Category Archives: Ethics & Human Nature


Monogamy is not so bad (at least for men) after all

by Neil Godfrey

robertwrightAnother work I’m finally catching up with is Robert Wright’s Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (1994). We all know the usual narrative about men being shaped by their genes to want to reproduce with everything in sight while women are always on the shrewd lookout for the best candidate to protect and provide for her children.

To cut to the chase and speaking in broad evolutionary/social psychological terms, Wright raises an interesting question (at least for me who is shamefully twenty years late in reading his book!):

[W]hereas a polygynous society is often depicted as something men would love and women would hate, there is really no natural consensus on the matter within either sex. Obviously, women who are married to a poor man and would rather have half of a rich one aren’t well served by the institution of monogamy. And, obviously, the poor husband they would gladly desert wouldn’t be well served by polygyny. (p. 96, my formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Wright adds that the males who are advantaged by monogamy are not only those at the bottom of the income scale.

Consider a crude and offensive but analytically useful model of the marital marketplace. One thousand men and one thousand women are ranked in terms of their desirability as mates. Okay, okay: there isn’t, in real life, full agreement on such things. But there are clear patterns. Few women would prefer an unemployed and rudderless man to an ambitious and successful one, all other things being even roughly equal; and few men would choose an obese, unattractive, and dull woman over a shapely, beautiful, sharp one. For the sake of intellectual progress, let’s simplemindedly collapse these and other aspects of attraction into a single dimension.

Suppose these 2,000 people live in a monogamous society and each woman is engaged to marry the man who shares her ranking. She’d like to marry a higher-ranking man, but they’re all taken by competitors who outrank her. The men too would like to marry up, but for the same reason can’t.

Now, before any of these engaged couples gets married, let’s legalize polygyny and magically banish its stigma. read more »


Studying Religious Beliefs Without Understanding How Humans Work

by Neil Godfrey


Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne have in a recent Youtube discussion and publication both explained how they studied religion, read lots of theology, before undertaking their anti-theistic critiques. Harris begins by informing us that in his twenties he read a wide range of religious traditions; Coyne tells readers he read much theology as he “dug deeper” into the questions that troubled him and as he did so he “realized that there were intractable incompatibilities between science and religion” that accommodationists “glossed over”. Heather Hastie has taken exception to a recent post of mine and pointed out that in her own research into terrorism she has downloaded a dozen issues of an online terrorist recruiting journal for study.

It is one thing to read what religious beliefs and claims are made by converts. It is quite another to study why they have embraced those beliefs, why those beliefs have the hold over believers that they do, and the relationship between those beliefs and claims and the extremist behaviours of adherents.

Gullible and weak minded?

There is a widespread perception among people who have never had much or anything to do with religious cults that people who join them are somehow the more gullible or weak-willed than average. Such popular perceptions are problematic. Some cult members demonstrate superior intelligence and knowledge in other studies in their life; and many of them are exceptionally strong-willed to the point of undergoing extreme sacrifices and hardship, even giving up their own lives and even the lives of loved ones when tested on their faith. That certain cults can generate a public presence beyond their actual numbers often shows they must have some extraordinary skills and determination to maximise the impact of their meagre human resources. The nineteen men who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks were far from having lesser intelligence and from being weak-willed.

Recently I have been sharing snippets from anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained and in follow up comments have added a few more quotations addressing common views that people embrace religion because we they are seeking explanations to big or ultimate questions, or because they are gullible. In the past I have posted some explanations of how religious thinking differs from other types of thinking. (Understanding extremist religion; Religious credence part 1 and part 2; Science and religion; Fantasy and religion)

If we want to find a way to counter potentially dangerous extremist acts in the name of religion or simply wind back daily oppressive practices of some religions (e.g. choosing death over medical care, child abuse, denial of women’s rights) we will need to do more than simply present rational arguments. The converts do not shield themselves from opposing arguments; they are prepared for them and know how to counter them. Religious thinking does not work in the same way – we need to understand that.

I must thank Dan Jones for revitalising my interest in this question and providing me with new readings to follow up. I have already studied a few works on “how religion works” but need to do much more.

In the meantime, here is an alternative approach to what is required to understand how people acquire the religious mind. (Alternative, that is, to simply reading the theologies and ramblings of the religious texts themselves and thinking, “how bizarre!”, “how frightening!”).

