Mixing Memory

God (and Gadgets) of the Lonely?

I’ve been hanging out with fellow atheists for a while now, and one of the more common discussions I’ve had when the topic of religion comes up is, why are people religious? The two most common answers I’ve heard from atheist friends and acquaintances are that religion is a fantasy designed to explain the mysterious and otherwise unexplainable, and that religion is a fantasy designed to make people feel less alone in the universe. As those of you who’ve been reading Mixing Memory for a while may have noticed, these discussions have led me to be somewhat obsessed with understanding the psychological origins of religion. While the final answer to why people are religious is a long, long way off, I can say with some confidence that the first of the two answers above is almost certainly wrong. People’s religious impulses stem from much more mundane sources than the mysteriousness of the world around us. That’s not to say that religion can’t serve to help explain the otherwise inexplicable, or that this isn’t an important purpose of religion, but it doesn’t seem to be one of the fundamental or original purposes of it. Instead, it seems that religion’s social functions are actually more foundational. This leads to the second answer above — the one that says religion is around to make us feel less lonely — seeming plausible. Most of the research on the social aspects of religion to date, however, has been on its function in communities. A paper in this month’s issue of Psychological Science, however, takes a more direct look at the role of loneliness in religion.

The paper, by Epley et al.(1), starts with the hypothesis that people may use religious thinking and other examples of perceived agency (e.g., in pets or gadgets) to reduce their feelings of loneliness. Epley et al. note that, for example, that people outside of committed relationships are more likely to have personal relationships with god, that “insecure and anxious attachments to others” are associated with stronger religious beliefs, and that the death of loved ones can increase the strength of religious beliefs. That religion serves a loneliness-reducing function seems a reasonable hypothesis, then.

In their first study testing this hypothesis, Epley et al. gave participants descriptions of four “technological gadgets,” and then asked them to rate the gadgets on five anthropomorphic dimensions (whether the gadget “had ‘a mind of its own,’ had ‘intentions,’ had ‘free will,’ had ‘consciousness,’ and ‘experienced emotions,’ p. 115) and three non-anthropomorphic dimensions (“attractive, efficient, and strong”). Then participants then completed a loneliness scale with questions like, “How often do you feel isolated from others?”

The prediction of the loneliness hypothesis is, of course, that people who score higher on the loneliness scale will give higher anthropomorphic ratings to the gadgets than lower scorers on the scale, but that the non-anthropomorphic ratings will not be influenced by high or low loneliness. And that’s what they found: the correlation between anthropomorphic ratings and loneliness was quite high (r = .53), while the correlation between loneliness and non-anthropomorphic ratings was non-significant (r = .25).

This suggests that loneliness may prime agency detection, and since our hair-triggered agency-detection mechanism is thought to underlie much of religious cognition (as I’ve discussed before), it further suggests that loneliness may also prime religious thoughts. So, Epley et al. conducted a second study in which they first gave participants a long personality questionnaire, and then gave them predictions about their lives that they were told were based on their personality scores. Some of the participants were told things like, “You’re the type who will end up alone later in life,” which should induce feelings of loneliness or desire for social connections, while other participants received statements like, “You’re the type of person who has rewarding relationships throughout your life” (p. 116), which should make them feel more socially connected. After reading the predictions, participants were asked to rate how much they believed in supernatural agents like ghosts, God, the devil, etc., as well as in supernatural events like miracles and curses.

Consistent with the loneliness hypothesis, participants who’d been given the loneliness-inducing predictions gave higher belief ratings to the various supernatural agents and events (mean of 4.35) than those who’d been given the socially connected predictions (3.71). Thus, the second study provides initial evidence that loneliness and religious belief may be connected.

Finally, in order to rule out a potential alternative explanation of the results of the first two studies, that negative feelings, and not loneliness specifically, may lead to religious thoughts, Epley et al. conducted a third study contrasting fear (an obviously negative feeling) and loneliness. This time, participants watched movie clips, one of which (from the movie Cast Away, poor bastards) was loneliness-inducing, one of which (from Silence of the Lambs) was fear-inducing, and one of which (from Major League, for some reason) was supposed to be non-fear or loneliness inducing. Then the participants indicated how much they believed in supernatural agents and events, as in the previous experiment. As in the second experiment, the loneliness-inducing condition caused the participants to give higher belief ratings for supernatural agents and events (though this may have been because they wanted god to help them turn off the god-awful movie clip). The fear condition did not lead to higher belief ratings relative to the control condition.

Obviously, these studies are not conclusive. For one, most of the participants come into the lab with religious beliefs, and while some of their participants did say they were not believers, Epley et al. don’t break down the data by pre-experimental belief, so it’s impossible to tell whether loneliness makes disbelievers more likely to think religious thoughts. It’s therefore difficult to say whether loneliness is an originating impulse for religion, or if it instead simply uses existing religious thoughts. Still, this is a nice initial set of studies on the loneliness hypothesis, and I think all of those people who’ve told me over the years that religion is born of (existential) loneliness and alienation can feel somewhat vindicated.

i-92ccb9ea55506ba52555ea3d7e4150a9-lonelygod.jpg


1Epley, N., Akalis, S., Waytz, A, & Cacioppo, J.T. (2008). Creating social connection through inferential reproduction: Loneliness and Perceived Agency in Gadgets, Gods, and Greyhounds. Psychological Science, 19(2), 114-120.

