Gene Expression

I listened to Dan Dennett on the most recent Tech Nation with Moira Gunn (not online yet), and he went on about the ideas proposed in his book Breaking the Spell. Some of the ideas were interesting, though I’ve read more well developed versions in most of the supporting literature. Nevertheless, Dennett’s schtick that those who think that religious people can’t analyze their beliefs rationally are being patronizing seems really laughable to me. Most atheists I know have a hard time getting around the fact that many people who are extremely bright (no pun intended in the context of Dennett) sincerely believe that supernatural agents exist and affect the world around us. To use an analogy, in Why I am Not a Muslim Ibn Warraq notes that many Muslims simply can not believe that an intelligent person can not believe in Islam when they are informed of its content and message. In other words, if you do not believe, you are either ignorant, or you are obstinate.

I think many atheists have the same attitude toward intellectual theists. I have read some Paul Tillich and Marcus Borg, liberal Christian theologians (you might know Borg as one of the figures behind The Jesus Seminar). I used to find their “rationalizations” and verbal circumlocutions around the nature of the God Hypothesis rather bemusing. To some extent I often expressed the opinion that Christian fundamentalists were “more honest” and engaged in a plainer and realer reading of the texts of the faith than these intellectualized believers.

I would admit now that my understanding lacked nuance, and was psychologically uninformed. First, I no longer believe that religion is a proto-science for most people, that the textually elaborated truths of the “high religions” are the core of the experience of the phenomenon of faith. I have also come to the conclusion that the historical record tells us that textual fundamentalism is an exception, not the rule. Though some form of inerrantism and literalism have always existed, the revolt against non-religious science, that is, the conflict between science and religious scripture, is a somewhat modern occurrence. Additionally, even “textual literalists” often engage in verbal gymnastics to save the literal and inerrant character of the scripture so that “plain reading” becomes a farce. Finally, we have to remember that religious believers actually believe in God. Not only do they believe, but to some extent they believe a priori of any philosophical “proof.” The assumptions that theologians that Paul Tillich or Marcus Borg begin with includes a God, a God with particular characteristics and traits. When viewed in light of the “truths” that they hold about the God that they believe in their verbal acrobatics are far more intelligible and reasonable. Of course it seems ridiculous to unbelievers, but we don’t believe in the first place, so the whole exercise is futile to our eyes. By the principle of parsimony the simpler jumping-jacks of literalists seem rather quaint and charming in comparison to the baroque exercises of more intellectually sophisticated theists.

In Descartes Error Antonio Damasio argues that emotional imperatives and drives are crucial to the functioning of our rational faculties. If the likes of Dennett wish to examine religion as a “natural phenomenon,” they need to acknowledge that perhaps for many humans it is as crucial to their cognitive functioning as elimination is to their digestive system. As it is, Dennett seems to want to pretend that religious folk can set aside the stars that burn brightly in their sky by simply closing their eyes. Some can do this, as I have noted before, but let us not forget that fear of the dark is no small thing.

Comments

  1. #1 John Emerson
    March 5, 2006

    I think that atheism only works for people who:

    a.) have the leisure and inclinationb to think these things through, in the absence of any real practical necessity — most people are fully occupied with practical affairs and fun;

    and b.) don’t have any terrible discrepancies in their life that they have to explain. You really have to be pretty accepting of your place in the world not to want metaphysical comfort of some kind. Slave-religion is one of the common kinds.

    I’m an atheist, but religion has been more a universal than a variable up till now, and the few near-atheist societies we’ve seen (Revolutionary France, the USSR, and Red China) haven’t been especially encouraging — two of them, at least, came up with non-theist delusions as bad as the theist.

    But as I’ve always said, atheism doesn’t play the role of religion for atheists. It’s just the decision to do without theism.

  2. #2 razib
    March 5, 2006

    But as I’ve always said, atheism doesn’t play the role of religion for atheists. It’s just the decision to do without theism.

    yes. that is a problem in the discourse, atheism is a narrow consideration of an essential subcomponent of religious phenomenon. but some intellectualized forms of jainism, confucianism or buddhism are operationally atheistic.

    also, re: “atheist” societies…kim jong il’s north korea seems to be a god-kingdom of old to me. note this:

    There also have been exhibitions in the capital of the Kimjongilia � a red flower cultivated to bloom around Kim’s birthday. About 23,000 flowers were displayed at one festival.

    “Normally, it is difficult to bring a flower into full bloom in winter,” flower grower Ha Kwang Yong told AP Television News. “They could do this because they cultivated Kimjongilia with warm reverence for Gen. Kim Jong Il.”

    there rumors of miracles occurring on kim jong il’s b-day.

