Don’t tell me about it, tell God!

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by Neil Godfrey

A word search on this blog will bring up many posts I have written on Marlene Winnell’s Leaving the Fold, one of the books that helped me in my “recovery” to a life after somewhat extreme fundamentalism.

My life paused for a moment the other day when, while sorting out old junk, I came across a little essay I wrote back in 1995 when the pain of my years of cult experience was still somewhat raw. I post it here for anyone else who has been through anything similar (and untold thousands have). It is a bitter tale. It was also written before the post 9/11 upsurge in Islamophobia throughout much of the Western world and I don’t know if I would have chosen a Muslim character if I wrote it after 2001. The point of choosing a Muslim holy man was to try to distance the tale from me emotionally so I could write it in the first place. It is to be read as an allegory, of course. The sexual abuse represents the totality of the authoritarian abusive and life-destroying control experienced in the cult.*  It comes in the wake if gross injustices by power-freaks who try to blind themselves to the suicides, family breakups, other deaths and torments they caused. And no doubt continue to cause behind the public view. A tale of life behind the closed doors of a religious cult and on the moment one learns that one’s friendships in the cult were conditional on your identity as an extension of the cult-leader.

From: Neil Godfrey
To: ’ wcg-forum@netcom.com’
Subject: A story
Date: Friday, June 09, 1995 1:57PM

(Or: “So? Tell someone who cares.”)

Continue reading “Don’t tell me about it, tell God!”


Another Sceptic Bites the Dust — Becomes a Believer

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by Neil Godfrey

I enjoyed this interview with Hercule Poirot actor David Suchet. I have set it at about the beginning of the section in which he describes how he came to become a Christian. His background was both Jewish and Catholic (not religiously committed in either case). The critical moment that interested me most is his account of how he suddenly asked himself why he kept thinking of his late grandfather as still in some sense being with him when did not believe in life after death.  I wonder what direction he would have taken had Pascal Boyer published his book, Religion Explained: How to Make a Good Religious Concept, twenty years earlier. [the link is to my post that in my view gives a very good explanation for the universal propensity of people to believe the dead are still with us]


Changing Function of Religious Beliefs — Trajectory from primitive to advanced societies

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by Neil Godfrey

If a proposition is going to be taken to be unquestionably true, it is important that no one understand it.

— Roy Rappaport, Ritual, Sanctity, and Cybernetics


The context of that assertion is a discussion about how religious beliefs function to keep a community of diverse populations together. The fundamental belief that binds must at its root be cryptic, at least unfalsifiable, and hence susceptible to different interpretations so that all groups can find it satisfying and changing circumstances will be less likely to shatter the community. Here is the context of the quote:

In some cases the ultimate sacred statements are themselves cryptic; in others they may seem clear, but they are abstracted from cryptic contexts such as myths or the reports of revelations, and an apocryphal quality is often characteristic of the discourse which sanctifies sentences concerning particular social forms or containing specific directives by connecting them to ultimate sacred propositions. The importance of reducing ambiguity and vagueness in messages of social import was earlier noted. In contrast, it is perhaps necessary that considerable ambiguity and vagueness cloak the discourse from which sanctification flows. If a proposition is going to be taken to be unquestionably true, it is important that no one understand it. Lack of understanding insures frequent reinterpretation. (p. 71)

Anthropologist Roy Rappaport found that technologically simple communities like the Maring in New Guinea have “no chiefs or other political authorities capable of commanding the support of a body of followers”. It is up to each individual male, for example, to decide whether he will assist those of another group in warfare. What typically brings the members of a community together, as well as members of other communities to join and share company with them, are religious ceremonies and their related rituals held to honour their deceased ancestors.

This worldly

These sacred occasions where diverse persons got together to celebrate would not be mere fun times. These occasions signalled among the attendees who were likely friends and allies in future endeavours. Family ties might be extended through betrothals. Excess livestock that had been disrupting space for crops and leading to local quarrels would be sacrificed and feasted upon so that the economic and social balance thus restored. So the religious occasions are regulators of society and its ecosystem. The beliefs provide the rationale for the believers to become actively involved in changing and improving their conditions of well-being.

Rappaport with Maring men and boys https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb00355714

Technology and power

It is different in technologically more advanced societies. In its simplest terms, Rappaport’s argument is that where chiefs do exist in similarly low-technology societies they are bestowed with great religious awe but in fact have little real political power; but where chiefs or other authorities do acquire access to more technology they thereby acquire the means to coerce submission to their authority. They no longer have the same need for being deemed “sanctified” by the community to maintain their status. They don’t need to submit to the controls that come with the religious belief systems and its personal representatives.

As a result, the political power of the authorities, strengthened by technology, replaces religious beliefs and customs as the controlling and unifying force.

Other worldly

Community beliefs in the sacred do not disappear, of course. But they are relegated to “a subsystem”, e.g. “the church”. The beliefs will continue to ratify the authorities as “chosen by God” but they no longer govern all aspects of society and the ecosystem in the way they used to. Instead, the benefits they offer are rewards in the future life after death. Control is maintained by a stress on ethical teaching as the price to be paid for heavenly gifts. They help reduce personal anxieties when the faithful are faced with conditions and experiences over which they have little or no control.

To the extent that the discourse of religion, religious ritual and religious experience contribute to the maintenance of orderliness and the reduction of anxiety without contributing to the correction of the factors producing the anxiety and disorder they are not adaptive but pathological. Indeed, their operation seems to resemble that of neuroses (see, for example, Freud 1907). (p. 73 Link is to PDF of Freud’s article)

Maintaining relevance

Not that religious groups in technologically advanced society are always content to remain a form of pathological adjuncts to society.

But although sanctity may become degraded in the churches of technologically developed societies, “true sanctity,” that uniting the organism through its affective life to processes which may correct social and ecological malfunctions [as we saw above is the function of “sanctity” in societies such as those of the Maring], remains a continuing possibility. Throughout history revitalistic movements have emerged in streets, in universities, in fields among men sensing, and perhaps suffering from, the malfunction of control hierarchies that cannot reform themselves. In the early stages of such movements, at least, the unquestionable status of ultimate propositions rests upon affirmation through the religious experiences of the participants who believe that they are participating in corrective action. Sometimes they are mistaken. Although such movements have not infrequently been more disruptive than that to which they are a response, they may nevertheless be regarded as one of the processes through which cybernetic systems including men, and sometimes other living things as well, rid themselves of the pathology of unresponsiveness. (p. 73)


I wish I had begun my student life in anthropology.

Rappaport, Roy A. “Ritual, Sanctity, and Cybernetics.” American Anthropologist 73, no. 1 (February 1971): 59–76. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1971.73.1.02a00050.



Raised in a Cult

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by Neil Godfrey

Here’s another personal cult and cult-exit story. Among those who would learn much from listening to the interview is anyone who derisively thinks, “once a fundamentalist, always a fundamentalist”. I can relate to much of what addressed here. No doubt can many others — especially the discussion on rebuilding one’s life after the cult.

From the introduction of ABC’s program Conversations:

Serafina was born as a baby named Miriyum into a religious cult on New Zealand’s South Island.

The cult leader was a charismatic but abusive man named Douglas Metcalfe, who claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

The members lived together at ‘Camp David’, growing vegetables and reading the Book of Revelation.

For Serafina, the cult was her family and she looked forward to the day they would take part in the final battle against the forces of Satan.

When she was a young woman she was released to attend technical college on the condition she still wore her headscarf.

While she was at Polytech, revelations about Metcalfe and his adultery and abuse of young girls began to emerge, which eventually saw the cult collapse.

But leaving Camp David for a life without religious rules was more complicated than she could have imagined.

It’s a 49 minute conversation

From https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/serafina-tan%C3%A8-cult-escaping-a-cult-cycling/13174334



The Indefinite Interpretability of the Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

How is it possible that a collection of texts from ancient and alien cultures has personal relevance for millions of believers today? Once again I find the research of Brian Malley in How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism provides meaningful answers.

