Category Archives: Ethics & Human Nature

Atheist Hostility to Jesus Mythicism … making sense of it

I’ve been thinking through how best to complete the second part of my post, Atheists Do Not Understand Religion, trying to figure out the clearest way to present the results of the anthropological research which means trying to get them ever more clear in my own mind first. At the same time I have found myself attempting to apply these particular ways humans work to understanding the answer to the question of why some atheists are so hostile towards Jesus mythicism.

I was working towards an understanding back in March this year but what I have read again in Boyer’s book I think has helped crystallize my understanding with a theoretical or research backing.

We “essentialize” things. Or the words used by Boyer are “essentialist” thinking and “essences”. So in many cultures there is something about, say, blacksmiths that makes them essentially different from “respectable society”. There is some indefinable internal quality about blacksmiths that make them different from everyone else, that makes it unthinkable that your daughter would ever marry one (unless you yourself are a blacksmith). Boyer speaks of an “essentialist inference system” that applies to the way we recognized different classes of objects and even groups of people.

One of the “essences” that many atheists see characterizes their “group identity” as atheists is a sense that they are smarter, more intelligent, more reasonable, than other groups of people who believe in angels and miracles. One essential difference perceived between the two is that the atheist sees himself accepting of the world’s scientific heritage while others either reject much of it outright (young earth creationists) or at least accept it only with qualifications (evolution but with God’s guiding finger).

Other groups that contain the same essential quality of rejecting established scientific and scholarly wisdom are holocaust deniers, flat-earthers, moon-landing deniers, anti-vaccers.

What they all have in common, or the “essential” difference between them all and the atheist, is that they all reject some plank of the scholarly wisdom as established in the trusted centers of learning, public universities and research centres.

One constant that has come through loud and clear from atheists who scoff at the very idea that anyone would claim Jesus did not exist is their pointing to “what the scholars say”. They appeal, always, to the mainstream intellectual academy, and its “consensus”. That appeal, I think, is a constant. We even see some biblical scholar comparing the rejection of the beliefs marking their field of study with the rejection of evolution among biologists or paleontologists.

I think what is happening when certain atheists ridicule or deplore Jesus mythicists is they are intuitively “essentializing” them with the same classes of people who reject the mainstream scholarly institutions in favour of their own idiosyncratic views about the shape of the earth or how old it is and how life got here.

We know they do equate mythicists with such people because they say so openly. But I think many others of us have never understood quite why they do and we have tended to think that if only they heard the arguments they would see things our way. But it doesn’t work like that, does it.

We know they will sometimes listen to the arguments but then reject them outright, often misrepresenting some of them in return. What is going on here?

Boyer also speaks of “coalitional” intuitions. We seek out coalitions that bring likely reward and reduce likely costs in our lives. And sometimes this means that we have to rationalize away certain assumptions about our “essentialist” thinking with other groups:

Now Fang lineages span territories so huge that everybody has lineage “cousins” they seldom interact with. In these rare cases, essentialist understandings of lineage would suggest that you can trust them anyway (these people are the same substance as you are, you know their personality type and therefore their reactions) whereas coalitional intuitions would recommend caution (since this is a first-time interaction and will probably remain a one-time event, why should they do you any favors?). People in such cases generally follow their coalitional intuitions but then reconcile this with their essentialist concepts by saying that they are not in fact certain that these people really belong to their lineage.

(Boyer, Religion Explained, p. 289)

We find ad hoc reasons to reject evidence that contradicts our interests. Atheists who see themselves as “bright” or at least intelligent enough to know God is not real and that genuine knowledge is found in the halls of academic and research institutions will as a rule side with those institutions to maintain their self-image or identity. Evidence that would otherwise lead them to challenge such a position is rationalized away.

