Gene Expression

A few weeks ago, Andrew Brown (author of The Darwin Wars) stated:

I’m not sure that Boyer, Atran and Wilson regard their explanations as complementary. I have talked to all three of them about it. My feeling is that while all three of them understand that the explanations might be complementary, they prefer to believe that all the work is done by their preferred model. It’s not clear to me how one could decide this point in principle.

He refers to Scott Atran (In Gods We Trust), Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained) and David S. Wilson (Darwin’s Cathedral). Atran & Boyer are of very similar intellectual outlook, they’re cognitive anthropologists who synthesize psychological and evolutionary paradigms and apply them to anthropological questions. They were both part of Dan Sperber’s salon during the early 1980s in Paris, and work within a ‘naturalistic’ tradition of their discipline which attempts to decompose & reduce anthropological phenomena to make them analytically tractable. In contrast, David S. Wilson in Darwin’s Cathedral is by training an evolutionary biologist who ventures frequently into anthropological territory. All three overlap insofar as they employ methods from a range of fields to explore human social and anthropological questions, though Atran and Boyer emphasize psychology far more than Wilson. In my comments & posts on this weblog I’ve contended that these two models actually are complementary and analyze different levels of religion as a natural phenomenon.

Though Atran and Boyer have their differences (e.g., Boyer tends to place greater weight from what I can see in a conventional evolutionary psychological model of modular cognition) their outlook and thesis is roughly the same: religious belief emerges due to the structural nature of the human mind and how it processes information. The classic example is the tendency for humans to impart agency to inanimate objects (e.g., faces in clouds). This bias is something we all know about, and it likely serves an evolutionary purpose (i.e., a false positive is a lot less deadly than a false negative when it comes to identifying strange humans or animals). We can’t always constrain a mental utility to its proper domain, and in their most extreme manifestations they become pathological (e.g., schizophrenia). Nevertheless, the hypothesis is that the various cognitive functions which characterize the modal human entail a strong bias toward particular non-functional phenomena, a suite of habits, and outlooks which didn’t arise specifically to increase reproductive fitness. Consider for example our attitudes toward stories. This seems a human universal, and the reality is that no matter how original a storyteller is common themes, motifs and plot elements reoccur in all cultures. One might wonder often if stories are nothing more than the same tale with names shifted to give us a sense of novelty. My point is that though one can posit functional rationales behind the universality of stories (e.g., binding the tribe with a common mythos?) it seems to me that our attraction to particular forms of narration, those involving people in circumstances with which “we can relate,” which are memorable and arouse interest and fascination, derives from the propensities of our various cognitive competencies. We love gossip, and stories are an embellished form of gossip, and gossip is an activity which enables use to gain social information and smooth our relations with conspecifics. Similarly, though one can posit functional roles that religion plays within a community, the universal nature of most religions suggests that they are under strong cognitive constraint, so their origin might be due to the nature of human cognition, not the necessary behavioral morphs which increase fitness.

i-15c87289fdb1779e51a29d95b4c07015-substance.jpgWhen I say the “universal nature of most religions” some of you might balk. After all, Islam and Hinduism are very different, no? Though ultimately I think Atran and Boyer have a hard time explaining religious variation because their evolutionary psychological model is predicated on modal cognitive architectures, they do have an answer proximately. In Theological Incorrectness D. Jason Slone makes the argument that Atran and Boyer allude to in their books: that on a fundamental cognitive level religious belief is basically the same, the god of the Hindus and Muslims is the same mental conception. So why the difference in formulation? Elite expositions of religious belief often have little relationship to the day to day mental conceptualization of the believers. Religious formula, such as the Nicene Creed, are easy to memorize, but their cognitive impact is minimal in relation to the “implicit mind” which scaffolds and frames many of our perceptions, interactions and rationalizations. The universality of devotionalist sects within the “great” religions attests to this common need to personalize the god. Religious elites amongst Christians and Muslims accept a personal God, while Hindus differ in their opinions, and Buddhists reject the idea. But the empirical reality is that most believers operationally act and worship as if a personal god of some sort exists. While monotheists tend to philosophize that their gods have very abstract and difficult to comprehend characteristics, the believers on the ground tend to focus their religious energies upon entities with whom a personal relationship is attainable, just as Hindus have their avatars who live amongst men, so Jesus is god in the flesh and Mary is the intercessor.

