Gene Expression

Are people naturally religious? Yes….

The Guardian has a short piece titled Humans ‘hardwired for religion’. The researcher quoted makes the point that humans seem to exhibit strong, powerful and sometimes
irrational intuitions and sentiments. And intuitive belief in gods is like part of this set of psychological phenomena. As I’ve noted before even those who disavow any supernatural beliefs often feel “creepy” when walking through cemeteries. Materialists may hold with their minds that our bodies are but elements and compounds driven to a state of dynamic flux by a series of intricate biochemical pathways, but often their (our) hearts can not but feel when we see the dead of our own species.

But this is a long way from the problems which institutional and systematic religion have caused in the modern world due to the passions it inflames. I may hold irrational beliefs and sentiments, but I am never moved to “witness” these beliefs to other human beings, use these beliefs as justification for my political platform or personal decision, or, threaten death to those who do not espouse the same irrational beliefs as I do. Fundamentally I take no offense when people state my beliefs are silly because I do not imbue them with ontological significance, I do not use them to cement group ties and fix a sense of belonging, I do not use them to make sense of events in my personal life.

It is important to acknowledge the psychological and biological roots of religious belief, but, it is important to remember that these parameters are necessary, but not sufficient, for the baroque complexities of religion in the modern world. I do agree with those who suggest that the jeremiads of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris will fail on the fundamental level of banishing supernaturalism from the mindspace of our species, but, I also hold that such counter-religious crusades emerge out of the nature of particular forms of “higher” religiosity which have escaped the bounds of simple psychological superstition. The idea of gods maybe immortal, but particular gods are not immune from oblivion, and that is I suspect the true practical utility of men like Harris and Dawkins.

Comments

  1. #1 Jordan
    September 10, 2006

    I’ve waited for a while, hoping that some illuminating comments would be forthcoming, which would expound on these concepts a little bit. I don’t really understand the last paragraph, but I’m interested, because I think these might be important ideas to understand.

    I fall into the Dawkins/Harris camp, but only because it seems as clear to me as any simple, logical distinction. If I read this correctly, you are arguing that those who are vehementley opposed to religious beliefs act as they do for the same reason that compels the (true) intellectuals in a belief system to extend the religion beyond the supernatural to the worldly. Or the practical. In other words, atheistic or theistic intellectuals have the same goals, but arrive at them with diametrically opposed methods.

    If I read that right, it is probably true. I think this could be rewritten as an axiom: thinking people everywhere ultimately want the same things, to wit, peace, happiness, good food, sex, etc. Dawkins or Harris might even agree with some version of this statement.

    But I think they might subsequently take issue with the idea that religious ideas do no harm. In other words, the two ways of arriving at the same result are not, in fact, equivalent. The supernatural route carries with it a penalty in the form of (for example) subjugation or psychosis.

    I also think that describing their practical utility as such is ironic in the sense that I think they write because they need to, not because they have some purpose in mind. I truly do not understand what is going on with all of these supernatural beliefs, and take every opportunity to talk to others about it.

    A very interesting post.

  2. #2 cvj
    September 10, 2006

    Hi,

    I thought the Guardian article was dreadfully content-free, and missed a good opportunity to give a good discussion about an interesting topic.

    Blogged my thoughts here.

    -cvj

  3. #3 razib
    September 10, 2006

    In other words, atheistic or theistic intellectuals have the same goals, but arrive at them with diametrically opposed methods.

    hm. i think that actually they often use the same methods. thomism for example is highly rationalistic, and attempts by intelligent design advocates often tend to use highly intellectualized arguments in the service of emotionally essential propositions. this is not the human norm, intellectuals are a small minority and most humans do not come to god via aquinas’ “ways.”

    But I think they might subsequently take issue with the idea that religious ideas do no harm. In other words, the two ways of arriving at the same result are not, in fact, equivalent. The supernatural route carries with it a penalty in the form of (for example) subjugation or psychosis.

    if you read harris’ book his animus is particularly reserved for th abrahamic religions, he is far less hostile toward eastern mysticism, so it is not even supernaturalism per se which he finds objectionable per se, but the pass that monotheists demand that their factual assertions receive from any skeptical inclination. the sentence is problematic because supernaturalism does not necessarily entail any such thing. most religious people are mentally healthy unless you redefine religiosity as a mental illness. religion can be, and has been, used toward worldly ends, for good or not, but this is not the essential core of religiosity on a psychological level.

    I truly do not understand what is going on with all of these supernatural beliefs, and take every
    opportunity to talk to others about it.

    i believe some of us, myself included, simply lack the intersection of mental propensities which make supernaturalism attractive, even inevitably magnetic in their draw. but because we do not uderstand it in our guts does not mean we can not achieve a analytic form of understanding. simply dismissing it as supernaturalism does disservice to the complexity and structure of the psychological phenomena.

    to be clear: i believe that anti-religious jeremiads can overthrow religions, specifically, but, they can not banish religion. even “atheist” states like north korea seem to rever to a form of god-king mentality, e.g., legends of flowers blooming in winter with the birth of kim jong-il.

  4. #4 razib
    September 10, 2006

    I thought the Guardian article was dreadfully content-free, and missed a good opportunity to give a good discussion about an interesting topic.

    yes. not much in the article. read breaking the spell, in gods we trust or explaining religion (dennett, atran and boyer).

