How your brain creates God

Related to the post below on the intuitiveness or innateness of religious belief is this article from New Scientist. Some interesting notes:

The origin of religious belief is something of a mystery, but in recent years scientists have started to make suggestions. One leading idea is that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that makes people more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation. In this view, shared religious belief helped our ancestors form tightly knit groups that cooperated in hunting, foraging and childcare, enabling these groups to outcompete others. In this way, the theory goes, religion was selected for by evolution, and eventually permeated every human society (New Scientist, 28 January 2006, p 30)

The religion-as-an-adaptation theory doesn’t wash with everybody, however. As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary fitness. “I don’t think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion,” he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread.

It’s quite a lengthy piece and it is worth reading all of it.

The ability to conceive of gods, however, is not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none. “You see bushes rustle, you assume there’s somebody or something there,” Bloom says.

This over-attribution of cause and effect probably evolved for survival. If there are predators around, it is no good spotting them 9 times out of 10. Running away when you don’t have to is a small price to pay for avoiding danger when the threat is real.

Again, experiments on young children reveal this default state of the mind. Children as young as three readily attribute design and purpose to inanimate objects. When Deborah Kelemen of the University of Arizona in Tucson asked 7 and 8-year-old children questions about inanimate objects and animals, she found that most believed they were created for a specific purpose. Pointy rocks are there for animals to scratch themselves on. Birds exist “to make nice music”, while rivers exist so boats have something to float on. “It was extraordinary to hear children saying that things like mountains and clouds were ‘for’ a purpose and appearing highly resistant to any counter-suggestion,” says Kelemen.

In similar experiments, Olivera Petrovich of the University of Oxford asked pre-school children about the origins of natural things such as plants and animals. She found they were seven times as likely to answer that they were made by god than made by people.

These cognitive biases are so strong, says Petrovich, that children tend to spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention: “They rely on their everyday experience of the physical world and construct the concept of god on the basis of this experience.” Because of this, when children hear the claims of religion they seem to make perfect sense.

Our predisposition to believe in a supernatural world stays with us as we get older. Kelemen has found that adults are just as inclined to see design and intention where there is none. Put under pressure to explain natural phenomena, adults often fall back on teleological arguments, such as “trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe” or “the sun is hot because warmth nurtures life”. Though she doesn’t yet have evidence that this tendency is linked to belief in god, Kelemen does have results showing that most adults tacitly believe they have souls.

It concludes:

So if religion is a natural consequence of how our brains work, where does that leave god? All the researchers involved stress that none of this says anything about the existence or otherwise of gods: as Barratt points out, whether or not a belief is true is independent of why people believe it.

It does, however, suggests that god isn’t going away, and that atheism will always be a hard sell. Religious belief is the “path of least resistance”, says Boyer, while disbelief requires effort.

These findings also challenge the idea that religion is an adaptation. “Yes, religion helps create large societies – and once you have large societies you can outcompete groups that don’t,” Atran says. “But it arises as an artefact of the ability to build fictive worlds. I don’t think there’s an adaptation for religion any more than there’s an adaptation to make airplanes.”

Further to this, is another interesting New Scientist piece:

Scott Wiltermuth of Stanford University in California and colleagues have found that activities performed in unison, such as marching or dancing, increase loyalty to the group. “It makes us feel as though we’re part of a larger entity, so we see the group’s welfare as being as important as our own,” he says.

Wiltermuth’s team separated 96 people into four groups who performed these tasks together: listening to a song while silently mouthing the words, singing along, singing and dancing, or listening to different versions of the song so that they sang and danced out of sync. In a later game, when asked to decide whether to stick with the group or strive for personal gain, those in the non-synchronised group behaved less loyally than the rest (Psychological Science, vol 20, p 1).

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville thinks this research helps explain why fascist leaders, amongst others, use organised marching and chanting to whip crowds into a frenzy of devotion to their cause, though these tactics can be used just as well for peace, he stresses. Community dances and group singing can ease local tension, for example – a theory he plans to test experimentally (Journal of Legal Studies, DOI: 10.1086/529447).

On a personal level I find similar things related to religion. When a large group of people are involved in almost any activity, the results are powerfully emotional. For example, my recent visit to the National Mall for the inauguration of Barack Obama was an emotional experience, among a crowd of up to 2m people. But it was not a religious one.

But I can imagine that a religious person attending an event of similar scale (for example the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979) would have felt similarly emotional, but have attributed it to other reasons, like the spiritual nature of the event, or the personality (god’s representative on Earth) of the speaker. They might describe it as a religious or spiritual experience, when really it was the emotion of the crowd mixed with a religious subject.