  3. #3 matoko kusanagi
    March 5, 2006

    I downloaded Dawkins “The Root of All Evil” via bittorrent and watched it.
    His premise is that basic “god-friendly” traits like altruism and generosity are coded in our genomes and that religion piggy-backs on those like a parasite.
    i myself believe in the god-in-the-genes, so i can assimilate his theory. But i can see how offensive it would be to true believers.
    I thought Dennett was very circumspect, almost deferential, almost like he was asking permission to scientifically analyse religion. But then i am not a believer.

    When i first read Atran…

    From an evolutionary standpoint, the reasons religion shouldn’t exist are patent: religion is materially expensive and unrelentingly counterfactual and even counterintuitive.

    I got the feeling of being gobsmacked by some elemental truth.
    So why should religion exist? It must be a selective advantage. And the fitness it bestows is paid for by “material sacrifice…emotional expenditure…and cognitive effort..”
    So, i get curious as to how some escape what Dawkins calls “brainwashing”. I was raised strict RCC, and razib, you were hardly raised to be an aetheist. Is there some biochemical gradient that allowed us to become unbelievers?
    Maybe believers can’t just become unbelievers through re-education. Maybe there is not a god gene, but a (horrors) god germ?
    (curse you, agnostic) ;)

  4. #4 razib
    March 5, 2006

    I was raised strict RCC, and razib, you were hardly raised to be an aetheist. Is there some biochemical gradient that allowed us to become unbelievers?

    something like that. i think of it as conditional probabilities. people are born with particular predispositions, and just because you have a bias doesn’t mean you will actualize it. if you think of it as a norm-of-reaction, than particular environmental inputs can shift the balance that a far greater number of people end up at some sort of atheism….

  5. #5 matoko kusanagi
    March 5, 2006

    but what if there is an infection, like agnostic’s genius germ, that enables one to escape the safe box of religion and become, say, a guerrilla thinker?
    My brothers are all still belivers, and go to mass regularily. If i try talking about the cognitive science of religion with them they get really angry and slam out of the room.

  6. #6 razib
    March 5, 2006

    but what if there is an infection, like agnostic’s genius germ, that enables one to escape the safe box of religion and become, say, a guerrilla thinker?

    heritability is ~0.5. germ could be a parameter, but unlikely to be the only one (obviously germs can be passed in a family, so who knows?).

  7. #7 Corkscrew
    March 5, 2006

    Regards the “atheist societies”:

    I don’t think it was a case of “let’s deny the existence of God. Hmm, we’re going to need some new dogma to fill the gap…” From what I’ve read it was more a case of “here is our dogma, here is our ideal. Religion will distract people from abiding by this – no man can serve two masters wholeheartedly. Hence, let’s do away with religion.”

    They weren’t really atheist societies in the broadest sense – they were merely societies that found atheism a convenient way of clearing the field for their chosen dogma.

    Regards the evolutionary value of religion:

    I haven’t read enough Dawkins to know for sure, but I think his “parasitic religion meme” idea is not without merit – I can see how it could work. It’s basic PR – associate a bunch of good stuff with a brand, and people won’t care if the product is faulty in other ways. How many times have we heard people talking about “good Christian values”… This approach first appeared millennia back when people’s resistance to propaganda was fairly low*, so the meme bundle would have been able to set up shop with impunity. I imagine that there was some evolution of religions as the ones that were more successful with their PR tended to spread.

    I don’t quite buy it myself – it’s plausible but seems unlikely. My hypothesis is that religion is an excellent way of A) stopping people asking complicated questions rather than working on the fields where they belong; and B) maintaining a subconscious awareness of hierarchy even in the temporary absence of a king (“yeah, our lord may be off fighting, but God is watching you so you still need to stick to the rules”). Sadly for religion, reason A is fast becoming obsolete in the knowledge economy, and reason B has been past its best ever since religion and state were separated (although it still has some strength behind it – witness the “patriotic” reaction of many religious Americans to Bush’s invasions).

    * I have an hypothesis that the immunity conferred by increased exposure to advertising in the modern era is indirectly damaging to religion – it forces people to be more cynical about what they’re told or risk going broke. This may be so much marsh gas, but it would explain part of the problem that religious folk have with “materialistic culture”. It’s not the materialism so much as the sophisticated marketing techniques that threaten to reverse some of their conditioning.

    I remember going to a Christian discussion at one point that decried the use of women in advertising to sell a product. On reflection, I should have pointed out that this is precisely what Christianity does with its injunction to its female members to only accept mates from inside the group.