The author, an anthropologist, would compare the methods of Harris, Coyne and Hastie to studying in depth the malaria pathogen — such a study alone will never explain how malaria spreads among some people and not others or the symptoms it produces. read more »


Is Religion Somehow In Our Genetic Makeup?

by Neil Godfrey


Here is an answer to that question that I found interesting. It is from Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, pp. 3-4:

Does this mean religion is “innate” and “in the genes”?

I—and most people interested in the evolution of the human mind—think that the question is in fact meaningless and that it is important to understand why.

Consider other examples of human capacities. All human beings can catch colds and remember different melodies. We can catch colds because we have respiratory organs and these provide a hospitable site for all sorts of pathogens, including those of the common cold. We can remember tunes because a part of our brain can easily store a series of sounds with their relative pitch and duration. There are no common colds in our genes and no melodies either. What is in the genes is a tremendously complex set of chemical recipes for the building of normal organisms with respiratory organs and a complex set of connections between brain areas. Normal genes in a normal milieu will give you a pair of lungs and an organized auditory cortex, and with these the dispositions to acquire both colds and tunes. Obviously, if we were all brought up in a sterile and nonmusical environment, we would catch neither. We would still have the disposition to catch them but no opportunity to do so.

Having a normal human brain does not imply that you have religion. All it implies is that you can acquire it, which is very different. 

The reason why psychologists and anthropologists are so concerned with acquisition and transmission is that evolution by natural selection gave us a particular kind of mind so that only particular kinds of religious notions can be acquired. Not all possible concepts are equally good. The ones we acquire easily are the ones we find widespread the world over; indeed, that is why we find them widespread the world over. It has been said of poetry that it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. This description is even more aptly applied to the supernatural imagination. But, as we will see, not all kinds of “airy nothing” will find a local habitation in the minds of people. (Formatting mine)



Understanding Extremist Religion

by Neil Godfrey

An inevitable question arising out of my preceding two posts that attempt to set out the fundamentals of Neil Van Leeuwen’s analysis of the nature of “religious belief/credence” is where extremist views fit in. This is a topic I’ve broached several times before from different perspectives and hope to again as I get through more readings from various fields (e.g. anthropology, philosophy). In this post I add Van Leeuwen’s comment.

First, to recap:

Characteristics of Factual Belief

1. Factual belief is independent of its practical setting

We can believe our ancestor can see but this credence is elicited by ritual or religious moments and never changes our belief that the ancestor is a lifeless corpse. 

2. Factual beliefs have cognitive governance

The reverse is not true: we may imagine people really do turn into animals but do not worry we are eating a person when eating a pig. 

3. Factual beliefs are vulnerable to evidence

Failed predictions like the Y2K fear are forgotten; failed predictions in religions are maintained by adding further credences to them.

Characteristics of Religious Credence

1. Religious credence is dependent on its ritual and religious places and moments; it is not independent of its practical setting

We can believe our ancestor can see but this credence is elicited by ritual or religious moments and never changes our belief that the ancestor is a lifeless corpse.

2. Religious credence does not govern factual beliefs

We may believe people turn into animals but do not worry we are eating a person when eating a pig. Creationists rely upon clusters of other religious credences to maintain their opposition to the facts of geology.

3. Religious credence is not vulnerable to evidence

Failed predictions like the Y2K fear are forgotten; failed predictions in religions are maintained by adding further credences to them.

4. Perceived Normative Orientation

Credences structure behaviour towards “the good” and away from “the bad”.

5. Free Elaboration

Credences can be elaborated and imaginatively extended (e.g. God is more angry with people in your city today than with those in Hell); one cannot elaborate factual beliefs.

6. Vulnerability to Special Authority

Devotees can accept empirical failings in a guru but not moral hypocrisy.


Van Leeuwen sees extremist credence as another cognitive attitude that needs defining.

So what are the characteristics of extremist credence?  Note that 1 and 2 overlap with properties of factual beliefs: read more »


Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 2

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 1



In the previous post we saw the three core features of factual beliefs as understood by Neil Van Leeuwen; we also saw that religious “beliefs” or credence do not share any of these characteristics of factual beliefs.