Comments

  1. #1 HP
    February 17, 2008

    Speaking as a deeply lonely person who is also an atheist, I think loneliness may explain something about the continued appeal of religion, but I don’t think it can account for the development of religion qua religion out of shamanism and animism among late neolithic sedentary pastoralists and agriculturalists, and in the earliest cities.

    Maybe I’m naive — and I certainly think ancient humans were just as capable of (and subject to) the full panoply of human emotions, “bicameral mind” nonsense nothwithstanding — but I’m having trouble imagining* some potter in ancient Jericho, with his extended family, his arranged wife and her extended family, his clan affiliation, his household cult, his prescribed caste, his city, and his temple and communal sacrifices, raising his eyes heavenward and saying, “Oh, Baal. I don’t even know why I’m doing this anymore. What’s it all about?”

    Religion is about establishing order, unity, stability, and control. It’s about organizing very large numbers of people to do the same thing at the same time. What’s the earliest evidence we have for organized religion? Monumental architecture and wars of conquest. I don’t think monumental architecture and wars of conquest are consequences of religion; I think they are the reason for religion.

    And religion still serves those purposes well. That it assuages the existential loneliness of contemporary life is incidental. There are plenty of other institutions that could accomplish the same thing — arranged marriage, castes, compulsory militarism, communal rituals. How many criminal recidivists go back to prison because it’s a place where they know what’s expected of them, and where they feel they belong?

    None of these options are any more appealing than religion. But I do love my cats dearly. They’ve saved my life more than once.

    * Okay, so not too much trouble, since I just imagined it. And now that I have, it seems more plausible than I thought it would be.

  2. #2 Dan tdaxp
    February 17, 2008

    What is the painting at the bottom of the post?

  3. #3 Wes
    February 17, 2008

    It looks like Chris has some mad Photoshop skills.

    I’ve always thought of religion as being a better-safe-than-sorry stance toward life. “Better to be good, just in case there is a punishing God.” This might only apply to Western religion though. Speaking of the West/East distinction, Buddhism is a religion and is atheistic (at least some sects are). Isn’t their a distinction between being religious and whether or not someone believes in supernatural beings? Or are all ancient religions theistic (Buddhism is sort of young compared to the others). Also, why didn’t Epley et al. break down pre-experimental beliefs?

  4. #4 Chris
    February 17, 2008

    The painting, minus the Michelangelo of course, is Caspar David Friedrich’s “Monk by the Sea.”

  5. #5 R N B
    February 17, 2008

    You are starting with a very difficult question – searching for the rationale for any religious belief. It’s easier to start by looking for the rationale for any particular religious belief.

    Even without using simplistic words such as “meme” or “virus”, the reasons for that tend to start that people are told certain items as eternal truths, there are inevitably people who are more natural followers than natural leaders, but it’s a bit more complex than that, the followers clearly gain value by maintaining those beliefs.

    So I would not discount your first answer entirely, but I think the “mysterious model” is held onto not just because it explains the inexplicable but because it provides some alleged certainty in an uncertain world.

    Note – I am neither professional scientist nor philosopher, just an interested observer.

  6. #6 Ed S.
    February 17, 2008

    Was it the part of Cast Away where the volleyball was endowed with anthropomorphic dimensions? Had the subjects seen any of the movies previous to the trials?

  7. #7 Chris
    February 17, 2008

    Ed S., the answer to both of your questions is, unfortunately, I don’t know. They don’t answer either in the paper.

    R N B, “religion,” here, I’m using really, really broadly, to mean belief in supernatural agents. Perhaps I should just say “belief in supernatural agents,” but it takes longer to type.

  8. #8 sobriquet-defect
    February 17, 2008

    Was watching Major League at all correlated with induced negative belief in god, i.e. what sort of god permits this kind of crap to be made?

    More seriously, could you elaborate on this part of your post, or the point me in the direction of the relevant literature:

    “People’s religious impulses stem from much more mundane sources than the mysteriousness of the world around us. ”

  9. #9 Chris
    February 17, 2008

    Sobriquet, in that quote, I was referring to the sort of stuff discussed in the post I linked somewhere in this post. Basically, religion looks like it’s the product of a variety of mundane cognitive mechanisms (by mundane, I just mean there’s nothing unique about them — they’re pretty normal), such as agency detection, social impulses, such as community-building and maintaining, and system justification.

  10. #10 Justin
    February 17, 2008

    This is an interesting experiment, but I want to ask a question about how it relates to hypotheses about where religion comes from. It seems that the main phenomenon is the hodgepodge of mechanisms, especially agency-detection, that get us to think there are supernatural entities out there. This experiment seems to show that the activity of some of those mechanisms is increased by loneliness. That doesn’t yet look like an explanation of religion in terms of loneliness, since nothing about human loneliness explains why human agency detection mechanisms are so sensitive as to convince us that there are supernatural agents out there.

    Maybe such an explanation would work if belief in supernatural beings was rare, but it seems that religious belief is the typical condition of human beings. So it doesn’t seem plausible to ascribe religious belief to unusual levels of loneliness.

  11. #11 Jared
    February 17, 2008

    I found your first paragraph more telling than anything. You’re an atheist asking other atheists why religious people believe in religion (or, to put it in a more scientific analysis POV you ask what are the psychological origins of religious belief). Any particular reason why the conversation couldn’t include religious people?

    The more cogent question is the one listed by RNB. Different religions have very different backgrounds and belief structure and the application of what one particular religion “provides” vs. another could vary significantly, as could the reasons for gravitating to any particular religion.

