Gene Expression

I talk about religion a lot on this weblog….but to some extent, I think I talk past many of the readers here. Many of my ideas over the past few years in regards to religion have been shaped by the naturalistic program in evolutionary cultural anthropology. The key workers in this area are Dan Sperber, Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer and Lawrence Hirschfeld. In any case, I know I sound gibberishy sometimes. When I first read Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust, I laughed it was so incomprehensible. Nevertheless, after a period of reflection I realized that common sense introspection on questions of human psychology can only go so far. On a personal level the reason is simple: I’m not a common person. I don’t mean this in the “I am very, very special and you are not” sort of way, but, unlike the majority of the human race I simply never have really believed in a personal God. Additionally, I realized explicitly I was an atheist when I was 7 years old. From what I can tell, this is somewhat strange. There are other peculiarties about my personality which make it somewhat problematic for me to extrapolate from my own mind to the human race in general (I am pretty sure I have an attenuated Theory of Mind for example).

In any case, without further ado, I point readers to a 62 page PDF, Religion’s evolutionary landscape. This encapsulates many of the ideas and opinions I myself now have in regards to ‘religion.’ Of course, many times when people talk about religion they mean Christianity or Islam. And certainly that is religion, but it is a layer on top of basal religiosity and supernaturalism. This higher level can be addressed by different disciplines and scholars…more on that later….

Comments

  1. #1 Boknekht
    May 21, 2006

    “but it is a layer on top of a basal religiosity and supernaturalism”

    If i am understanding correctly, does this basal religiousity/supernaturalism have to do with the human cognitive architecture wiring superstition & a *wanting to believe* into us?

    I believe that we humans have a desire to believe in some sort of *greater than ourselves* type thing. We want salvation(well some of us do), imo.

    I also believe that we’re naturally superstitious beings, the naturally meaning that we’re *wired* to be. I further believe that our superstitious nature is what gives rise to religious type thought, but that’s not all of it. We also *want* or *need* to believe in *something*, at least many of us do.
    Wanna dig deeper & figure out *why* we’re *superstitious* beings who *want to believe* in *something*? That’s tougher to think about. It’s in our genes, a human psychological trait, i’m guessing.

  2. #2 razib
    May 21, 2006

    If i am understanding correctly, does this basal religiousity/supernaturalism have to do with the human cognitive architecture wiring superstition & a *wanting to believe* into us?

    yes. and it isn’t wanting to believe, as just plain believing. some people assert that the decline of organized religion will lead to more rationality. 1) the chinese are not very religious (you can look up the numbers, even for taiwan affiliation with an organized religion is only around 50%), but they believe in all sorts of kooky things like geomancy. 2) parts of europe where organized religion is weak will still exhibit high levels of supernatural belief, or unnatural belief (e.g., astrology).

  3. #3 John Wilkins
    May 21, 2006

    Believing in weird shit is a way of presenting tribal markers – it means that those outside think it is just, well, weird shit, while those within the group think it is plainly true. So it acts like a social cohesive force.

    For this reason, unrealism will always surface in social groups except where challenged by education. That said, people ought to be allowed to believe anything they like – freedom of thought and belief and all that – so long as it does no harm, either to others, to the public polity, or to the environment in which that polity must exist.

  4. #4 razib
    May 21, 2006

    Believing in weird shit is a way of presenting tribal markers – it means that those outside think it is just, well, weird shit, while those within the group think it is plainly true. So it acts like a social cohesive force.

    sure. but one thing: a lot of the weird shit people believe in, they don’t really understand. e.g., monotheists regularly aver belief in a god they can’t really conceive of, and when psychologists have them tell stories about gods in an impromptu situation where they can’t regurgitate stuff they’ve been drilled in the god(s) they describe is much more like a godling of the days of old than the omni-god of their theologians. in other words, people kill each other over variations in theological minutiae when the reality is that mental concepts of god are very close to each other, and don’t resemble their religious formulae in the least! paint on your nose seems a lot more straightforward though :)