Van Leeuwen distinguishes factual belief from what he terms secondary cognitive attitudes — that is, factual belief has different characteristics from fictional imagining, hypothesis, assuming for sake of an argument, and so forth. Among these secondary cognitive attitudes he places religious credence. But religious credence is different again from these other secondary attitudes because of three characteristics. In this post we identify those three distinguishing properties.

But before continuing, however, I’ll jump to Van Leeuwen’s conclusion where he explains how religious credence and factual belief relate to one another in the mind of the religious person:

An agent’s religious credences comprise a map she uses for short- and long-term orientation in life. The map is colored with features that are taken to have normative force in virtue of their being part of the map at all; the colors represent sacred, sinful, eternal, righteous, holy, and the like. The map, in more or less detail, is determined by the dictates of individuals who are taken as special authorities in the community of the agent. But the agent herself also freely elaborates on the credence map in ways she finds useful for normative orientation. The map colors the authorities as holy. Other individuals in the community are painted as faithful. This map doesn’t just represent normative properties, however; it also represents objects, people, places, events, and supernatural beings that make the normative properties memorable or salient.

But the agent is always using another map: factual belief. This map comes to be in a different way from the religious credence map. It is generated chiefly by perception and rational expansion thereon. It helps us avoid falling in ditches and eating poisonous berries. The religious credence map lies on top of the factual map like a colored transparency, so that the objects, events, people, and places in the factual map can also appear religiously colored. Thus, only by careful scrutiny do we see the two maps are distinct. (My bolding)

So that’s how Van Leeuwen sees the two types of cognitive attitudes co-existing. Now to those points that make religious credence a stand-alone. read more »

Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 1

by Neil Godfrey
Neil Van Leeuwen

Neil Van Leeuwen

I’m looking here at a thesis on the nature of religious belief, <em>Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief</em>, by Neil Van Leeuwen that was published in the journal Cognition last year. The author has also made his article publicly available on A commenter brought the article to my attention in the context of disagreements over the relationship between religious beliefs and Islamic terrorist attacks. One reason I am attracted to Van Leeuwen’s ideas is that they appear to be consistent with anthropologist Scott Atran’s views of the nature of religious belief that I have discussed previously.

First point to notice (and it is critical to the entire argument) is that Van Leeuwen chooses to speak of “religious credence” as opposed to “religious belief”.

Many philosophers and cognitive scientists have a habit of using the word “belief” as though it refers to one simple sort of cognitive attitude. . . . But, I will argue, if we examine the matter carefully, we will soon find empirical reasons to think this habit is a source of confusion. 

We tend to focus on differences in the content of “beliefs” (evolution, creationism; death is final, immortal soul) but in doing so we may be talking about distinctly different attitudes that fall under this one word. He draws the analogy of jade. In popular usage there may be only one kind of jade, but to chemists there are two distinct entities:

jade (2)

The general “taken for granted” assumption is that the only difference between a scientific and a religious belief is the content and that it is the different contents that guide behaviour.

Here is an adaptation of a diagram Van Leeuwen uses to portray the general understanding that there is only one kind of “belief” that is set against other cognitive attitudes. Belief (of any kind) by its very nature stands opposed to other forms of cognitive attitudes:


Van Leeuwen argues against this understanding of belief and believes that on closer inspection that religious “belief” has characteristics in common with other attitudes like imagining, hypothesising, acceptance in a context and conditional assumptions. Factual beliefs, he says, do not share these characteristics. To keep the distinction clear he uses “credence” when speaking of the cognitive attitude associated with religion:


So what are the characteristics that set religious credence apart from factual belief in Van Leeuwen’s view? And what is the relationship between factual beliefs and religious credence? Do they really have more than their content to distinguish them? read more »


Towards Understanding Morality — a renewed start?

by Neil Godfrey

Concluding my series on the evolution of morality as per Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. . . .

The previous posts:

  1. Towards Understanding How Morality Works
  2. Towards Understanding Morality – another step?


Pinker writes that over the past three centuries there has been a progression of away from communal and authoritarian values to values arising from equality-sharing and rational-legal/market-pricing concerns, that is, “toward values based on equality, fairness, autonomy, and legally enforced rights.” He is relying upon Fiske’s relational and evolutionary model of morality that we set out in the first post of this series.

The historical direction of morality in modern societies is not just away from Communality and Authority but toward Rational-Legal organization, and that too is a pacifying development.