    Add on to that that different individuals could have very different reasons for believing a religion even within a specific religion. Some might join for the social aspect, some might join for the mystical (or metaphysical if you like) feedback they perceive regardless of any social feedback.

    This of course is all outside of any type of philosophical discussion over religion vs. non-religion.

    Even as a religious person myself I would be very interested to see psychological foundations/manifestations of religious belief and there has been some interesting brain-image studies done on it so far, but the underlying psychology of belief would also be extremely interesting to discover.

  12. #12 Gilbert Wesley Purdy
    February 17, 2008

    A lot of interesting stuff here that touches on my point. If the Epley experiment tells us anything substantial it is only why people become religious now. In the wake of the world wide dominance of the scientific model, the reasons can only have substantially changed from what they were before.

    The same can be said of the introduction of philosophy-proper some 2400 years ago. (We forget that science was originally “Natural Philosophy”.) Before the innovation became wide spread, the societal elites were religious for considerably different reasons than after (Cornford thesis). It is likely, at the same time, that the uneducated members of society kept pre-philosophical reasons for being religious. (This, of course, begs the question “What are the economic and educational levels of Epley’s subjects?”) Thus they were considered ignorant and superstitious (that is to say “old religious”).

    Why were people religious B.C.E.? What did they get from religion? Everything! Proto-science, law and order, social cohesion, and on and on. Tribes that could not maintain the narratives that gave them these things perished, lost the cultural evolutionary battle, thus the narratives were profoundly sacred.

    Why are people religious today? Science is beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated priesthood now. Law and order have a profound foundation in religious history but a professional class is now necessary in order to make and enforce it. Cultural evolution, again, is too complex to leave to a priestly (in the old sense anyway) class. In fact, religion presently seems clearly to be an attempt to regress to a science, law, social cohesion, etc., simple enough to be understood by those who feel disempowered by the complexity of the contemporary world.

    And then there is the once quite peripheral reason, of assuaging lonelienss, illness, the fear of death. Now that all the more central reasons have been lost to religion it is the last bastion of subjectivism. What’s left is the caring, the love. The one love you can never lose is the love of God.

  13. #13 PhysicistDave
    February 18, 2008

    I find all of these ahistorical attempts to explain religion that have been recently pursued by evolutionary psychologists, social psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists to be absolutely hilarious.

    It reminds me greatly of Kipling’s “just-so” stories.

    We know now that giraffes have long necks, and leopards have spots, because of contingent historical events.

    And that is obviously also the reason that many people still believe in religion.

    Before Darwin, and before the scientific revolution, belief in a creator god made perfectly good sense. How else could complex organism have come into existence?

    And, once you think you have good reason to believe in a Great Dude in the Sky who created all and who rules all, it makes perfect sense to integrate respect for that Great Dude fully into your personal lives, into the structure of society, etc. (and of course priests and kings early found they could be of mutual assistance to each other).

    In the light of modern science, especially the “modern synthesis” in evolutionary biology, the belief in the Great Dude is no longer so plausible. But only a small minority of Americans yet really understand the modern synthesis, and religion had its tendrils, for perfectly good reasons, deeply enmeshed in our social structure. So, of course, it takes a while for religious beliefs to be driven to extinction.

    We know that, even though Copernicus had published the truth about the earth moving around the sun in 1543, more than a half-century later intelligent, educated men refused to believe it (as Galileo found to his sorrow). How many centuries was it before the average peasant in Copernicus’s own country, Poland, took for granted the fact that Copernicus had uncovered?

    Europe has now been largely de-Christianized. The ARIS surveys found a serious decline in Christianity in the US during the ‘90s.

    But it takes time.

    Are there a whole multitude of reasons why people believe in religion and does religion serve multiple human functions? Of course. There are a whole multitude of reasons why people go to Starbucks (employment, hanging with friends, etc.) or go to the mall, etc. But still, it was coffee that started Starbucks and retailing that started the malls. That people have later found multiple functions for both Starbucks and malls does not present any deep mystery.

    The really interesting question here is why so many apparently intelligent people think there is a huge mystery as to why some people still believe in religion!

    It’s just a matter of time.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  14. #14 Enigman
    February 18, 2008

    Why do people become scientists? Because they’re lonely so they read books and think about extraordinary things, and they’re lonely because they’re too nerdy to have many friends except other nerds; is a possible answer. And maybe one day tests will show that loneliness is indeed correlated with thinking about the big picture; but so what?

  15. #15 CA
    February 18, 2008

    “If the Epley experiment tells us anything substantial it is only why people become religious now.” GWP said above. This statement is also too broad. The paper only proves that one particular stimulus arouses religous feelings, as defined by belief in supernatuaral beings. Religion as a braod concept is way to heterogenous and way to multivariate for this study to explain more than that. The suggestion, above, that looking at particular religions would be more specific. But even then, there is no cause-effect data therein, just associations that are limited in scope. It is very ambitious to to tackle such braod topics. yes, basic science has to start somewhere. But, the conclusions that can be drawn from such basic research are also elemental, not cosmic.

  16. #16 PhysicistDave
    February 19, 2008

    CA,

    It’s worse than that.

    This study is the scientific equivalent of stamp collecting – perhaps an amusing pastime if you have nothing better to do, but of no scientific value.

