2020-08-02

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)”


2020-08-01

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.

and

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”


2020-07-29

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”


2020-07-25

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)”


2020-07-17

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine viewing simple movies of the following sort:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


 


2020-07-14

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

a minimally counterintuitive concept pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minimally Counterintuitive Concepts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



2020-07-13

Gods – 2 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

Where Non-Reflective Beliefs Come From

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

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

 

We focus on four of these mental tools.

Our Naive Physics Tool

Even as infants we “know” that physical objects:

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

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


2020-07-12

Gods (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

There are two types of belief, Barrett explains:

1. Reflective Beliefs

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

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

2. Non-Reflective Beliefs

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

Examples:

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

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

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

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

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


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



2016-02-10

Fear of All Knowing, Judgemental Gods Makes Us More Sociable?

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by Neil Godfrey

The following article or letter has just appeared in NatureMoralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality. (Or try this link.) Warning, however: high profile journals such as Nature are known to experience the highest retraction rate among scientific publications. Presumably this is because they attract readers (i.e. payers) by publishing articles sure to be popular even though their claims have not been properly tested or have an inadequate peer review process for determining final editorial decisions.

Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity has dramatically expanded. This fact challenges standard evolutionary explanations of prosociality because well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups.

To explain this rapid expansion of prosociality, researchers have proposed several mechanisms. Here we focus on one key hypothesis: cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers.

We tested this hypothesis using extensive ethnographic interviews and two behavioural games designed to measure impartial rule-following among people (n = 591, observations = 35,400) from eight diverse communities from around the world: (1) inland Tanna, Vanuatu; (2) coastal Tanna, Vanuatu; (3) Yasawa, Fiji; (4) Lovu, Fiji; (5) Pesqueiro, Brazil; (6) Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius; (7) the Tyva Republic (Siberia), Russia; and (8) Hadzaland, Tanzania. Participants reported adherence to a wide array of world religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as notably diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship.

Holding a range of relevant variables constant, the higher participants rated their moralistic gods as punitive and knowledgeable about human thoughts and actions, the more coins they allocated to geographically distant co-religionist strangers relative to both themselves and local co-religionists.

Our results support the hypothesis that beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.

 

 


2015-12-30

Putting in a Good Word for God

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by Neil Godfrey

5021775761_20d13050d2_b
No railway lines in West Bank and Gaza so trucks replaced trolleys in the narratives.

Speaking of the Devil or his doppelgänger, God, in my slightly flippant recent “trolley dilemma” post, what should appear in the serious social science research literature but that very trolley problem applied to Palestinian Muslims and Allah.

God usually gets a bad rap among us atheists but fair’s fair so when the research tips in favour of the Ineffable One integrity demands we duly acknowledge it.

Our findings cast doubt on the notion that there is something special about religious faith, including Islamic belief, that invariably favors promotion of violent intergroup conflict.

PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) has published Thinking from God’s perspective decreases biased valuation of the life of a nonbeliever by researchers Jeremy Ginges, Hammad Sheikh, Scott Atran and Nichole Argo. (The supporting data is also published as a supplement.)

Here is the article’s own statement of its significance (as usual, all bolding and formatting in quotations are my own):

Significance

Religious belief is often seen as a key cause of human conflict because it is said to promote preferential treatment of adherents and to harden group boundaries. Here, we examined a critical aspect of this link in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, a multigenerational violent conflict with significant religious aspects.

We find that although Muslim Palestinian participants valued Palestinian over Jewish Israeli lives when making difficult moral choices, they believed that Allah preferred them to make moral decisions that valued the lives of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis more equally.

Beliefs about God may promote more equal valuation of human life regardless of religious identity, encouraging application of universal moral rules to believers and nonbelievers alike.

Gulp! How can that be? Before I discuss details of the article, here’s the overview:

Abstract

Religious belief is often thought to motivate violence because it is said to promote norms that encourage tribalism and the devaluing of the lives of nonbelievers. If true, this should be visible in the multigenerational violent conflict between Palestinians and Israelis which is marked by a religious divide.

We conducted experiments with a representative sample of Muslim Palestinian youth (n = 555), examining whether thinking from the perspective of Allah (God), who is the ultimate arbitrator of religious belief, changes the relative value of Jewish Israelis’ lives (compared with Palestinian lives).

Participants were presented with variants of the classic “trolley dilemma,” in the form of stories where a man can be killed to save the lives of five children who were either Jewish Israeli or Palestinian. They responded from their own perspective and from the perspective of Allah.

We find that whereas a large proportion of participants were more likely to endorse saving Palestinian children than saving Jewish Israeli children, this proportion decreased when thinking from the perspective of Allah. This finding raises the possibility that beliefs about God can mitigate bias against other groups and reduce barriers to peace.

Ouch! Possible that religion can be a force for peace? Well, “religion” is a loaded term. That’s not quite what the study is addressing. So here are some details. . . .

Continue reading “Putting in a Good Word for God”


2015-12-24

So God is Only Human?

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by Neil Godfrey

For God so loved the world that he did what many other people would have done — only to undo all his good with a much worse act later.

trolley-switchOne mind-game that keeps recurring in my recent and current readings in the nature and origins of our moral sense is the trolley experiment.

You see a trolley is running out of control along railway tracks and is about to kill five people hedged in by high banks on the track ahead. You have the option of pulling a lever to re-route the trolley to a side-track but there is another person similarly trapped there and who will die of you do.

Is it permissible to pull the lever so the trolley kills the one but saves the five? Most people say it is.

Then it occurred to me that isn’t this a bit like what the Christian gospel is about? God sees many people doomed to die, so he flicks a switch so that only one dies instead. (Okay, there are more theological trappings to this: those five have to repent or believe or they’ll find themselves in the same situation again and then God will decide not to pull the lever and they’ll all die anyway!)

So far, apart from the theological monstrosities, does not God’s great act of salvation appear to be little more than a perfectly natural human act in accordance with perfectly natural human ethics?

The mind-game gets more interesting if we introduce some variations. What about tossing a very heavy bulk of a man onto the track to stop the trolley if there is no lever to save the five; or what about pulling a lever that will drop the heavy bulk of a man on to the track so you don’t actually push him, and so forth.

Then there are other types of variation to introduce. One of these is having the solitary person on the side track being a close friend or relative of yours, perhaps your child? What if the five people are all staunch supporters of [fill in your most hated politician/party here]?

Then try the variants of scale. What if not just five people were doomed but an entire city by something accordingly matching the trolley?

If you saw the entire population on earth was doomed and the only way to save them was to allow your child to die, what would you do? It would be horribly painful but I suspect some, even many, people would even sacrifice their child.

Would God, then, have been any better than many mere mortals?

(Come to think of it, how many mere mortals, lacking awe and mystery, would then doom that entire population in a re-run if they failed to believe God had not lost his child after all but had magically brought him back to life?)


2015-01-25

Understanding the Nature of Religion and the Religious

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by Neil Godfrey

Emile_Durkheim
Emile Durkheim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here goes.

The Two Truths of Religion

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

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

  1. the nature of the individual

  2. the nature of society

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

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

I think we can see where this idea is headed with respect to the origin of “god”. Continue reading “Understanding the Nature of Religion and the Religious”


2014-07-22

Jewish Foundations of Christianity — Significance of God’s Name

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by Neil Godfrey

tetraThere is something unusual about the way the name of God is treated in the Old Testament books. The name itself sometimes appears to have an existence of its own apart from God himself. It’s natural for us to take this kind of usage as a literary personification. But is it? This post is one more update of some of the new things I have been learning as I try to catch up with scholarly studies into ancient Judaism.

God does things with his name as if it were an entity “out there”. He places his name in the temple. We read that his name saves his people and is worthy of praise.

The first text to examine in order to understand what’s going on here is Exodus 23:20-34 (NIV). We find it is foundational in several ancient works — Philo, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and various other early Christian and Jewish texts — that treat the name of God in unusual ways —

20 “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. 

21 Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.

22 If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you.

23 My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.

24 Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. 

The angel, like most angels in the Bible, is anonymous. But he does have God’s divine name in him. So God can call him “my angel”. The command is to listen to what he says and obey him. So he appears to have a voice of his own yet at the same time his voice is that of God. Moshe Idel explains it this way:

Although God is the speaker, it is the angels voice that is heard. Thus it seems the angel serves as a form of loudspeaker for the divine act of speech. (p. 17)

Similarly, as we see in verse 23, this angel is said to lead the Israelites while at the same time God explains he is the one who is acting.

But the phrase that has attracted most attention in Jewish studies is “my name is in him”.

Compare Exodus 33:14

The Lord replied [to Moses], “My Presence/Face will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Is this the same angel as we met ten chapters earlier? If so, the same angel has the name of God in him and also has the outward appearance of God. He is both a loudspeaker of God and a face-mask for God.

We find this same angel again in Isaiah 63:9 and once again he is helping or rescuing his people from trouble:

In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence [=Face] saved them.

What is most significant in this discussion is that this angel appears to be a container for the name of God. He is an ambassador or messenger for God and his presence announces the presence of God himself — by virtue of God’s name being in him.

This angel is one to be feared and obeyed. He will not forgive those who rebel against him.

Now the angel is not the only receptacle for God’s name. In Deuteronomy we learn that God is present in the Temple when his name dwells there. Indeed, as we read of the wanderings of Israel being led by this angel we eventually come to the time when they settle and have a stable place of worship. The wandering angel who contains God’s name is followed by the eventual resting place of that name (and angel?) in the Temple.

This same angel was understood by the Jewish philosopher Philo to be God’s “firstborn Son”.

Continue reading “Jewish Foundations of Christianity — Significance of God’s Name”


2013-10-12

Thank You God — Tim Minchin

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by Neil Godfrey

Lyrics . . . . Continue reading “Thank You God — Tim Minchin”