(Pinker 2011, p. 637)

One of the explanations for this development, Pinker suggests, is the people’s more realistic awareness of the feelings and plights of others as a result of advances in communications and popular literature. The latter has been able to move readers to have deep sympathies for characters as representatives of classes and races that had hitherto rarely entered their awareness.

As a lay reader without my own background reading in Fiske’s analysis I can only repeat Pinker’s claim that morality has evolved away from communal relationship values in the past three centuries and do no more than register my own questions at this point. read more »


Towards Understanding Morality – another step?

by Neil Godfrey

The previous post brought us to the point of explaining different moral perspectives in terms of different relational models (and broad themes of ethics and foundations). For example, marriages have been (and in places still are) understood within the framework of Authority relations. The wife remained under the authority of her father or more generally of the males of her family, or else under the authority of her husband.

How moral views are determined by relational models

Western marriages have seen an evolution from this model to an Equality matching framework where the wife is understood to have equal rights with her husband and the husband has an obligation to share responsibilities (e.g. child minding, housework) with her equally. In other cultures Equality matching has seen the bartering and selling of wives for goods (e.g. thirty pigs) considered to be of equivalent value.

Where the Authority Ranking model has been replaced by a Communal Sharing one some wives complain that their work is not appreciated. The “not keeping tabs” of who owes what is thought to have resulted in their efforts being taken for granted. We also see the Rational-Legal model at work where contracts are signed at the outset of a marriage to clarify processes with respect to children and property in the event of the marriage not lasting.

In each of these relational models the different treatments of the wife are understood to be perfectly moral. What is right and wrong depends on the relational framework through which one views the “resources” in question. Morality rules. One cannot say that either trading a wife for thirty pigs or or obliging the married woman to continue living with her family is “immoral” in the minds of those who follow these customs. read more »


Towards Understanding How Morality Works

by Neil Godfrey

We are not the only social animals with rules of behaviour we must follow or risk some form of punishment but our moral systems are surely the most complex. How does it all work? I’d like to think that we can figure it out enough to help us understand what’s going on when two sides are at loggerheads, each convinced of its own moral stance while accusing the other of amorality or immorality. How is it that we are so divided over what’s right and wrong on questions of race, religion, the poor, criminal punishment, war and history and what is it that brings about such irreconcilable convictions?

The Golden Rule
Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. (Confucius)
Do to others what you want them to do to you. (Jesus)
The Categorical Imperative
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. (Immanuel Kant)

We’ve heard that some form of the Golden Rule is known in many cultures but as Steven Pinker points out in Better Angels,

No society defines everyday virtue and wrongdoing by the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative.

Life is more complex to allow this to be the sole guide. In Brown’s list of human universals we find proscriptions against murder, rape, incest between mother and son and stinginess. After that we veer into increasingly rough and tumble terrain. In one community a woman can be purchased to become a man’s wife for a number of pigs. That custom is as moral, as legitimate, as a land purchase. In fact, selling land according to some communities can be a capital crime.

The Golden Rule and Categorical Imperative can have radically different applications in different cultures.

So what is morality all about? To complete Pinker’s quote:

No society defines everyday virtue and wrongdoing by the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative. Instead, morality consists in respecting or violating one of the relational models (or ethics or foundations):

  • betraying, exploiting or subverting a coalition;
  • contaminating oneself or a community;
  • defying or insulting a legitimate authority;
  • harming someone without provocation;
  • taking a benefit without paying the cost;
  • peculating funds or abusing prerogatives.

(Pinker 2011, p. 628. My formatting in all quotations)

What interests me are those “relational models (or ethics or foundations)” said to be at the core of our moral sense. My source is for most part Steven Pinker’s introduction to them (2011).

Cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder has concluded that across every society humanity’s moral norms revolve around one of three common themes: the ethics of divinity, of community and of autonomy.

Divinity Community Autonomy
The world is composed of a divine essence, portions of which are housed in bodies that are part of god. The world is a collection of tribes, clans, families, institutions, guilds and other coalitions. The social world is composed of individuals.
Purpose of morality is to protect this spirit from degradation and contamination. People do not have right to do what they want with their soul-container bodies. Obligation to avoid polluting body with impure sex, food, other physical pleasures. (Underlies moralization of disgust and valorization of purity and asceticism. Morality is equated with duty, respect, loyalty, interdependence. Purpose of morality is to allow them to exercise their choices and protect them from harm.


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Better Angels of Our Nature

by Neil Godfrey

angelsReflections on having completed Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. . . .

By the time I had completed the seventh chapter of Better Angels I began to feel my existence was somehow in a surreal place. Compared with most lives throughout human history mine has been fantastically lucky and overwhelmingly privileged. The pain that follows reminders and expanded awareness of just how cruel so much of human existence has been inevitably leaves some sense of guilt and a need to to do more to justify or repay the privilege of my life to date.

Pinker helps readers appreciate just how fortunate we are to be living in the ongoing momentum of the Enlightenment where the seeds of our humanistic and scientific values were planted. (Those who argue that the Enlightenment gave birth to Hitler and the Holocaust and other modern degradations are flat ignorant — Pinker describes the charges as “ludicrous, if not obscene” — since such movements were in fact a reaction against Enlightenment values.) Our moral and rights revolutions, the growth of “liberal” values, humanistic concerns and reactions against cruelty to slaves, children, other races and classes, democratic movements, human rights of liberty and equality, workers’ rights, children’s rights, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, care for the environment — it’s been an incredible moment of history.

All of this has been accompanied by scientific and technological understanding, burgeoning education and even advances in our collective ability to reason and understand — all without the would-be diversions and false-leads of dogma and religion.

Pinker does not mention it, but what we witnessed early this century when millions of people came out into the streets all around the world to protest against the threat of an imminent invasion of Iraq was surely a most significant milestone in human history. Today there is even international outrage over the single killing of a lion for sport. We do live in the most amazing times.  read more »


What Did Love Mean to Jesus? Pt 1 (Hector Avalos’s The Bad Jesus)

by Neil Godfrey

“What is love?” asked the older Sunday school student.

The professor replied, “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.

Alas, the student did not get the joke. The professor tried to turn the tables with another song lyric: “I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.

This [divinatory] use of the scriptures fed into rabbinic halakhic hermeneutics . . . . [I]t was established by the rabbis (a) that scripture was a self-explaining system, and (b) that its statement of the law was incomplete. Hence by means of a system of deductive and inferential rules, the implicit meaning of the scriptural system could be made explicit, and the entire will of God be made known. In an analogous way, the diviners of Babylon had for centuries compiled copious lists of signs and their meanings, based, apparently, on experience. If rabbinic exegesis, then, was in a sense mantic, it shared with the ancient omen-lists of Babylon a quasi-scientific character, though one based not on collections of recorded cases but a set of exegetical rules. (From P.R. Davies’ On the Origins of Judaism, p.52, cited by D. Boyarim in his RBL review. See also P.R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, p.146f)

Being the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature the professor ceased playing with rock song lyrics and required the answer to come from 1 Corinthians 13. This segued into what was sometimes a mantic or divinatory reading of the passage. Thus to render this ancient passage relevant to modern and personal interests there were times when they interpreted it the way ancient priests read meaning from the entrails of a sacrificed sheep or the way astrologers have always interpreted the heavenly lights. Apply the rule that scripture is a self-explaining system and see what meanings emerge when the word “love” is treated as a cipher for God, or for oneself. (The semantic game itself is flawed, however, because 1 Corinthians does not “define” the word for “love” per se; rather, it offers a series of things love “does” or how it is expressed.)

A more reliable way to understand what the Bible means by “love” is to take Professor Hector Avalos‘s approach in the opening chapter of The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics and examine the way the word is used in the biblical literature as well as in the literature of the wider cultural context (Near Eastern, Greco-Roman) of those scriptural texts.

Though Avalos’s focus is on the figure of Jesus his discussion embraces the wider context of the cultural and literary heritage as it comes together in the words attributed to Christianity’s beloved Son of God. Avalos expresses some dismay that so many biblical scholars (and not only Christian ones) routinely attribute to Jesus an ethic of love that was astonishingly advanced for his day. If these scholars were as well informed about the wider world of ideas from which the Bible emerged as they are about the Bible itself they could scarcely make such claims, Avalos argues.

Take Jesus’ teaching to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Many of us know that this is not really original but is really a citation of Leviticus 19:18. Jesus was quoting the Old Testament. Avalos reminds readers that “your neighbour” in the Leviticus passage

is actually best understood as ‘your fellow Israelite’.