The god concept is not the sum totality of religion, but it seems to me to be a necessary precondition for the emergence of religion as we understand it, a supernatural set of beliefs compelling to individuals coupled with ritual practices and spanning communities and generations. Some “secular” movements clearly draw from the same cognitive wells, for example, Communism in its totalitarian phase. The miracles attendant upon the birth of Kim Jong Il (flowers blooming in winter?) are to me evidence that the North Korean dictatorship, though atheist, has some similarities to the god-kingships of the ancient past. Similarly, the cult of Stalin exhibited similar emotional valences to religious movements. During the Nazi period in Germany the SS officer corps began to shift toward a Neopagan religious sensibility where Adolf Hitler became a central savior figure. But in the end the North Korean dictatorship will likely fall, and Stalin & Hitler are dead. Non-supernatural movements which overlap with religions in some of their characteristics differ insofar as their gods do die, and so generation to generation passing of the belief is less likely as new quasi-gods arise to draw from the same emotional impulses.

i-21b2d9142b317a556d051fb43c78774e-style.jpgBut in any case, religion is more than belief in a god, even if that is necessary. Both Atran and Boyer address the importance of ritual and communal bonding. Though they put a reductionistic and cognitive slant on it, and can make a good case that the nature of mass religious events are constrained and shaped by our psychological biases, I think they basically have to admit that their understanding of the interplay between supernatural actors as mediators within a community bound by ritual has to give some nod to functionalism. David S. Wilson in his work argues strongly that the ultimate ends of religious practice and belief are functional, insofar as they exist to increase group and individual fitness. Since Wilson believes that between group competition irreducible to the level of the indivdiual plays an important role in human evolutionary history it stands to reason that he sees the existence of gods and other supernatural motifs as ancillary and almost incidental to the cohesive affect of religion. It is rather difficult for me to tease apart the factors here, for while I think both Atran and Boyer imply some level of functionalism, I don’t see that Wilson has explained why religion is as it is. In Evolution for Everyone Wilson asserts that Buddhism offers the hope that a non-theistic (i.e., non-supernatural) religion can be created which has all the positive group level effects. I have argued before that this misunderstands Buddhism, the success of the Buddha dharma is to some extent a function of its transformation into a theistic religion from a reformist philosophy (though the reformist philosophy always can and does emerge from the matrix of Buddhist ideas and religion). Scott Atran argues that Wilson’s conception of religion is “mind blind,” and I think he is right. Wilson believes in the power of natural selection to shape human societies toward an adaptive optimum, but he neglects the cognitive constraints imposed by the multi-purpose nature of our mental utilities. Religious ideas are tested not just on the adaptive landscape of reproductive fitness (e.g., religions which impose obligate celibacy, like the Shakers, obviously must exist parasitically upon the general population), but against the landscape of our minds.

“Religion” as a suite of characteristics has multiple levels:

1) There is the individual level predicated on psychological biases & needs. All religions on the level of the typical believer exhibit reoccurring supernatural motifs (e.g., personal gods of great power but constrained scope). Additionally, the non-theistic elements of a religion, such as as mass ritual, tend also satisfy psychological impusles (e.g., images and pageantry which induce sensory arousal).

2) These basic motifs are reshaped to form cultural markers in the form of giving communal names and peculiar characteristics to the god concepts. Rituals obtain their own interpretations and novel flairs. These are not functional per se, but rather serve as a way to mark ingroups vs. outgroups. Just as body art is not necessarily useful as camouflage, so propitiating the gods is not necessarily functional because the gods do exist. Rather, they serve as easy to identify group markers (just like linguistic dialect).