  8. #8 Dan Dare
    March 5, 2006

    I am an atheist with respect to the biblical God. But I keep a far more open mind wrt other more adventurous theologies.

    The real problem with bible-based religion for me, is its static nature. I wish our concepts of God could evolve to keep up with our growing knowledge of the Universe.

    Sacred scripture is an excellent strategy for preserving “ancient wisdom”. But at least since the enlightenment, we live in revolutionary times. I suspect all traditional religions are doomed sooner or later, in an age of ever-more powerful reason.

    Just imagine what the consequences would be if the transhumanist program came through. A society that no longer feared personal death, would no longer have any need to worry about salvationist god myths.

    But for me, its precisely then that the search for God gets really interesting. Only a transhuman mind would have the time and brainpower to take apart physical reality and find out what, if anything, is really behind it. It’s at that point that science becomes religion.

  9. #9 Agnostic
    March 5, 2006

    If germs want to visit any part of the brain, it’d be the frontal lobes (esp the prefrontal cortex), which is where the “executive function” resides: they want to get in the pilot’s seat. Sure enough, most mental illnesses show weird things going on here (schizophrenics, Phineas Gage, etc.). Since schizophrenia’s too common (on the order of 0.01) & too crippling to be genetic, it’s to be assumed a chronic infectious disease. Heritability’s well below 1.0 (~0.7 or 0.8, I think, last I checked).

    Frontal lobes are where most folks assume personality traits reside. “Religiosity” isn’t a Big Five trait, but it’s common in others’ personality inventories. So any putative infection would just affect this, not which particular religion you followed, which is obviously cultural.

    Quick global check: does religiosity correlate w/ pathogen load? Highest religiosity arguably in s-S Africa, lowest in NE Asia (and perhaps Scandinavia, but that may be recent), in between for Mediterranean – Middle East stretch. Yep, tracks pathogen load, though I’d guess ~0.6 or so, not so strongly. Now, is that due to god germs, or is it the Baldwin Effect wiring in more religiosity if this trait helped avoid pathogens? (Aside from disgust, which is already wired in.) Don’t know, but worth investigating.

    Well, back to doting on my cat (instead of caring for a child of my own — more brain germs).

  10. #10 razib
    March 5, 2006

    They weren’t really atheist societies in the broadest sense – they were merely societies that found atheism a convenient way of clearing the field for their chosen dogma.

    well, hm, my understanding of original marxism, for example, is that the idea was that religion would whither like gov. over time because the opiate was unneeded. am i wrong here? the later iterations of political movements which claimed to be marxist were more aggressive in their attitude toward religion because of the reality that religious institutions were rivals in organizing society. atheism was not the core of their ideology, but it seems to be an implied trait.

    It’s basic PR – associate a bunch of good stuff with a brand, and people won’t care if the product is faulty in other ways. How many times have we heard people talking about “good Christian values”… This approach first appeared millennia back when people’s resistance to propaganda was fairly low*, so the meme bundle would have been able to set up shop with impunity. I imagine that there was some evolution of religions as the ones that were more successful with their PR tended to spread.

    this addresses one form of religion, the “higher religions” we associate with institutions and clerical elites. it doesn’t speak to the ubiquity of “low religon,” and the reality that once “high religion” is stripped away “low religion” tends to persist. to some extent, new agery might be considered a “low religion,” drawing on folk psychology, biology and physics.

    My hypothesis is that religion is an excellent way of A) stopping people asking complicated questions rather than working on the fields where they belong; and B) maintaining a subconscious awareness of hierarchy even in the temporary absence of a king (“yeah, our lord may be off fighting, but God is watching you so you still need to stick to the rules”). Sadly for religion, reason A is fast becoming obsolete in the knowledge economy, and reason B has been past its best ever since religion and state were separated (although it still has some strength behind it – witness the “patriotic” reaction of many religious Americans to Bush’s invasions).

    you have some of the components of the vector right on. but, consider that

    a) most people probably aren’t going around asking “complicated questions” in the first place. the travesty or communism and nazism are cases in point, people don’t ask questions if they don’t need to.

    b) i think there is something to this issue relating to heirarchies, but, i don’t think that it religion is simply a way to maintain status relations. it is part of it, but not a necessary condition. in other words, people might form religious ideas even in groups of 2-3 where complex heirarchies and binding rituals to mediate social exchanges are not needed. there is a tendency for “complex” societies to create heirarchical religions, but “simple” societies are not less god-infested, just less systematic.

  11. #11 John Emerson
    March 5, 2006

    “Is there some biochemical gradient that allowed us to become unbelievers?”