Teapots and spaghetti monsters

My philosophical interest in religion has been revived in recent weeks thanks to the writing of Ross Douthat over at the Atlantic.

First the quote from the Pope, and then a reference to Bertrand Russell’s teapot analogy.

It is a curious debate. But I am also struck by Douthat’s language:

I see the genesis of religion rather differently: An intuitive belief in some sort of presiding Agent seems to be an extremely common, albeit hardly universal, feature of human nature; this intuition has intersected, historically, with an enormous amount of subjective religious experience; and this intersection (along with, yes, the force of custom and tradition) has produced and sustained the religious traditions that seem to Richard Dawkins and company like so much teapot-worship.

Or in other words: Humans believe in god. Belief in god intersects with… belief in god. Custom and tradition have led to… custom and tradition. What?

Why not just say: Humans have an apparent tendency to believe in god or gods.

Or: The intersection of apparent intuitive belief with subjective experience has led to religious traditions in human societies.

He goes on:

The story of our civilization, in particular, is a story in which an extremely large circle of non-insane human beings have perceived themselves to be experiencing an interaction with a being who seems recognizable as the Judeo-Christian God (here I do feel comfortable using the term), rather than merely being taught about Him in Sunday School

I feel like Ross is missing the point of the teapot analogy. What exactly does it mean to say “perceived themselves to be experiencing an interaction with a being who seems recognizable as the Judeo-Christian God”? Recognisable? To whom? In what form? Experiencing what? Interacting with what?

But it is one thing to disbelieve in God; it is quite another to never feel a twinge of doubt about one’s own disbelief.

It might be more accurate to take the word belief out of this. Lack of belief implies existence of the entity in question. I would rather say instead:

It is one thing to doubt the existence of x; it is quite another to never feel a twinge of doubt about not believing in the existence of x.

Or: It is one thing to disbelieve in Zeus; it is quite another to never feel a twinge of doubt about one’s own beliefs.

I doubt the existence of Zeus. Like I doubt the existence of the god Douthat describes. Millions may have believed in Zeus in the past. Billions may believe in a Judeo-Christian god now.

But belief does not imply existence. Just as belief in teapots in orbit does not imply their existence. Nor does the existence of religious tradition imply the existence of anything. Nor does a supposed innate belief (if it’s intuitive then where’s mine?) in a presiding agent imply the existence of anything.

Pray for rain?

Remember this guy?

He wanted it to rain for Obama’s open air speech on Thursday. It didn’t happen, in fact it was a gorgeous evening. He later claimed it was only meant in jest.

But the GOP must now change plans for their convention, not because of rain, but because of a hurricane of biblical proportions. It even looks like George Bush won’t be able to make it, and McCain is considering changing it into a fund raiser for potential storm damage. “I wouldn’t call it a nightmare, but it is a very perplexing challenge,” said a GOP official planning the event.

Is God trying to tell Republicans something?

Fitna the Movie: Geert Wilders' film about the Quran

Explicit warning:

This video contains some VERY graphic images and audio, please do not watch it unless you are prepared to see and hear them.

BBC news story here.

Personally, I found the film extremely upsetting. If you would rather not experience that upset, do not watch it.

I do see merit in the argument that the film incorrectly equates all of Islam with violence. In many ways it has the propaganda elements and tone of the same Islamic videos it criticises. Western classical music is used as background, instead of arabic chanting. The most extreme Islamists are used to portray Islam as evil, in the same way Islamic videos portray the West as evil.

One could hold up an extreme version of anything and hold it up as representative, but it is not.

All this video does is encourage the polarisation of views, instead of the compromising of views.

Religion is a curious thing.

Religion and secularism

Ross Douthat, writing in this month’s Atlantic, argues that the US is becoming increasingly secular, while Europe – thanks to Islam – may be turning back to its religious roots. Douthat makes an interesting case for the secularisation of the US:

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 20 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds reported no religious affiliation, up from just 11 percent in the late 1980s. It’s visible on the best-seller lists, where books such as Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy make their pitches to liberal readers, and in the public comments of scientists who now seem eager to attack religion as a threat rather than dismiss it as a nuisance. And it’s found a home in the expanding world of the liberal blogosphere, which has provided a virtual parish for Americans united by their disdain for “godbags” and “fundies.” (A Pew study of Howard Dean activists, one of the first mass constituencies mobilized by “netroots” activism, found that 38 percent described themselves as “secular.”)

I must say I have noticed an increase in support for people like Dawkins – the popularity of his videos on YouTube is something I would not have imagined possible 10 years ago when I was reading River out of Eden. It was taken as given that Americans were religious. Or maybe it’s that the internet gives atheists a medium in which to vocalise their lack of belief in a divine entity.