3) As human culture elaborated and mass societies expanded the nature of religion changed. Just as tribes became reconceptualized as universal imperiums, so tribal religious prejudices and superstitions were conflated toward universal theological truths. Just as natural philosophy arose to offer an alternative model of the universe to the supernaturalism, so religious professionals with a philosophical bent took the theistic raw material and transformed it through quasi-propositional word games. The rise of priest-kings in Sumer and god-kings in Egypt shows how early on the tribal supernaturalism was a useful natural lever which the rising urban centered polities could utilize to control their subject population. The subjects of Ur were bound to their devotion to Innana, while the residents of the Nile Valley were both worshipers and subjects of the god-king pharoh.

4) The specialization of human life in generally has resulted in the diversification & stratification of religion vertically, from the monk & priest down to the illiterate peasant. Though the structural nature of the human mind means that the peasant and the priest can comprehend the same god-image in their mind’s eye, the latter has access to literate abstractions (e.g., Greek philosophy in the case of Christianity) which can overlay the basic god-concept with a stylistic exterior. Though the peasant may not truly understand the word games which the theologian plays, like body art or a particular style of dress, he can accede to a pared down catechism or profession of faith. This is an extension of the differentiation of tribal level religions based purely on names as opposed to substance (e.g., “My god of the river is better than your god of the river!”).

5) Just as there was vertical differentiation between elite believers and the masses, there was horizontal differentiation between the “great” religions (which really recapitulates the differentiation of tribal beliefs). The worship of Allah, Shiva, etc., became associated with different rituals, priestly superstructures and variant motifs. Though the god concept is fundamentally the same (the omni-God of the Abrahamics & the pantheistic divinity of the Hindus are both out of the reach of gestalt comprehension), the names and quasi-propositional elucidation differ a great deal. There are also differences in the rule sets which define how and why the believers should behave. On a fundamental level I believe this is relevant to the elites only. I suspect that the relative advantage that monotheism has over non-monotheism is due primarily to the turnover in the elites, because the masses continue to satisfy the same psychological urges under a different name. Bouchard’s twin studies suggest moderate heritability in religious zeal, but none in specific denomination.

One practical conclusion is that even though religious sentiment of some sort is highly likely within a society, one religious outlook is not. Religions can adapt to the cultures in which they reside (e.g., Muslims in the southern Indian state of Kerala did not necessarily abandon matrilineal inheritance practices, Christianity picked up the Greco-Roman pagan bias against polygyny). When religion changes a culture when it is introduced, it is often a function of the robusticity of the two cultures in question. Christianity induced some changes in northern Europe because of the higher prestige of Roman culture as a whole, but when it spread with the Empire it tended to adapt and make peace with many aspects of the pagan Mediterranean matrix.

Related: “Must reads” are bolded….

The nature of religion and Breaking the Spell
Modes of religion
Who Dan Dennett think he be foolin’?
An evolutionary anthropology of religion
God lives, deal with it!
Belief & belief in belief
Logical consistency is irreligious
God & morality
Are people naturally religious? Yes….
The round-eyed Buddha
Nerds are nuts
Atheism, Heresy and Hesychasm
The God Delusion – Amongst the unbelievers
Innate atheism & variation across societies
“Hard-wired” for God
Buddhism, a religion or not?
Why do people believe in God?
Is religion an adaptation?
Theological incorrectness – when people behave how they shouldn’t….sort of
The gods of the cognitive scientists

Comments

  1. #1 Larry Moran
    April 23, 2007

    Though Atran and Boyer have their differences (e.g., Boyer tends to place greater weight from what I can see in a conventional evolutionary psychological model of modular cognition) their outlook and thesis is roughly the same: religious belief emerges due to the structural nature of the human mind and how it processes information.

    I haven’t been following this because I’m skeptical of all attempts to identify genetic components to human behavior. But I was struck by your description of this idea.

    Since you know something of the subject, could you possibly answer a question? Many European societies are moving closer and closer to a society where religion is insignificant. Already we have countries where almost half of the citizens are non-believers. How do people like Atran & Boyer account for this?

    If religious belief is a product of the way the human mind is constructed then how could it disappear from society? And if it’s something that’s dispensible then how can it have a genetic basis?