    You can always find trivial statistical correlations. Run correlations between the color of cars and the mileage they get. Different sorts of people no doubt tend to choose different colors of cars – men vs. women, young vs. old, etc. And those different sorts of people will tend to have slightly different driving needs, driving styles, etc. – freeway vs. surface roads, riding the brake vs. smoother driving, etc. So, you probably will be able to find some statistically significant correlations between car color (even correcting for make) and gas mileage.

    So what?

    Science, and scholarship in general, are not about mindlessly gathering data but about discovering something new, interesting, and surprising about the world that we did not already know.

    Of course, that is very difficult, which is why so many “scholars” waste their time on Mickey Mouse stuff like this (it happens in my own field of physics, too – publish or perish!).

    Belief or non-belief in religion no doubt correlates with just about everything – including, I’d bet, the color of one’s car.

    But we already have a simple, parsimonious, well-established theory that explains, both in contemporary terms and in terms of the historical pattern, why people basically believe in religion – ignorance of modern science. Religious belief was stronger before modern science than it is now. Religious belief is stronger in countries lacking in educational opportunities, such as much of the Third World, and in countries with extremely poor science education programs (notably, the USA). And, notoriously, top scientists are overwhelmingly agnostics/atheists – 93 % or so according to the best studies, the exact opposite of the general public in the USA.

    And this explanation not only fits the empirical data, it also makes perfect sense. Religion does disagree with science again and again, so of course ignorance of science correlates highly with belief in religion.

    The only real mystery here is why some hapless academics feel the need to ignore the obvious solution to the problem of religion and pretend that they need to appeal to convoluted psychological or evolutionary explanations.

    No doubt “Publish or perish!” is part of the answer to that mystery. I suspect that a lot of it may simply be cowardice. The various sciences and social sciences are now heavily financed through taxation. A lot of scientists and social scientists, I suspect, fear that if they simply come out and point out the obvious truth – i.e., science has proven that traditional religion is false – they will alienate the political system that they rely upon for funding.

    And, at a personal level, they will surely alienate dear old Aunt Sally, who may not be offended at their exploring socio-psychological correlates of religious beliefs but who would surely be offended by their simply proclaiming that religion is obviously an unfortunate delusion sustained by ignorance of science.

    There are some brave exceptions, such as the heroic Richard Dawkins. But I know of far too many scientists who are willing to bite their tongue and censor themselves with regard to what they know about religion in the hopes of not offending anyone.

    All the best,

    Dave

  17. #17 Chris
    February 19, 2008

    Physicist, if these sorts of studies remind you of Kipling’s “Just-So Stories,” I’d recommend rereading both. It might surprise you to learn, for example, that the “evolutionary” story that most cognitive scientists (in that I include cognitive anthropologists like Atram and social cognition researchers like Norenzayan) are telling a story that doesn’t involve detailed explanations of the conditions under which religion evolved, but instead, an explanation of the cultural context and function of religious belief and practice, and the cognitive mechanisms involved in those. It’s not really ahistorical, in that they draw on historical data to develop these explanations, and its not meant as a description of how religion came to be so much as how it arises in the individual mind and why it survives across diverse historical and cultural contexts. It also shows that religion is something that can be studied, at least to a great extent, using the scientific method, and without any judgment about the truth or falsity of particular supernatural beliefs (which aren’t the object of study, and can’t be).

  18. #18 Chris Schoen
    February 19, 2008

    Chris,

    I don’t think it’s helpful (or even possible) to separate the question of why people embrace religion from the question of why there is religion in the first place, or in fact what religion is.

    Because science as we know it is a relatively recent development, and because it is popularly seen to be value-neutral, it is fashionable to presume that religion, as such, was also a historical human development–a tool or strategy designed to address a specific problem or challenge, and the obvious question becomes, what is the problem that religion was the solution to?

    This is the wrong question, because it is premised on the condition that there was once a time in the distant past when a species had sentience, but no religion. Is it even possible to imagine the development of such a species? What we call religion is just the description, through time, of our own experience in the world, in proportion to our ability to articulate that experience. (Of course that’s an oversimplification and doesn’t describe the rude effect we are experiencing now when conflicting descriptions collide).

    The main problem with the loneliness hypothesis is that loneliness itself is a metaphysical state, not a physical one, and thus not strictly subject to scientific study. We should be careful not confuse loneliness with the more objective condition of “aloneness” (which itself is hard to quantify; how far away do other people have to be before one is “alone”?)

    Another way of saying this is that the view of the universe wherein all bits of matter are inert and isolate from each other is every bit as “religious” as the view that they are all emanations of a supernatural entity. The sense data is the same either way. As Wittgenstein said on the “naturalness” of the geocentric model, on the grounds that it “looks like” the sun is revolving around the earth: “What would it have looked like if it looked like the earth was revolving around the sun?”

    Our notion of modernity, especially as it applies to science, is that we’ve reached an end-point where the “true” metaphysics of the Cosmos has been revealed, and that we know once and for all which questions to ask, and which never to bother with again (not to mention the questions we haven’t thought of yet). This seems like a strangely anti-evolutionary way of looking at things.

  19. #19 Brian
    February 19, 2008

    I think it’s all simpler than this. Humans are “meaning machines.” Our brains are wired for pattern recognition and for sussing meaning out of the random patterns we encounter through all of our senses. We cannot refuse to see patterns. It happens pre-cognitively.