Douthat makes another point, the facts of which I am unsure:

…when the Democrats finally shattered the Republican majority in the 2006 midterms, it was their consolidation of the secular vote that helped put them over the top. Despite all their efforts to close the God gap, the Democrats managed barely any gainsamong frequent churchgoers last November—but their share of the vote among Americans who never attend church at all leaped to 67 percent, from 55 percent in 2002.

Hmm. Was secularism really such a big factor in the midterms?

He then looks at Europe – and as someone living in Ireland, I find many of his points fanciful – but then I guess I might think differently if I lived in Holland or France.

Yet the Europe of tomorrow may look more like … the United States, with a politics that’s increasingly shaped by clashes between believers, or between belief and unbelief. Already, the Continent is experiencing a low-grade culture war, created by the collision between the religious zeal of Muslim immigrants and the secular culture that surrounds them. In flash points that range from the murder of the anti-Islamic filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Holland, to the controversy over the supposedly blasphemous Danish cartoons, to the question of whether to admit Turkey to the EU, secular Europe has found itself in unfamiliar, God-haunted, almost American territory. Such disputes may subside as Islamic immigrants assimilate to European norms, but for now, at least, resistance to assimilation by Muslims suggests that they may succeed in changing those norms as much as they are changed by them.

I note that he did not mention the European Constitution, and the lack of reference to any god, Christian or not.

Meanwhile, there are signs that Christianity, too, is emerging from its decades-long defensive crouch. Pope Benedict XVI has taken the re-Christianization of Europe as a theme of his papacy, and his church’s recent interventions in Spain’s debate over same-sex unions and in Italy’s referendum on whether to loosen restrictions on in vitro fertilization bear an unmistakable resemblance to the gauntlet-throwing that Americans have come to expect from their churchmen.

I really don’t get the sense that the Catholic Church is becoming any more influential in Europe, if anything it is becoming less so.

The Muslim birthrate in Europe is far higher than the birthrate among non-Muslims, and immigration from the Islamic world continues apace. Meanwhile, immigrants from Africa and Latin America have injected a new vitality into European Christianity, creating thriving Evangelical and Pentecostal communities in urban areas where many of the established churches stand empty. It was Christians’ demographic advantage in the ancient world, the sociologist Rodney Stark has suggested, that helped their faith take over Europe in the first place, and high fertility rates help explain the growth of evangelical Christianity and Mormonism in the United States over the last century. Now similar demographic forces, the political scientist Eric Kaufmann argued last year in the British magazine Prospect, may be “carrying Europe towards a more American model of modernity,” in which the wall of separation between church and state looks more like a picket fence, easily scaled or shimmied through.

He may have a point about birth rates. But what really goes to the core of this, and something he does not mention, is whether the institutions of the EU, or of her member states, are secular enough in tradition or law, to withstand any assault from a ‘new’ religion such as Islam. I would argue that despite growing numbers of Muslims – most if not all EU nations are secular enough politically to withstand the onslought of either evangelism or Islam.

Douthat concludes:

America has long avoided this trap by enjoying near-universal piety; Europe, at least lately, has escaped it by cultivating near-universal skepticism. But if the religious gulf between the two continents narrows, the divides within each one are likely to open ever wider, and religious peace turn increasingly to culture war—or worse.

And religious wars are the worst kind indeed.

How the West lost God

Mary Eberstadt with a cover story in Policy Review on the subject of secularisation:

In sum, and given what we know now about the religious and familial situation in Western Europe some 125 years later, Nietzsche was right to declare that the great Christian cathedrals of Europe had become tombs. But he may have been wrong about what exactly had been buried in them. It was not so much God as the European natural family that has been largely laid to rest — an interment already well underway in some countries long before his madman entered the square and one that is surely an overlooked and critical part of the full story of how Christian Europe went secular.

Scientology orientation video

Looks like someone smuggled a video camera into a Scientology induction screening, fascinating stuff. These guys are nuts.

Best quotes:

You are at the threshold of your next trillion years. You will live it, in shrivelling agonised darkness or you will live it triumphantly in the light – the choice is yours, not ours. If you this minute say I will, for better or for worse, go on in scientology, you will open the door to your own future. If you say otherwise you slam tomorrow shut in your own face. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it really is.

If you leave this room after seeing this film, and walk out and never mention scientology again, you are perfectly free to do so. It would be stupid, but you can do it. You can also dive off a bridge or blow your brains out. That is your choice.

Haha. I can see this becoming a ‘cult’ classic!

This story outlines how some of the stuff mentioned in the video actually works…