Argument for God — part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Having posted a series setting out Justin L. Barrett’s explanation for why we as a species so easily believe in gods it is only fair that I add a couple of posts pointing out why Barrett himself does believe in “God”. I am not for a moment convinced by his arguments but, as I said, I think it’s fair that I present the full picture. My earlier posts were based primarily on Barrett’s chapter in Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science; this and the next post come from his later chapters in his 2004 book, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (He has written others since.)

In chapter 7 Barrett explores in depth the analogy between our belief in minds and belief in God. I have no problem with the analogy at all. Our “theory of mind” (ToM) and “hypersensitive agency detection device” (HADD) predisposes us to believe in hidden agencies at work in the world and that was the thrust of the earlier posts explaining why we so easily believe in supernatural beings.

But I do have some difficulty with his discussion of “mind” itself. Here are the problematic passages (at least for me; your mileage may differ):

Before turning to specifically how people come to believe in minds, allow me a few observations about belief in minds. First, belief in minds is not empirically supported. Second, belief in minds may occur both nonreflectively and reflectively. Finally, belief in minds is obstinately universal.

First, as with many theological beliefs, believing that other humans have minds is not empirically verifiable. Perhaps surprisingly, no scientific evidence exists that proves people have minds. Indeed, such direct evidence of minds falls beyond the realm of science because minds (as believed in) are experiential and not material. (p. 95)

The question that immediately arises is, “What is Barrett’s definition of ‘mind’?”  What is this specific “universal belief”, exactly? Barrett continues,

This claim may seem shocking. After all, isn’t psychological science the study of minds? Ultimately, what psychologists study is human behavior, including the behavior of brains and nervous systems. Psychologists and cognitive scientists interpret behaviors in terms of mental states and the function of minds. However, minds are not accessible to direct investigation and have not even been proven to exist. Similarly, the existence of minds is not falsifiable. That is, they cannot be proven to not exist. Minds are invisible, intangible, and immaterial (sound like God?)— not the stuff that science can prove or disprove, even if minds seem like good, reasonable explanations of a huge number of empirically verifiable behaviors. It follows from the observation that minds cannot be empirically verified or falsified that people do not simply believe in minds because they have carefully considered the scientific evidence for and against the existence of minds. (p. 96, my bolding)

The error in Barrett’s analysis comes to the fore, I think, in his next paragraph:

Indeed, belief in minds, like so many broadly held beliefs, does not first arise as a reflective belief. Rather, people typically believe in minds nonreflectively and only sometimes form a reflective belief in minds. Most of our reasoning about others’ minds (and our own for that matter) occurs “below the radar,” nonconsciously. When my daughter feels sad or frustrated, I naturally wonder what it is that she wants but has been unable to get. Why? It isn’t because I consciously recollect that many emotional states are the consequence of the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of desires and my daughter has desires that motivate her actions. I simply act as if she has a mind with these properties. This acting as if begins very early in life and continues throughout. Very rarely does anyone stop to wonder why we reason about others as we do or if minds really exist. (p. 96, my bolding)

Yes, belief in “minds” (we might say), originates “nonreflectively”. That is, we do not conceptualize or verbalize another’s emotional/motivational state as the product of “a mind”. The word “mind” itself does not arise at the beginning. I suspect that our word “mind” has very few exact equivalents in most other languages. Has our word “mind” been understood in other eras as something more akin to “soul”? I suggest when a psychologist or anthropologist says we have a “theory of mind”, she does not imagine that most of us have any notion of the word “theory” or “mind” to explain our thoughts of others. No, the expression “theory of mind” is surely entirely an outsider academic construct to describe from a theoretical perspective how people perceive the intentions and wishes and beliefs and behaviour of others. We should not quickly assume that “mind” itself is a real thing, immaterial or material. As Barrett has pointed out, psychologists are studying behaviour and nervous systems — these are the real things. “Mind”, on the other hand, is surely a shortcut term to cover those real things and should not itself be confused with some other real entity.

Barrett again, Continue reading “Argument for God — part 1”


Gods – 6 (Super Gods — An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)

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by Neil Godfrey

Justin Barrett

Earlier posts have surveyed Justin Barrett’s view that religious beliefs, in general, originate from common intuitive inference systems (he calls them mental tools) that enable them to spread easily within and across social groups. But what about beliefs in particular attributes of gods? Can cognitive science explain why super gods, gods with super knowledge, super perception, super power and immortality, are transmitted generation after generation? Barrett says it can.

A traditional view is that we acquire our ideas of God by extrapolating what we know of our fellow humans: God concepts arise from imagining a “big, superhuman who lives in the sky.” Not so, says the research cited by Barrett:

Specifically, super knowledge, super perception, super power (especially to create natural things), and immortality all benefit from the operation of mental tools in childhood development. In all four of these cases, the relevant mental tools seem to assume super abilities for all agents and then, through the course of development, restrict these abilities for people and other natural agents. Because children seem to assume that agents have super properties on these four dimensions (knowledge, perception, power, and mortality), they need not learn these divine attributes so much as have them simply affirmed or left unchallenged (Barrett & Richert, 2003). (Barrett, 195-96)

Super Knowledge

* Supporting this claim Barrett cites “Meta-Analysis of Theory-of-Mind Development: The Truth about False Belief” (2001) by Wellman, Cross and Watson. Other online sources cited by Barrett in this context (all available online):

Research into how an individual’s theory of mind develops shows that at a very early stage, before five years of age, a child assumes that everyone’s beliefs about the world are infallible.* A three year old who knows he has a coin in his pocket will assume his mother knows, too. Only in later years will a child begin to appreciate that another person may not be aware.

A common experiment involves a cracker box. Children are asked what they think is inside it and they all answer, “crackers”. But then they are shown that no, it contains rocks. The children are then asked what they think their absent mothers will think is in the box: older children (from five years) know their mothers will be fooled, too, and think, wrongly, it contains crackers; but younger children generally say that their mothers will know there are rocks inside.

I have provided links in the inset box to where the various experiments pointing to this sort of early belief in the infallibility of others’ beliefs.

A problem I have with these experiments is that they were conducted with children who already had a belief in God. Would not their parents have taught them that God knows everything? But the experiments are complex enough to indicate that the very young children are as a rule drawing upon their intuitions. In another article evidence is presented indicating that young children “differentiate God from humans and resist incorporating certain aspects of the human concept into their concept of God.” This at least speaks against the view that God concepts are an extension of human concepts. See Do You See What I See? Young Children’s Assumptions About God’s Perceptual Abilities (2005) by Richert and Barrett. It’s something I’m still thinking over. Maybe I’m missing a fundamental point?