    Unbelievers exist primarily in societies, such as ours, where professed atheists are not always immediately killed.

  12. #12 John Emerson
    March 5, 2006

    In my case neither of my parents were devotional Christians. My father was a Deist and my mother an active, conventional Lutheran. Lutheran practice is ethical, austere, and modernist. I think that devotionalism and ritual tie people to religion much more tightly. You get that wonderful buzz and don’t want to lose it.

  13. #13 razib
    March 5, 2006

    Unbelievers exist primarily in societies, such as ours, where professed atheists are not always immediately killed.

    we need to be precise here. in abrahamic monotheistic societies public, persistent and vocal atheism is punished by death. sometimes, persecution did occur in other societies, anaxagorous was targeted by athenian society because of his materialism. but in general atheism was one philosophical heresy among many, the carvaka in india or the extreme skeptics in the classical world being examples. in simple societies atheism, or rejection of traditional religion, might be a death sentence simply because of expulsion from society, as opposed to an explicit system of trial and execution.

  14. #14 matoko kusanagi
    March 5, 2006

    razib, john, i’m writing a blogpost that has to do with the Pythagoreans. Why do you suppose they were exterminated?

    in 460 BC the Society was suppressed violently as meeting houses were burned and members killed. In Crotone alone up to 50 or 60 members were slain. Those who survived this took refuge at Thebes and other places.

  15. #15 razib
    March 5, 2006

    google print tells me that it is because the pythagoreans got involved in politics and became a faction which suffered democratic backlash.

  16. #16 John Emerson
    March 5, 2006

    The societies where atheism is persecuted are the ones where atheism is most noticed. It’s marked, as they say. Where atheism is not a big taboo, there might be a fair number of atheist, without much notice given to them.

    There’s a book called “The Religion of Rabelais” by Febvre. Basically he concludes that almost everyone in the early modern age called their enemies atheists, but that no one ever quite openly advocated atheism. Spinoza came fairly late, and he did not admit to atheism per se, but only to a new definition of God.

  17. #17 matoko kusanagi
    March 5, 2006

    google print tells me that it is because the pythagoreans got involved in politics and became a faction which suffered democratic backlash.

    really? was political assassination common in 460? i think i should investigate. ;)
    there could be a Da Vinci Code novel in this.

  18. #18 razib
    March 5, 2006

    was political assassination common in 460?

    greeks had tyrants, so yes, i think so :)

  19. #19 David Boxenhorn
    March 5, 2006

    I find atheists oddly un-self-aware, or perhaps psychologically unintegrated. They don’t believe in God (they say), but they believe in all kinds of other things, e.g. democracy, tolerance, science (I’m not referring to truth-value here, but to its ultimate importance), etc. In what way are these beliefs different from God, from a cognitive point of view? Atheists proclaim that life is ultimately meaningless, yet if you observe them they certainly seem to be believers!

  20. #20 razib
    March 6, 2006

    I find atheists oddly un-self-aware, or perhaps psychologically unintegrated. They don’t believe in God (they say), but they believe in all kinds of other things, e.g. democracy, tolerance, science (I’m not referring to truth-value here, but to its ultimate importance),

    1) yes, many atheists are un-self-aware and unintegrated, but i don’t think it is “odd,” it is human.

    2) rejection of god belief and rejection of values are orthogonal, as one deals with is and another deals with ought.

    re: In what way are these beliefs different from God, from a cognitive point of view?

    many ways. for instance, i don’t think “democracy” is an idea in its complex form (based on states, institutions and laws) is innately intuitively obvious in a way that god is.

    finally, 3) Atheists proclaim that life is ultimately meaningless, yet if you observe them they certainly seem to be believers!, that is nihilism, not atheism. the two do intersect, but they are not coterminus. many antimonian religionists seem operationally indistinguishable from nihilists in any case.

  21. #21 David Boxenhorn
    March 6, 2006

    that is nihilism, not atheism. the two do intersect, but they are not coterminus

    I understand that the vast majority of self-proclaimed atheists are not nihilists. That’s what I find odd. How can you avoid nihilism without a cognitively God-like belief, i.e., one that gives meaning to existence?

    Okay, you will say that I am playing word games by defining God as that which gives meaning to existence (rather than the big guy in the sky). I will say that is the original meaning, the fundamentally human drive which necessitates God-belief (the big guy in the sky is simply most people’s best-guess mental image), and it is you who are playing word games by trying to separate them!

  22. #22 David Boxenhorn
    March 6, 2006

    When I say “odd”, I am speaking for myself. I understand that it’s human to be un-self-aware and unintegrated.