    Is religion like racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia? Those behaviors are assumed to have an evolutionary origin but we can overcome them if we try hard?

  2. #2 razib
    April 23, 2007

    Many European societies are moving closer and closer to a society where religion is insignificant. Already we have countries where almost half of the citizens are non-believers. How do people like Atran & Boyer account for this?

    1) europe is post-christian, but not not secular. just because organized “higher” religion is a weak force does not mean that people have rejected supernaturalism (though it might be socially important because without organization political mobilization might not occur).

    Is religion like racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia? Those behaviors are assumed to have an evolutionary origin but we can overcome them if we try hard?

    1) i don’t think religion is like racism, sexism or homophobia, and xenophobia. in fact, i don’t think the tendencies you list are even like each other, though they overlap and agree in that most moderns tend to perceive them negatively (e.g., xenophobia is pretty common, but it is also extremely general as a description. racism presupposes a level of societal complexity where knowledge and experience with those with radically different phenotypes is not unusual).

    2) variation can be explained by norms of reaction. even if a trait has a genetically controlled component, it can also have an environmentally controlled component.

    3) there are plenty of human biases we have overcome. e.g., most people in the modern world with some education now reject non-newtonian ‘folk physics.’ but, if the modern world and the university education disappeared do you think newtonian physics would remain normative? i doubt it. there are reasons though that supernaturalism is going to be harder to abolish than the perception that more massive objects accelerate faster toward the earth’s center of gravity.

  3. #3 Chris Harrison
    April 23, 2007

    I’ve read Atran’s “In Gods We Trust”, and I think you did a nice job summing up his position.
    For anyone out there looking to see what path Atran is running down, he has a few online papers, the most relevant here would probably by this one:

    http://www.bbsonline.org/Preprints/Atran-12172002/Referees/

    Larry Moran said:

    If religious belief is a product of the way the human mind is constructed then how could it disappear from society?

    I think Europe is dealing quite a bit with pseudoscience and mysticism right now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the people who answer “not religious” on the census believe in homeopathy, spirits and probably something they call a “unifying life force”.

    So, a religiously predisposed mind could easily become disgusted with religious dogma, and then search out various other superstitions.

    Even if religious belief starts declining, the sales for magic crystals would perhaps balance it out. Same basic mindset for both, I guess.

  4. #4 Matrixism
    April 23, 2007

    I think one important thing that is overlooked in this article is that there are many different types of people. The author has focused on the religious elite and the laymans interpretations of religion. I believe that there are more basic archetypes of human psyches and these archetypes can and often do change throuout the course of a persons life. Religious myth therefore most probably has several different interpretations that affect the behavior of different archetypes within the group. A good article on this type of subject is Evolutionary Neurotheology and the Varieties of Religious Experience ( http://www.cs.utk.edu/~mclennan/papers/EvolutionaryNeurotheology-long.htm )

    The idea of the double entendre is old as humanity. And in the hands of masters there can also be triple or even poly-fold entendre. I would suggest that religious scripture be analyzed from many levels. From the level of the altruistic believer to the level of the opportunistic non-believer.

    Another important aspect of religions that is not addressed here is the idea of body chemistry changing practices such as fasting and sacrament. A good source about the evolutionary and religious implications of these would be the essay The Doors of Perception ( http://www.psychedelic-library.org/doors.htm ) by Aldous Huxley.

  5. #5 razib
    April 23, 2007

    Even if religious belief starts declining, the sales for magic crystals would perhaps balance it out. Same basic mindset for both, I guess.

    from the perspective of a secularist this might be a good thing in that diffuse unorganized superstition isn’t a social force. in other words, the vectors explore nut-space, but they don’t all line up to amplify into one magnitude.

    p.s. lots of ppl in the EU believe in astrology.

  6. #6 razib
    April 23, 2007

    I think one important thing that is overlooked in this article is that there are many different types of people. The author has focused on the religious elite and the laymans interpretations of religion.

    all the types aren’t weighted equally. i focus on the laymen and religious elite cuz i think those are the most significant from a social perspective in terms of characterizing the distribution of belief and practice. obviously any group that includes the laymen by definition includes the vast majority of religionists.

