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.


Why Certain Ideas — True and False — Persuade Us

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by Neil Godfrey

I think most of us can relate to this point:

There are many reasons why we find pseudoscience persuasive, according to Dr Micah Goldwater, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sydney.

It is often simpler for us to add knowledge than subtract it, he said.

“It’s actually much easier to add things to your mental model of how things work than to take things away.”

That quote, and the ones following, are from

This principle sounds like what happens when we have a gut-rejection of a new idea we hear for the first time simply because it is one that does not fit our current framework of understanding.

If we are already convinced of, or suspect, something to be true then we are likely to be partial to any thought that reinforces our leanings. It’s more satisfying to “find answers” or explanations for what we understand about how things are than it is to keep finding reasons to knock anything we think we know out of left field. Think confirmation bias. Do we naturally prefer to find ways to fill our cup than to look for excuses to keep spilling its contents?

There’s also the ‘illusory truth effect’, where the more familiar something sounds, the more likely you are to believe it’s true.

As a rule we tend to prefer to believe our “own media” than that of a foreign country. Does not an American prefer to believe the New York Times or Fox News than the China Daily? If one spends a lot of time listening to conspiracy theories then any subsequent suggestion that something behind a government statement is problematic or unclear will be interpreted in a way to reinforce the idea of a conspiracy theory. If one is brought up in a fundamentalist Christian household and community then one is surely more likely to believe anything that tends to reinforce what was has been taught all one’s life about one’s faith and to be suspicious of contradictory ideas.

As a journalist who reports on online misinformation, I’ve spent plenty of time in anti-vaccination Facebook groups or in internet forums that suggest herbal remedies protect against the coronavirus.

In those groups, it’s easy to observe the seductive nature of personal stories. A friend’s nephew whose case of the measles was cured by tea tree oil is more engaging than a dozen dry public health announcements.

The personal anecdote. The personal drama. It’s always going to have an emotional appeal that will tend to be lacking in mere dry statistics.

One study conducted by Dr Goldwater, which has so far been presented at a conference, attempted to understand the power of positive and negative anecdotes.

Participants in the study were assessed on how stories about the impact of medical treatments on ‘Jamie’ (a fictional person) affected whether they would use the same treatment.

Even though they were told that the treatment worked for most people, knowing one negative personal story — about Jamie’s symptoms failing to improve — often made study participants report that they would not want to take that treatment.

“When you are affected by an anecdote, what you are potentially doing is generalising from a single case to your life,” he said. “But it’s possible that it just made you feel icky [about the treatment].”

The appeal of the personal anecdote is probably also why we like to indulge in and be swayed by the ad hominem personal attack on someone saying something we don’t favour. I guess the personal anecdote’s power is also why it features so prominently in evangelical efforts. It’s not just in the world of religion, either.

Humans like explanations that help them predict how the world works.

We are constantly thinking about cause and effect. That can lead us to a bias called ‘illusory causation’, where we interpret a causal effect when there really isn’t one.

If you take herbal medication for a cold and then get better two days later, you might assume the medicine did the trick.

“The bias people have is they don’t think, ‘wait, what would have happened if I didn’t take that herbal medication?’,” Dr Goldwater said.

“Well, you probably would have gotten better in two days just the same.”

The antidote:

“If you are constantly sceptical of your own thinking, that is potentially the best way to vet yourself,” he said.

But this is a struggle, even if it’s your life’s work.

I try. Or at least I like to think I try.


Religious Belief: “A Moment of Rest” from Reality

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by Neil Godfrey

Religions can fuel humane ideals, transform and support individuals performing good deeds, and stimulate creative urges and artistic expressions. At the same time, throughout history people have initiated unspeakable human suffering in the name of religion. Religion per se, then, is neutral. Religions can heal or poison individuals, depending upon specific psychological make-up and group influence. . . . . 