Anyway, Barrett’s hypothesis is that our mental equipment defaults to imputing “all-knowingness” to other agents and that this gets trimmed down as we grow and learn that others are in fact limited and the ways and reasons they are limited in what they know. No brakes or barriers to God’s knowledge are ever acquired, however. Continue reading “Gods – 6 (Super Gods — An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)”


Fundamentalists Don’t Become Mythicists

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by Neil Godfrey

Not as a rule. Look at the Who’s Who Page in the right-hand column here and you will see that only a minority of mythicist authors or sympathizers come from a fundamentalist background.

If you want to put fundamentalist Christians on some sort of ideological continuum then their polar opposite would be liberal Christian.

In a misinformed effort to tarnish the very idea that Jesus might not have existed some “historicists” have attempted to suggest that “mythicism” has been found an attractive refuge from disillusionment with extremist “fundamentalist” forms of Christianity. Maurice Casey dwelt heavily upon that misinformed assertion in his book Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths? Others have followed in his wake assuming he knew what he was talking about.

I myself have been placed in that category: the fundamentalist who reacted against his fanaticism by going to the “opposite” extreme of atheism and even mythicism. The latest instance is in Christopher Hansen’s book available in draft form on academia.edu: THE QUEST OF THE MYTHICAL JESUS: A History of Jesus Skepticism, ca. 1574 to the Present. There Hansen writes:

The website Vridar hosts a very useful table (though rather outdated now) of Jesus Skeptics and their backgrounds in the church. Of these, Robert M. Price, Raphael Lataster, Frank Zindler, Charles O. Wilson, Valerie Tarico, John Loftus (who is releasing a volume on the varieties of Jesus Mythicism), Hector Avalos, Neil Godfrey, and Tim Widowfield come from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, and since then many of these figures are now active in atheist communities arguing against Christianity.

That characterization is not uncommon yet it presents a common bias. It conveys the image of a reaction from extreme to extreme. A more complete picture would point out that several of the names in the same list are sympathetic or in some way positive towards Christianity and are in no way attempting to “argue against” or undermine people’s faith. More, it would point out that other names in that same list had other experiences of Christianity apart from the fundamentalist one, thus raising the question of whether they stepped from some other religious outlook to mythicism.

A little bio will hopefully go a little way to countering the misguided image presented by those who too facilely link mythicism and atheism with disillusionment with the fundamentalist experience. So here goes. Continue reading “Fundamentalists Don’t Become Mythicists”


Gods – 5 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods)

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by Neil Godfrey

Earlier posts in this series:

Gods (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective) (2020-07-12)

Gods – 2 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective) (2020-07-13)

Gods – 3 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods) (2020-07-14)

Gods – 4 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods) (2020-07-17)

Where Does Morality Come From? — a fifth mental tool (2020-07-18)

Another Interlude with Morality — Why Moral Beings Can Be Brutes (2020-07-19)


Brian Greene discusses a conversation he had with Richard Dawkins on our proclivity to be led “irrationally” by our “mental tools”:

In a one on one conversation his views were very similar to mine. . . . I was saying to him, There are times I go around the world and I will do things that are utterly irrational. I’ll knock on wood for good luck. I’ll speak to my dead father: I know that he’s not really there. I’ll pray to god on occasion if I think that I can use that backup. Not because I think that there’s some bearded individual in the sky; it’s just a behavioural tendency that I find to be comforting and useful. And I said this to Richard. And he said, I totally get it. . . . In fact, I don’t like to sleep in a house that has a reputation for being haunted. . . . For me it was such a beautiful human moment where we were just like being human beings. And he said, We’re both sinners. And I agreed. We are both sinners in that sense, because we know how the world works, we know this doesn’t make any sense, and yes it’s still part of somehow how we behave in the world.

Brian Greene Shares His Surprising Take on Religion and Science 6:50 – 8:00

When our respective mental tools work together we might conclude that amazing things can happen. Our Agency Detector, we might say, like to take the hand of our Theory of Mind in order to intuit the agency’s intention. Does that agent coming in our direction want to kill and eat us? But what about when we experience unexpected fortune or misfortune? As social animals we are very attuned to social consequences of what we do or fail to do. We know there are rewards for conforming to social expectations, rewards for even doing more than is normally expected to profit our social group, and punishments for acting against the interests of our society. If we suddenly find ourselves confronted with an unexpected reward or disaster we like to have an explanation for the change in our fortune. Focus on some examples before continuing.

Sudden death, famine, crop-failure: if we cannot understand the sudden event in terms of our basic (naive) non-reflective grasp of physics and biology then we readily turn to seek some agency or social blow-back to explain what has happened.

Extraordinary luck in life, hunting, crop yield, social favours: ditto.

We have seen how easy it is to imagine the existence of “minimally counterintuitive” agents like spirits or gods, persons without bodies, yet who, like any other person, are interested in social and personal relationships and behaviours. And being without bodies, they are invisible. And being invisible, they can intrude and make themselves aware of behaviours that are hidden from the rest of us. They know what people do in secret. And as persons without bodies that are also moral agents, with an intuitive morality like the rest of us (and as covered in recent posts). They have an interest in punishing and rewarding us.

Gods enter the story because of having particular sorts of minimally counterintuitive properties. Many have unusual powers or invisibility that would allow them to bring about the fortune or misfortune without being directly detected. Perhaps more importantly, their invisibility or super-knowledge gives them strategic information about what people do in secret. Hence, the gods could be acting to punish or reward moral failings that no human could know about. In this way, fortune or misfortune can be easily understood as the action of an agent, motivated by moral concerns. These moral concerns, too, are cross-culturally recurrent because of another mental tool: Intuitive Morality (Boyer, 2001). (Barrett 193)

Further on Intuitive Morality:

Intuitive Morality generates non-reflective beliefs about what constitutes moral behavior. One author has suggested that from an early age, children appear intuitively to differentiate between moral codes and social conventions (Turiel, 1998link is to earlier post discussing Turiel). Though the precise catalog of moral intuitions is a matter of continued empirical research and debate, it appears as though individuals and groups converge upon general rules of behavior that typically frown on murder, adultery, theft, deception, treachery, and cowardice, especially as directed toward one’s own group. These moral intuitions may have a different quality to people than mere regularities of behavior or useful guidelines that might be amended at a later date. Rather, people regard them as immutable (Boyer, 2001; Lewis, 1947 [there is no explanation for this citation in the work I am using]; see also Katz, 2000 for suggested evolutionary origins of morality).

Gods fill a major explanatory niche

Couple with Intuitive Morality otherwise inexplicable fortune or misfortune, and an important explanatory niche arises that gods fill naturally. By working in concert with these non-reflective beliefs, god concepts gain reflective plausibility. The more non-reflective beliefs that converge upon a candidate reflective belief, in this case the belief that gods exist and act, the more likely it is to become reflectively believed. (194)

Further, is it not only a natural step from there to finding out ways to win the favour of those gods for oneself?

Agency After Death

Sometimes our mental tools find themselves in conflict with one another. Our naive biology device tells us clearly that anyone who has died no longer can live, no longer needs food, no longer can be part of one’s life in a real sense. But our understanding of minds is not necessarily tied to our raw understanding of biology. I have hyper-linked the studies or discussions of the studies cited in the following:

But children’s understanding of minds allows and even encourages the idea that mental functions continue after death (Bering, 2002; Bering, Hernandez-Blasi, Bjorklund, 2005). Data from children and adults in different cultural settings suggest that two of our mental tools. Naive Biology and Theory of Mind, offer conflicting non-reflective beliefs concerning death—perhaps especially the death of a loved one (Bering, 2002, Boyer, 2001)

When we think about what others are thinking we usually do so in an abstract sense. We can think about their mental states, their intentions, quite apart from their actual bodies. It is not difficult to imagine how beliefs in ancestor-ghosts might arise, and how their values, wishes, might be called upon to explain unexpected tragedies or good-fortune in our lives.

I’ll give this series a break for a little while but do hope to return to continue Barrett’s explanation for “why people believe in particular divine attributes”. Why is it that we believe gods with super-knowledge, super-powers, down through the generations?

Barrett, Justin L. 2007. “Gods.” In Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science, edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw, 179–207. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press.




Another Interlude with Morality — Why Moral Beings Can Be Brutes

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s stay on detour from our Why People Believe in Gods series of posts for another moment . . . .

Returning to that earlier quotation of James Q. Wilson, here it is in full (the bolded highlighting is my own) . . . .

Contrary to Freud, it is not simply their innate aggressiveness that leads men to engage in battles against their rivals, and contrary to Hobbes, it is not only to control their innate wildness that men create governments.

Are There Moral Universals?

To find what is universal about human nature, we must look behind the rules and the circumstances that shape them to discover what fundamental dispositions, if any, animate them and to decide whether those dispositions are universal. If such universal dispositions exist, we would expect them to be so obvious that travelers would either take them for granted or overlook them in preference to whatever is novel or exotic. Those fundamental dispositions are, indeed, both obvious and other-regarding: they are the affection a parent, especially a mother, bears for its child and the desire to please that the child brings to this encounter. Our moral senses are forged in the crucible of this loving relationship and expanded by the enlarged relationships of families and peers. Out of the universal attachment between child and parent the former begins to develop a sense of empathy and fairness, to learn self-control, and to acquire a conscience that makes him behave dutifully at least with respect to some matters. Those dispositions are extended to other people (and often to other species) to the extent that these others are thought to share in the traits we find in our families. That last step is the most problematic and as a consequence is far from common; as we saw in the preceding chapter, many cultures, especially those organized around clans and lineages rather than independent nuclear families based on consensual marriages and private property, rarely extend the moral sense, except in the most abstract or conditional way, to other peoples. The moral sense for most people remains particularistic; for some, it aspires to be universal.

Because our moral senses are at origin parochial and easily blunted by even trivial differences between what we think of as familiar and what we define as strange, it is not hard to explain why there is so much misery in the world and thus easy to understand why so many people deny the existence of a moral sense at all. How can there be a moral sense if everywhere we find cruelty and combat, sometimes on a monstrous scale? One rather paradoxical answer is that man’s attacks against his fellow man reveal his moral sense because they express his social nature. Contrary to Freud, it is not simply their innate aggressiveness that leads men to engage in battles against their rivals, and contrary to Hobbes, it is not only to control their innate wildness that men create governments. Men are less likely to fight alone against one other person than to fight in groups against other groups. It is the desire to earn or retain the respect and goodwill of their fellows that keeps soldiers fighting even against fearsome odds, leads men to accept even the most distorted or implausible judgments of their peers, induces people to believe that an authority figure has the right to order them to administer shocks to a “student,” and persuades many of us to devalue the beliefs and claims of outsiders. Continue reading “Another Interlude with Morality — Why Moral Beings Can Be Brutes”


Where Does Morality Come From? — a fifth mental tool

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is an interlude, a necessary detour in our series on God and why people believe in God. In that series we have limited our focus to four fundamental mental tools or devices: naive physics, naive biology, agent detection, theory of mind. Before continuing that series I think it a good idea to backtrack and introduce another tool, this one is our moral intuition device. I quote passages from Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

We all have moral intuitions (“My friend left her purse here, I must give it back to her”), moral judgements (“He should have returned his friend’s purse”), moral feelings (“He stole his friend’s purse, how revolting!”), moral principles (“Stealing is wrong”) and moral concepts (“wrong”, “right”). How is all this organized in the mind?

Two possible answers have long been proposed:

    1. the moral reasoning model: people seem to have some very general set of rules (e.g. “do not hurt others unless they hurt you”)
    2. the moral feeling model: many times people seem to simply have a feeling that an action is wrong and blameworthy, or that another action is praiseworthy

But most psychologists say that the opposition between the two models is overstated:

The emotions themselves are principled, they occur in a patterned way as the result of mental activity that is precisely organized but not entirely accessible to consciousness. If this is the case, then the explicit moral principles are optional. They are a possible interpretation of our common intuitions and feelings, rather than their cause.3

That note #3 points to The Moral Sense by James Q. Wilson. Here is an excerpt. Wilson is responding to the common idea that there is no such thing as a universal moral sense. He disagrees, suggesting that what is fundamental and universal is a moral disposition as distinct from specific rules:

I am reckless enough to think that many conducting this search have looked in the wrong places for the wrong things because they have sought for universal rules rather than universal dispositions. It would be astonishing if many of the rules by which men lived were everywhere the same, since almost all rules reflect the indeterminate intersection of sentiment and circumstance. Rules (or customs) are the adjustment of moral sensibilities to the realities of economic circumstances, social structures, and family systems, and one should not be surprised to find that the great variety of these conditions have produced an equally great variety in the rules by which they are regulated. There is a universal urge to avoid a violent death, but the rules by which men seek to serve this urge require in some places that we drive on the right-hand side of the road, in others on the left-hand side, and in still others that we give the right of way to cows. Infanticide, as we saw in the first chapter in this book, has been tolerated if not justified at some time and in some places, depending on the ability of parents to feed another child or cope with a deformed one. Even so, some universal rules have been discovered: those against incest, for example, or against homicide in the absence of defined excusing conditions.

Are There Moral Universals?

To find what is universal about human nature, we must look behind the rules and the circumstances that shape them to discover what fundamental dispositions, if any, animate them and to decide whether those dispositions are universal. If such universal dispositions exist, we would expect them to be so obvious that travelers would either take them for granted or overlook them in preference to whatever is novel or exotic. Those fundamental dispositions are, indeed, both obvious and other-regarding . . . .  (Wilson)

Boyer makes an interesting application of this approach to our famous “golden rule”: Continue reading “Where Does Morality Come From? — a fifth mental tool”


Gods – 4 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods)

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by Neil Godfrey

Not all minimally counterintuitive concepts are good candidates for interesting story material. A potato that vanishes whenever someone looks is soon a forgotten idea; but a potato that can talk to you has potential for many creative plot lines.

In the previous post we saw how certain minimally counterintuitive concepts can have the potential to be strikingly memorable and shared in wider groups. By a “minimally counterintuitive concept” we mean a concept that violates only one or two attributes of that our basic mental tool kit would lead us to expect: e.g. a dog that talks (talks and thinks like a human) is more memorable and interesting as a focus of a story than a dog that experiences time backwards, is born or a rhino that mated with a bullfrog, sustains itself on graphite, speaks Latin and changes into cheese on Thursdays. The latter dog becomes a laundry list of oddities and even begins to lose any identity as a dog at all. A living animal that has the communication faculties of a human is distinctly notable, however.

But not all minimally counterintuitive concepts serve well as religious ideas. Justin Barrett’s chapter, “Gods” (in Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science), proposes that the best religious belief systems focus around minimally counterintuitive concepts that are intentional agents. Recall our most relevant mental tool kit devices:

    • Naive Physics Device (physical objects cannot move through each other; need to be supported or will fall….)
    • Agency Detection Device (automatically tells us that self-propelled and goal-directed objects are intentional agents)
    • Theory of Mind Device (actions are guided by beliefs, by wishes to satisfy desires….)
    • Naive Biology Device (animals bear young like themselves; they are organic matter….)

Justin Barrett points out that researchers have demonstrated by means of experiments involving “moving dots on a computer screen and other artificial displays” that the “agency detection device” is “touchy” or “hyperactive”.

Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie has suggested that our tendency to find agency (especially human-like agency) around us has arisen for survival reasons. Historically, our best opportunities for survival and reproduction and our biggest threats were other agents. So, we had better be able to detect agents. Better to guess that the sound in the bushes is an agent (such as a person or tiger) than assume it isn’t and become lunch. If it turns out you were too cautious (about the wind blowing in the brush, for instance), not much is lost (Guthrie, 1993). This hypersensitive agency detection device (or HADD) produces non-reflective beliefs that agency is present and then the Theory of Mind tool generates non-reflective beliefs about beliefs, desires, perceptions, and so forth of the alleged agent (Barrett, 2004).

Imagine viewing simple movies of the following sort:

(1) Two small squares are sitting in a line, separated by several inches. The first square (A) moves in a straight line until it reaches the second square (B), at which point A stops moving and B starts moving along the same trajectory.

(2) Two small squares are sitting in a line, separated by several inches. The first square (A) begins moving in a straight line towards the second square (B). As soon as A gets close to B, B begins moving quickly away from A in a random direction, until it is again several inches from A, at which point it stops. A continues all the while to move straight towards B’s position, wherever that is at any given moment. This pattern repeats several times. 

Objectively, all that is happening in such movies is the kinematics described above. Perceptually, however, a striking thing happens: in the first movie, you see A cause the motion of B, and in the second movie, you see A and B as alive, and perhaps as having certain intentional states, such as A wanting to catch B, and B trying to escape . . . . 

I think we can all accept this point. We know how easy it is to imagine unusual sounds in a still house are evidence of an intruder, “or “how light patterns on a television screen are people or animals with beliefs and desires”. Barrett cites an article by Scholl and Tremoulet [link is to pdf] addressing the question. Example in the side box.

An agency detection device is quickly activated to explain a wisp of fog or blowing sheet on a clothesline as a person, even a ghost, for a moment.

An agency detective device, in particular a hyperactive one (as they tend to be), come to the fore to “explain” events around us:

An example of an event that may trigger agent detection might be the following. When walking through a reportedly haunted castle, a decorative sword falls and narrowly misses cutting off your arm, just after you scoffed at the idea of ghosts. (Foolish mortal!) Given that a physical object appeared to have moved in a way that was not readily explained by the non-reflective beliefs of Naïve Physics (because inanimate objects cannot move themselves), and the movement seemed to be goal directed (to answer your skeptical comment), your HADD might detect agency at play. HADD searches for a candidate agent. As the sword is not an agent in its own right, a non-reflective belief that an unseen agent must have moved the sword arises from HADD. Connecting this non-reflective belief in present agency to the reflective proposition that ghosts inhabit the castle makes acquisition of a reflective belief in a ghost perfectly natural given the circumstances. The sword falling is an event that HADD might detect as agency.

Barrett adds “physical traces” to the list of things an agency detection device seeks to explain. The word “traces”, though, in my estimation, begs the question because it assumes a causal agent within the very definition of the word. So we have arguments over whether crop circles are caused by space aliens or human pranksters. I would prefer “physical phenomena” to “traces” — many are easily explained but we do come across even natural phenomena that look strange and we are easily led to imagine (erroneously) intelligent agents as their cause.

Here we get into a very messy realm. Many Bible believers are convinced that they see “traces” or evidence of fulfilled prophecy, for example, in their holy writings. Others see “miraculous” gematria at work. And so forth. We know where this agency toolbox leads in these contexts.

Another context Barrett pinpoints as significant is what he calls “contextual” — meaning that if we walk alone through a tree-thick park as evening descends we are more likely to “detect” false-positive indicators of a mugger waiting to surprise us than we would in the fresh sunlight of a morning.

Another opportunity for the agency detection device to come to the fore is in a religious ceremony. (Though again, are we not here begging the question somewhat? But we do see an opportunity for reinforcement, certainly.)

The salience of explicit, reflective expectations for witnessing agency increases agency detection as well. Told that a particular religious event (e.g., a ritual or petitionary prayer) will cause a god to act in a particular way, I would be primed to find seek confirming evidence of the god’s activity.

McCauley and Lawson observe that many religious rituals in which a god or representative of a god performs an action (e.g., as when a priest marries a couple, or a minister baptizes a person, or an elder initiates a youth), the ritual and surrounding trappings tend to be more elaborate and more emotional. One reason offered for this correlation is that the heightened sensory pageantry and resulting emotional arousal impresses upon the participants and observers that the gods are really acting because of or through the ritual (McCauley & Lawson, 2002). This observation leads me to speculate that the additional sensory pageantry excites HADD (perhaps through general arousal) and, in some cases, provides more potential events and traces that might be attributed to the gods.

Yes, we can quickly override those mental temptations to impute agency to a sound from a tree branch moving in the wind, a sound of our house timber shrinking in the cool of the night, but we are still left with our propensity to quickly imagine an unknown and intentional agent being responsible for these sounds, etc.

Even though a single HADD experience might be overridden and not result in a reflective belief, these experiences will be remembered and cumulatively lend plausibility to reflective belief.

To illustrate this dynamic in another way, compare three people:

1. A person walks through a wood after having been told that forest spirits dwell in it. Something ambiguous happens prompting this person to have HADD experiences. The experiences will be likely to reinforce the belief in forest spirits.

2. A second person walks through a wood and has the same HADD experiences as the first person but does not successfully identify an agent that accounts for them, and so does not form a reflective belief in an agent. But after the fact, the person hears that forest spirits dwell in that stretch of woods. Memories for the HADD experiences might be triggered and evaluated as evidence for reflective belief.

3. A third person walks through the wood, having heard that it is populated by forest spirits but has no HADD experiences at all.

Clearly, the first two people are considerably more likely than the third to form a reflective belief in forest spirits. HADD would play a pivotal role in belief formation or encouragement.

It might be that HADD rarely generates specific beliefs in ghosts, spirits, and gods by itself, and hence does not serve as the origin of these concepts. Nevertheless, HADD is likely to play a critical role in spreading such beliefs and perpetuating them.

Next — how the agency detection tool connects events in our lives, and how we live our lives, with unseen agents.

Barrett, Justin L. 2007. “Gods.” In Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science, edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw, 179–207. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press.

Scholl, Brian J, and Patrice D Tremoulet. 2000. “Perceptual Causality and Animacy.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4 (8): 299–309. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1364-6613(00)01506-0.



Gods – 3 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods)

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by Neil Godfrey

In brief, people believe in gods because gods gain tremendous support from the natural and ordinary operation of mental tools. Note that because mental tools and their processing biases arise primarily as a consequence of biological endowment plus essentially universal features of human environments, the factors that prompt belief in gods in Melanesia are the same as those that prompt belief in Scandinavia. Below I sketch several ways in which god concepts receive this support. The first way concerns how god concepts are minimally counterintuitive.

a minimally counterintuitive concept pixabay

As per the previous post, by mental tools we mean the way our brains come equipped with agency detection, with a theory of mind, with a basic set of inferences about the physical and biological environment.

Also as per the previous post, the more inferences we can bring into play from our various mental tools and apply to any proposition or idea, the more likely we are to reflexively or intuitively believe that idea. Our mental tools prepare us to expect our environment to behave in certain ways; that is, we intuitively expect objects to fall when they are unsupported, that foods are made of organic matter, that self-propelled and goal-directed agents act with intent.

Concepts that violate in major ways these properties that our mental tools have come to expect are not plausible and not entertained in our thinking for very long. An example Barrett gives is of a dog that

    • experiences time backwards
    • is born or a rhino that mated with a bullfrog
    • sustains itself on graphite
    • speaks Latin
    • changes into cheese on Thursdays

Such a dog violates so many non-refective intuitions or inferences we expect a dog to have that we no longer have a “portable concept of a dog” at all, but rather “a laundry list of features that do not seem to hang together.” That sort of concept won’t be shared or last easily. We can say that highly counterintuitive concepts don’t last.

However, a dog violates just one or two expectations that our mental tools prepare us for is still easily understood, remembered, and shared: e.g. a dog that is as large as a small horse. Or, minimally counterintuitive concepts can last.

Minimally Counterintuitive Concepts

Take a statue that hears prayers. The statue meets all the expectations of our “naive physics” tool; but it has one extra attribute — a mind, or at least what our theory of mind tool leads us to expect of minds. That is a concept that is easily understood. It conforms to what we intuitively expect of both objects and minds.

A statue that hears prayers may only involve a simple transfer of mental properties to an artifact. Except for this one transfer of property, the artifact meets ordinary intuitive expectations for artifacts (that is, non-reflective beliefs), and the mind of the statue meets ordinary non-reflective beliefs about minds. . . . Compared to how massively counterintuitive concepts could be, successful religious concepts tend to be rather intuitive. They conform to non-reflective beliefs governing the sorts of things that they are—their intuitive ontology. Hence, general plausibility is maintained. But being only slightly or minimally counterintuitive provides god concepts with another asset: facilitated transmission. (186)

We avoid a laundry list of oddities. The statue that hears prayers does not, for example, violate our theory of mind tool. The statue does not hear prayers yet completely misunderstands them; it does not hear prayers that are uttered many miles away; and so on.

And the concept is easily communicated. If only one person has a belief then that belief is a mere oddity. It is when groups of people share the same beliefs in supernatural agents that we have religious beliefs.

So what makes a good religious belief? The cognitive approach to religious beliefs proposes that the best candidates are those that violate only one or two intuitive expectations.

Those that violate a small number of intuitive assumptions can actually make for very strong candidates. Concepts that meet most non-reflective beliefs, but violate just a small number (e.g., one or two at a time) have been called minimally counterintuitive (MCI) concepts (Barrett, 2004; Barrett & Nyhof, 2001). A dog that speaks Spanish would be a minimally counterintuitive concept. A dog that gives birth to kittens would be MCI. A dog that can never die would be MCI. Such concepts enjoy good conceptual integrity and as such are easily remembered, recalled, and shared. Further, the counterintuitive feature may help the concepts to stand out against a backdrop of more mundane concepts, hence improving their salience and the attention devoted to remembering them. Experiments show that MCI concepts are transmitted more faithfully than ordinary or simply unusual ones (Barrett & Nyhof, 2001 ; Boyer & Ramble, 2001*). (187 f. * link is to pdf)

But not all minimally counterintuitive concepts are likely religious beliefs. What makes some better than others?

Take, for example, a potato that vanishes whenever you look at it versus a potato that talks. Both potatoes are counterintuitive but the vanishing potato scores poorly in terms of inferential potential. That is, some concepts more readily generate inferences, explanations, and predictions than others do. Some concepts excite a greater range of mental tools and some mental tools more completely. Consequently, they touch on more human concerns and, due to the convergence of many non-reflective beliefs, carry more reflective credibility. Even if I had some evidence of a potato that vanishes whenever someone looks at it, not much follows from its discovery. A potato that talks? Now that sets the imagination running a bit, especially at suppertime. (188)

Religious belief systems are mostly populated with intentional agents, minimally counterintuitive intentional agents — to be taken up in the next post.

Barrett, Justin L. 2007. “Gods.” In Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science, edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw, 179–207. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press.


Gods – 2 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)

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by Neil Godfrey

Explorations into why we believe and think the way we do should be shared as widely as possible and not restricted to scholarly publications. Hence these posts. (They cover ideas that we have presented before in different ways as they derive from different researchers, but slightly different perspectives on the same fundamental concepts can deepen our understanding of the matter.)

In the previous post we began with the point that we have two types of beliefs: reflective and non-reflective. Here we identify where these different types of beliefs come from. We will see in future posts how this model explains why belief in gods and spirits is in effect universal.

Where Non-Reflective Beliefs Come From

We are not taught everything we know. We are born with a brain that comes pre-packaged with a set of tools that enable us to make reliable inferences about how our world works.

These mental tools automatically and non-reflectively construct perhaps most of our beliefs about the natural and social world. Non-reflective beliefs arise directly from the operation of these mental tools on inputs from environment. The vast majority of these beliefs are never consciously evaluated or systematically verified. They just seem intuitive, and that is usually good enough. (Barrett 182)


We focus on four of these mental tools.

Our Naive Physics Tool

Even as infants we “know” that physical objects:

    • tend to move on inertial paths
    • cannot pass through other solid objects
    • must move through the intermediate space to get from one point to another
    • must be supported or they will fall
Our Agency Detection Tool
    • automatically tells us that self-propelled and goal directed objects are intentional agents
Our Theory of Mind Tool

Theory of mind gives us non-reflective beliefs concerning the internal states of intentional agents and their behaviors: Continue reading “Gods – 2 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)”


Gods (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)

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by Neil Godfrey

Justin L. Barrett earned degrees in psychology from Calvin College (B.A.) and Cornell University (Ph.D). He served on the psychology faculties of Calvin College and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), and as a research fellow of the Institute for Social Research. Dr. Barrett is an editor of the Journal of Cognition & Culture and is author of numerous articles and chapters concerning cognitive science of religion. His book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004) presents a scientific account for the prevalence of religious beliefs. He is currently Senior Researcher at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind. — from “Contributing Authors”, p. xxiii, of Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science.

If I want to ensure a good harvest, I might take care in preparing my field, fertilize, use the best seeds possible, weed, and irrigate. I might also pray or conduct a ritual or in some other way try to get some supernatural help. If I wish to join a community or society, I might register or pay dues or even undergo an initiation ceremony. But I might submit myself to an initiation that appeals to ancestors, spirits, or gods. (Barrett, 179)

Thus begins Justin Barrett’s contribution to Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science. The title of his chapter is Gods. His contribution is an exploration of why it is that people around the world, and for ages past, have made appeals to superhuman or supernatural agencies. It’s not as if the idea of “god” or “spirits” are unique in their ubiquity. Other beliefs are also found in common throughout the human experience: people universally believe in other minds; they also believe in the constancy of physical laws. It’s not only gods and spirits that are some sort of universal.

Barrett begins his discussion by how it is that people come to believe anything at all. And this brings us to the work of psychologists and their experiments on people at different stages of development. One thing has become clear: our minds don’t simply register “the world as it is” through our senses and accordingly “map reality” into our heads like a sponge responding to finger pressures to register this or that “reality point”. No, our minds are a storehouse of modular processing machines. Nothing enters that is not pre-processed in some way:

[The mind’s] normal functioning may better be likened to a workshop equipped with lots of specialized tools for processing particular classes of information. These mental tools arise with built in biases that influence which bits of information will be attended to and how that information will be represented (which might include its being distorted). (Barrett, 180)

There are two types of belief, Barrett explains:

1. Reflective Beliefs

If someone asks you if you believe in something, your answer will draw from a reflective belief. You will know you are not alone in those beliefs. Examples of reflective beliefs:

  • Toyotas are more reliable than Yugos
  • E=mc2
  • pumpkins are orange
  • Michael Johnson holds the world record in the 200 meter dash
  • Harvey Whitehouse is six-feet, five-inches tall

2. Non-Reflective Beliefs

Non-reflective beliefs, in contrast, operate in the background without our conscious awareness. These beliefs may not be consciously accessible and do not arise through deliberation. Rather, our minds produce non-reflective beliefs automatically all the time.


  • People act so as to satisfy their desires.
  • Rainbows exhibit six bands of color.
  • Raccoons and opossums are very similar animals.
  • People from outside my group are more similar to each other than people inside my group.
  • Animals have parents of the same species as themselves.
  • My pants are blue.

Non-reflective beliefs do not depend on verbal reasoning and statements. We can even identify more nonreflective beliefs by studying babies. Babies, we can tell from their eye-gaze, believe non-reflexively that

  • solid objects cannot pass directly through other solid objects
  • unsupported objects fall
  • inanimate objects must be contacted before they may be set in motion whereas people need not be . . . .

So where do these nonreflective beliefs come from? We are not taught them. How do they arise? . . .

Continued in next post in this series . . . . . 

Barrett, Justin L. 2007. “Gods.” In Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science, edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw, 179–207. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press.


Once more on The Ascension of Isaiah and the Cathars

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by Neil Godfrey

One more note on the medieval Cathars and their use of the Ascenion of Isaiah. . . . .

Among the texts that they obtained from the Bogomils was the Vision of Isaiah (chapters 6-11 of Asc.Isa.), a Greek Gnostic text of the first century A.D., which presented a cosmic view of the creation that was in conformity with dualist beliefs. The Cathars did not use the partial Latin translation made in late antiquity, but commissioned a new Latin translation from the Old Slavonic text, a version which the Bogomils had amended to conform with their own teachings.38

(Hamilton, 107f)

The author is relying on R. H. Charles — as per the footnote:

38 The medieval Latin version exists only in a text printed at Venice in 1522 by Antonio de Fantis and reprinted by A. Dillmann, Ascensio Isaiae Aethiopice et Latine (Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1877), 76–83. It was read by the moderate dualists of Lombardy, Moneta di Cremona, II, ix, 4, ed. Ricchini, p. 218. For the full edition of the texts in all versions: R.H. Charles, The Ascension of Isaiah (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1900).

(Hamilton, 108)

But a question arises. If the Cathars held a belief in an appearance of Jesus into another world beyond ours, where he was both born and crucified, what need would there have been to modify the Asc. Isa. by removing that “little gospel”? Surely it could be understood as happening in that other world. If the original Asc. Isa. lacked that passage depicting Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and eventual crucifixion in Jerusalem it presumably was not because the original audience for the text related in any way to the beliefs in the “other world” later reflected among the Cathars.

Hamilton, Bernard. 2006. “Bogomil Infuences on Western Heresy.” In Heresy and the Persecuting Society in the Middle Ages: Essays on the Work of R.I. Moore, edited by Michael Frassetto, 93–114. Leiden ; Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.



Further Details on those Medieval “Christ Mythicists”

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by Neil Godfrey

I am now able to add more information to a month-old post, Medieval “Christ Mythicists” and the Ascension of Isaiah. In that post we saw how Peter of Les Vaux-De-Cernay documented in his history of the Albigensian Crusade against certain “heretics” in southern France known as Cathars

Further, in their secret meetings they said that the Christ who was born in the earthly and visible Bethlehem and crucified at Jerusalem was ‘evil’, and that Mary Magdalene was his concubine – and that she was the woman taken in adultery who is referred to in the Scriptures; the ‘good’ Christ, they said, neither ate nor drank nor assumed the true flesh and was never in this world, except spiritually in the body of Paul. I have used the term ‘the earthly and visible Bethlehem’ because the heretics believed there is a different and invisible earth in which – according to some of them – the ‘good’ Christ was born and crucified. Again, they said that the good God had two wives, Oolla and Ooliba, on whom he begat sons and daughters. There were other heretics who said that there was only one Creator, but that he had two sons, Christ and the Devil; they said moreover that all created beings had once been good, but that everything had been corrupted by the vials referred to in the Book of Revelations.

Of course, the Cathars were not “Christ mythicists” in the way we think of that term. There was surely nothing “mythical” for the “some of them” about the Christ who died in “a different and invisible earth”. I admit I merely use the term “christ mythicist” in this context because it has meaning for quite a few interested readers here in its relation to a belief in a “celestial crucifixion”. I myself have doubted the view of some mythicists — Couchoud, Doherty, Carrier — that any early Christians believed in a heavenly crucifixion of Jesus. I also have come to doubt their interpretation of the Ascension of Isaiah which posits a crucifixion in the firmament above the earth. But I cannot deny the interest that certain beliefs of the Cathars must hold for many of us, including me.

But anyone who has seriously studied the history of the Cathars must surely know of a surviving document by a Dominican friar, Rainerius Sacconi, who claims that he himself was a Cathar for seventeen years. He writes with loathing of the beliefs of those with whom he once identified. At one point he singles out the beliefs of John of Lugio who led a certain subgroup among the Cathars. The account is quite lengthy but I pick out a few details of particular interest. The document, dated 1250, is titled


In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Although at one time sects of heretics were numerous, by the grace of Jesus Christ they have been almost completely destroyed; yet, two in particular are now found, one of which is called the Cathars or Patarines, the other the Leonists or Poor of Lyons. Their beliefs are set forth in the pages which follow.

. . . .

On the Beliefs of John of Lugio . . . .

Also, he thinks that the good God has another world wherein are people and animals and everything else comparable to the visible and corruptible creatures here; marriages and fornications and adulteries take place there, from which children are bom. And what is even more base, there the people of the good God, against His command, have taken foreign women to wife, that is, daughters of a strange god or of evil gods, and from such shameful and forbidden intercourse have been born giants and many other beings at various times.

. . . .
Continue reading “Further Details on those Medieval “Christ Mythicists””


Hercules, a Fitting Substitute for Jesus Christ

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is based on some of the citations in the early pages of Hercules-Christus, a 1947 article by Dutch  Radical Critic Gustaaf Adolf van den Bergh van Eysinga, translated into German by Frans-Joris Fabri and posted on Hermann Detering’s RadikalKritik webpage. I have supplemented some of van Eysinga’s references in places. Other posts addressing Heracles:

Heracles (Hercules in Latin) in popular imagination with his club, his lion-skin, his twelve labours, his violent, gluttonous and promiscuous character, is so far removed from any conventional idea of Jesus Christ that any suggestion of the possibility of a comparison must seem utterly perverse. But the more I pore over the ancient texts I discern ever more striking overlaps at several levels. I try to imagine myself as an ancient dilettante philosopher familiar with the role of Heracles in a range of literary and philosophical writings and place in various devout and civic observances and wondering how I would respond to my first contacts with the writings about Jesus.

Let’s start with a most outrageous comparison. Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkardMary Marshall in her thesis Jesus and the Banquets and again in a derivative article, Glutton and Drunkard?, points out that such an insult was typically levelled at uninvited guests, at those who had tagged along as friends or hangers-on of the invitee: the point, Jesus was classed with those uninvited guests who had the reputation for overindulgence.

Matthew 11:19

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard . . .

Luke 7:34

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard . . .

Bacchylides, Fragment 18 note by Richard Jebb:

Once, when Ceÿx was celebrating the marriage of one of his children by a feast (γάμος), Heracles, being in those parts, presented himself, an uninvited guest. This was told in Hesiod’s Κήϋκος γάμοs, from which only a few words remain . . . .

Euripides, Alcestis, lines 745 ff

The guests I’ve seen here in Admetus’ house have been from everywhere, and I’ve served hundreds. But never have I welcomed to this hearth a guest more rude, more utterly offensive than this one. First of all, he had the nerve to come inside, although he clearly saw my master was in mourning. Once he’s in he lacks the simple wisdom and restraint to take the hospitality that’s offered—he’s aware of this disaster, knows what’s happened! Still, whatever we don’t bring, he asks for. He takes an ivy goblet in his hands and drinks the black grape’s undiluted offspring until the fire of wine has warmed his mind. He garlands his head with pliant myrtle stems and bellows tunelessly. A double melody was heard then: he was belting out his song, with no respect for the sorrows of the household, while we, the servants, wailed for our mistress. . . . It’s only natural that I should hate this guest for showing up at a time like this.

Aristophanes Frogs F. 62–5, 549 ff.)

van Eysinga

SLAVE. You’ve returned, o dearest Herakles! Come on inside.
As soon as the goddess learnt you’d arrived down here,
She arranged for loaves to be baked and had several pots
Of pea soup boiled for you, got a whole ox roasted,
And had various cakes and breads prepared. Come on in!

. . . .

INNKEEPER. Plathane, Plathane, over here! Here’s the scoundrel himself,
The person who came to our inn some time ago
And devoured those sixteen loaves without paying.

Pindar, Fragment 168

The gluttony of Heracles, (narrated by his host, Coronus, son of the Lapith, Caeneus):

Two warm bodies of oxen he set in a circle around the embers, bodies crackling in the fire; and then I noted a noise of flesh and a heavy groaning of bones. There was no long time fitly to distinguish it.

Yes, but. Surely Jesus was blameless while Heracles was not. Maybe. We have different narratives about Jesus, not only canonical ones, presenting quite different characters of Jesus. Ditto for Heracles. And there is always room for the learned to rationalize the myths handed down.

To one type of thinker who meditated on the character of Heracles he was in fact the epitome of self-control.

Thus Pseudo-Lucian, The Cynic 13

Take Heracles, the best man that ever lived, a divine man, and rightly reckoned a God. Was it wrong-headedness that made him go about in nothing but a lion’s skin, insensible to all the needs you feel? No, he was not wrong-headed, who righted other people’s wrongs. He was not poor, who was lord of land and sea. Wherever he went, he was master. He never met his superior or his equal as long as he lived. Do you suppose he could not get sheets and shoes, and therefore went as he did? That’s absurd! He had self-control and fortitude. He wanted power, and not luxury.

Heracles was the personification of the Logos, of Reason itself. (Logos, of course, is translated most simply as the Word in reference to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel.) Mythical tales accrued to the remarkable person so that exaggerated stories transformed him into a being beyond normal human powers. Some of the mythical tales began as metaphors, symbolic of some otherwise genuinely historical aspect. Imagination had to be kept in check, though…

Cornutus, On Greek Theology 31

‘Heracles’ is universal reason thanks to which nature is strong and mighty, being indomitable as well: giver of strength and power to its various parts as well. The name comes, perhaps from the fact that it extends to heroes, and is what makes the noble famous. For the ancients called heroes those who were so strong in body and soul that they seemed to be part of a divine race. There is no need to be disturbed by the more recent story: the son of Alkmene and Amphitryon was deemed worthy of the same name as the god because of his virtue, so that it has become hard to distinguish what belongs to the god from the stories about the hero. The lion skin and the club may have originated with ancient theology and been transferred to the latter – it cannot have seemed right that a good military leader who launched powerful attacks on many parts of the earth would have gone around naked, armed only with wood: rather, then, the hero was decorated with these badges of the god when his services had earned him apotheosis. Both the lion-skin and the club can be a symbol of force and nobility: for the lion is the most powerful of the beasts, the club the mightiest of weapons. Traditionally, the god is an archer, because he extends everywhere, and because even the path of his missiles is somehow unwavering – and it is not an irrational commander who faces his enemies with his trust in weapons like this. The Koans have a tradition that, appropriately enough, he lived with Hebe, as if to make him more perfect in intelligence – as it is said: “The hands of the young are fitter for action, but the souls of the older are better by far.” I suspect that it is more plausible that the service to Omphale refers to him [sc. the god]: through it, the ancients showed again that even the strongest ought to submit themselves to reason and to do what it enjoins, even if its voice (which it would not be extraordinary to call ‘Omphale’) happens to call for the somewhat feminine activity of contemplation and rational inquiry. It is also possible to explain the Twelve Labours as referring to the god, as Cleanthes in fact did. But ingenuity should not always win the day.

One can imagine Cornutus having presented a thesis in his earlier years proposing a study of the sources in order to discern behind them what can be known of “the historical Heracles”. Cornutus was not alone here, though Cornutus did have a reverential view of Heracles closer to the one the fourth evangelist had of Jesus. Other writers clearly distinguished between mythical traditions and historical reality: see the post The Relationship between Myth and History among Ancient Authors for other instances with specific reference to Heracles. Continue reading “Hercules, a Fitting Substitute for Jesus Christ”


The Darkest Side of White Supremacy: The Hanging of Martin Robinson

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by Tim Widowfield

By the time Union troops had begun to make deeper incursions into the western frontier of the Confederacy, well before they cut the South in two by taking command of the Mississippi, the acting abilities of captured rebels had gained legendary status. They lied about enemy strength, location, troop movements, and command structure. They told fabulous tales of starving and discouraged comrades and said they’d rather lose their liberty among the bluecoats than die like dogs in the muddy trenches.

Their ability to recount such stories, which tugged at the heartstrings, did not seem to upset the Northern troops. Instead, they marveled and often laughed at their resourceful Confederate cousins, slapping a thigh and shouting, “Oh, that Johnny Reb!”

It was all part of the game. White soldiers generally forgave other white soldiers. Why, after all, blame a good person for resorting to subterfuge when their lives and homes were in danger? American culture, since whites first began to settle the discovered territories of Massachusetts and Virginia, tacitly accepted the fact that white people are mostly good. As proof, we may point to the gift of white civilization, which we bestow upon all who fall beneath our gentle heel. And there’s more.

A hanging tree

If you search the web today, you can, for example, learn much from conservative thinkers who trumpet the good fortune of slaves who were taken from Africa to live in the greatest country on Earth. How else would they have been led to Christianity? Surely, white apologists tell us, masters would not abuse their valuable property. It just stands to reason. And can you imagine all the bountiful food and fresh air? They were clearly better off. Such attitudes lie at the root of white complaints about the ingratitude of inferior people.

As you might suspect, the playful disinformation game was strictly a whites-only affair. You should understand that white superiority wasn’t (and isn’t) based on the idea that whites score higher than anyone else on the intelligence tests they have written. A careless reader who skims the surface of caucasian apologia might think we reached the top of the pecking order thanks to our brainpower.

But intelligence plays only a minor role here. The manly virtues of strength, courage, righteousness, trustworthiness, and honor mark the true nature of the white gentleman. Here we find the foundations of the benefit of the doubt we still extend exclusively to whites. When the gentleman resorts to violence to defend his property or his supposed honor, we presume he must have had good reason. When a white man brandishes a weapon, we must do our utmost to hear him out and talk him down.

White superiority is chiefly about moral superiority, not intellectual superiority. After all, the inferior person may frequently demonstrate shrewdness, using innate intelligence for dark purposes. Presumption of innocence does not apply here. Heaven help the sly person of color who outsmarts the morally superior white man.

Heaven did not help Martin Robinson, an African American guide, hanged on March 1, 1864. I first encountered this sad tale while reading the second volume of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. You can find a somewhat fuller account in Historic Records of the Fifth New York Cavalry, a day-to-day chronicle of the regiment by the good Reverend Louis N. Boudrye. Continue reading “The Darkest Side of White Supremacy: The Hanging of Martin Robinson”