  5. #5 Boknekht
    May 22, 2006

    Razib, thnx for that data. I guess humans will remain “kooky” even if they say they’re secular or non-religious. It’s just part of us. I’ve always rather assumed that this kookiness or supernaturalism is something only characteristic of backward peoples, but it seems it ain’t so…. bad spirits, “astrology” lol:) It’s all coming from the same place i guess. I think a world without religion might be a world of secular but *orthodox kooks* lol.:)

  6. #6 razib
    May 22, 2006

    I’ve always rather assumed that this kookiness or supernaturalism is something only characteristic of backward peoples, but it seems it ain’t so…. bad spirits, “astrology” lol

    well, a lot of ‘herbal’ cures that people making more that $100,000 dollars a year in the USA buy aren’t much more effective than what the shaman would dole out (and yeah, the shaman might dole out something that would do something). of course, i should note that different superstitions have different outcomes for atheists. atheists living in a hindu nation are less likely to be killed than atheists living in a muslim nation (at least they are open about their unbelief).

  7. #7 Mesk
    May 22, 2006

    (I am pretty sure I have an attenuated Theory of Mind for example)

    Intriguing… razib, would it be too much of an intrusion to ask you to expand on this?

  8. #8 razib
    May 22, 2006

    Intriguing… razib, would it be too much of an intrusion to ask you to expand on this?

    LOL. that’s a little personal, isn’t it? the short of it is that i don’t usually care or think too much about other people, i force myself upon them and attempt to bend them to my will. i only make a minimal attempt at intentionality (cog sci/psych def., not philosophical) in regards to other human beings. over the past few years i realize that other people are much more consciously sensitive and aware of their social environments than i am. i am not an autist in that i can’t get alone with people, but most of my manipulation on the reflective level is exceedingly simple and childlike, though i do seem to have excellent reflexive/intuitive social skills which i can’t elucidate or examine reflectively, which seems to have masked my primitive theory of mind. empathy comes really hard to me, i just don’t bother putting myself in the shoes of others and never have.

    to illustrate what i’m saying, i read some jane austen novels recently, and the people behave as aliens. and it isn’t because they live in 1800. to use simon baron-cohen’s formulation i’m a hyper-systemetizer, a jolly and likeable sociopath :)

  9. #9 IndianCowboy
    May 22, 2006

    my dog’s had very good results thus far *knock on wood* with tumor necrosis factor and NK cell-stimulating herbals *shrug*. I make negative 25 thousand dollars a year though so I guess that herbal comment doesn’t apply to me.

    Although your point is taken about gullibility.

    And anyone who thinks atheists are rational clearly hasn’t spent much time with the worst (and the middle) of the breed. I’d comment more but it’s 3:30AM. screw that.

  10. #10 Mesk
    May 22, 2006

    Thanks for that – I appreciate your frankness. The reason I asked (apart from simple impolite curiosity) is because I have suspected a similar thing about myself for more than a little while, although I’ve never phrased the thought in those exact terms. Most people seem to intuitively get the way other people work, but not me; it’s always been a difficult, higher-order cognitive process for me. It’s good to meet a fellow sociopath, if that’s what I am. :)

    Anyway, enough group therapy. I enjoyed the article you linked to (or at least the one-third of it that I’ve had time to read so far), although I must admit that I don’t have the background to understand many of its nuances. The unfortunate thing about these deeply counter-intuitive concepts is that they will only ever really be relevant to the elite – those with the inclination and time to read them, and the education and intelligence to comprehend them – and cannot readily be condensed down to a version palatable to the masses. As such the majority of humanity will forever remain happily ignorant of the deeper cognitive bases for their own beliefs.

    On the other hand, I can think of a whole host of reasons why this is probably for the best…

  11. #11 razib
    May 22, 2006

    atran has tried to do some applied work in relation to suicide bombers & their psychology. that is worthwhile.

  12. #12 David Boxenhorn
    May 22, 2006

    though i do seem to have excellent reflexive/intuitive social skills which i can’t elucidate or examine reflectively, which seems to have masked my primitive theory of mind

    I think I’m exactly the opposite, i.e. good theory of mind, poor reflexive/intuitive social skills.