I’ll start with his four-fold model of what is actually happening when evangelicals or fundamentalists “interpret the Bible”.

        1. The first point is that evangelicals are “inheritors of an interpretative tradition”, meaning that they have inherited a tradition that tells them that their beliefs are Bible-based. They inherit a set of beliefs along with the additional claim that those beliefs are derived from the Bible. The tradition presents the Bible as a book to be studied, “but the goal of that hermeneutic activity is not so much to establish the meaning of the text  as to establish transitivity between text and beliefs.” The tradition stresses the fact of a connection between doctrines and the Bible rather than particular connections. “Thus a great deal of ‘what the Bible says’ may be transmitted quite apart from actual exegesis.” Example: the Bible says both that all things are possible for God and that God cannot do certain things. Without direct exegesis of the texts it is permissible for the evangelical to believe that the Bible says X on the assumption that some verse can be made to support X even if the verse is not contextually relevant to the belief in X.

          And this raises a critical point: the goal of evangelicals’ hermeneutic activity is to establish transitivity between the text and the reader’s understanding. This is not necessarily identical with interpretation in the normal sense of the term. The means of transitivity is indeed sometimes what might be called the texts meaning: I Timothy 1:17 describes God as “immortal” and was used as evidence that “God cannot die”—a definition of “immortal” and thus a semantic representation of the text. But sometimes the object of reading is not what would normally be called the meaning of the text at all. Titus 1:2 (together with Hebrews 6:18) was offered as evidence that “God cannot lie.” But “God cannot lie” is not a semantic representation of Titus 1:2. That God cannot lie is presupposed in this text, and therefore regarded as part of the meaning of the text, but it is not the meaning of the text, and any translation that replaced this verse with “God cannot lie” would be regarded as an inadequate translation. “God cannot lie” is not the meaning of the verse in the normal, semantic-equivalence sense of the term. It is an interpretation only in the weaker, broader sense that its justification or warrant—the evidence for it—is drawn from the Bible. Participants in the discussion were picking out Bible passages relevant to the question, “what can God not do?” but not necessarily about that question. The texts they cited stood in an evidential relation to the proposition “not all things are possible with God” without this statement capturing the meaning of any particular passage. (p. 84)

        2. There is no “hermeneutic tradition” that is passed on; there is no particular way of reading and interpreting the Bible that is part of the tradition. Evangelicals may claim to read the Bible literally but a closer inspection shows that there is no consistency in practices that they avow to be literal readings. Consequence: “in each generation, the interpretive tradition mobilizes hermeneutic imaginations anew.” Believers are free to find new readings that they can interpret as supports for a church’s teaching.
        3. What drives evangelical Bible reading is “a search for relevance” — in much the same way any other communication is. In this search readers are free to move “beyond the text as given”. Dual contexts are recognized: the historical one of the original composition of the text on the one hand and the message God wants to convey to the reader today on the other. See the above quotation on the question of God . A believer undertaking a personal Bible study may read a story and to make it relevant for a situation in his or her life will impute motivations, inferences, storylines that are not in the text, and omit from the text certain details that rob the story of personal relevance to the reader. “Part of the genius of a good preacher is to figure out a way to mine new insight from a seemingly mundane passage.” Belief traditions make interpretations of the Bible quite unlike the interpretations of other texts.
          Some ways of going beyond the text as given: Continue reading “The Indefinite Interpretability of the Bible”


How Believers Rationalise Biblical Authority

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by Neil Godfrey

The following is from How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism by Brian Malley.

Now it is a curious situation when an unclear idea has clear consequences. — Malley, 136

Evangelicals (or fundamentalists) believe that the Bible is authoritative and declare that the reason it is authoritative is that it is the “word of God” or “inspired by God”.

Uncertainty about the idea of inspiration

However, as Malley demonstrates, the same believers in biblical authority do not know exactly how inspiration worked. Evangelicals uniformly believe in the doctrine of biblical inspiration but disagree about the meaning of inspiration: Is the Bible inerrant in all matters or only in spiritual matters? When asked, evangelicals are “quite vague about the process” of inspiration.

That the Bible is inspired is generally found in statements of faith but it is rarely discussed in Bible studies or sermons. When asked about the meaning or process of inspiration, believers will respond with phrases like the Bible’s authors were “mentally stimulated through a spiritual force”, that God had the writers “attuned” or that “God guided their thoughts” or “impressed their minds.”

When I pressed for further details, most informants said that they did not know. I eventually thought to ask a few informants whether it bothered them that they did not know, and, as one man told me, “Not really. I mean, I probably should find out, just so I would know what to tell people, but I’m not worried about it.”

It is important to note that my informants’ responses were quite variable in their wording. Apart from those few who used the words θεόπνευστος and “God-breathed,” they did not seem to be drawing their answers from any common source. And indeed this may be the case because, although there are frequent allusions to the doctrine of inspiration at Creekside Baptist, I never heard it explicitly discussed. (p. 134)

On the concept of Plenary Inspiration, the teaching that the whole of the Bible is inspired, most of Malley’s interviewees declared that the entire Bible is God-inspired. There was less agreement on whether the Bible was the only book inspired by God.

. . . some thought that there were degrees of inspiration, and that other texts might be inspired, but less so than the Bible; some thought that there were kinds of inspiration, and in this way differentiated between biblical and other inspired texts. All informants, however, agreed that the Bible is inspired differently than any other text. One of the most interesting notions came from a man who, in addition to differentiating the Bible with respect to extent of inspiration, also said, “Other texts might be inspired, but we know the Bible is inspired.”

Most fundamentalist and evangelical theologians will say that they believe in Verbal Inspiration, that the very words in the Bible are inspired. Most of those Malley surveyed ticked their agreement with the statement that “The words of the Bible are inspired.” Yet . . .

. . . in interviews, few of my informants expressed strong views on this, and several said that it did not make any practical difference whether the words or the ideas were inspired.

When pressed, some respondents were found to say that the original autographs were inspired but over time errors have crept in through translations and copying. They will insist that the details are unimportant and that despite some limited corruption the main ideas inspired by God have been preserved.

Certainty about the authority of the Bible

When informants said that they did not know exactly how inspiration worked, I followed up with questions about the implications of the doctrine: Does it entail that God is the author of the Bible? Does it entail that the Bible is true? Does it entail that the Bible is authoritative? Each of these questions received an unhesitating, confident yes from all interviewees. Whatever uncertainty they had about the nature of inspiration did not extend to its implications. (p. 136)

Evangelicals will say (Malley empirically demonstrates that they do) that because the Bible is inspired by God it is therefore authoritative. The doctrine of biblical authority is said to be “a consequence of its divine inspiration.”

The doctrine of inspiration is indeed often invoked as a justification and explanation of the authority that evangelicals attribute to the Bible.

Inspiration as rationalization

Here is the interesting observation of Malley: Continue reading “How Believers Rationalise Biblical Authority”


Argument for God — part 3, final (arguments against atheism)

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by Neil Godfrey

Barrett next raises what he sees as “reflective problems for atheists“. (For Barrett’s meaning of the term “reflective beliefs” see the opening post in this series: Gods (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective) and its specific application to belief/nonbelief in God, Argument for God — part 1.)

Barrett appears to be suggesting that an atheist must in some sense fight against his or her nature in order not to believe in god/s:

In addition to reinterpreting nonreflective beliefs that suggest superhuman agency, atheism requires combating conscious, reflective arguments for theistic thought. In some ways, the burden for certainty is greater for atheists than for theists. (111)

That last sentence is also problematic. “Burden for certainty”? But let’s continue.

Barrett quite rightly points out that the thrust of his explanations for why people believe in god/s or the supernatural of some kind indicates that belief is fundamentally easy. It would hardly be an explanation for the universal belief in the supernatural otherwise, though, would it! People do not need to “work hard” to figure out reasons why they believe. But then,

Given the sort of experiences they have, including the suggestion from others that God does exist, belief enjoys such rich intuitive support that no justification seems necessary. (Perhaps this is why some believers are such easy marks for those college professors that are hell-bent on dissuading them of their faith. They have few if any explicit reasons they can articulate for belief.) Atheism, on the other hand, has less in terms of intuitive support but brings more explicit rationale to the table. As a more reflective belief system, frequently intellectually discovered, atheism has more reflective opportunity for being challenged (as well as encouraged). Hence, explicit reasons for theism generally require some attention from the atheist. (111 – my bolded highlighting)

I can agree with all of that; I can even agree with those “college professors that are hell-bent” on demanding intellectual rigour from their students. In my journey out of belief, the last bastion I was left to face was my conviction that the Bible was “true” in some theological sense. Yes, I needed to address the explicit reasons for that belief just as I had had to address the explicit reasons for each other grounds for belief up till that point.

Reasons believers typically advance for their conviction that God exists are the need for agency to explain the existence of the universe and design in the world around us. Until the arrival of “Darwinism”, Barrett notes, atheists had no real “satisfying defense against their own intuitive sense that the world was designed and the congruent claims of theists.” That may be so. But I am reminded of a time when thunder was universally believed to be the noise of divine or spirit activity of some sort, according to some of our ancient records. And how for a long time planets strangely wandered in their idiosyncratic pattern — as if (how else?) moved by some divine or spirit agent.

Meanwhile, Barrett points out that Darwinism does not address “the origin of life or the mechanical fine-tuning that many astronomers and physicists have recently noted… (Leslie 1982, Leslie 1983, Carter 2002)”. Yes. There is still more to learn. Explaining thunder was but one of the first steps.

Then Barrett returns to his concern for “certitude”:

Atheists may also have epistemological difficulties that theists (depending on theology) do not have. Theists may confidently hold reflective beliefs operating under the assumption that their mind was designed by an intelligent being to provide truth, at least in many domains. For the atheist, another explanation for the certitude of beliefs must be found, or certitude must be abandoned. If our very existence is a cosmological accident and our minds have been shaped by a series of random mutations whittled by survival pressures (not necessarily demanding truth, only survival and reproduction, as a rat, fly, or bacteria can pull off with their “minds”), then why should we feel confident in any belief? And if we can’t feel confident in our beliefs, why do we go through life pretending we can? These questions may have satisfactory answers. The point is that unlike the theist, the atheist has far more explaining to do. This, too, makes atheism harder. (112 — again, my bolding)

I certainly have no problem accepting that our brains have not evolved in such a way that will enable them to grasp a complete understanding of everything we would like. I know quantum physics and even advanced maths are beyond my abilities to comprehend fully. I am quite prepared to accept that the noises I hear my old wooden house at night are the result of contraction from temperature drops, but I am not going to launch a crusade if one day we discover some other mechanism for the noises. In other words, all “certitude” is provisional — we are always open to learning more, revising the old, even discarding it, and moving on. That kind of provisionality as the bedrock is what has enabled us to survive at all, I suspect — not any unqualified or unquestionable “certitude”.

Returning to thunder. Yes, a naturalist has much more explaining to do than the person who attributes the noise to Hephaestus or Zeus or some other divine activity. Why should that be a problem? A child can readily imagine a monster at night; it takes some “reflective activity” to think of plumbing and other noises as the temperature drops. Not every rustle in the grass is caused by a stalking tiger.

Fighting Back Theism

“Fighting Back Theism” is a heading chosen by Barrett. For me it conjures images of the rebellious, renegade atheist fighting wilfully and desperately against the God he “knows” (or “wishes not”) to exist yet also hates. For Barrett,

Atheism just requires some special conditions to help it struggle against theism.

Continue reading “Argument for God — part 3, final (arguments against atheism)”


Argument for God — part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Argument for God — part 1.

. . . .

I will try to refrain from commenting on Barrett’s argument this time. My wordy part 1 post was met with succinct comments that said all that needed to be said then. I hope those and other commenters do not desert me now.

Barrett’s argument in his chapter titled Why Would Anyone Not Believe in God?

In this chapter, I argue that atheism (the disbelief in any gods) as a shared worldview arises only under special conditions and is indeed the exception to the rule. Compared to theism, atheism is relatively unnatural and, unsurprisingly, a very uncommon worldview. (108)

Barrett’s view is that the psychological factors, or the mental tools, that encourage us to believe in god/s present special challenges for atheism. For these reasons, he explains, atheism is “relatively unnatural” and a “very uncommon worldview.” True, he concedes, some atheists have no mental difficulty, no angst, over being atheists, but he attributes this situation to special environments that he will address towards the end of his chapter. Meanwhile, he chooses to address four mental tools that he believes post serious challenges for atheism. (Those mental tools were discussed earlier in this series, beginning at Gods – 2.)

1. Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD) and Theory of Mind (ToM)

Barrett asks readers to turn back to an event described earlier in the book.

Silo explosion – HarzardEx

Consider the following event. A coworker of my wife once performed maintenance tasks on a farm. One day, Doug was working in a grain silo when leaked propane exploded. The first explosion rushed all around him and out the second- level windows high above him. Stunned by not being harmed by the blast, he tried to get out the door, only to discover that the explosion had jammed the doors. Knowing that a second, larger explosion was coming and he had no way out, Doug muttered hopelessly, “Take me home, Lord.” He distinctly heard a voice say, “Not yet,” and then felt some invisible hands lift him a dozen feet in the air and out of a second-story window, then safely to the ground below. Once he landed outside the silo, a safe distance away, the silo and attached barn exploded into rubble. He stumbled to the farm office, where coworkers took him to the hospital. At the hospital, Doug told the doctor that God sent angels to save him. The dumbfounded doctor reluctantly agreed it was a possibility given that the amount of propane gas in the man’s lungs should have been fatal, yet he was not only alive but also conscious and talking. Doug, the doctor, and all staff of the farm believed this event to be caused by supernatural agency. In each of their minds, HADD played a major role in forming this belief. (34 — you can read this particular passage in context and with further discussion by Barrett at slideshare.)

Barrett imagines the questions that might be asked and the answers of theists and atheists:

Who [what agency – it’s our HADD prompting the question] saved him? God or angels. (theist responding)

Who saved him? A coworker saved him. (atheist answering)

But ToM then asks: Why did Doug not see the coworker?

Naive Physics asks: How did the coworker lift Doug out of the second story window?

The atheist has another possible response:

But the atheist has another option, rejecting the detection of agency: HADD was wrong, and no agent or agency was present. Some unknown physical property protected Doug from the initial explosion and propelled Doug out of the second-floor window unharmed, or it happened just by chance.

To which Barrett responds:

But this type of explanation is no explanation at all. What it amounts to is a promissory note: I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m sure there is an explanation that has nothing to do with agency. (109)

Barrett says that the atheist’s deliberate choice to reject HADD is not at all easy:

One of the strengths of the human mind is its ferocious desire to explain, make sense, and find meaning. If we tell HADD that it has misexplained something, it demands that we come up with a satisfactory counterexplanation. Finding such a counterexplanation is not always simple: it requires conscious, reflective thought; it is slow; and it may require tapping our long-term memories for knowledge we incompletely hold. Even if this cumbersome reasoning process yields a counterexplanation that seems satisfying to the self, others, not sharing the same knowledge base, may find it dissatisfying . . . (110)

Note the life-threatening urgency at the heart of Doug’s story:

Recall that HADD’s insistence that it has detected agency may increase under conditions of urgency, as when survival or physical well-being is on the line. Similarly, denying HADD and settling on a satisfactory counterexplanation in urgent situations may be all the more difficult. 

Stories like Doug’s are, Barrett acknowledges, “relatively uncommon” and

the more clever and creative you are, the more likely you are to hit on some counterexplanation that has a ring of plausibility to yourself and others.


But HADD experiences are common, occasionally occur when rapid explanation is required, and often cannot be easily explained in purely naturalistic terms.

I am reminding myself that I promised to bite my lip and not comment. Continue reading “Argument for God — part 2”


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”