For the details he refers to Harry Orlinsky’s essay, “Nationalism-Universalism and Internationalism in Ancient Israel” in Translating and Understanding the Old Testament; Essays in Honor of Herbert Gordon May (1970), and to John Meier’s fourth volume in his Marginal Jew series, Law and Love (2009).

Indeed, Lev. 19:18 does not obligate universal love, but, in fact, is premised on privileging love for fellow Israelites over love for non-Israelites. (p. 33)

Attempts to reinterpret the passage to make it conform to ideals of universal brotherhood are without “sound linguistic parallels” and “supporting documentation” — and are entirely speculative.


Epictetus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not that the ancient world was bereft of the concept of “unconditional universal humanity”. The moral teaching of early Christianity was “conditioned by adherence to a particular religion.” To find “modern” ideas of the universality of human kinship one must turn to the predominant philosophy in the Roman world, Stoicism. (The link is to Wikipedia’s notes on the social philosophy of Stoicism.) Avalos cites various scholars including the following (although I have quoted my own selections from them):

In short, Stoic theory is decidedly universalistic in its scope and makes no ethical differentiation between particular groups of people. (Runar M. Thorsteinsson, Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality, p. 192)

Thorsteinsson certainly grants that various moral teachings in the New Testament epistles enjoin a peaceful disposition towards society at large,

However, a closer examination of the texts shows . . . there is a fundamental division between those within and those outside the Christ-believing community. (p. 205. The reference here is specifically to 1 Peter and the epistle of Romans.)

Love for enemies — it’s so BC

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The modern world is organized a lot like feudalism

by Neil Godfrey

Coincidentally this brief post dovetails well into the moral point of the preceding one by Tim. Though the immediate topic concerns refugees a more general failure of many Western nations is being addressed.

carens (1)

Joseph Carens

To me it seems a lot like the modern world is organized a lot like feudalism.

So under feudalism there were a few people born into nobility, the vast majority of people were born into peasantry, and they were locked into their class positions. Well, in the modern world, being born into a rich state in Europe or North America or Australia or New Zealand is a lot like being born into the nobility. (Even though some of us are a lesser nobility.) And being born into a poor state in the Global South is a lot like being born into the peasantry. That’s where the vast majority of humankind is.

And the closure of borders, keeping people from moving, just as under feudalism, keeps people in their place.

Now this is not the natural order of things. People just take it for granted. But the whole way we have organized the world is a human construction. And we have to say “What justifies that?” People in Australia, Canada . . . If they were on the other side, why would they think this set up of arrangements is fair? And what makes it legitimate? And I think it isn’t, clearly, if you think about that and that it ought to be transformed. There should be much more equality within the world as a whole and much more freedom to move.

My transcription from Radio National’s Late Night Live interview with Professor Joseph Carens, Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, Who will protect the refugees? 

It’s a provocative image. I’m sure many of us have had similar visions from time to time in our more reflective moments.

Carens was responding to interviewer Philip Adams’ raising the question of a morality that extends beyond the immediate question of refugees. The program was about refugees but Carens’ ethical concerns do not begin and end there:

Adams: . . . There’s got to be a much wider sense of communal morality.  read more »


Understanding the Nature of Religion and the Religious

by Neil Godfrey

Emile Durkheim

This post is in some ways a response to the Jerry Coynes and Sam Harris’s and others who blame religions for human actions; it is also a response to my reading a certain professor’s study of Christian origins from a perspective that yields no quarter to any explanation that resorts to “something unknowable to the modern historian”.

In this post I will outline a way of understanding the nature of religion — as well as an understanding of what religious believers are really engaged in with their beliefs and practices — from a considered empirical perspective. Religion is a human creation and should be understood like any other human activity.

Yet in reality religion is rarely seen as something so natural or as something that can be evidently explained in mundane human terms.

If someone religious does something crazy or cruel many of us are likely to blame the religion itself as a cause as if the religion is a monstrous force that took possession of willing or unwilling slave. Some even speak of religious memes as if there are free-floating genetic-like forces that can infect and plague the unwary.

If someone joins a bizarre cult many of us will likely say brainwashing was to blame.

Religions can appear to be mysterious powers, divine or demonic.

Religious scholars and even those not so religious can scarcely bring themselves to understand the origins of a great faith in terms of the same sorts of historical forces that are assumed to give rise to other institutions.