Yet there are indeed a good many academics themselves who do indeed question the historical existence of Jesus, or are at least open to the possibility that there was no such figure. We have seen most recently PZ Myers “come out” here; others we know of are Jerry Coyne, Hector Avalos, Philip R. Davies, Paul Hopper, Burton Mack, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Greta Christina, Michel Onfrey, Thomas Brodie, Kurt Knoll, Arthur Droge…. and others. I believe what is happening here is that a good number of people long embedded within the institutions of academe know full well just how flakey some scholarship can be and they do not hold the same unqualified reverence for all its branches and persons as many outsiders do.

 

Head, Heart and the Death Penalty

Or alternatively,

The Cerebral Cortex, the Amygdala, and the Death Penalty

I aspire to embrace humane values and to cage my reptilian impulses to bare tooth and claw. So when I was watching a recent episode of the TV historical drama Poldark and witnessed the death of perhaps its most in-your-face vile and repulsive villains and felt nothing but a sense of pure joy and total satisfaction I had to pause and think.

An online review said it all:

Ossie Whitworth finally got his comeuppance, dragged squealing into the woods after being set upon by Rowella’s husband, and killed in a suitably embarrassing, brutal fashion.

It’s not usually nice to see a Poldark death, but that was particularly satisfying. The greasy, toe-sucking wrong-‘un, so beautifully brought to screen by Christian Brassington, was finally undone by his enormous sexual appetite. And his horse.

. . . . There was a fight, only for Whitworth’s horse to bolt and his lifeless body to eventually ending up bruised, battered and (probably for the first time in his terrible life) limp.

Good riddance to this vile creature of the TV screen!

Who could not (at least inwardly) cheer!

So I had to ask myself what happened to my aspirations to human values vis à vis the death penalty.

Oh how shallow is our ethical progress. Give me a different set of parameters, a pre-arranged set of cerebral inputs, and I’m right back to the barbarism of the theatre.

I see now that the Pope has come out against the death penalty, at last, and has confessed that the new ethic is grounded in a new set of cerebral inputs relating to gospel hermeneutics:

The church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

A related statement expands on that

If, in fact, the political and social situation of the past made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good, today the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes.

How historically contingent is our moral progress, and how fragile given our proximity to the end of organized human life.

 

Why We Connect Moral Judgments to God(s)

. . . . religious concepts are parasitic upon moral intuitions 

How is it possible to live a moral life if we don’t believe in a god?

Without belief in God, some believers shriek hysterically, we would have no moral code. We would believe we would be free to kill and steal and do all sorts of other horrible things.

Christians, Muslims, Jews claim that their God gave humanity its moral laws or codes. Other believers attribute moral interests to their respective deities, too. Gods are so interested in the morality of our actions, we are told, that they will even punish or reward people according to whether they have been good or bad.

What follows is from a book first published a decade and a half ago so others more in the know may be able to contribute more current insights or simply alternative explanations. Pending those updates here is Pascal Boyer‘s explanation for why people connect moral interests to gods or spirits or ancestors that he set out in Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

Boyer writes:

[W]e know that religious codes and exemplars cannot literally be the origin of people’s moral thoughts. These thoughts are remarkably similar in people with different religious concepts or no such concepts. Also, these thoughts naturally come to children, who would never link them to supernatural agency. Finally, even religious people’s thoughts about moral matters are constrained by intuitions they share with other human beings, more than by codes and models. (p. 191)

Boyer begins by addressing the many cross-cultural studies that demonstrate beyond all doubt what all parents have always known: that even young children have moral intuitions. They don’t need to be taught by a thunderous voice from heaven that it is wrong to intentionally deceive someone else with misleading information. No-one taught my infant that it is wrong to lie before he  told his first lie with clear signs of associated guilt. Further, young children know the difference between “moral principles” and “conventional rules”. In a classroom, for example, they know the difference between shouting out in class and stealing someone’s pencil case. They also know that stealing an eraser is not as serious as hitting others.

Most significantly, they know that

social consequences are specific to moral violations. (p. 179)

If they forget or disregard an instruction not to leave their notebook beside the fireplace they will not be surprised or troubled by the worst consequences in the same way they expect to suffer social ostracism or condemnation for being caught stealing.

So experimental studies show that there is an early-developed specific inference system, a specialized moral sense underlying ethical intuitions. Notions of morality are distinct from those used to evaluate other aspects of social interaction (this is why social conventions and moral imperatives are easily distinguished by very young children). (p. 179)

There is something remarkable about such moral intuitions in the story of our development to maturity. Certain actions are seen as immoral for their own sake no matter what, and that understanding does not change into adulthood. Stealing an eraser is wrong, period. Now there might be circumstances where you, the thief, think stealing it is justified — the owner doesn’t care; its owner stole something from you earlier so stealing the eraser is rationalised as “just deserts”; etc. — but the fact remains we know that stealing the eraser is nonetheless a moral breach.

So it is all the more interesting that no such change is observed in the domain of moral intuitions. For the three-year-old as well as for the ten-year-old and indeed for most adults, the fact that a behavior is right or wrong is not a function of one’s viewpoint. It is only seen as a function of the actual behavior and the actual situation. (p. 180, my highlighting in all quotations)

read more »

If there is no God, is murder wrong?

Michael Shermer (head of The Skeptics Society and whose book Why People Believe Weird Things I liked; some of its arguments actually apply to many Christian believers, academics included) has posted a video challenging the fundamentalist/conservative Christian claim that without God there is no secure basis for morality.

Dennis Prager, someone better known to US readers, posted the usual dogmatic nonsense @ ‘If There Is No God, Then Murder Isn’t Wrong’.  (See below for the video)

Now Shermer has responded with – ‘If There Is No God, Is Murder Wrong? He pretty much knocks out the argument with his first question or point one of four. Happily both videos are short.

Paul and Eschatalogical Morality

In a recent post (What a Bizarre Profession), Neil cited James McGrath over at The Pigeon Trough, discussing Paul’s admonition to the Romans not to resist the powers that be.

13:1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  (NASB)

English: The Apostle Paul
English: The Apostle Paul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Naturally, McGrath mainly wished to take a few fizzling fusillades at mythicists, and that’s no surprise. What did surprise me was the number of respected scholars who actually take the scripture so seriously (if not literally), they feel obliged to tie themselves into rhetorical knots over whether and when to refuse to submit to governing authorities.

As Neil rightly said:

This human universal owes precious little to a few words written from a vaguely understood context and provenance in a civilization far removed from ours.

But even if he had written more clearly, and we fully understood the context of Romans 13, would we have any reason to consider Paul a trustworthy advocate for ethical behavior?

The question intrigues me, so I thought I’d compile a little list of reasons we might not want to trust Paul’s advice.

♦ Imminent Eschatology

Paul was clearly a believer in the imminent eschaton. He seems to have arrived at this belief by analyzing recent events, especially the resurrection, in light of scriptural reinterpretation. We might find his method somewhat odd, since he could have cited the teachings of his Christ instead. However, Paul either chose not to mention Jesus’ predictions concerning the coming of the Son of Man and the destruction of the Temple, or else he was unaware of them. read more »

Evolution of Innate Morality

Rosa Rubicondior blog discusses the New Scientist article, Monkeys and dogs judge humans by how they treat others

See Evolution of Innate Morality

Is your dog capable of moral judgements? Is it watching you and evaluating your trustworthiness?

According to a team of researchers from Kyoto and Hokkaido Universities, Japan, it might well be doing so.

Almost to a man or woman, theists will tell you that if gods provided us with anything, they provided us with morals. Neither Christians, Muslims or Jews seem to be able to understand how we could possibly have got morals from anywhere other than their holy book, revealed, so they claim, to mankind specifically to tell us how to behave and what rewards of punishments we could expect to ensure compliance.

Video from the New Scientist page:

read more »

So you’re not a bigot? Why, then, dehumanize the other?

Stroop_Report_-_Warsaw_Ghetto_Uprising_06bScene 1 — dehumanizing refugees

One October morning in 2001 while having coffee at a bustling university refectory I was intently focused on a major story in The Australian newspaper. Claims had been made by leading government figures, including the Prime Minister, that some desperate asylum seekers on a leaking boat had attempted to coerce a naval vessel into taking them to Australia by threatening to throw their children overboard if their request was denied. Some did actually carry out their threat. Children were tossed into the ocean in order to force our sailors to carry out the refugees’ demands.

I did not need to wait for the eventual official inquiry to know that the claims were false. I was a parent and I knew many other parents. I know how parents behave. They do not do what our Prime Minister was telling us that these particular parents did. I could not bring myself to believe that Muslims parents lacked the parental devotion to their children that we find throughout the human race, indeed among probably all mammal species.

But these asylum seekers were Muslim so many Australians did believe the official government sources.

More recently I seem to recall reading about a directive from a government minister for reporters to be kept away from refugees so they unwelcome arrivals could not have their human faces displayed to the wider public.

Scene 2 — dehumanizing SDAs

Twenty years earlier Australians were again deeply divided over the news that parents belonging to a religious cult, the Seventh Day Adventists, had taken their infant child out to central Australia and murdered (many said sacrificed) her. At the time I belonged to a cousin cult, the Worldwide Church of God, and I knew several Seventh Day Adventist. Other members I knew well and I understood very well the strong effort the parents maintained to appear stoical when confronted by the media and again in the court hearing, because such a front how members are trained to act in public in the face of hostile pressure. We knew that the probability that the parents really murdered their own infant was small compared with the probability that much of the purported evidence for their guilt was fabricated in the minds of a public (and jury) ignorant of and hostile towards religious cults.

It took thirty-two years for the parents’ names (or in particular the mother’s name) to be exonerated and the cause of the baby’s death to be officially stated to be the result of a dingo attack. I know people today who still refuse to believe in the mother’s innocence, and I really don’t want to know them.

Scene 3 — humanizing Hitler

I have never seen the 2004 film The Downfall (Der Untergang) but I recall reading about the controversy it was causing. Many were criticizing it because it was thought to “humanize” Hitler. In principle I thought the idea admirable. We should see Hitler as a real human being, as one of us. How else could we ever really understand him, and understand how humans can create so much terror? Always viewing him as a monster, unlike the rest of us, as one whom we can theorize might justly have been murdered in his cradle, does not strike me as the best way to understand how people can create the events of the 1930s and 40s.

Scene 4 — dehumanizing Asians

I grew up being taught that Asians, and especially the Japanese, had a cruel streak in them that was alien to most of us white people. I don’t recall ever challenging that teaching because I knew it was the belief of a generation who experienced the Second World War and for whom the treatment of POWs by the Japanese was fresh in their memories. But as I grew older I came in contact with Asians in a very different context and could not bring myself to believe that their human nature was any different from mine. I was also learning about cultural and historical differences, and even learning that our white soldiers were capable of extreme cruelty themselves in the “right” circumstances.

Pausing to understand

A few days ago a new book I ordered arrived in the mail: Why would anyone believe in God? by Justin L. Barrett. In the Preface the author writes: read more »

Atheism without the extras, please

voltaireWhen Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and those absurdly provocative big bus advertisements for atheism burst on the scene I loved it. Wow! A loud voice shouting back at what had been a steady rise of conservative and fundamentalist religion’s popularity and even political influence — what a refreshing turnaround. So refreshing that at first I tried to overlook a few lines by both authors that betrayed a certain ignorance of the religious mind, but that could not last. It was Sam Harris’s End of Faith that disturbed me enough to want to do my bit to publicly share evidence-based understandings of the causes of Islamic and other terrorism. It hurt to see public intellectuals promoting both atheism and ignorance about religion and human behaviour in the one breath.

New Atheism enters the 21st Century straight from the 18th

This blanket attack on religion and the irrational in human behaviour was all very fine and wonderful and in may ways “a very good thing” back in the days of the Enlightenment. Écrasez l’infâme, crush the infamous, especially the clergy, Voltaire demanded in every letter. But the Enlightenment also ushered in a new wave of learning that has deepened our understanding of how humans work and even what religion actually is. It’s crazy to carry on the war cry of Voltaire and the other philosophes as if we have learned nothing about what makes people religious in the first place.

Of course we ought to do whatever we can to écrasez l’infâme wherever we can, but if our intention is to rescue our fellow creatures from bondage then it must follow that we do so with understanding, even some brotherly or sisterly compassion. If we don’t seriously make an effort to inform ourselves of what scientific research has been learning about religion, religious ideas, and human proclivities in these directions, then we risk sounding like ignorant bigots. Or maybe it’s healthy to temper our activism with good old common sympathy for our fellow creatures. I happen to be one of those who, on becoming an atheist and then looking around for a new sense of place in the world, concluded that we, all of humanity, are made of the same stuff, living on the same rock, all with the same fate, the same desires and needs, and that the best thing we can do in our short time here is to help make life a bit more comfortable for any and every one else we pass by. Many others had found this place long before I did and I know many others continue to do so.

Zeal for righteousness belongs to the cults. In modern parlance that phrase can be translated as devoted to principles. In one sense a principled life is (another) good thing, but principles also kill. Ideologies are grounded in virtuous principles. To live with a sense of common humanity, with compassion, is far better than a life focused on abstract principles.

The more I listened to Hitchens and Dawkins the more I felt that they were losing their compassion and understanding. It is too easy to sound like an brain dead bigot if we are too busy attacking religion to have time to learn something serious about it and why people embrace it.

20120828-A_theismCropped
http://phawrongula.wikia.com/wiki/Atheism%2B

ftbAtheism+ — the morality police, judge and hangman

Then there’s that break away from the New Atheists, the morality police. Merely attacking religion in the manner of the eighteenth century deists and atheists is not enough for these people. They need to attack morals, too. which in practice means attacking persons they deem to be falling short of the higher secular values atheists are supposed to be gifting to the world. I had not fully realized the nature or origin of this particular group of atheists until I read James Lindsay’s blog article, Atheism+: The Name for What’s Happening to Richard Carrierread more »

Morality Increases as Christianity Declines

A landmark in national life has just been passed. For the first time in recorded history, those declaring themselves to have no religion have exceeded the number of Christians in Britain. Some 44 per cent of us regard ourselves as Christian, 8 per cent follow another religion and 48 per cent follow none. . . . We can more accurately be described now as a secular nation with fading Christian institutions. . . . .

Christians, for their part, should not automatically associate a decline in religiosity with a rise in immorality. On the contrary, Britons are midway through an extraordinary period of social repair: a decline in teenage pregnancies, divorce and drug abuse, and a rise in civic-mindedness.

That’s from a leading article in the 28th May 2016 edition of The Spectator: Britain really is ceasing to be a Christian country.

 

 

I Believe I Should but I Don’t, and Vice Versa (Do Muslims Have the Same Psychology as the Rest of Us?)

Connections between beliefs and behaviour are not routine and when they happen they require explanation. Personal experience and a passing acquaintance with a thing we call the subconscious both tell us that.

I am sometimes a little taken aback by the forcefulness of some people’s claims that “of course beliefs determine what people do”. The context in which this is dogmatically asserted is discussion relating to Islam. I really can’t imagine the same dogmatism surfacing if almost any other mainstream religion or non-religious belief system were being addressed.

If a terrorist shouts “God is Great” before opening fire or blowing himself up in a crowded place then bizarrely that one phrase is taken to represent the entire motivation of that act. To point to videotapes and other remnants of far more wide-ranging conversations and arguments in the lead up to that murder will not change some minds.

So I quote here a piece that has long been in waiting to be included in my next post on Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko’s book on the causes of radicalization and terrorist acts, Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us. It won’t hurt to use it now and repeat it later:

Opinions and attitudes are not always good predictors of action. Of all those who might say they want to help starving children, how many would actually donate to UNICEF or work in a local soup kitchen? But for the Russian students of the 1870s, radicalization in opinion was often associated with radicalization in action. How are we to understand this unusually high consistency between opinion and behavior?

One possibility is the degree to which the era was swept up in a culture of change. Tectonic plates of Russian society were shifting, and the young generation who grew up amidst this change, themselves beneficiaries and victims of new hopes and new norms, felt that it was their job to rewrite history. 

Social psychologist Robert Abelson advanced a similar perspective in relation to student activism in the United States. Abelson reviewed evidence that beliefs are not automatically translated into feelings, and feelings are not automatically translated into behavior. He then identified three kinds of encouragement for acting on beliefs: seeing a model perform the behavior; seeing oneself as a “doer,” the kind of person who translates feelings into action; and unusual emotional investment that overcomes uncertainties about what to do and fear of looking foolish. Abelson brought these ideas to focus on 1970s student activism in the United States: 

3. Abelson, R. (1972). Are attitudes necessary. In B.T. King and E. McGinnies (Eds), Attitudes, conflict, and social change, pp. 19-32. New York: Academic Press.

   . . . it is interesting to note that certain forms of activism, for example, campus activism, combine all three of the above types of encouragement cues. Typically. the campus activist has at least a vague ideology that pictures the student as aggrieved, and provides both social support and self-images as doers to the participants in the group. A great deal of the zest and excitement accompanying the activities of student radicals, whether or not such activities are misplaced, thus may be due to the satisfaction provided the participants in uniting a set of attitudes with a set of behaviors.3

As U.S. students of the 1970s discussed, dared, and modeled their way to the excitement linking new ideas with new behaviors . . . , so too did Russian students of the 1870s. [Friction, Kindle version, bolded emphasis mine]

It happens in reverse, too, as we well know (except when some of us have Islam on our minds). Most of us have heard of the Milgram experiment where an unexpectedly high number of people behaved contrary to their beliefs about how they should treat others and suffered emotional stress for a time as a consequence.

 

Where Morality Comes From – a Rawlsian view

Revised some hours after initial posting.

This post introduces the general idea of the fundamental principles of morality being universal and innate in human beings, yet being tweaked and expressed in different ways according to culture, much the same way different languages derive from the same basic principles of grammar that are part of our unconscious makeup.

According to this theory, we rationalise moral judgments and respond emotionally to them. That is, the moral judgments to acts that we witness come first (intuitively, unconsciously) and we react emotionally to these and may attempt to explain our judgments rationally. But reason and emotion are not the origins of our moral judgments, as Kant and Hume thought respectively.

Kant
Kant

Immanuel Kant: It is through our reason and rationality that we determine what is right and wrong. Emotions incite us to acting selfishly and foolishly so true morality ought to be guided by reason alone. We should use our reasoning faculties to determine general moral obligations that would apply universally. Hence his “categorical imperative:

I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will my maxim should become a universal law.

This principle meant that we should never treat people merely as a means to an end, be we should respect others as having their own desires and goals.

hume
Hume

David Hume: Our moral judgements come to us through our emotions. Just as we recognise immediately a beautiful painting or an ugly one, so our emotions tell us immediately when an act we witness is virtuous or immoral. Some personality traits, Hume said, are innate, while others are acquired through our culture. An innately generous person who gives to charity is recognised as doing a morally good thing. One who has learned from society the importance of acting fairly and who resolves to act fairly even against self-interest, is also recognised as a morally good person.

It is our emotional response to some action that is the basis of our judgment on whether or not the act is moral.

rawls
Rawls

John Rawls: Not emotions, nor reason, but unconscious principles drive our moral judgements. We accordingly cannot always explain why a certain action is right or wrong — it just “is”.

We possess an innate moral grammar akin to the Chomskyan notion of an innate and universal linguistic grammar.* Just as we have a faculty for language, one that is hidden beneath our conscious awareness, so we also have a faculty for moral judgments. read more »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studying Religious Beliefs Without Understanding How Humans Work

su_nrg2126-f1_1_2
From http://www.nature.com/scitable/content/plasmodium-falciparum-life-cycle-14465535

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

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

Gullible and weak minded?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Religion Somehow In Our Genetic Makeup?

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_cover

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

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

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

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

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

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