    In the pre-modern world, we had to assign the meaning of mysterious happenings to an agent. It seems to be wired into us to do this for survival. It makes perfect logical sense that these agents were supernatural, since they could not be sensed in a natural way. Yet their effects could be.

    Organized religion, I believe, has no simple origin. There are issues of tribal culture, power, politics, social organization, control, etc. That we all continue to feel a lack of control over the forces in our lives may explain the continued appeal but I doubt that it’s that simple either.

  20. #20 Chris Schoen
    February 19, 2008

    Brian,

    If this is true, then what makes atheism possible? Or reason, or empiricism?

    The notion that humans “pre-cognitively” create meaning and patterns out of meaningless chaos poses a serious challenge to our belief that we understand the “actual” world. In this scheme, by the time data reaches our consciousness it would already been given a form by our pattern-creating, meaning-imposing apparatus, which it does not inherently possess. We would forever dealing with phantasms.

    By the same token, if “agency-recognition” is hard-wired, by what means have some people been able to surmount it? How did we manage to unwire this apparently crucial element of human nature?

    Finally, by what distinction can we separate the scientific worldview from the worldviews that preceded it? Isn’t it just as much a statement of meaning to say that there are no supernatural agents as to say there are?

    Talking about humans as “meaning machines” is trying to have it both ways. It purports to explain why other people’s false beliefs are false, without accounting for how its proponents were able to escape the same fate.

  21. #21 PhysicistDave
    February 19, 2008

    Chris,

    You wrote to me:
    >It also shows that religion is something that can be studied, at least to a great extent, using the scientific method, and without any judgment about the truth or falsity of particular supernatural beliefs (which aren’t the object of study, and can’t be).

    That’s a big part of the reason why most of this stuff is simply silly pseudo-science.

    Suppose that a psychiatrist has a patient with serious problems who believes himself to be President of the United States.

    The first thing the shrink needs to ascertain is whether or not the patient really is President of the United States!

    If his patient actually is G. W. Bush, he may have a very difficult course of treatment, but there is no need to come up with a psychiatric explanation for the patient’s belief that he is President. On the other hand, if the patient is not G. W. Bush, then the shrink needs to try to ascertain why he thinks himself to be President.

    A similar point applies to religion: if religion is really true, or if the belief that it is true is rational, there is no need to gin up complicated evolutionary psychological explanations for the belief in religion.

    It’s just a waste of time.

    I know that once you get deeply into the details of some field, be it the evolutionary psychology of religion or Freudian analysis or phrenology or whatever, it is hard to stand outside that field and consider the possibility that the whole field is a bunch of nonsense.

    I’ve seen this with (relatively) intelligent and honest fundamentalists, Mormons, etc. Point out a bunch of contradictions in their Holy Books, in their beliefs, etc. and, generally, rather than consider the possibility that this shows that their beliefs are nonsense, they respond that these issues require checking with the church authorities or further thought or investigation or whatever.

    Above all, somehow stay within the mental framework to which you have adjusted rather than consider the possibility that the whole framework is a pile of nonsense.

    I’m old enough to have seen this happen with behaviorism, Freudianism, and a whole lot of other “isms.” Now it’s happening in the sociology/psychology/anthropology of religion.

    Eventually those whose personal or professional identity is wrapped up in the rigid mental framework die off, youngsters come along who are not committed to the old orthodoxy, and intellectual life moves on.

    The same thing will happen here. Eventually, people interested in such matters will laugh at Atran, Boyer, et al. as we all now laugh at B. F. Skinner.

    And, my central point is that this too is what is happening with religion – the process is of course more advanced in Europe than in the US: the human race is slowly moving out of the disproven beliefs of religion and into a scientific world-view. You need competent historians more than evolutionary psychologists if you really want to understand what is happening with religion.

    If you abstract from the fact that traditional religion has been shown to be false by modern science, you miss the whole story – religion was once believed to be true because it seemed to be needed to make sense of the world, and it is now slowly dying off because science has proven that it is wrong.

    To make up “just-so” pseudo-evolutionary stories about the nature of religious belief instead of looking at the obvious developments in the last five centuries of history is truly bizarre. (One anthropologist who did have the wisdom to focus on the obvious historical facts was the heroic Ernest Gellner: see, e.g., his “Legitimation of Belief,” “Postmodernism, Reason and Religion,” etc.)

    I do find this intellectual imperialism fascinating: give a two-year-old a hammer and he notices that everything needs to be pounded. It’s fascinating for me to now see ev psych folks behaving the same way, just as Freudians and behaviorists did in their day (and as, in anthropology, the evolutionists, diffusionists, functionalists, etc. did in their day).

    It’s interesting that these pseudo-scientists who pretend to be “scientifically” studying religion are themselves actually an interesting case study in the sociology of belief.

    All the best,

    Dave

  22. #22 PhysicistDave
    February 19, 2008

    Chris Schoen,

    You wrote:
    >Our notion of modernity, especially as it applies to science, is that we’ve reached an end-point where the “true” metaphysics of the Cosmos has been revealed, and that we know once and for all which questions to ask, and which never to bother with again (not to mention the questions we haven’t thought of yet).

    As Tonto said to the LR, what do you mean “we,” kemosabe?

    Seriously, as a physicist who recognizes that traditional religions have been proven to be false, I don’t think we have reached, in your words, an “end-point” where we know the “true metaphysics” of the Cosmos.

