Sunday, March 04, 2007


God's Chickens or Eggs

Scott Atran presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic.

"If you have negative sentiments toward religion," he tells them, "the box will destroy whatever you put inside it." Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God ... Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driver’s license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will.

If they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?

Atran, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, attempts to explain this kind of behavior in Darwinian fashion by trying to determine "how it might once have solved problems of survival and reproduction for our early ancestors."

However, Atran has no clear idea as to what evolutionary problems might have been solved by religious belief. The physical and mental resources used up by religion do not seem to have an obvious benefit for survival. The jist of the problem is: Why is religion so pervasive, when it seems so costly from an evolutionary point of view?

When a trait is universal, evolutionary biologists look for a genetic explanation and wonder how that gene or genes might enhance survival or reproductive success. In many ways, it’s an exercise in post-hoc hypothesizing [sometimes called by detractors "just-so stories"] ...

So many aspects of religious belief involve misattribution and misunderstanding of the real world. Wouldn’t this be a liability in the survival-of-the-fittest competition? To Atran, religious belief requires taking "what is materially false to be true" and "what is materially true to be false." One example of this is the belief that even after someone dies and the body demonstrably disintegrates, that person will still exist, will still be able to laugh and cry, to feel pain and joy. This confusion "does not appear to be a reasonable evolutionary strategy," Atran wrote in "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion" in 2002. "Imagine another animal that took injury for health or big for small or fast for slow or dead for alive. It’s unlikely that such a species could survive."
After the obligatory mention of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, who the New York Times Magazine article, "Darwin’s God," calls neo-atheists, the author, Robin Marantz Henig, proceeds on an exploration of the developing science of religion. What might once have been a "polite convention [that] generally separated science and religion" based on the old trope that science describes "how the heavens go; religion, how to go to heaven," has now turned into an at least strained, if not outright hostile, relationship.

Anthropologists psychologists since the turn of the 20th Century had been looking at the roots of religion, but the mutual hands-off policy began to shift in earnest in the 1990s.

Religion made incursions into the traditional domain of science with attempts to bring intelligent design into the biology classroom and to choke off human embryonic stem-cell research on religious grounds. Scientists responded with counterincursions. Experts from the hard sciences, like evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, joined anthropologists and psychologists in the study of religion, making God an object of scientific inquiry.
As to the issue of adaptive value, a number of possibilities are mentioned: the "sideways explanation" that, while religious belief was not itself adaptive, it was associated with something else that was; the module model of brain functioning where the mind is envisioned as a series of interconnected machines, each one responsible for a particular mental trick, with belief in God a consequence of interaction of mental modules; and Stephen Jay Gould's and Richard Lewontin's "spandrels," seeing belief as a trait with no adaptive value of its own but just an unintended byproduct of some other trait. There is also the possibility of religion contributing to group fitness.

That doesn't mean that all of the researchers in this area are unbelievers, however.

[O]ne prominent member of the byproduct camp, Justin Barrett, is an observant Christian who believes in "an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being" ...

How does his view of God as a byproduct of our mental architecture coexist with his Christianity? Why doesn’t the byproduct theory turn him into a skeptic?

"Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people," Barrett wrote in his e-mail message. "Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?" Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them, he wrote. "Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?"
The article has much in common with Dennet's Breaking the Spell, in so far as it is a survey of the present state of the research in the area, though it may be somewhat more sympathetic to believers.

However you come down in this issue, it is well worth reading.

I think that humans have a natural drive to understand the world around them. However, most people don't actually want to have to think for themselves - they just want to be told what to believe.

In ancient times, bereft of scientific knowledge, superstitious explanations of natural phenomenon were able to flourish. Humans, being social creatures, have a need to fit in with the group. That often means thinking alike and agreeing with the status quo. In this way superstitions evolved into more codified religions controlled and protected by a priveledged priesthood.
"If they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?"

That you are a con man with some kind of trick box.

Ferrous Patella
Do you mean one of these?
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