  23. #23 matoko kusanagi
    March 6, 2006

    David, if you listen to Sir Richard on the Root of All Evil, he theorizes that religion is parasitic on values like altruism developed during the EEA. Aetheists would still have have those values.

    I will say that is the original meaning, the fundamentally human drive which necessitates God-belief

    But God-belief is not neccessary for razib or Sir Richard. ;)
    Perhaps, like you said, God is just another name for that collection of values, and anthropomorphism is the only way most people can vizualize him.

  24. #24 matoko kusanagi
    March 6, 2006

    razib, the Derb implies the Pythagoreans were offed because they were scientists.

    Religious belief is deepy, rootedly human, unshakeable and ineradicable. Science, by contrast, is an artificial and unnatural activity, which could be stamped out rather easily. Some historians of science think it actually was: that science came up twice in history, first among the Greeks, then disappearing, then coming up again in early-modern Europe. Religion in general, and probably even particular religions, are a thousand times more robust than science.

    I think we are beginning to see science declaring war on religion, Dennett and Dawkins in particular. Dawkins choses video for his message, Dennett’s book is definitely targetting the layman, they are carrying the battle to the enemy. ;)
    I think the Singularity will overwhelm traditional religions–but perhaps spawn new ones….that are more surviveable given that most homo sapiens seem to need religion.

  25. #25 Matthew
    March 6, 2006


    I think the Singularity will overwhelm traditional religions–but perhaps spawn new ones….

    ROFL. Belief in “The singularity” is of course a religion.

  26. #26 John Emerson
    March 6, 2006

    I would prefer to believe in altruism or justice per se, rather than believing in an imaginary being which supposedly grounds altruism and justice.

    Besides obscuring the painfulness and injustices of life, and closely related to it, religion serves to justify the various arbitrary but needed fiat conventions which society requires in order to function.

  27. #27 David Boxenhorn
    March 6, 2006

    Perhaps, like you said, God is just another name for that collection of values

    Not for the collection of values, but for that which gives meaning to the values.

    imaginary being which supposedly grounds altruism and justice

    That is the strawman of atheists. Judaism doesn’t believe that God is a “being”, but that God is unknowable to mankind. I hesitate to talk about the theology of other religions, but I think Catholic dogma refers to God as the prime cause, not as a being.

    I bet that not many advanced religious thinkers of any religion claim that God is a being.

  28. #28 razib
    March 6, 2006

    Okay, you will say that I am playing word games by defining God as that which gives meaning to existence (rather than the big guy in the sky). I will say that is the original meaning, the fundamentally human drive which necessitates God-belief (the big guy in the sky is simply most people’s best-guess mental image), and it is you who are playing word games by trying to separate them!

    i think you need to be clearer here. many jewish scholars i have read argue that ethical monotheism is a creation of the jews (or at least a gift of the jewish god). the implication here is that ethics, meaning and the ultimate existential water do not fundamentally correlate with a god because theism existed before ethical monotheism. though the greek gods, to give one example, manifested moral bounds (see the myths which denigrated kin slaying or cannibalism), they were not the sort to offer ultimate satisfaction. i would also argue that only a small minority of humans need to sate an ultimate existential thirst.

    of course, as to the thrust of your argument, it is word games. i can express shock that you are unable to generate in situ your own fundamental existential meaning, and have to rely on a deux ex machina of a “god.”

  29. #29 razib
    March 6, 2006

    the Derb implies the Pythagoreans were offed because they were scientists

    well, i talked to derb about this general issue, and have pointed him to (i suspect) the paper he linked to in regards to the unnaturalness of science, etc., but in regards to the pythagoreans…well, my understanding is that

    a) they were scientists
    b) they were magicians
    c) they were a charismatic cult
    d) they were a political faction

    perhaps there is a reason that many hope that scientists remain above politics and faction?

  30. #30 razib
    March 6, 2006


    That is the strawman of atheists. Judaism doesn’t believe that God is a “being”, but that God is unknowable to mankind. I hesitate to talk about the theology of other religions, but I think Catholic dogma refers to God as the prime cause, not as a being.

    I bet that not many advanced religious thinkers of any religion claim that God is a being.

    1) we need to constrain the bounds of our discussion here. i will focus on the existential issue, not the proximate ideas relating to grounding for morality and ethics.

    2) there is a reason that christians assert they believe in a personal god. of course, yes, god is unknowable, but he is a being, a person, for christians insofar as he walked in the flesh amongst humanity as jesus christ.

    3) once we start walking into the murky and treacherous waters of intellectual theology, i wonder what relevance it can truly have to #1. you are clearly attempting to communicate to us (as a theist), but by its nature the grand theistic god is to some extent undefinable (systematic thomistic theologians go really far to defining Him, but in the end there is an element of ‘mystery’). it is as if, “this thing that i can not communicate because of its greatness, its unfathomability, is something that you must need to have a ground of being. how can you claim to have a ground of being if you don’t have it?” ultimately, the exercise is meaningless because we have no common currency to trade, if you remove god from the domain of accessibility (as advanced theologians tend to do progressively) than that which you assert must be needed becomes an inner shadow. a god of philosophical greatness is a mystery who withdraws his hand from the world and brooks little discussion when his existence is not taken for granted a priori.

    the best analogy i can come up with is martin heidegger trying to express what the ‘ground of being is.’ yes, humans have deep and yearning existential needs, but when we try to verbalize it, it escapes us. ergo, i get frustrated with theists who ask us how we (atheists) derive meaning when that from which they derive meaning is so indefinable to a great extent (eg., if we try to pin god down as a constrained individual, than god becomes no-god). perhaps the greatest difference between intellectual theists and atheists is simply that the former deign to speak of the unspeakable, which they term ‘god,’ while the latter refuse to put a finger on the undefinable. some intellectual atheists do put a word to the undefinable, and jains and buddhists tend to believe in some sort of supernatural wheel of life or karmic cycle, if not god. but i see little difference between this and what theists believe in. there is no shame is conceding that trapping lighting is a futile act.

  31. #31 David Boxenhorn
    March 6, 2006

    i can express shock that you are unable to generate in situ your own fundamental existential meaning

    I guess I am skeptical that other people do this. Maybe it’s just my blind spot, but it looks to me like people simply don’t feel the need to examine their beliefs.

  32. #32 razib
    March 6, 2006

    Maybe it’s just my blind spot, but it looks to me like people simply don’t feel the need to examine their beliefs.

    most people don’t. but, if you are a ‘religious minority’ in a majority culture i suspect you are more liable to do this than others. an analogy would be a liberal who lives among conservatives and a conservative who lives among liberals. the majority of atheists are not particularly reflective about their beliefs, but i would wager to bet than in the USofA a far higher % of atheists are than theists simply because our ‘beliefs’ need to be justified to an incredulous majority.

  33. #33 David Boxenhorn
    March 6, 2006

    there is no shame is conceding that trapping lighting is a futile act

    I agree with that. The point is, at least in my kind of theism, you don’t have to define the undefinable, or even waste any time in a futile attempt. All you have to define (roughly) is what God (or the Wheel of Life, if you prefer) “wants” from us.

  34. #34 Corkscrew
    March 6, 2006

    well, hm, my understanding of original marxism, for example, is that the idea was that religion would whither like gov. over time because the opiate was unneeded. am i wrong here?

    The reason (IMO) that it was supposed to be unneeded was because they were attempting to instil another, “superior”, dogma. Of course, they later discovered that religion doesn’t give up that easily – it’s had thousands of years of selective pressure to become very appealing. So, once the leaders started going power-crazy, religion was first up against the wall when the revolution came.

    this addresses one form of religion, the “higher religions” we associate with institutions and clerical elites. it doesn’t speak to the ubiquity of “low religon,” and the reality that once “high religion” is stripped away “low religion” tends to persist.

    Good point, this is gonna need more thought.

    you have some of the components of the vector right on. but, consider that

    a) most people probably aren’t going around asking “complicated questions” in the first place. the travesty or communism and nazism are cases in point, people don’t ask questions if they don’t need to

    I disagree with the premise. Communism and Naziism are classic examples of the same phenomenon. Without a cause to rally round, people might have wondered “why the heck is this sociopath killing off all the Jews? I’m friends with some of them, dammit”. The underlying dogma was essential to keep everyone in line during this period.

    Most of my comments above apply to dogma in general rather than religion in particular. However, when you think about it, religion is pretty much the ideal form of dogma as far as rulers are concerned. It has all the benefits thereof but, unlike Naziism or Communism, doesn’t dictate what decisions the rulers should make in the day-to-day business of government.

    I find atheists oddly un-self-aware, or perhaps psychologically unintegrated. They don’t believe in God (they say), but they believe in all kinds of other things, e.g. democracy, tolerance, science (I’m not referring to truth-value here, but to its ultimate importance), etc. In what way are these beliefs different from God, from a cognitive point of view? Atheists proclaim that life is ultimately meaningless, yet if you observe them they certainly seem to be believers!