Despite the diversity of Christian views on the subject, Christians almost universally assume that something extraordinary stands at the very beginning of Christianity. Whether this extraordinary moment is understood in terms of the singular intrusion of the divine into history, or in terms of the revolutionary way in which the historical Jesus awakens the numinous in others, the origin of Christianity for Christians remains unique. [Citations here to works by Crossan, Borg, Keck.] Apparenty, as Rodney Stark’s recent account demonstrates, the power of this presumption of uniqueness is great enough to immunize the extraordinary nature of Christian origins against even the explanatory efforts of sociologists. (J.C. Hanges “Durkheim and Early Christianity” in Reappraising Durkheim for the Study and Teaching of Religion Today ed by T.A. Idinopulos and B.C. Wilson, 2002, p. 143, my bolding)

For James Constantine Hanges (quoted above) as a historian of religion this is not good enough. Christianity, indeed any religion, “must be explicable in terms of empirical processes, especially in terms of the processes of social formation.” (p. 144)

Returning to Durkheim cannot be done presently without recognizing the serious criticisms to which his theory of religion has been subjected. While we have started with Durkheim’s analysis of the totemic religion of clans, in light of Durkheim’s almost total dependence on what subsequent fieldwork has show to be fundamental misapprehensions of the ethnographic facts, we can continue only by extracting from Durkheim’s work the sociological principles that guided it. We must then speak of social groups and the unifying role of symbols, instead of clans and totems. If Durkheim’s system is to prove useful, we should find these funda- mental principles and observations helpful in understanding the truth of the social formation of early Christianity, as it is expressed in the cult itself. (Hanges, “Durkheim and Early Christianity”, p.144)

For this understanding Hanges turns to Émile Durkheim‘s sociological understanding of the nature and origins of religions. The beauty of this approach is that it enables a

a means by which to disrupt [our] accepted religious categories and to make something familiar seem suddenly very strange. (p. 144)

Reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s famous quote about travel:

The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.

Everything that follows is based on my reading of some of Hanges’ explanations of Durkheim’s sociological explanation of religion (from Reappraising above and other works) and a perusal of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (online). So understand these are elementary student notes cut very bare for a basic overview. With apologies to genuine students of sociology!

Here goes.

The Two Truths of Religion

To understand religion in modern societies Durkheim began by examining how religion worked in primitive societies. This way he expected to understand the fundamental principles of social institutions that become increasingly complex in the societies we know. Though religious ideas and institutions in modern societies are complex they can nonetheless be more easily understood if we can see the more primitive forms from which they have derived.

There are probably only two truths that are expressed in any stable religion —

  1. the nature of the individual

  2. the nature of society

Every individual is aware that he lives at two levels: as a private individual limited by his physical body and as a member of society, as part of a group that transcends any individual.

Society wields a power external to us and that is far greater than any of us. It represents an identity that is greater than any one person. Each of us has a very close (and subordinate) relationship with it. We each live in some sort of communion with this power.

I think we can see where this idea is headed with respect to the origin of “god”. read more »


The Object of Torture

by Tim Widowfield

I have two reasons for spending so much of my free time on ancient history and Biblical studies. First, I have a genuine, lifelong curiosity about these subjects, but perhaps just as important (especially since 2001), I welcome the pleasant distraction from the awful present. With that background in mind, I reluctantly face the subject at hand: Torture. What is it? Why is it used? Who are its defenders?

Category:George Orwell Category:Nineteen Eight...

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‘. . . The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?’ (1984, George Orwell)

Notwithstanding O’Brien’s explanation of persecution and torture to Winston Smith, people don’t normally engage in torture for its own sake. So, why do they do it? Rule number one of power is that it must protect itself. Any threat to power must be met by every tool available. Whatever public excuse the people in power give us for what they do, we must not forget rule one.

The Tool

Torture is and has always been a tool of the powerful, who need not justify its use. Of course, in Western nations the public voices who represent state power will often provide halfhearted justifications for certain acts of torture re-framed under other names. Hence we have Orwellian euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation,” which vaguely reminds me of the unexpected joy of being upgraded to a seat in first class. Who would complain about being upgraded to enhanced interrogation?

The Law

This fuzzy language could make us forget the legal meaning of torture. The federal code could scarcely be clearer:

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