Wounded healers

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by Neil Godfrey

Chiron, the wounded healer (ChatGPT image)

Does a person who has a past history of depression (or any other “psychological issue”) and accordingly takes up a study of psychology inevitably become a bad psychologist?

Can a person who as a youth was involved in criminal acts ever in later years be qualified to be a social worker and role model for other youth?

Can a person who once belonged to a religious cult ever be qualified to help other cult members recover from their experiences?

Can a person who was once a fundamentalist ever be qualified to study religion and the Bible objectively and honestly?

Is it possible for a person who was once a theist and is now an atheist to have a genuine, scholarly understanding of the nature of belief in God? Or for an ex-Christian to be honest and fair about Christianity?

We know the answers to those questions, at least in theory. So I was intrigued to come across the following passage in the new book by the anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse.

The positive role of rituals in human history has taken me a long time to appreciate, in part because I have had a difficult relationship with rituals personally.

This is not so unusual – many of my fellow academics study the things they find particularly difficult to master or understand.

  • Political scientists often strike me as poor strategists in departmental politics,
  • anthropologists struggle with the nuances of their own native groups,
  • and geographers are often the colleagues most in need of directions around campus.

Although my job is to study rituals, I find them rather aversive – particularly the routinized kind we were all obliged to participate in at school in the form of assemblies and chapel services. These activities seemed at the time to be not only pointless and dull but sometimes even menacingly oppressive and authoritarian. I am not alone in thinking this way, of course. As we will see in the final part of this book, many societies are shedding their ritual traditions at a rapid pace, not only through secularization but by dismissing as irrelevant or oppressive many long-established rituals associated with schooling, professional guilds, the institutions of government, and everyday domestic life. However, the more I have learned about the effects of participation in frequent collective rituals, the more I have come to appreciate their importance in fostering large-scale cohesion, cooperation, and future-mindedness. I have argued that ritual routinization helped the first farmers to settle down and create larger and larger cultural groups. But this was only the beginning of a much more complex process. . . .

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (p. 134). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition. – my formatting


And that is why this blog — despite my mixed background in religious experiences and current atheism — is not an “anti-Christian” blog. My interest is in understanding and learning from the latest research. My posts about the Bible are not efforts to “debunk” the Bible. It is about understanding its origins and accounting for its influence. The same for the question that seems to rile many people more than others: Did Jesus exist? That question has no interest for me. My interest is in understanding the origin and nature of the idea of Jesus in the history of religion. My interest is in applying the methods of professional research into all these questions — historical, psychological, anthropological.

Think of personal relevance. It is only natural and right and even beneficial if we take up studies in areas where our personal experiences and challenges have led us. The desire is to understand, overcome, and help others navigate similar circumstances and ideas.

Universals of Morality (without God)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

It’s all about cooperation, being the uber-social mammals that we are:

Studies led by my colleague Oliver Scott Curry have shown that much of human morality is rooted in a single preoccupation: cooperation. More specifically, seven principles of cooperation are judged to be morally good everywhere and form the bedrock of a universal moral compass. Those seven principles are:

  1. help your kin,
  2. be loyal to your group,
  3. reciprocate favours,
  4. be courageous,
  5. defer to superiors,
  6. share things fairly,
  7. and respect other people’s property.

This new idea was quite a big deal because up until then it seemed quite reasonable to assert – as cultural relativists have always done – that there are no moral universals, and each society has therefore had to come up with its own unique moral compass. As I will explain, this is not the case. Moreover, the same seven principles of cooperation on which these moral ideas are based are found in a wide range of social species and are not unique to human beings.39 These moral intuitions evolved because of their benefits for survival and reproduction. Genetic mutations favouring cooperative behaviours in the ancestors of social species, such as humans, conferred a reproductive advantage on the organisms adopting them, with the result that more copies of those genes survived and spread in ensuing generations. Take the principle that we should care for (and avoid harm to) members of our family. This moral imperative likely evolved via the mechanism of ‘kin selection’, which ensures that we behave in ways that increase the chances of our genes being passed on by endeavouring to help our close genetic relatives to stay alive and produce offspring. Loyalty to group, on the other hand, evolves in social species that do better when acting in a coordinated way rather than independently. Reciprocity (the idea that I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine) leads to benefits that selfish action alone cannot accomplish. And deference to superiors is another way of staying alive, in this case by allocating positions of dominance or submission in a coordinated fashion rather than both parties fighting to the death.

The theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ proposes that these seven principles of cooperation together comprise the essence of moral thinking everywhere. Ultimately, every human action that prompts a moral judgement can be directly traced to a transgression against one or more of these cooperative principles.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (pp. 66-67). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition. (my formatting)

Universal Morality

That’s the theory. What follows is a description of an “unprecedented study” to test the hypothesis that these seven principles are indeed universal. Harvey Whitehouse and his colleagues took sixty societies that had been extensively studied by anthropologists:

To qualify for inclusion, each society had to have been the subject of at least 1,200 pages of descriptive data pertaining to its cultural system. It must also have been studied by at least one professionally trained anthropologist based on at least one year of immersive fieldwork utilizing a working knowledge of the language used locally. The sample of societies was selected to maximize diversity and minimize the likelihood that cultural groups had adopted their moral beliefs from one another. They were drawn from six major world regions: Sub-Saharan Africa, Circum-Mediterranean, East Eurasia, Insular Pacific, North America, and South America.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (p. 67). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition.

In 3,460 paragraphs from 400 documents they located the seven principles being judged by each society according to an ethical value.

This produced 962 observed moral judgements of the seven types of cooperative behaviour. In 961 of those instances (99.9 per cent of all cases), the cooperative behaviour was judged morally good. The only exception was on a remote island in Micronesia where stealing openly (rather than covertly) from others was morally endorsed. In this unusual case, however, it seemed to be because this type of stealing involved the (courageous) assertion of social dominance. So, even though this one instance seemed to contradict the rule that you should respect other people’s property, it did so by prioritizing the alternative cooperative principle of bravery.

The main take-home here is that the seven cooperative principles appear to be judged morally good everywhere.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (p. 68). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition.



Hardwired to Venerate the Supernatural

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Natural intuitions feed into our social systems in strange and unexpected ways. To take just one example, our intuitions about supernatural beings are also associated with intuitions about social dominance in ways that are consistent across cultures. My colleagues and I have shown in lab experiments that when babies observe an agent capable of floating around like a ghost or a flying witch, they expect the levitator to win out in a confrontation with a rival who lacks such powers.7 To put it more pithily, we naturally look up to supernatural beings. This could help to explain not only why stories about superheroes – from Santa to Superman – are so popular with children but also why magical beings and their earthly embodiments are so often venerated in human societies.

7 Meng, Xianwei, Yo Nakawake, Kazuhide Hashiya, Emily Burdett, Jonathan Jong, and Harvey Whitehouse. “Preverbal Infants Expect Agents Exhibiting Counterintuitive Capacities to Gain Access to Contested Resources.” Scientific Reports 11, no. 1 (May 25, 2021): 10884. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-89821-0.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (p. 7). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition.