all suggest that Einstein was a pantheist, and
    this is what I mean by Einsteinian religion.”

    And:

    “In the Einsteinian sense I am religious.”

    Of course I’m not reading too much into this; the above quotations
    having been presented here out of context. This is just to give some
    assurance that I’m disinclined to play fast and loose with facts.

  42. What that rests on is the question “What is God?” If by “God,” we mean the constants and laws of the universe, that can be observed everywhere, then yes, “God” is indistinguishable from “The Way Things Just Are” in a “Jedi Force” sort of way, or Einstein’s “God.” But again, I argue that all of that is euphamism for more abstract concepts that we have a difficult time labeling.

    So, in a literal sense, “Einsteinian religion” and reductionist naturalism are one and the same. Dawkins acknowledges this (from the same page you link to):

    Einstein, then, was certainly not a theist. He was repeatedly indignant at the suggestion. Was he a deist? Or a pantheist? Let’s remind ourselves of the terminology. A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who does some combination of the following: answers prayers; forgives (or punishes) sins; frets about right and wrong, and knows when we do them (or even think them); intervenes in the world by performing miracles. A deist is one who believes in a supernatural intelligence whose activities are confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter. Pantheists use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs the workings of the universe.

    And in this sense, which was used by Einstein and many others, I fail to see the utility of referring to such “pantheistic” notions as “theistic” at all – why not just refer to pantheism by what it thinks god is (i.e. nature), such that their (my) religion is naturalism

  43. In a certain sense I find it acceptable to say that God is nature, inasmuch as it is impossible to know anything of the Ultimate except that which is mediated to us through nature (broadly conceived). Or, as you put it, God is a “euphemism for more abstract concepts that we have a difficult time labeling.” I am not completely endorsing the kind of naturalism you mention, but I’m sympathetic to what I see as the core of it. That is, talk of God relates to our understanding of what constitutes the totality of things. I’m sorry if this is imprecise, but I suspect that I don’t disagree with you as much as you think I do. This is only one of those dreaded intuitions at present, and I’m trying to gradually zoom in on it; become clearer on it through this dialogue.

    The idea of God, totally in the abstract, I don’t think is of much practical use. It is only God as personified in the lives and teachings of the great Prophets that I find one can really have an emotional commitment to. They purport to speak from God, and they at least are accessible to us as historical figures whose teachings and influence can be studied empirically. If they demonstrably possess uncommon wisdom, it lends credence to the idea of God as an intelligent Being; a Being who speaks; gives guidance.

    The appearance of Prophets (founders of religions), can be seen in a way as a natural phenomenon, as it occurs at roughly regular intervals and universally enough for the influence of those Prophets to be dispersed throughout the world.

    No respectable skeptic would take these assertions at face value. The lives and teachings of the Prophets would need to be studied carefully before one might be inclined to accept the idea. But I suggest that there is a coherence in religion that is worth considering, when religion is seen as having a fundamental unity throughout history, with the Prophets as the archetypal representatives of religious truth.

    By the way, the basic form of supercession in religion is the way that the Prophets supercede one another, while also building directly on the foundation laid by previous Prophets. The pattern in the past has been that the control of religions, some time after the passing of each Prophet, has been taken over by priests and the learned class. It is almost always the priests of the former religion who most vigorously oppose the Founder of a new religion. This goes to show that religion has its inherent process for progress and advancement, although those who consider themselves to be the guardians of religion sometimes are its real worst enemies, from a position of power within the fold.

  44. That is, talk of God relates to our understanding of what constitutes the totality of things. I’m sorry if this is imprecise, but I suspect that I don’t disagree with you as much as you think I do.

    Perhaps not, but we do bring different points of view to the table, and we’ve gone a significant way to reconciling our particular descriptions of religion, etc.

    The appearance of Prophets (founders of religions), can be seen in a way as a natural phenomenon, as it occurs at roughly regular intervals and universally enough for the influence of those Prophets to be dispersed throughout the world.

    That’s an interesting point, and inspires me to ask, ‘What are the ways that such prophets positively effect the direction of social change?’ I think this would be a good side discussion, or at least food for thought.

    But I suggest that there is a coherence in religion that is worth considering, when religion is seen as having a fundamental unity throughout history, with the Prophets as the archetypal representatives of religious truth.

    I’ll accept that. And moreover, what does this coherence in religion – the overall themes of religion’s functions in human societies – say about the human condition? What do these trends in belief systems say about how we think as individuals and interact with others? (similar to previous question in this comment).

    These questions make me think of Joseph Campbell, and his books, such as The Power of Myth in particular. Have you by chance read much of his writings?

  45. “What are the ways that such prophets positively effect the direction of social change?”

    There are very many examples of this that can be studied. The history of Muhammad and of Islam is one of the most accessible to research because of its comparative recency, so the historical record is much more complete. In South East Asia — Thailand, Cambodia, etc., the interaction between the growth of Buddhist religion and the enlargement of kingdoms was very clear. Indonesia is interesting because it has the record of successive waves of first the ancient animistic beliefs, then Hinduism, then Buddhism, then Islam. I guess in terms of western civilisation, the period of Constantine would be particularly worth delving into.

    Have not read anything of J Campbell’s. Will try to take up your suggestion sometime and look into it.

    Out of steam for lengthy comments today. That’s probably a good thing!

  46. Sorry, at this point, I’m running out of steam again too, and resorting to coming up (but not answering) some interesting questions for further study.

    I’m sure you’d enjoy Campbell. He spent his career becoming well-versed in the mythologies, rituals, and other aspects of religion in every religion and society that he could find – major religions, tribal cultures, etc.

  47. A related post has just been put up on Gene Expression with Levels of analysis of religion, Atran, Boyer & Wilson.

    And, speaking of Atran, Boyer and Wilson, I just ordered the required reading for MacNeill’s course… can’t wait to read them, and spew more thoughts on the evolution of religiousity!

  48. […] 3rd, 2007 by Dan A couple months ago I noted a class that Allen MacNeill was preparing to teach during summer session here at Cornell, titled […]


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