    Speaking for myself, I’m confident my beliefs are pretty much as integrated as humanly possible. I would agree that atheism implies that there is no intrinsic meaning to life, but that doesn’t stop us creating our own meaning. When coming up with mine, I noted that certain things make me feel good and certain other things make me feel bad, and that I appear to prefer feeling good to feeling bad, so I decided to attempt to maximise the good and minimise the bad. I’m fairly sure that this is the calculation inherent to most people’s lives – they just find the naked truth somewhat uncomfortable and God makes a useful set of clothes for it.

    Of course, invoking God as provider of meaning is fundamentally no more satisfying than invoking God as designer of the universe. The question remains: what gives meaning to God? The human urge to keep uncomfortable thoughts at arm’s length is strong. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a far stronger example of cognitive dissonance than the average atheist could muster.

    Given this “ought”, of course, the rest naturally follows. Kantian ethics make a good default approach to life in situations where you’re likely to reap as you sow. In more complicated situations, the equations of profit and loss have other solutions. None of this requires the presence of a God.

  35. #35 razib
    March 6, 2006

    However, when you think about it, religion is pretty much the ideal form of dogma as far as rulers are concerned.

    i agree that religion has utility, but i don’t think it is ideal, because religion has generally also been a source of succor for rebels. that is, religion gives rebellion and imprimateur of divine legitimacy. in other words, religion is like fire, very useful under control, but quick to burn once it is unleashed into the open.

  36. #36 John Emerson
    March 6, 2006

    Religion correlates with political organization, but all this means is that the religious organization of a given society will be compatible with its political organization. Religion isn’t really a variable in the sense that you can compare societies with and without it. Scandinavia before Christianization had as much religion as afterwards, including many Christians. There was a change both in political form (the kings increased their authority) and religious form (Christianity became dominant.)

  37. #37 AZ
    March 6, 2006

    Anybody done any research on ‘unbelievers” sorted by ethnicity, geographic gradient, and/or IQ?

    John Emerson’s comment about the political correlation is particularly apt in today’s world, especially vis-a-vis the three Abrahamic faiths. Fundie Jews, Christians and Muslims vs. those secular elements in their societies seem to be spawning increased polarization. Why now? Why not 30-40 years ago?

    I don’t think something like the following link would have been published in the 1950s…

    http://www.truthdig.com/dig/item/200512_an_atheist_manifesto/

  38. #38 razib
    March 6, 2006

    az,

    yeah, you can find atheism % in the world almanac. a lot of the data is really fuzzy, but basically northeast asia and northern europe are the two least godly areas. here is a sampling.

    Fundie Jews, Christians and Muslims vs. those secular elements in their societies seem to be spawning increased polarization. Why now? Why not 30-40 years ago?

    well, this is americo-centric. fundamentalism is marginal in europe and the rest of the anglosphere.

    I don’t think something like the following link would have been published in the 1950s…

    before sam harris there was diderot and freud. it isn’t that new, though the spread into the general population is probably more advanced. note that in 1910 we had a president who was a unitarian, rejected the trinity. could that happen now?

  39. #39 John Emerson
    March 6, 2006

    During th XIXc there were militant atheists going around the US making their livings lecturing on atheism. There always has been an aggressive secular streak in American life.

  40. #40 razib
    March 6, 2006

    robert ingersoll in the house baby!

  41. #41 Dan Dare
    March 7, 2006

    David Boxenhorn: “How can you avoid nihilism without a cognitively God-like belief, i.e., one that gives meaning to existence?”

    I don’t know David. For me maybe evolution solves this problem. Once you understand yourself as a natural phenomenon, you are a purpose in your own right. What is the purpose of a thunderstorm or a trillion galaxies. Things in nature exist because they exist. Their existence is authentic. It doesn’t need a higher purpose to authenticate it.

    I am as much a part of nature as the Andromeda galaxy. Why shouldn’t I regard myself as being just as real as God? I have every bit as much right to define my own purpose for myself as he does.

    This seems to me a classic pseudoproblem. First you define man as an inferior created being and then you spend the rest of time wondering how he can have a purpose without God. The problem is the way you have defined him as a secondary existent. Redefine man as primary and the problem goes away.

  42. #42 David Boxenhorn
    March 7, 2006

    Redefine man as primary and the problem goes away.

    Are you saying that the things you hold dear have no more intrinsic merit than those of an Islamist? After all, he is the center of his universe, just as you are the center of yours.