  5. #5 espressa bean
    September 10, 2006

    hmm.. i wonder if the author played a little mind trick on us. he says “hardwired into our brains from birth” — i’d argue that this statement is a bit of an oxymoron. ‘hardwired’ implies innate (right?), while ‘from birth’ clearly implicates conditioned responses. like he’s trying to say pavlov hardwired his dog to salivate. i don’t think that works. maybe its a small distinction, but i think its significant. from the article, i dont think you can conclude that the tendency towards religion is a natural phenomenon.

    ps: love your contributions to SM

  6. #6 razib
    September 10, 2006

    espressa,

    it was an newspaper article, so simplified. i think the cognitive scientists who say that there are a variety of psychological biases which converge upon human beings have an intuition that supernatural entities exist. there is no known culture where it is normative for supernatural beings not to exist (i.e., even communist cultures must stamp out superstition, and after the collapse of communism it has bounced back strongly).

  7. #7 epressa
    September 10, 2006

    i agree entirely (well, with as much of it as i understand) with you comments. it just seems to me that the author’s conclusions are broader than his argument. yes, humans like to have explanations.. when we can’t find them, we make them up (shit, i ignore the obvious to make up things that are more convenient). And i, personally, do think we have a propensity towards religion/spirituality. But i don’t think the former explains the latter. Rather, I don’t *want* the former to explain the latter. Huh. Maybe I just want to keep the wool over my eyes. =)

  8. #8 razib
    September 10, 2006

    using a term like ‘hard-wired’ was ill-advised, but it sells papers :=)

  9. #9 John Emerson
    September 11, 2006

    I was raised in a rather austere Protestant church which never talked about ghosts and demons and possession and the like, and my father didn’t even believe the auster Protestant part. We were also securely middle class in a peaceful community, and I didn’t have to think at all about evil and disaster. As a result I have very little innate fearfulness, especially not of occult entitites. The exception is when I’m very tired, stressed, or upset for any reason, when I sometimes hear strange noises late at night. Even then my fearfulness directs toward things like rats and burglars first.

    However, working in the hospital I did get an eerie feeling seeing dead bodies zipped in their bags sitting on the loading dock. The metaphysical transformation from “passenger” to “freight” is hard to feel easy about, but in the end it happens to all of us. So much for innate religious feeling.

    Now let me just throw out my explanation of religion: religion and superstition are needed by people to the extent that there are no really favorable rational options for them, especiall. Nietzsche and Marx both said something like this.

    Let me suggest a second, more evolutionary case. Suppose that in a given situation, a normal, prudent, sensible person/group has a barely mediocre life with no possibility of escape. Suppose also that there is a possibility of escept, but it’s a very long shot, and it is known that 99% of those who attempt it will die terribly.

    The people who actually do escape will be relatively crazy and irrational. Not so much as to be disfunctional, because escape needs a level of competence, but they have to have a bug which makes them willing to take a very bad gamble.

    Now imagine a group belief and structure which makes a number of people willing to take very bad gambles. That would be a religion, but just barely possibly a forward-looking, productive one.

    In this scheme, crazy beliefs and religions are like mutations: almost always bad. (Of course, religions ALSO make people willing to resign themselves to bad situations. The point is, as I said, that these are people with an objectively very bad choice; religion will guide them to whichever extreme it is that they choose (since they have no real middle), and frequently religions “flip” from resignation to revolution, or from revolution to resignation.

    One neat example of this is the expeditions by which the Polynesians populated the Pacific Island. The people on these expeditions never had any reasonable way of being sure that there was land on the other end at all. They probably had hints and signs in some cases, but to get from Hawaii to New Zealand you had to be just gambling. I think that we can assume that most expeditions died miserably.

    If you look at great religious leaders (founders of the Mormons and Druze, for relatively safe examples) it’s hard to think that they were completely rational, and yet they were functional and shrewd. This is also true of many great conquerors and political leaders (with their belief in destiny), famously so for writers and artists, and also for many scientists. (Especially formal thinkers. Goedel, Zermelo, Emil Post, Alan Turing, John Nash, Gerald Kramer, von Neumann, and Alain Lewis all suffered from clinical depression or worse at some point in their lives; two commited suicide and three others were isnttitutionalized.)

    That’s a pretty big bite there, but I think that it explains a lot of the functionality of religion, and also the persistence of insanity — long-shot rationality, I suppose you could call it.

  10. #10 NuSapiens
    September 11, 2006

    Sometimes I think many aspects of Christian religion or what Hindus call bhakti/devotion (sp?) is a mammalian reflex. Basically, a sense of looking for warm bodies and a sense of a womb-like environment (ubiquitous “In the beginning all was darkness and void” ideas). Also a sense of light-seeking, very deeply ingrained in most life forms. Very deeply nested part of our biological program that are somewhat integrated with more recent innovations like primate social hierarchy, etc. Also ubiquitous is the idea of unity of mankind (or at least “the faithful/chosen”), expressing some kind of group survival instinct.

    I’m not convinced there’s really a cognitive difference between a materialist concept of the universe (Hawkinsian cosmology) and a spiritual concept (Genesis I). What’s interesting is that the content is pretty similar.

    From that standpoint, scientific hypotheses are the new version of “spirits.” Things you can’t see but believe to be causal agents in observed phenomena.

  11. #11 John Emerson
    September 11, 2006

    Boy, I should have proofread.

    To develop it a little more: I’m sure that you could develop a graph showing how, as the playing-it-safe situation gets worse, the long-shot gamble looks better.

    And perhaps another graph showing how gambling becomes, in effect, increasingly rational as the odds of success and size of payoff both get gteater.

    However, considering that the kind of gambling decisions I’m talking about are done in conditions of real uncertainty (not just calculated risk), the “rationality”, either for a mutant gene, a gambling individual, or a gambling religion wouldn’t be a rationality of real choice. It would just be an outsider’s way of assessing the situation.

    In short, the craziness of religion is one form of the craziness (chanciness, brutality, creativity, blindness) of evolution. Or history.

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