    Ask three different physicists what the true metaphysical import of quantum mechanics is, and you may get four different answers! And a lot of us physicists are quite happy to acknowledge that physics, as it now exists, is incapable of explaining the nature of consciousness (see, e.g., my own review of McGinn’s “The Mysterious Flame” for a discussion of the obvious limits of physics as we now know it – http://www.amazon.com/Mysterious-Flame-Conscious-Minds-Material/dp/0465014232/ref=cm_cr-mr-title ).

    But, of course, modern science (and also history, textual scholarship, etc.) has proven that traditional religion is false. It is more certain that the creationist fairy tales that open Genesis are false than it is that the earth moves around the sun.

    One of the problems with honest discussions of religion is that, for social and political reasons, during much of the twentieth century there was a make-believe truce in the war between science and religion, typified by Steve Gould’s shamefully dishonest “NOMA” (“non-overlapping magisteria”) argument. (Gould of course was Jewish, and given the historical treatment of Jews by Christians, it is understandable that he might have wanted to opt out of any war against Christianity! But, intellectually, his position was still shameful.)

    Science does not know everything. But it does know some things. It knows that we evolved from fish, that the earth moves around the sun, that the Big Bang occurred billions of years ago, and that Christianity is false.

    Any “scientific” study of religion that ignores these facts of science is not really scientific at all: it is just pseudo-science.

    All the best,

    Dave

  23. #23 Gilbert Wesley Purdy
    February 19, 2008

    There is simply too much going on here to be able to gather it all together into a “truth”. PhysicistDave, being a genuine positivist, can only see the objective point of view. For him, objective testing of subjective phenomena is vaguely ludicrous, if not outright laughable.

    Brian has made a couple of observations worth commenting upon:

    I think it’s all simpler than this. Humans are “meaning machines.” Our brains are wired for pattern recognition and for sussing meaning out of the random patterns we encounter through all of our senses. We cannot refuse to see patterns. It happens pre-cognitively.

    We “suss” meaning out of patterns we don’t understand, yes. As we learn more, the actual patterns come more into view. Above the quantum level, though, there would seem to be nothing in life that is random, only insufficiently understood. There again, it may only be a matter of not understanding a pattern presently beyond our grasp.

    In the pre-modern world, we had to assign the meaning of mysterious happenings to an agent. It seems to be wired into us to do this for survival. It makes perfect logical sense that these agents were supernatural, since they could not be sensed in a natural way. Yet their effects could be.

    We still assign events to agents. Presumably, when we first began doing so the only agents the existence of which we were aware were human beings and animals. So then, when an event occurred that we did not understand we had only one place from which to begin. Why no rain? Because some agent has stopped it. What agent? Because rain is way beyond our own control it must be due to a being much more powerful than we. Why has it stopped? Well, we take things from people when we are angry and want to exact revenge upon them, or to punish them, therefore a being much more powerful than we is punishing us, etc.

    Now the agents of nature, greatly abstracted, over thousands of generations, from those original anthropomorphised agents, do not seem to be punishing us. (If anything, we seem to be inadvertantly punishing ourselves.) The deductive method has led us step-by-step far beyond that point. We may even be in a crisis of meaning but this is only because it is scary to release the booster stage, as it were.

    But we continue our ascent even though meaning is threaten because we are not “meaning machines” but rather “deduction machines”. “Meaning” as we’ve known it, until modern times, is the result of the anthropomorphic agent which was our sole available starting point for explaining phenomenon. Those thousands of generations of inculcation of the best and most effective available functional model, at the time, of reality has left an indelible imprint upon our society and ourselves. Don’t be surprised — in fact, I would bet upon it — to find that religion is not dying, it is undergoing a transition of historical proportions.

    Comte’s “Law of Three Stages”, by the bye, has weathered quite well for over two hundred years, being revived again and again. So well, in fact, that it has even been borrowed, from the realm of cultural anthropology, as the basic model for human fetal development as a historical record of human physical evolution, by the likes of Carl Sagan. It is well worth the read although one should have grains of salt at hand to take it with.

  24. #24 PhysicistDave
    February 19, 2008

    Gilbert wrote:
    >There is simply too much going on here to be able to gather it all together into a “truth”. PhysicistDave, being a genuine positivist, can only see the objective point of view. For him, objective testing of subjective phenomena is vaguely ludicrous, if not outright laughable.

    Nope, not at all – I am no more a positivist than I am a Rastafarian. Pretty much no competent scientists are positivists, certainly not physicists. The history of physics consists largely of hypothesizing entities that cannot be directly observed – atoms, electrons, spacetime curvature, quarks, etc. Just the opposite of positivism.

    And I never said (and I do not think) that objective testing of subjective phenomenon is either ludicrous or laughable. I do think it is difficult, but life is full of difficulties.

    If you actually read my posts, you’ll see that what I was objecting to was pseudo-scientific intellectual imperialism by folks who think that complicated airy-fairy speculations in ev psych are needed to explain religious beliefs when there are much simpler, and much more obvious, explanations that agree with the evidence.

    Religious beliefs exist for the same reason beliefs in phlogiston, an earth-centered universe, etc. once existed: it was once plausible that those beliefs were true.

    Religious belief has been waning in recent centuries for the same reason that belief in the geocentric theory, phlogiston, etc. waned – on the basis of new evidence and new discoveries, it is no longer credible that these theories are true.

    Religious beliefs have been deeply intertwined in our social and political structure for a very long time, so that their decline to extinction is a relatively slow process. That is also easy to understand.

    The bizarre idea that we need to invoke special mental modules (hyperactive agent detection modules, etc.) ignores obvious facts about the history of religious belief and is, indeed, condescending to all of the religious believers throughout history.

    One of the reasons that all of this bizarre nonsense is floating around about religion now is that too many people, such as the late Steve Gould, are intellectual cowards who are not willing to just come out and say that some people continue to believe in traditional religion simply because they are uneducated, unintelligent, or ignorant of modern science and historical scholarship. And, of course, a very large number of people find it convenient for personal or professional reasons to pretend to believe in traditional religion even though they do not – see retired clergyman Jack Good’s expose of all that among his fellow pastors in his book “The Dishonest Church.”

    Gil, I suggest you actually read other people’s posts before you attribute to them beliefs they have never enunciated and which they do not hold.

    It’s very revealing that although I have made these points several times you insist on attributing to me views that I did not even hint at. What do you suppose there is about your own belief system that causes you to invent such fantasies?

    Curiously, I actually agree with part of what you yourself said (I’m not so sure about Comte’s “metaphysical” stage, but at least he was more or less right about the first and last stages). I’m not attacking you – I just find it odd that you attribute to me views I did not present and that I do not hold. Maybe you mistakenly assume that all physicists are positivists?

    All the best,

    Dave

  25. #25 PhysicistDave
    February 19, 2008

    Gil,

    You wrote:
    >Don’t be surprised — in fact, I would bet upon it — to find that religion is not dying, it is undergoing a transition of historical proportions.

    Care to elaborate? I’m genuinely curious as to what you have in mind.

    I’ve often thought, being a physicist, that I could create a new religion a la Scientology around the “mysteries” of quantum mechanics. But I am, I fear, a bit too obsessively honest to pull it off.

    Is something like that what you have in mind, or are you thinking along other lines?

    Dave

  26. #26 Gilbert Wesley Purdy
    February 19, 2008

    PhysicistDave:

    Unfortunately, I haven’t the time to answer at any length. Furthermore, the final question you ask can only be over simplified in a blog comment. So then, a few thoughts before beddy bye.

    First from the post:

    The paper, by Epley et al.(1), starts with the hypothesis that people may use religious thinking and other examples of perceived agency (e.g., in pets or gadgets) to reduce their feelings of loneliness.

    Next, from my first commnet:

    If the Epley experiment tells us anything substantial it is only why people become religious now.

    My point was that Epley’s findings might support some valid theory if it is clear that they are entirely ahistorical and the theory in question is also ahistorical. The subjects are queried as to the possible sources of a wholly contemporary “religious type”. My impression, from your comments, is that we agree on this.

    While “religion” and “religious types” can, of course, be studied, Epley is studying a possible subjective basis for this ahistorical “religious type”. For this reason, I do not understand him to be commenting on religion but on personal psychology, personal subjectivity.

    From your next comment:

    I find all of these ahistorical attempts to explain religion that have been recently pursued by evolutionary psychologists, social psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists to be absolutely hilarious.

    An historical approach to religion is a study of objective facts and you seem clearly to find this acceptable. We are both heartily agree in this regard. An ahistorical study of “religious type” is an attempt to study entirely subjective facts. You find this to be “absolutely hilarious,” as this and other comments indicate. We do not so much disagree on this as hold oblique, only marginally comparable positions. What we do agree upon, I suspect, is that the historical approach has yielded far better results than has the ahistorical.

    More from yours:

    The only real mystery here is why some hapless academics feel the need to ignore the obvious solution to the problem of religion and pretend that they need to appeal to convoluted psychological or evolutionary explanations.

    and:

    The main problem with the loneliness hypothesis is that loneliness itself is a metaphysical state, not a physical one, and thus not strictly subject to scientific study. We should be careful not confuse loneliness with the more objective condition of “aloneness” (which itself is hard to quantify; how far away do other people have to be before one is “alone”?)

    What is this “metaphysical state” if it is not an entirely “subjective state/experience”? I think it is fair to say that I have read your posts with care.

    Finally, positivism is a philosophy that requires positive physical evidence for assertions. Over the ensuing years of its history scientists and other intellectuals have come readily to accept that physical proof can include indirect physical evidence such as cloud chambers, electron microscopes, measurements of charge, and even mathematical evidence derived within strict rules of consistency. The opposite of “positivist” is “metaphysician” or “intuitionist”. Thus I referred to you as a “positivist”.

  27. #27 Chris Schoen
    February 20, 2008

    Gilbert,

    You are mixing in my comments with PhysicistDave’s. I’m not sure if you meant to reply to me or not.

    In any case, Positivism has definitely seen better days. The fact that scientists like it isn’t all that noteworthy, since it was invented to make philosophy more “scientific.”

  28. #28 Chris Schoen
    February 20, 2008

    PDave,

    The word metaphysical is getting thrown around a lot in these comments; I think we should be clear what we mean. Metaphysics is the set of organizing concepts of any body of thought or knowledge. We don’t generally move from facts to metaphysical conclusions, rather we move from metaphysical premises to an examination of facts. Kuhn called them paradigms.

    Quantum physics is one of those special cases that exposes the limitation of the prevailing paradigm–in this case atomism, which holds that the world consists of stuff (matter), the essential nature of which can be discovered by locating the basic “building block” (note the metaphor of construction). 20th century physics showed there is no such unit. The ultimate “particles” are described in terms of form, waves, charges, probabilities, but nothing with the properties of mass, dimensionality, or location that we associate with matter.