  43. #43 j mct
    March 7, 2006

    Dan, I think your missing the point where high falutin religious thought comes from. I’ve never seen a golf ball roll down hill. I’ve also never had three marbles in one hand, and two marbles in the other hand, put them on the table, and seen anything other than five marbles. There is a difference between the two though. In the case of the golf ball, I can easily imagine it rolling uphill, but in the case of the marbles, I cannot imagine 2+3 not being 5. 2+3 not bing 5 is an unthinkable thought. Why is this so? There are two possible answers. Maybe my inability to think that 2+3 is not 5 is a biological limitation of mine, like not being able to breathe underwater. Or maybe 2+3 has to be 5. Also, it won’t do to say that 2+3 having to be 5 is unthinkable because it is like a basic law of physics, like e=mc^2 might be, so is golf ball rolling downhill. If 2+3 really is always 5, then it is ‘prior’ to any law of physics, or existing galaxy, or existing human body.

    If so, a competent reasoner will go with this until he has gotten to the ‘necessary being’ the thing that Thomas Aquinas says’ ‘and this we call God’. Note that the necessary being need not be YHWH or the triune God or Allah, it would be ‘the God of the philosophers’, as it is said, or the god of ‘natural religion’ using ‘natural religion’ in the traditional way, not this new coinage. I don’t know about all monotheistic sects, but I do know that Roman Catholicism says the God it believes in is sort of the God of the philosophers’ plus some extra.

    If one goes with explanation number 2, the fact about human biology explanation, then logically impossible is not actually possible, thus all deductive derived theories cease to have any power, like certain theories about natural history for one.

  44. #44 Dan Dare
    March 7, 2006

    David, I’m not sure if I get the connection with Islamism. Doesn’t Islam define man as nothing? – his only purpose being to surrender to the absolute will of Allah.

    But evolution certainly impinges on merit and all other innate values. Innate values being values that evolution has pre-programmed into the brain. Things are perceived as having innate merit if they aid the survival of the genes. Reproduction, survival, eating, drinking, social harmony, personal and family and tribal safety, warmth in the cold, coolness in the heat, etc.

    Of course, culture and even personal experience modify these innate values with learned modifications – up to a point.

  45. #45 Dan Dare
    March 7, 2006

    j mct,

    “If so, a competent reasoner will go with this until he has gotten to the ‘necessary being”

    I’m not sure I am a “competent reasoner” then. I’m not so sure I can get to any necessary entity deeper/higher than the cosmos. But I could consider the possibility that the cosmos is rational. That’s a kind of pantheism I suppose. My problem is I’m not sure I really trust philosophy too much further than experiment/observation can verify.

    To me there is nothing in my brain that is not a product of evolution or personal/cultural experience.

  46. #46 j mct
    March 7, 2006

    If one assumes that the human inability to think that 2+3 is not 5 is not a feature of human biology but necessarily so, you’re already ‘deeper/higher than the cosmos’ as you put it. Also, in saying that the ‘cosmos is rational’ you’re not saying something about the cosmos, what you’re saying is that the human understanding is really good at the thing that it does, understand, infinitely so.

    As far ‘My problem is I’m not sure I really trust philosophy too much further than experiment/observation can verify.’ tell me what an experiment/observation that would verify that ‘humans and chimps share a common ancestor from about 5 million years ago’ would look like?

  47. #47 Dan Dare
    March 7, 2006

    j mct,
    Yes mathematics/logic does seem to have a higher “reality” than physics. But the application of mathematics to reality is suspect unless it is verified at every step.
    Hence the need for empirical verification. For instance one can defined laws of arithmetic where a + b does not equal b + a. Non-commutative algebras.

    You’re right to pull me up over ‘the cosmos is rational’. I am really vague about this. I don’t think it’s a very useful line of thought.

    “tell me what an experiment/observation that would verify that ‘humans and chimps share a common ancestor from about 5 million years ago’ would look like?”

    All knowledge without exception is about the past, inferred probablistically from evidence found in the present. Ultimately, it’s a consequence of the law of causality and the finite speed of light.

  48. #48 Stephen Ferrell
    March 9, 2006

    razib,
    I come late to your conversation but want to place an arrow aimed toward the only “people” I am aware of that had no god(s), no name(s) nor concepts for god(s), no spirits, no ghosty stuff of any sort, as far as I can tell. Sadly, they are extinct. They are the yahgan, the onetime people of the most forbidding place on earth, the islands of Tierra del Fuego. Might we not learn something about our religions from their lack?

  49. #49 razib
    March 9, 2006

    stephen, i will double check that sorurce.

  50. #50 Stephen Ferrell
    March 9, 2006

    razib,
    The best source is probably Lucas Bridges: “Uttermost Part of the Earth”…then Darwin: “Voyage of the Beagle”… easy to come by Dallas Murphy: “Rounding the Horn” and Peter Nichols: Evolution’s Captain”.