    Evolutionary Neurotheology and the Varieties of Religious Experience

    i think that ‘mysticism’ as the primary motive for religion is very much a minority force, though it exists in every tradition (and might be an essential ingredient in the emergence of new religions). unlike the systematizers though the mystics don’t seem as inclined to reshape society over the long haul so i don’t give them much space. a priest of mystical bent is a harmless fellow, one of a systematizing bent has the makings of an autocrat.

  7. #7 Dave Eaton
    April 23, 2007

    Sorry for the crosstalk- but to Larry: if one broadens the idea of religion to include naive, emotion-based convictions about politics, environmentalism, or even science, is it possible that the European experience is more of a turning to a new ‘religion’ or religions than the loss of religion? No matter how scientifically correct an opinion, if it is held for essentially irrational or non-rational reasons, how does it differ from religious conviction?

    I’m a professional scientist, and the question has occurred to me off and on over the years- how different is the ‘faith’ of the layman in science from religious faith? To the extent that a non-scientist has no experience with data and experiments, they rely on a special group of people to reveal things to them. I don’t mean to encourage the facile “science= another faith” that I hear from fundamentalists, and to the contrary, as practiced by scientists, the two are polar, and I mean to draw no analogies. I am speaking about non-scientists, though, and how and why they ‘believe in’ science or marxism or whatever.

    I especially get this feeling when something like GMOs or global warming is discussed- while I think the science in these cases is clear, I am a little horrified by the tone taken by true believers.

    Are xenophobia, nationalism, sexism, etc really overcome? Or have they fallen out of the realm of what we can speak of out loud? Studies on ‘subconscious racism’ suggest that the physiological responses are still there, and while I would argue that pushing these things out of the realm of acceptability is progress, I suspect that there are genetic components of behavior, not the least of which is rampant self-deception. Identifying these is a lot harder, though, and all I mean to say by this is that I wonder how much virtue we can educate and condition into ourselves.

    In fact, I think the tendencies that some of us most hate and repudiate about religion are right there in many secular creeds, ready to stink things up.

    Consider eugenics- many secular saints supported it in the early 20th century. Or the wishes of environmental extremists for “one good virus”. Or the wholesale slaughter of people to grease the skids for some future socialist paradise. None of these argue against science, environmentalism, or socialism. But they reveal that those supposedly outside the sway of the mind poison of religion are capable of nastiness on a pretty impressive scale.

    I find a lot of “new Atheism” fascinating, but I am convinced that elimination of religion would do nothing to curb irrationality, hatred and violence. Worse, if science can be distorted to seem to justify these things, then it will be a worse force for evil than religion, because methodologically, it works. Normative prescriptions by scientists are more of a mixed bag.

  8. #8 brtkrbzhnv
    April 23, 2007

    p.s. lots of ppl in the EU believe in astrology.

    Perhaps most of them just got the word confused with astronomy? I believe the questions were something like “How scientific is psychology/economics/astrology/physics?”, which might have contributed to this. I really don’t think very many would’ve chosen “very scientific” if they’d understood the question.

  9. #9 razib
    April 23, 2007

    I especially get this feeling when something like GMOs or global warming is discussed- while I think the science

    a lot of the anti-science opinions derive from innate psychological biases, e.g., i think part of the aversion of GMO food is due to essentialism (see paul bloom). as i said, religion isn’t a tightly specified trait rooted in specific genes, it’s an emergent property of our various psychological utilities. “zeal” is often part of religion, but it is part of faith in gov., science, parents, etc. so you’re going to see broad correspondences. i would argue that one of the major “legs up” that religion has over scientism, or faith in the scientists, is that one can have a personal relationship with god(s). this triggers our emotional centers and social intelligence. the only way “secular” cults compete is through devotion to individuals involved in the enterprise of course. e.g., ayn rand, the adulation of einstein, etc. as i note above, i think there are reasons that these cults have shorter time horizon: individuals die and memories fade. it might be of course that some gods are just supernatural elevations of just these figures (jesus?).

    anyway, i agree with your bigger point.

  10. #10 Andrew Brown
    April 23, 2007

    Thanks for the reference. I think you’re entirely fair to all participants; and I agree with you that these explanations are compatible. In particular, the distinction you draw between what the sophisticated and educated believers actually take to be true about the world, and what the “peasants” take to be true is enormously important.

    This leads, I think, to the insight Sloan Wilson almost has — in many modern societies, and particularly within empires, group membership becomes voluntary. The competing groups become competing coalitions and in some — perhaps many — social circumstances it matters immensely that you should be part of the winning group, and not part of the group that loses at their expense. I think this one fact explains almost all the periods of heightened theological zeal in the world.

    And so to Europe, where we can see something that might very well look like the beginnings of a revival in religious self-understanding. I think that’s a better way to look at it than religious “belief”. There is a huge amount of superstition and magical thinking in modern Europe — vide astrology, some forms of greenery, etc — but if there is a revival of Christianity this will be largely because it is the one way of being absolutely non-Muslim.

    Argh. All this will turn into something much longer over the summer, but for the moment I am still finishing the previous book.

  11. #11 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 23, 2007

    I’m skeptical of all attempts to identify genetic components to human behavior.

    Though I don’t have Moran’s basis in evolutionary biology, I’m tentatively skeptical as well.

    For one, I don’t see the difference between other behaviors and religion. For example, slavery can emerge “due to the structural nature of the human mind and how it processes information” as well. The psychology of ranking order, out-groups specifically to the extent that “the others” aren’t human, and aggression, seems to be old mechanisms.

    Now, when I describe the “universal nature of most” slavery, you may balk. ;-) After all, sexual slavery and thralls are very different. But, it seems all countries have succeeded in making slavery unlawful and mostly gone.

    I’m not satisfied with the motivations for claiming religion as different (as given here) or necessarily persistent.

    I prefer to think of it as a moral choice, as for slavery.

    europe is post-christian, but not not secular.

    Perhaps we have a confusion of definitions here. AFAIK secular means worldly, or religiously neutral. Many forms of supernaturalism, as beliefs in souls or astrology’s ‘instant and personal action’, are non-religious.

    So I would say that Europe as a whole is post-religious, but not atheistic. And note that EU is explicitly secular, as most European nations.

  12. #12 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 23, 2007

    I do hope that this is “Good News” for you also.

    FWIW, citing a religious text and claiming a specific religion is a solution to others problems in a general discussion is rude.

  13. #13 razib
    April 23, 2007

    FWIW, citing a religious text and claiming a specific religion is a solution to others problems in a general discussion is rude.

    please don’t respond to the xtian. i’ve already deleted her idiotic conversionary attempts twice.

  14. #14 razib
    April 23, 2007

    Now, when I describe the “universal nature of most” slavery, you may balk.

    a small subset of humans have commonly been slaves, though not all societies have been slave societies. the vast majority of humans have been ‘religious.’ slavery is specified by a simple set of characteristics, just as xenophobia is. it’s a general term. religion as i’m talking about exhibits specific characteristics.

    also, as i said, religiosity has been shown to exhibit heritability. this is not to say there are “religion genes,” rather, the tendencies which make one receptive to religion are probably heritable.

  15. #15 ken
    April 23, 2007

    i think that ‘mysticism’ as the primary motive for religion is very much a minority force, though it exists in every tradition

    There’s the sort of music where 50,000 teenagers hold up lighters in adoration of the band. But there’s also the kind where you lie down on the bed alone and get entranced. Is one primary to the other? I don’t know, though it’s true that 50,000 rampaging teenagers can do a lot more damage.

    What do these academics make of, say, the Southern Baptist’s emphasis on “getting saved”? Do they just chalk it up to mass delusion? A lot of these cats will tell you about the timbre of Jesus’s voice.

    Perhaps the eggheads are simply less amenable to altered states.

  16. #16 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 23, 2007

    please don’t respond to the xtian.

    Sorry, I usually don’t respond to trolls. I probably had my narrow analytic parts of brain in gear.

    though not all societies have been slave societies. the vast majority of humans have been ‘religious.’

    Not if we are talking evidence AFAIK – I don’t think we have evidence regards slavery and religion going far back in history. Your characteristics have probably been there, but so have the characteristics for slavery. Some phenomena said to be religious (burial analogs, revisits of dead) are present in animals – is that religion?

    If you mean that religion has been more ubiquitous in societies, perhaps. But as not all free persons have been slave owners, not all persons have been religious.

    I doubt slavery and religion have the same threshold for use, when we are comparing frequencies. Slaves kills slave owners to get free, non-religious doesn’t kill priests to be exempted from church. There is usually only one slave system in a society. Et cetera.

    slavery is specified by a simple set of characteristics, just as xenophobia is. it’s a general term. religion as i’m talking about exhibits specific characteristics.

    Again, I’m not satisfied with the motivations for claiming religion as different (as given here). Can you be more, uh, “specific”. :-)

    Really, what was simple about slavery? Many forms, important for the communities, for trade, and for power, et cetera.

    the tendencies which make one receptive to religion are probably heritable.

    And that differs from the tendencies that makes one receptive to slavery or examples in Moran’s list, how?

  17. #17 razib
    April 23, 2007

    Not if we are talking evidence AFAIK – I don’t think we have evidence regards slavery and religion going far back in history.

    yes we do.

    Some phenomena said to be religious (burial analogs, revisits of dead) are present in animals – is that religion?

    I DEFINED RELIGION VERY CLEARLY ABOVE IN REGARDS TO WHAT I MEAN. please don’t play semantics with me, you can use whatever definition you want, but that doesn’t mean i want to play by your rules. get it?

    i think we’ve been through this before. we disagree on so many foundational factual points that we aren’t really going to be intelligible to each other.

  18. #18 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 23, 2007

    I DEFINED RELIGION VERY CLEARLY ABOVE IN REGARDS TO WHAT I MEAN.

    You don’t have to shout. I just didn’t see the how your vague definition of “mental conception” could be compliant with evidence for that “the vast majority of humans have been ‘religious’”. Of course, I read that as the ‘vast historical time of humans’, since I assumed we are studying it as “universal nature”. Perhaps that was a mistake.

    And it was in that light you should see my attempt to define observable characteristics of religion to establish its “universal nature”. You offer later that religion is “a supernatural set of beliefs compelling to individuals coupled with ritual practices and spanning communities and generations”, which I missed.

    If that is your definition, you are correct, I still can’t make it out to be intelligible as a foundation to establish “universal nature” in say the last 100 000 years which should cover humans as we know them.

    You yourself discuss conflations with secular and “non-supernatural movements which overlap with religions”. So here we need an account of the supernatural nature, ie written sources. And I discussed rituals, which apparently isn’t enough to distinguish religion, as I supposed.

    So I’m still stuck with Moran’s observation that there are many similar human activities, and that it isn’t necessarily an old and/or persistent phenomena.

    I’m sorry that you feel I am playing instead of trying to seriously engage these ideas. Part of the reason is probably that I don’t have the necessary background by far. Another part is perhaps that I didn’t format my naive exploration in form of humble questions which I see Moran did. Other parts I think I leave to you. ;-)

  19. #19 razib
    April 24, 2007

    What do these academics make of, say, the Southern Baptist’s emphasis on “getting saved”? Do they just chalk it up to mass delusion? A lot of these cats will tell you about the timbre of Jesus’s voice.

    revivals are ‘sensory pageantry.’

  20. #20 Matrixism
    April 24, 2007

    Razib, I think you miss my point when I say that there are many different archetypes of people. To only break things down into the religious elite and the laymen is too broad a generalization. You may think that it covers all the bases but in my opinion it is lacking essentials.

    As for your characterization of mystics it also seems overly generalized. It seems that you believe that all mystics necessarily become prime movers. I don’t think this is the case. Many mystics just follow the party line so to speak and become what anyone would call just another follower. Also within the idea of a particular book containing several levels of meta-message in the same text there are also several levels of mystic experience all of which are valid and if a religion is designed well all of produce a ttpe of functionality in the individual.

  21. #21 razib
    April 24, 2007

    To only break things down into the religious elite and the laymen is too broad a generalization. You may think that it covers all the bases but in my opinion it is lacking essentials

    no it isn’t, it focuses on the essentials. extreme mysticism is marginal, not essential.

    Also within the idea of a particular book containing several levels of meta-message in the same text there are also several levels of mystic experience all of which are valid and if a religion is designed well all of produce a ttpe of functionality in the individual.

    ?…?…?…?…?

  22. #22 razib
    April 24, 2007

    So here we need an account of the supernatural nature, ie written sources

    no, we don’t need written sources. psychologists study the gestalt/implicit god-concept without reference to textual expositions, and show that there is a universal conception which underlies all the textual nuances and variations across cultures. even atheists, who reject this conception as having reality can usually understand what they are rejecting, or, they exhibit some of the same tendencies but resist them.

    So I’m still stuck with Moran’s observation that there are many similar human activities, and that it isn’t necessarily an old and/or persistent phenomena.

    ? i have said many times that religion is banal and draws upon conventional psychological predispositions. yes, xenophobia and other things probably are heritable, just like religion. but that’s neither here nor there. religion is in my conception a quantitative trait. in other words, you can change the mean value by changing the environment. i am skeptical that we can change the environment to make atheism the median value.

  23. #23 omar
    April 24, 2007

    Great post, esp point number 3. The God-Kings did come first.

    Slightly off topic but look at Bill O’Reilly interviewing Richard Dawkins here. Weirdly easygoing, all over the place, like a hippy or something. ‘i saw apollo man, he’s down there, not lookin good’, ‘when you get it (a scientific understanding of everything in the universe) maybe I’ll listen.’ I don’t think O’Reilly actually believes in anything.

  24. #24 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 24, 2007

    I shouldn’t really continue to comment, because since evolutionary psychology isn’t yet confirmed as a predictive science (AFAIK) I have tried to understand if it has the means to become so, probably before understanding the basics.

    Not connecting critically with observations makes it important to be as skeptical as possible. But it isn’t conducive for a dialog. Just a comment from my view:

    show that there is a universal conception which underlies all the textual nuances and variations across cultures.

    Yes, I understand that it is a difference between suggesting universality now, and suggesting that it originated at some specific point in time. But I can’t see how we can track this back in time and establish some sort of universality in us as humans and possibly related ancestors and test it.

    Changing the environment would be another possibility, of course. I think some are working on it. :-)

  25. #25 razib
    April 24, 2007

    But I can’t see how we can track this back in time and establish some sort of universality in us as humans and possibly related ancestors and test it.

    inference & uniformitarianism. and of course, the standard technique is to focus on small scale cultures which have been relatively isolated as analogs for past cultures. you can criticize this method, but that doesn’t negate that the method exists.

  26. #26 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 24, 2007

    inference & uniformitarianism.

    While I’m not quite a naive Popperian, I do think testing some unique predictions has been found to be a must to establish which theories are correct. I will continue to believe that it isn’t a confirmed science yet, still on par with some others attempts that ultimately failed and I don’t dare mention here. ;-)

    I’m sure this is not what you want to hear, but you can always take comfort that I’m not a peer and understand the real deal. I’m just a random blogger that passed by. It will be interesting to see how these ideas develop, though.

    Oh, and thanks for all the time taken.

  27. #27 razib
    April 24, 2007

    you should get atran’s book. there are tests of predictions. and strictly speaking his work is more cognitive anthropology than evolutionary psychology. he does use evolutionary arguments, but they are supplemental, not essential, so the whole issue of going back into the past is irrelevant.

  28. #28 windy
    April 25, 2007

    europe is post-christian, but not not secular. just because organized “higher” religion is a weak force does not mean that people have rejected supernaturalism

    True, Europeans believe lots of funny stuff. But what may or may not be significant is that most people think that God or religion are just not that important in their lives. So the importance of supernaturalism in general seems to be low, although alternative beliefs may be gaining ground as Christianity has lost it.