    So, yes, in that sense it challenges the foundational assumptions of classical mechanics, and our culture has not yet developed a unified response on how to conceptualize the “true” nature of the universe.

    However most sciences, by and large, still operate within the suppositions of the classical scheme, where nature is made of inert and dumb “stuff”, which can be broken down into a sort of banal dust. Biology especially favors this view, blending it with the watchmaker model, where over time the dust of the universe is organized into elaborate contraptions merely by obeying the laws of nature, of thermodynamics, and natural selection.

    This very well may be the best way of looking at things, but it’s interesting to note how much of it was inherited from Judeo-Christian theology. Science hasn’t so much removed the creator from the picture as changed his job description. What is not subject to argument is that we have a universe made of stuff, subject to law. Blend in the atomism of 4th c. Greece, and you’ve got most of what you need for the modern scientific view. Far from showing Christianity to be false science has validated most of its tenets. We’re too distracted by the God issue to see this most of the time. We speak unabashedly of laws without being bothered by who might have written them. Look at the ridicule Rupert Sheldrake received for daring to imagine the laws of nature as “habits” to see how ingrained our dedication is to the legal metaphor of what can and cannot be. We know it’s just a metaphor, and yet we haven’t managed in the century or so since God’s obviation to come up with a description that gets us out of the problem of who wrote the laws of nature. Why do you suppose that is?

    Don’t be so quick to dismiss discredited beliefs as “fairy tales.” We’re all fools, after all.

  29. #29 Caledonian
    February 20, 2008

    Far from showing Christianity to be false science has validated most of its tenets.

    It is not clear what rational discussion can offer someone who believes the above statement to be true.

  30. #30 Chris Schoen
    February 20, 2008

    Caledonian,

    I’m pretty sure I was clear about this, but to remove all doubt, I do not mean that science has demonstrated that god is real, or that the earth is 6,000 years old, or that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. I wouldn’t write that, because I think none of those statements is true.

    My point was more subtle. It’s that the scientific revolution borrowed many of its metaphysical assumptions from the religious culture in Europe at the time, which was a Christian culture. This is uncontroversial. Newton, Galileo, Bacon, and Boyle were all Christians, so it seems rather obvious their contributions to scientific understanding would not significantly conflict with religious doctrine.

    It’s hard to see many of these influences unless we compare our metaphysical assumptions with those of other cultures, such as China, for whom nature is active and spontaneous, rather than passive and obedient, and India, for whom the natural world is not “real,” but rather a game or drama.

    This is not to say our way of looking at things is wrong. It’s merely to say that there is much that contributes to our way of looking at things that often goes unexamined, and that has its roots in Greek and Judeo-Christian culture.

    If you want to take issue with my rationality, please do so in the full context of my statements rather than taking pot shots at low hanging fruit.

  31. #31 greensmile
    February 23, 2008

    Fascinating post, Chris.
    As an uneducated amateur in this field, I have made little progress in answering the general question: “if religious beliefs and taboos are such an obvious crock and hodge-podge, why are they [a]so persistent and [b] seemingly universal?
    This post moves me forward a step with the basic idea is that religion is short circuited SOCIAL thinking rather than short circuited scientific or epistemological thinking. I had been stuck at the latter understanding for quite a while.
    It would be interesting if there were a study to determine if the so called “mirror neurons” [a much abused finding, even I can tell] get exercised when certain kinds of “religious” thought occurs e.g. prayer. I also have a hunch the allegedly healthy attachments some people have for pets are in part, a misfiring of those neurons.

    As close as I could get to dissecting the social side of our putative “wired for god” status is that we are definitely wired for priests

  32. #32 john dennis
    February 26, 2008

    I am late to this discussion, but I would like to concur or perhaps even state differently that we “naturally” overattribute agency and design, AKA the so-called agency-detection or theory of mind systems that is often refered to by countless researchers like, Paul Bloom, Brian Scholl, Pascal Boyer, Alan Leslie, etc, etc. One look at the really, really simple Heider & Simmel (1944) displays and you can see easily how we can use similar mechanisms as the starting point for supernatural beliefs.

    So we have a natural tendency to attribute agency and intentionality and “anthropomorphicize” little circles and squares.

    Independently, but again using the same mechanisms, when we see complex structures we apply the concepts of design and intentionality.

    So, the overattribution of agency and design tells you that religious beliefs in general are based on simple concepts and cognitive mechanisms that we use when we are thinking about non-religious things.

    But, an overattribution of agency and design doesn’t really tell us *why* people belong to religions. Why? Because religion is “belongedness.” This belief is “rationally” selfish in that it makes them feel good. (Wow that is soooo anti-Kantian … and that makes me soooo happy.)

    Anyway, the cool thing about the research presented in this article is that it is the first time that I have ever seen a connection between loneliness and a hightened attribution of agency.

    Thanks mixingmemory for bringing that to my attention.

  33. #33 Rebecca Haden
    February 29, 2008

    In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I am a religious person myself, and so can’t be expected to be on board with any explanation that includes “a fantasy.” However, I can tell you my favorite among atheists’ explanations: Dawkins says religion is a side effect of the highly adaptive human inclination to fall in love. That is much more charming than the ones you’ve listed.
    Physicist Dave, check out the fine book God and the New Physics for a terrific starting point for your new religion. It could be way better than Scientology.

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