* Winnicott [link is to pdf] saw the foundations of religious feeling as present in the normal emotional development process of the child, of which he understood the “transitional object” — the blanket that the “Peanuts” cartoon character Linus carries everywhere is an example of a transitional object — to be a universal element. (p. 128)

If the child’s development is normal, he or she eventually develops an acceptance of the “not-me” world, the indifference of the universe, and, accordingly, to logical thinking. However, people also need “moments of rest,” if you will, during which they do not need to differentiate between what is real and what is illusion, in which logical thinking need not be maintained, and it is in these moments that the relation to the transitional object* echoes throughout a lifetime. At moments of “rest,” then, a Christian might know that it is biologically impossible for a woman to have a baby without the semen of a man, but also believe in the virgin birth. Rationally, we might know that no one really sees angels, but we may behave as if they exist. In other words, the function of the transitional object remains available to us for the rest of our lives, in support of the religious beliefs given to the growing child by family members and other adults in the child’s environment. The need for what I am calling “moments of rest” varies from individual to individual, and from social subgroup to subgroup. Some people declare that they do not require such religious moments of rest, but perhaps they refer to the same function by different names. For example, they may “play” the game of linking magical and real in astrology, or paint abstract paintings that represent a mixture of illusion and reality. 

Volkan, Vamik. 2004. Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror. Charlottesville, Va: Pitchstone Publishing. pp. 124, 129 (my highlighting)


Dangerous Charisma, Cults and Trump

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by Neil Godfrey


“in times of crisis, individuals regress to a state of delegated omnipotence and demand a leader (who will rescue them, take care of them)”

and that

“individuals susceptible to (the hypnotic attraction of) charismatic leadership have themselves fragmented or weak ego structures.”

Jerrold Post believes the above hypotheses find support in clinical studies of persons who join charismatic religious groups, those with narcissistic personality disorders, and “psychodynamic observations of group phenomena”. Post and Doucette in Dangerous Charisma

describe the consequences of the wounded self on adult personality development and emphasize how narcissistically wounded individuals are attracted to charismatic leader-follower relationships, both as leaders and as followers.

As I read Dangerous Charisma I was regularly reminded of the time I joined a religious cult years ago and the stories that were regularly shared among members of “how God called us into his church”: certainly most, if not all, of the personal narratives involved tales of some kind of crisis each of us experienced and how “God rescued us” through leading us to encounter his “end-time Apostle”. After I left the cult I attended several other churches for a time and found the same sorts of experiences being “witnessed” even among less extreme fundamentalists or evangelical type Christians. Another perception that hit me, disturbingly, after having left the cult was seeing many of the same vulnerabilities, errors in thinking and willingness to rationalize the irrational and unprovable in society generally. Indeed, Post and Doucette make the point that the model they describe can work for good as well as evil: in times of crisis many turned to the charismatic Churchill, but that after the crisis was over the need for that sort of leader also passed and he was voted out. Other positive instances of such relationships involved Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi. But we all know there are weeds in the garden as well as fruit.

Two types of personality are described:

The mirror-hungry personality

This is the cult leader, whether religious (Herbert W. Armstrong) or political (Donald J. Trump)

The first personality pattern resulting from “the injured self” is the mirror-hungry personality. These individuals, whose basic psychological constellation is the grandiose self, hunger for confirming and admiring responses to counteract their inner sense of worthlessness and lack of self-esteem. To nourish their famished self, they are compelled to display themselves in order to evoke the attention of others. No matter how positive the response, they cannot be satisfied, but continue seeking new audiences from whom to elicit the attention and recognition they crave.

The ideal-hungry personality

This is the follower who is nourished by the above leader and who in turn nourishes that same leader:

The second personality type resulting from “the wounded self” is the ideal-hungry personality. These individuals can experience themselves as worthwhile only so long as they can relate to individuals whom they can admire for their prestige, power, beauty, intelligence, or moral stature. They forever search for such idealized figures. Again, the inner void cannot be filled. Inevitably, the ideal-hungry individual finds that their god is merely human, that their hero has feet of clay. Disappointed by discovery of defects in their previously idealized object, they cast him aside and searches for a new hero, to whom they attach themself in the hope that they will not be disappointed again.

The wounded self can arise from social, economic, personality crises. Job and economic and health insecurities, fears of one’s neighbours and newcomers and of conspiracies of powerful forces in government.

Post and Doucette emphasize that this model does not tell the whole story of Trump or political movements arising from the dynamics of the two types feeding off each other, but it does offer some insight into “charismatic leader-follower relationships.”

The charismatic leader as the mirror-hungry personality

The mirror-hungry leader requires a continuing flow of admiration from his audience in order to nourish his famished self. Central to his ability to elicit that admiration is his ability to convey a sense of grandeur, omnipotence, and strength. These individuals who have had feelings of grandiose omnipotence awakened within them are particularly attractive to individuals seeking idealized sources of strength. They convey a sense of conviction and certainty to those who are consumed by doubt and uncertainty. This mask of certainty is no mere pose. In truth, so profound is the inner doubt that a wall of dogmatic certainty is necessary to ward it off. For them, preserving grandiose feelings of strength and omniscience does not allow acknowledgment of weakness and doubt.

The leaders love the adulation of the crowds and can often speak for hours basking in their admiration; and the crowds love to be there, feeding and feeding off them.

The Language of Splitting is the Rhetoric of Absolutism

Central to the rhetoric is the “us-them”, the “me-not me”, the “good versus evil”, “strength versus weakness”, you are “with us or against us”. There’s nothing new here:

Maximilien Robespierre: “There are but two kinds of men, the kind that is corrupt and the kind that is virtuous.”

Hitler dwelt on the themes of strength and weakness, purity and impurity, the chosen (Germans) and the not chosen (Jews). The world is divided and one must conquer the other or be conquered.

We see this mindset in leaders who are convinced, and whose followers are also convinced, they are called on a religious mission. Followers often see the power of God behind them and the entire world of Satan is their opposition. Continue reading “Dangerous Charisma, Cults and Trump”


Identity Fusion, Cults and Trump

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by Neil Godfrey

“Why do we do destructive things—to others, and to ourselves? Why do we so often act against our own interests?”

I’ve been catching up on a number of research articles exploring the psychology of Trump followers and am surprised how closely some of the ideas cohere with what I have experienced and learned about the reasons people get mixed up in religious cults. One book I have started and that has me totally in its thrall at the moment is Dangerous Charisma: The Political Psychology of Donald Trump and His Followers by Post and Doucette. I will be sure to write more about that work before too long. But for now, I am keeping it simple and will address just one idea that in part has an overlap with what I have read so far in Dangerous Charisma. What follows is from an article in a September 2019 issue of The Atlantic, “The Most Dangerous Way to Lose Yourself: ‘Identity fusion’ might explain why people act against their own interests.”

The main idea is

that people are always striving to create a world in which their ideas of themselves make sense. We are motivated, sometimes above any sense of morality or personal gain, simply to hold our views of ourselves constant. This allows us to maintain a coherent sense of order, even if it means doing things the rest of the world would see as counterproductive.

William Swann

It has been developed by Professor William Swann and claims that

we tend to prefer to be seen by others as we see ourselves, even in areas where we see ourselves negatively. As opposed to cognitive dissonance — the psychological unease that drives people to alter their interpretation of the world to create a sense of consistency — self-verification says that we try to bring reality into harmony with our long-standing beliefs about ourselves.

Think of those who tend to sabotage their relationships and withdraw from others who genuinely appreciate them. Their view of themselves is negative and they find it unbearable that others should not agree. That sounds crazy (maybe because it is) but Swann suggests that such behaviour

might actually be part of a fundamental “desire to be known and understood by others.”

That makes sense to me. Maybe it’s not so crazy.

We naturally form bonds with others, whether with family or a religion. Others in this context can be extremely important to us but we don’t generally “identify” with them to the extent that we lose our own separate identity.

Sometimes (and that’s the word that will need to be understood) people do lose their identities to the group, though. Swann posits that the 9/11 terrorists totally lost their personal identities to a group identity that enabled them to die and kill on a horrendous scale. The concept Swann talks about is identity fusion.

The phenomenon is sometimes described as a visceral feeling of oneness with a group or person, and sometimes as an expansion of the self.

“When people are fused, your personal identity is now subsumed under something larger,” says Jack Dovidio, a psychology professor at Yale. One way researchers test for fusion is to ask people to draw a circle that represents themselves, and a circle that represents another person (or group). Usually people draw overlapping circles, Dovidio explains. In fusion, people draw themselves entirely inside the other circle.

“This isn’t the normal way most people think about identity,” says Jonas Kunst, a psychology researcher at the University of Oslo.

Rational discussion that challenges the views of someone whose identity is so fused with a collective or another is impossible. Most people (surely) are open to accepting and debating challenges to their groups’ identities but someone whose personal identity is so fused and lost wholly within the group will see such questions as threats to their identity, a personal threat to themselves.

Arguments about climate change, for example, might not actually be about climate change, and instead about people protecting their basic sense of order and consistency.

Identity fusion is not merely blind obedience to group expectations or submission out of fear, but something much more dangerous:

Fusion is not a bunch of individuals contorting their way of thinking, but a bunch of individuals suspending their way of thinking. “It makes us more likely to do extreme things that aren’t consistent with our normal identity,” Kunst says. “It allows you to do things you couldn’t conceive of doing.”

Oh yes. I bitterly recall some cruel and hurtful things I did, even life-threatening things, when I was totally one {fused) with a religious cult years ago. I think of the pain I hurt my parents, and how I almost allowed a child to die from refusing medical treatment.

Does identity fusion help explain Trump supporters? A set of studies that used an “identity fusion scale” found that

Americans who fused with Trump — as opposed to simply agreeing with or supporting him — were more willing to engage in various extreme behaviors, such as personally .ghting to protect the U.S. border from an “immigrant caravan,” persecuting Muslims, or violently challenging election results.

Why do people who stridently oppose “big government” suddenly find themselves cheering on acts of “extreme authoritarianism”? No problem, according to identity fusion theory:

Value systems are only contradictory if they’re both activated, and “once you step into the fusion mind-set, there is no contradiction.”

Enter the charismatic leader

Continue reading “Identity Fusion, Cults and Trump”


Challenging Steven Pinker’s Better Angels View of Human Nature and the History of War

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by Neil Godfrey

So by this measure too, states are far less violent than traditional bands and tribes. Modern Western countries, even in their most war-torn centuries, suffered no more than around a quarter of the average death rate of nonstate societies, and less than a tenth of that for the most violent one.

Thus concludes Stephen Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2012). He supplies tables to illustrate his point (click on the images to read larger text):

Pinker concludes from the above statistics that concerning warfare there has been a historical “retreat from violence”. Over millennia our species has transitioned

from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history to the first agricultural civilizations with cities and governments, beginning around five thousand years ago. With that change came a reduction in the chronic raiding and feuding that characterized life in a state of nature and a more or less fivefold decrease in rates of violent death. I call this imposition of peace the Pacification Process.

But there is a problem.

Still, there are many ways to look at the data—and quantifying the definition of a violent society. A study in Current Anthropology published online October 13 acknowledges the percentage of a population suffering violent war-related deaths—fatalities due to intentional conflict between differing communities—does decrease as a population grows. At the same time, though, the absolute numbers increase more than would be expected from just population growth. In fact, it appears, the data suggest, the overall battle-death toll in modern organized societies is exponentially higher than in hunter–gatherer societies surveyed during the past 200 years. 

Stetka, Bret. 2017. “Steven Pinker: This Is History’s Most Peaceful Time–New Study: ‘Not So Fast.’” Scientific American. November 9, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/steven-pinker-this-is-historys-most-peaceful-time-new-study-not-so-fast/.  (Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations.)

Here is some detail from that Current Anthropology study by Dean Falk and Charles Hildebot.

The objection raised by Stetka above is that Pinker overlooks the scaling factor when he interprets the raw statistics.

Psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that humans “started off nasty and . . . the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction” (Pinker 2011:xxii). Figure 1 [Figure 2-2 above], reproduced from Pinker, illustrates his main evidence for asserting that states are less violent than small-scale “hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history” (Pinker 2011:xxiv); however, because this figure depicts annual rates of war deaths suffered per 100,000 people, these ratios are blind to actual population sizes. (Falk and Hildebot)

By factoring in population sizes, F&H observe that the numbers of war deaths have increased exponentially as populations increase. Their studies were based on direct war or inter-group conflict deaths relative to population sizes of

  • 11 chimpanzee communities,
  • 24 human nonstates,
  • 19 and 22 countries that fought in World War I and World War II.

Clicking on the following F&H image will enlarge it to allow for clearer detail:

The chimpanzees make an interesting comparison. Chimpanzee communities engage in deadly violence against one another but the numbers of absolute deaths suffered are unrelated to the sizes of their communities.

A Cochran-Armitage trend test indicates that, as mean chimpanzee population sizes increase, the percentages of mean annual deaths from external aggressors that are observed, inferred, or suspected decrease . . . . A reduced major axis regression . . . shows that the absolute number of annual deaths suffered by a population is unrelated to its size . . . . 

Image by Jack Mobley

To come full circle, assertions that humans living in states have become less violent than those living in nonstates, with the assertions being based on blind ratios of annual war deaths relative to population sizes (e.g., war deaths per 100,000 people), are parallel to the untenable assertion that squirrel monkeys are smarter than humans because they have relatively large (blind) ratios of brain sizes divided by body sizes. (F&H)

Are state societies less war-mongering than nonstate societies?

[N]onstates should be viewed as neither more nor less fundamentally violent than the countries that fought in World War I and World War II, because severity of war deaths scales nearly identically with population sizes in all three groups.

The more severe the anticipated casualties in a war the less frequent war occurs.

. . . thus, in 97 interstate wars that occurred between 1820 and 1997, “a 10-fold increase in war severity [war casualties] decrease[d] the probability of war by a factor of 2.6” (Cederman 2003:136; fig. 3). Importantly, wars causing relatively few absolute numbers of deaths occurred frequently; those with moderate deaths occurred less often; and highly disastrous wars (e.g., World War I and World War II) occurred rarely (fig. 3). . . . .

F&H cite other studies that conclude the likelihood of a third “rare” world war is “a distinct possibility” (because decisions to wage war are found to “[depend largely] on innovations in military technology and logistics and alterations in contextual conditions”) . . .

This is especially so because the onerous liability of weapons of mass destruction has failed to obviate further developments in war technology

The relative periods of peace between “rare major wars” is a sign of how extremely severe the next such war will be rather than a hopeful sign that we have become less violent somehow.

. . . not that larger populations are less prone to violence than smaller ones; rather, larger communities are less vulnerable to having large portions of their populations killed by (or entirely wiped out by) external enemies compared with smaller ones (i.e., there is safety in numbers). . . . 

. . . people living in small-scale societies are not inherently more violent that those living in “civilized” states. Our analyses demonstrate that war deaths scale similarly with population sizes across all levels of human society. 

Other scholars have uncovered the same results:

Based on our results, we conclude that trends in proportions of war group size or casualties in relationship to population are, in fact, described by deeper scaling laws driving group social organization subject to contingencies, such as logistical constraints, expedient needs, and technology. . . . 

Indeed, while the probability of being involved in conflict as a member of a war group or as a casualty of conflict in large and/or contemporary societies is lower than in small-scale societies, it might not be driven by any better or worse angels of our nature. This probability might merely be an emergent outcome of differential logistical constraints and group populations. This probability may also change rapidly based on group conflict needs, expedience, and contingency. The demographic investment of any society in its own conflict issues or the lethality of any conflict then is not a matter of proportions but of scale. (Oka et al.)

Prehistoric Warfare?

Continue reading “Challenging Steven Pinker’s Better Angels View of Human Nature and the History of War”


Who Knows How to Handle Jerks?

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by Neil Godfrey

In a former life many years ago I learned was taught a great lesson by a junior girl in another part of our work area who had to process some of our work outputs. She was obviously being driven mad by our failure to follow some simple procedures we’d no doubt been told to apply many times before, so she sent us all an email that began, “Naughty cataloguers,  . . . ” That introduction was so disarming, it set us all in a positive frame of mind to meekly accept the “blasting” that came our way in a form of collegial correction.

We weren’t trolls or vicious jerks but that lesson came to mind again when I read the following news item: Twitch viewers harassed Aussie streamer PaladinAmber. She clapped back in the best way

The first time she called someone out happened by accident.

“Everyone just went crazy. They were like ‘this is exactly what we want on the news’. And I was like, we can absolutely do this every time,” she said.

“Comedy is the best way to deal with this because people will really prefer a slap on the wrist better if it comes with a giggle.”

There’s proof in the pudding too. Wadham says some of the trolls have even apologised after being called out.

. . . .

“I didn’t think people would appreciate somebody being so outspoken and obnoxiously loud about it,” she said.

“It’s [trolling] such a common occurrence. To have so many people going ‘oh yeah me too, but I wouldn’t say anything so thank you’, it’s just a little bit humbling.”

While it’s worked for her, Wadham is adamant no-one should have to confront online harassment like this if they don’t feel equipped to do so.

Dr Raynes-Goldie agreed, and highlighted how tricky it can be to push back.

“How do you make change in the world but also take care of yourself? Because it’s quite exhausting,” she said.

For Wadham, it’s by shining a light on the worst behaviour on the internet, one fake infomercial or breaking news segment at a time.

And all of that leads to this:

How to Beat Donald Trump

Continue reading “Who Knows How to Handle Jerks?”


Love of Enemies in Antiquity

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by Neil Godfrey

Quotations from an article I followed up for some reason I can’t quite recall. For those interested, and at the cost of misleading readers into thinking the author’s article was overly complimentary of pre-Christian thought …..

On the other hand there is a thought which can be found in the tradition of the Roman Stoics Musonius, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius which leads the reader in the direction of this ethic. Musonius maintains that a true philosopher would never take someone to court for slander. He doesn’t mind being abused, beaten or spat at because he realizes ‘that human beings commit most sins as a result of ignorance or lacking knowledge [namely of the real good and evil]; they stop as soon as they have been taught otherwise’. The Stoa and the whole of pagan antiquity doesn’t know of original sin. Musonius overlooks the phenomenon of the weakness of human will too. So he arrives at a naive anthropological simplicity like that. But because of this conviction the philosopher as Musonius sees him is constantly ready to practise forbearance (συγγνώμη) and regards retaliation (άντιποιεΐν κακώς) and ‘biting back’ (άντιδάκνειν) to be beneath contempt. It is not suffering injustice that is humiliating in his view, but doing injustice.44 Epictetus goes a step further than Musonius when he declares that it is part of the life of a true cynic that while being beaten like a donkey, he does not cease loving the person beating him, as if he were his father or brother.45

44 Muson. Io (see O. Hense 52-7. Here there are parallels, too.) We find these thoughts also in Marcus Aurelius’s writings, e.g. 6.6; 7.22.26; 8.51; 9.13; 18.15-18. The word in 7.22 is often wrongly translated: here it is not a question of loving those who have sinned against us, but of loving those who have fallen (τούς πταίοντας). Seneca and Epictetus only deal with variations on the thoughts of Musonius. Cf. John Piper, ‘Love your enemies‘ (SNTSMS 38; Cambridge, 1979) 21-7.

45 Arr. Epict. diss. 3.22.53f.

. . . .

In Plato’s dialogue Crito Socrates puts forward a principle and from it deduces two conclusions which signify a revolution in fundamental Greek convictions. The principle is: One may never commit injustice (ούδαμώς δει άδικεΐν).’ The conclusions: so one may not repay injustice with injustice either (άνταδικείν) or evil with evil (άντικακουργείν).47

47 Pl. Cri. 49b/c.

Reiser, Marius. 2001. “Love of Enemies in the Context of Antiquity.” New Testament Studies 47 (04).


Here’s an idea: Treat Believers with Kindness, not Contempt

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by Neil Godfrey

Another one well worth thinking about from Valerie Tarico:

Decent people don’t jeer at others who are functioning poorly in some part of life.

With religious belief holding such an outsized influence on our society, it is reasonable that atheists, humanists and other freethinkers push back against religious superstitions, outdated social scripts and archaic rules. But one way we often do this is by ridiculing believers themselves, which is less reasonable. . . . . 

The post is on Valerie Tarico’s blog: Treat Believers with Kindness, not Contempt


The Righteousness and the Woke – Why Evangelicals and Social Justice Warriors Trigger Me in the Same Way

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by Neil Godfrey

Yes, indeed. Not only Social Justice Warriors, but I am sure I am not the only one who has experienced the same in other political, social and religious groups, too…

The Righteousness and the Woke – Why Evangelicals and Social Justice Warriors Trigger Me in the Same Way / Valerie Tarico

It occurred to me recently that my time in Evangelicalism and subsequent journey out have a lot to do with why I find myself reactive to the spread of Woke culture among colleagues, political soulmates, and friends. Christianity takes many forms, with Evangelicalism being one of the more single-minded, dogmatic, groupish and enthusiastic among them. The Woke—meaning progressives who have “awoken” to the idea that oppression is the key conceptexplaining the structure of society, the flow of history, and virtually all of humanity’s woes—share these qualities.

To a former Evangelical, something feels too familiar—or better said, a bunch of somethings feel too familiar.

. . . .

Reaction points:

Two kinds of people, black and white thinking, shaming and shunning, evangelism, hypocrisy, . . . . and the list grows.


Even so, social movements and religions—including those that are misguided—usually emerge from an impulse that is deeply good, the desire to foster wellbeing in world that is more kind and just, one that brings us closer to humanity’s multi-millennial dream of broad enduring peace and bounty. This, too, is something that the Righteous and the Woke have in common. Both genuinely aspire to societal justice—small s, small j—meaning not the brand but the real deal. Given that they often see themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum, perhaps that is grounds for a little hope.


Bob Price — Did you really read Marx?

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by Neil Godfrey

I like Robert M. Price’s academic works on themes related to Christian origins but after that we have little to discuss, sadly. I have had a long term interest in various aspects of the topic of “alienation”, and continue to harbour vivid memories of my post-graduate student days reading and discussing writings by Marx and others heavily indebted to Marx. I also enjoyed reading another work Bob Price references, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. So I got carried away and read a non-biblical post of his, Alienated (21/01/2019). Until I came to this howler …..

The alienation here is quite similar to that at stake in the crisis of sacrifice. In both, what the individual offers/produces is no longer really his own. A hidden, vital link has been severed. And because of it, the individual’s efforts are empty. But is Socialism any better? In the Socialist Iron Curtain countries, the work ethic was vitiated by the realization that one’s work, done well or badly, would not increase one’s wealth but would only vanish down the bottomless toilet of the “collective good.” Is this alienation really any different from or better than that produced by industrial Capitalism?

Oh Bob, oh Bob! Why do you, you who intimate libertarian sentiments elsewhere, fall hook, line and sinker for the propaganda line your government backed by Big Business has fed you ever since, well, probably since 1917.

Marxist Socialism 101: the workers have control of the means of production. Their labour is directly related to outputs. Communes. Soviets. Today we see them in worker-run-and-controlled factories or other businesses. That’s socialism. When Marx spoke of alienation he was not proposing an alternative alienating structure that emerged in the Soviet Union. We know that one of the first things Lenin did was to suppress local soviets or communes — he suppressed the efforts towards true socialism. Lenin stripped worker control away from the means of production and (I assume) falsely called it “socialism”.

Oh, and one more thing. My university education was paid for by national taxes. I invested a lot of time and energy into acquiring what was paid for by others. I have always been grateful for the privilege I was given by society. I feel I owe something to society in return. This blog, perhaps, is one small back-payment. Bob, not everyone who gets something “for free” or without personal “cost” (though I did pay a cost in late nights, sweat and hard work) tosses it aside as nothing to be appreciated.

Damn right wing politics!



Can one prove a negative?

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by Neil Godfrey

R.G. Price argues that you can: Is it really impossible to “prove a negative”?

I think you can, too. Anyone who is innocent of a crime they are standing trial for sure as hell wants a negative proved, too.