  13. #13 Matthew
    May 22, 2006

    Personally I find the whole “supernatural” concept worse than useless. There is reality, it is what it is, and labels like “natural” vs. “supernatural” tend to be used as demarcation lines to avoid critical investigation into certain phenomena through closeminded disparagement and ridicule.

  14. #14 windy
    May 22, 2006

    unlike the majority of the human race I simply never have really believed in a personal God. Additionally, I realized explicitly I was an atheist when I was 7 years old. From what I can tell, this is somewhat strange.

    I think I’ve never done, either, but I have never reflected on if it was unusual or not. I did think about that kind of stuff, briefly, don’t remember at what age, but I must have been quite young as well. At one point I realized I was going to die (in the distant future), and got afraid, but I never connected it to any religious stuff, and I got over it fast :)

    I did sort of pray once, by way of experiment, since I had heard somewhere that it could make things happen the way you wanted. So I asked for a dog :) And did I get one? NO! So the whole thing seemed pretty useless…

  15. #15 dcbob
    May 22, 2006

    The pdf you cite is pretty interesting, but it seems to me that there are several religious institutions to which its paradigm isn’t really very applicable, namely those – such as Zen – that are grounded in a fairly sophisticated thoery of mind, developed through a generations-long process of empirical study, and that aim to restructure peceptual experience through techniques of meditation. As a general rule such religions are not based on belief in a supernatural being or a personal god, but on the power of practice and insight to relieve human suffering. There may be an evolutionary aspect of such practices, but the pdf doesn’t seem to address them.

  16. #16 razib
    May 22, 2006

    At one point I realized I was going to die (in the distant future), and got afraid, but I never connected it to any religious stuff, and I got over it fast :)

    I did sort of pray once, by way of experiment, since I had heard somewhere that it could make things happen the way you wanted. So I asked for a dog :) And did I get one? NO! So the whole thing seemed pretty useless…

    i had similar expderiences, though my fear of death was pretty extreme between the ages of 5-6. don’t know why. i would think about it every night.

  17. #17 razib
    May 22, 2006

    The pdf you cite is pretty interesting, but it seems to me that there are several religious institutions to which its paradigm isn’t really very applicable, namely those – such as Zen

    yes. these groups tend to be

    1) very elite and initiate oriented

    2) often will claim they aren’t religions but philosophies or ways of life or what not

    the thesis is probabilistic, not an air tight description of all of religious reality.

  18. #18 matoko_tranhumanist
    May 22, 2006

    i think i will read the pdf before i comment. ;)

  19. #19 razib
    May 22, 2006

    it is just a condensation of in gods we trust.

  20. #20 matoko_tranhumanist
    May 22, 2006

    oh…one thing first.
    razib, you say you have not believed since an early age…have you ever wanted to believe? ;-)

  21. #21 Ron
    May 23, 2006

    The unfortunate effect of wingnut fundamentalism has been to frame the discussion as an alternative between believing in the big daddy in the sky or being an atheist. This reduces the rich range of religious experience to a single dimension. In fact, most people in the world are religious, but do not “believe in a personal god”. The Abrahamic ‘religions of the book’ have large followings today, but as religions go, they are pretty bizarre. Many other forms, in particular, forms of shamanism, the oldest religions, are much more typical of human religion and much more interesting for antropology.

  22. #22 razib
    May 23, 2006

    he Abrahamic ‘religions of the book’ have large followings today, but as religions go, they are pretty bizarre. Many other forms, in particular, forms of shamanism, the oldest religions, are much more typical of human religion and much more interesting for antropology.

    points of importance

    1) ‘big followings’ = 1/2 of the over 6 billion alive

    2) yes, shamanism is typical of human religion, but

    3) but undernearth the abstraction of the abrahamic religions there is still shamanism. see theological incorrectness

    4) what is strange about the abrahamic religions is not that god is personal, that is conventional and the normal state. what is strange is that god is personal and omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient