The causes of religiosity: a natural experiment

Evolutionary psychologists have been busy proposing explanations for religiosity. Belief in transcendent conscious beings might promote survival, they argue, by instilling hope and optimism. Or it might be a by-product of other naturally selected susceptibilities, such as infant credulity, pattern seeking, or the tendency to attribute strange events to agency.

But last year a certain Gregory Paul announced in Evolutionary Psychology that this project is a false trail. According to Paul, the rapid decline in religious belief in the West shows that it can’t be a hard-wired psychological propensity.

Paul first ignited controversy in 2005 with an article in the Journal of Religion and Society arguing that religiosity was highly correlated with high rates of homicide, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and other social disorders. Despite his explicit protestations to the contrary, critics initially inferred that Paul was blaming religion for social problems. In fact his aim was merely to refute the conventional wisdom that religion is socially beneficial, and the best way to achieve this was by showing that the relationship is if anything negative.

In the 2009 article, Paul went on to propose a causal relationship, but with the direction of causation running the other way: that is, religion is a response to social dysfunction and anxiety. This is evident, he argues, from the observation that religiosity has retreated in response to three pressures: (1) the march of science and rational thought; (2) increased economic security including employment protection and free medical care; and (3) the ascendancy of materialism as a legitimate outlook. These factors neatly explain why religiosity has declined so much in Europe, Japan and Australia, and why the USA is such an outlier.

In the US, says Paul, ‘half a million people go bankrupt because of medical bills.’ ‘You can lose your middle lifestyle in a year or less’. Nonetheless, materialism will be an irresistible force when that obstacle has been removed. As he puts it, ‘religious conservatives have lost the culture war’.

Paul’s main finding, captured in the second graph, is the correlation between two synthetic variables, a ‘Successful Societies Scale’ and a ‘Popular Religiosity Versus Secularism Scale’. I don’t have the time or expertise to evaluate these variables or the statistical properties of the correlation. Would-be debunkers point out that Paul is neither a sociologist nor a statistician — he builds model dinosaurs for films like Jurassic Park — but the hypothesis is not self-evidently ridiculous, and his correlations look like a good starting point for a deeper empirical analysis. The broad thrust is consistent with at least one reputable looking study (which Paul himself surprisingly doesn’t seem to have discovered), by Gill and Lundsgaard, who conclude:

It is quite apparent that there is a strong statistical relationship between state social welfare spending and religious participation and religiosity. Countries with higher levels of per capita welfare have a proclivity for less religious participation and tend to have higher percentages of non-religious individuals. People living in countries with high social welfare spending per capita even have less of a tendency to take comfort in religion, perhaps knowing that the state is there to help them in times of crisis.

I have a couple of reservations. First, I’m troubled by the either/or framing of the theory. The fact that religion can be ‘shrugged off’ doesn’t discount the role of evolved psychological factors. Societies can shrug off diabetes, but the disease nonetheless has a heritable, biological basis. According to Michael Shermer, ‘a study of 53 pairs of identical twins and 31 pairs of fraternal twins, each reared apart, researchers at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis looked at five different measures of religiosity and found that the correlations between identical twins were typically double those for fraternal twins’.

Second, given that there is considerable variation in economic insecurity within countries, I’d want to see evidence that this variation explains variations in the intensity of religious belief in a given country. When you adjust for education, for example, are wealth and good health insurance reliable predictors of an individual’s religiosity?

In any case, given the weight Paul puts on health insurance, it will be interesting to see whether the US experiences a sharp decline in religiosity as Obama’s health reforms take effect, given that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, ‘the combined effect of enacting H.R. 3590 and the reconciliation proposal would be to reduce the number of nonelderly people who are uninsured by about 32 million’. With ten percent of the population experiencing a considerable increase in economic security, one might well expect to see a sharp decline in religiosity in the US in the next, say, two decades.

(Which of course isn’t the only reason for supporting health care reform.)

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40 Responses to The causes of religiosity: a natural experiment

  1. Paul Frijters says:

    the hypothesis that state welfare and other uncertainty-reducers crowds out deity-type religions because they are substitutes is an old one and fits reasonably well.

    The religious are healthier and wealthier so the causality is not really running at some easily observable individual level.

    The second graph looks exceptionally fishy. The United States is dysfunctional and Sweden is super-secular? We almost have to be looking here at some measure of life-expectancy on the vertical axis, but god knows what’s on the horizontal one.

  2. Edward Mariyani-Squire says:

    Interesting, although it seems to presuppose a particular conception of “religion” and “religiosity” as suggested in the graphs, but the language of the investigators doesn’t reflect this. In the 1st graph, religion seems to be defined by monotheism, so Buddhism seems to be out. In the 2nd graph, we have “popular religiosity” defined(?) as “creationism”, so most Orthodox Jews, Buddhists and Whoever Else seem to be out.

    Pinning down exactly what is meant by “religion” and “religiosity” seems to make the whole matter a fair bit more complex that it would appear on the surface.

    Then there is the issue of keeping distinct ‘reasons’ and ’causes’. A belief may have material causes or perhaps better ‘conditions’ that may give rise to (or prepare the ground for) the conscious ‘reasons’ people have for their beliefs, which may vary between people (e.g. for some, religious beliefs have an explanatory function, for others a consolationary function, for others a moral function, for others a philosophical function, for others a unique combination of some or all of these). While the same material conditions (health care or whatever) may be present, they may give rise to quite different conscious functions for beliefs, which in turn entail different and incompatible conceptions of what “religious” means along with other beliefs cohere (or don’t) with that.

  3. Tom N. says:

    Nothing to add, except thanks for an interesting post.

  4. Mike Pepperday says:

    I watched the You Tube video you link to in the first line of your post. It shows how our cognitive mechanisms are “hijacked” by religion. The presenter thinks he is onto something big but it stands to reason that religion must fit in with whatever cognitive arrangements we have acquired through biological evolution. It could not be otherwise. He is not explaining what needs to be explained.

    The real issue is: What is the evolutionary advantage of religion? Its universality in humans is overwhelming evidence for its adaptive efficacy. Putting it simplistically: How is it that tribe A with religion outcompeted (outfought, outbred) tribe B which was secular? Putting it the other way: Why didn’t secular people prosper at the expense of those who were deluded? We are forced to conclude that religious delusion is (or was) useful. Evidently, religious delusion gave an added ability to cope. Assuming the gods do not really help, we must conclude that this delusion is satisfying some psychological need.

    I think the answer is staring us in the face: we have a need to feel we have some control over that which is important to us and the only way to get that feeling has been through supernatural means. In answer to a question toward the end of that You Tube video, the presenter says (at 47:42). “We’re more vulnerable to religious belief when we are powerless…” Quite – and this has nothing to do with all his bumpf about cognitive mechanisms.

    I suggest that religion provided a feeling of power or control which technology now provides. This could be refuted by showing that persons who think they are not in control of a situation tend to perform better than the ones who think that they do control it. The proposition seems ridiculous.

    Every organism is equipped to try to control its environment; the plant puts out blossoms to attract the bee; the bee seeks the sweetest blossoms. Each animal must receive feedback telling it how well it is achieving control, allowing it to decide to continue or to change course. Evolution must have equipped animals with a “hunger” for control. Indeed, the contrary is not plausible. For humans, with their extended appreciation of what affects them ? volcanoes, storms, harvests, etc ? the only way to allay this hunger was by supernatural means. There was no alternative: the only way to get (a feeling of) control was through prayers or spells.

    I suppose Paul’s empirical stuff is showing that technology is more effective than religion and that it gives not only a feeling of control but real control.

    As to the religious exceptionalism of the US ? it makes sense given that it’s a tooth and claw society compared with the rest of the developed world. Paul’s three pressures, itemised (1) (2) (3) in your post, are particular manifestations of control over what is perceived to be important.

    As to whether we have a religion gene ? well, how long have we been able to talk and thus worry about the volcano or the sex of the unborn child or the availability of game? A couple of million years? In that case we might well have developed some biological inclination to the supernatural.

  5. James Farrell says:

    Paul

    God knows what the horizontal access measures as long as he was prepared to click on my link to the paper. Here it is:

    …levels of religiosity and secularism are measured and graded by absolute belief in a supernatural creator deity (a superior measure of religious devotion than general belief in God because the latter includes partial doubters), Bible literalism (a proxy for the conservatism of mass faith), frequent attendance at religious services and frequency of prayer that measure religious activity, belief in an afterlife, agnostics and atheists, and acceptance of human descent from animals which is also a measure of creationist opinion… In order to maximize data uniformity, most plotted data for popular religiosity is from the International Social Survey Program 1998 Religion II poll.

    I would expect Sweden to score low on this — the counrty has come a long way since Knut Wicksell was jailed for blasphemy.

    The vertical access measures the things I listed in the third paragraph. But it’s more controversial — one of the debunkers, for example, notes that it includes homicides but omits burglaries, which are apparently higher in France than in the US (I wonder if that includes shoplifting from patisseries).

    Edward

    I hope the quote answers your question about religiosity too. Follow the link and check out some of the graphs that isolate specific elements of ‘religiosity’. As for the cause thing, you are being pedantic: by cause I mean explanatory variable. Do you think I am in danger of misundertanding the forces at work here by expressing it terms of causation?

    Tom

    Thanks.

  6. Edward Mariyani-Squire says:

    by cause I mean explanatory variable. Do you think I am in danger of misundertanding the forces at work here by expressing it terms of causation?

    Not so much danger of misunderstanding as danger of creating the wrong impression (for pedants) – but only because ’cause’ and ‘explanation’ can be such slippery terms. In some cases they fit together neatly, in others not.

    E.g. if we think of causation as a chain – A causes B causes C – then one can get into interminable debates over whether it is legit to say ‘A causes C’. If we think of explanatory variable in functional terms, we could, with less debate, say that since C=f(B) and B=h(A) so C=g(A), ‘A explains C’ … without getting into whether ‘A really causes C’ given that B has been left out of the story.

    In short, when expressing the matter in terms of causation, a pedant might be inclined to object that one is leaving out variables necessary to a causal account. That was my point about ‘reasons’ as an intermediate causal factor between material conditions and ‘religiosity’. Expressed in terms of functional explanations however, intermediate causal variables may be legitimately by-passed (as long as the empirical regularities are sufficiently strong, of course).

  7. Paul Frijters says:

    Hi James,

    fair enough :-)

    The number of countries included here is fairly small. The author would have gotten more milieage out of the World Value Survey which, interesting, was partly set up by scholars interested in religion. That survey can, and had been, linked to a whole set of other country statistics. Hence the easiest put-down on the linked paper is that it uses the wrong data.

    Mike P,

    can you elaborate? It is not clear to me how your hypothesised hunger for control leads to the belief in a human-like man-in-the-sky who would be susceptible to prayers and other forms of sacrifice. Neither the anthropormorphisation nor the reciprocity seem joined at the hip with a hunger for control.

  8. James Farrell says:

    Mike

    Thanks for the elaborate comment. It’s true that Andy Thomas focuses on the by-product explanations, but these are not mutually exclusive vis a vis the other mechanisms I referred to (promoting survival by instilling hope and optimism). The latter seem to be related to what you’re characterisng in terms of feelings of control. Both Dawkins and Shermer discuss some literature on this in their respective books on religious belief, but I didn’t have either volume to hand.

    I have no problem with the the rest of your comment, except that you could perhaps have been more careful distinguish between biological and cultural selection. At the cultural level, religion presumably helps solve the Hobbesian problem as social units grow in size and complexity, providing norms and legitimsiing authority.

    Edward

    That’s all very well in the abstract, but in this particular case is there some variable B between the A of economic insecurity and the C of religiosity that you want to draw attention to? Otherwise, why harp on this? Let’s say we agree that, in some meaningful sense: (1) smoking causes cancer and drinking causes traffic accidents; (2) coral bleaching and glacial melting do not cause each other but are both caused by a remoter, third factor; (3) poverty and alcoholism often have a relationship of mutual causation or reinforcement, to the point where they are more usefully understood elements of the same phenomenon; (4) fertility rates and incomes also exhibit some element of mutual causation (a virtuous circle), but the causation from income to fertility is primary and the reverse is secondary. For each of these As and Cs, I’m sure we could isolate an intervening B, but it won’t necessarily advance our understanding a great deal. It seems to me that the interesting aspect of the relationship between religiosity and economic insecurity is whether it is more like case 1,2,3 or 4.

    Paul

    I’m sure you’re right, and if you could point us to a study that uses that WVS to link religiosity with economic conditions, that would be really interesting.

  9. Doug says:

    Definitions of religion and religiosity are problematic and depend upon a background set of assumptions. The field of scholarship around this issue is usefully surveyed within the context of the debate about the association or religion with violence by William Cavanaugh in his recent work They Myth of Religious Violence.

    “Religion” in the terms in which it is commonly understood only emerged from the breakdown of Christendom and the rise of the nation state through the sixteenth and seventeenth century. It is a concept that has emerged out of a particular historical and social context. How do you measure it and how can you be sure that you are measuring the same thing across widely diverse cultures?

  10. Mike Pepperday says:

    Paul at #7. “Can you elaborate? It is not clear to me how your hypothesised hunger for control leads to the belief in a human-like man-in-the-sky who would be susceptible to prayers and other forms of sacrifice.”

    This longish post is an attempt to answer.

    The man in the sky is a particular exemplification. Religions vary on their details. As Edward points out at #2 the word religion is vague. To any explanation offered, you can always point to some feature of a particular religion and ask how it fits, so it’s a bit ambitious to try to explain every detail. Edward also points out that religion may explain, console, and be a morality or a philosophy. Yes, and don’t forget trance. I would just say that these things are human: given the social pervasiveness of a religion, it is bound to play some part in everything people in the society do or think about. To concentrate on these things misleads ? that video I mentioned goes off on a mighty tangent in attributing religion to our sociality. I attributed it to volcanoes and the weather!

    What I think needs explaining, in the first instance, is the human predilection, universal until modern industrial society, to see supernatural causes. This includes magic. What in one society is God’s will, in another may be caused by sticking pins in a doll. Both are delusions and the puzzle is why delusion universally wins out. The puzzle is why those with their feet on the ground don’t run rings around those who believe a farrago of mystical rubbish. Hunger for control is a simple, testable explanation, an explanation that also explains why in our society religion no longer wins out.

    Discussions of religion have a tendency to concentrate on the “great religions” and to see them as characterising religion in general. But these are monotheisms the first of which arose in the Middle East about three thousand years ago. Polytheism is perhaps a million years older but since it entails gods who are local with individual specialisations it isn’t “great” and we tend to ignore it. I suppose monotheism requires literacy but the point is that the monotheisms are recent and limited phenomena and that a totemic religion practised by some tribe in some remote jungle needs explaining just as Christianity does. Hunger for control provides such an explanation.

    To be “great” means to have a large number of adherents which implies a large geographical spread which probably only a monotheism could achieve. To be non-local the single god has to be everywhere at once which pretty much requires him to be ethereal. God, with a capital G, can hardly live in a golden statue kept in some particular place as this would give rise to rival statues in other places and a fragmentation into polytheism. One way of being ethereal and everywhere would be to float around the sky. Why does he wear a blue nightie? I don’t know; he has to wear something. Incidentally, a friend emailed me the other day saying that intelligent design is true and that God really is an angry man with a white beard. He gave a link to Craig Venter.

    To address the anthropomorphic aspect. The need to assuage a hunger for control explains the human proclivity to the supernatural. I think it fully explains it: the supernatural is (was) essential for psychological well-being. Let us now divide the supernatural into magic and religion, where religion has gods. Here a cognitive explanation does make sense. Animals are constantly on the lookout for an agent. Is the rustle in the grass a breeze or a snake? Is the shadow a cloud or a hawk? It’s life or death so better play safe. It is only logical for humans to attribute the behaviour of a volcano to a peripatetic god. If there is a god in that volcano your only recourse, just as with your own king, is to get down on your belly and beg for mercy and to offer gifts to curry favour. That is, you pray and sacrifice. If your village survives another year the god heard you. If a lava flow destroys the neighbouring village it proves its inhabitants did not appease the god.

    Polytheist gods are not always of human form but are human in behaviour, quarrelling, joking, helping, famously fickle. If there is only One God, then He must be perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful. He cannot be animal or human but rather must be a superhuman. He is not bribed by sacrifice but is concerned for sincerity of heart. So there He is, floating in the sky, judging whether prayers are genuine and rewarding them with eternal life.

  11. Paul Frijters says:

    James,

    just type in ‘world value survey religion’ on google and hundreds of studies pop up. There is for instance a festschrift on ‘Religion, democratic values and political conflict’ using the WVS. Tables of church attendance for 53 countries over time can be distilled from it (eg http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/rel_chu_att-religion-church-attendance ). You quickly find yourself swamped with stuff on religion from this survey.

    Mike,

    I agree that in order to explain religion its best to start with the earliest forms and to see the later ones as evolved things incorporating many more human traits, but the early ones would be more in the realm of hunter-gatherer religions than the village-based stories you use. Hunter-gatherers from which we evolutionarily originate by and large didnt live in fixed villages, but were more like roaming bands of male adults with their wives and children in a particular territory. Spirit stories, ghost stories, dream times, appeals to these spirits, etc. is then the kind of thing that your theory of control would aim to explain. And dont get me wrong, I basically agree with this hunger-for-control explanation as a prime mover in religious beliefs.

    The usual distinction between magic and religions is that magic purports direct control over the unknown (i.e. magic is never divorced from people pretending they have magic) whilst deity-religions have abstract users of magic.

    The sequence from uncertainty to religion goes from an anthropomorphisation of the unknown to an attempt to have a human relation with that unknown. I would say we do both almost automatically, such as when we plead with our car or curse our computer. Hence I would surmise that the hunger for control, which is there in other animals apart from us to, only leads to religion because we humans can also anthropomorphise the unseen (my computer is a ‘she’) and have reciprocal relations with the unseen (I subconsciously believe it cares about my pleading), something other animals cannot.

  12. Mike Pepperday says:

    To James at #8

    I am not sure where I confused biological and cultural selection. Hunger for control is biological; amoeba have it. The human awareness of the impact of volcanoes or storms is also biology but other animals don’t have it. It would be augmented by our ability to talk which is essentially biological. Like languages, the supernatural is cultural in its details but basically it is an unavoidable consequence of that biology-based awareness. Gods, too, are cultural but are a logical consequence of a biology-based alertness to agents. Monotheism per se is just cultural, probably dependent upon literacy. That is why it is confusing to have monotheism in mind when puzzling over religion.

    I think Andy Thomson’s by-product explanations are not explanations. They are by-products. Certainly religion is used to provide norms and legitimise authority. Religion pervades. If a god can run a volcano then a god can keep order. A Great Punisher in the Sky should provide significant savings on the police budget, especially in monotheisms because there guilt operates. The idea that you keep the hoi polloi in line by slinging them a fairy-tale goes back to Plato’s noble lie. It doesn’t explain religion.

    As for instilling hope and optimism, they are delusions, are they not? Every football coach believes they are a good thing. So does every army general. Hope would come from having some feeling of control. We can’t function without it. If you have no hope you don’t try and then you really don’t have control. In the extreme you die: think of voodoo death and of anecdotes of POWs who died when they “lost heart”. Keeping up morale is essential to survival. What could humans, aware of illnesses and poor harvests, do? They had no option but to seek supernatural help.

    I haven’t read Shermer but I went through The God Delusion carefully. Basically I am saying religion is a placebo (you think it works therefore it works) but Dawkins rules out the placebo explanation. He does not offer reasoned grounds but just asserts it. Quite un-Dawkins-like actually.

  13. Mike Pepperday says:

    Paul

    Note something about pleading with your car and cursing your computer: you want the thing to work. You don’t want to know why it isn’t working. A common “explanation” for religion is that it explains the world (with creation stories and such). Religion does explain; religion mixes into everything. But for the ability to explain to be the explanation of religion would mean we have a psychological need for explanations, a need which has to be assuaged. On the contrary, when you curse your car or computer you don’t give a damn for the explanation of its misbehaviour; you just want the bloody thing to obey. You are upset over your lack of control.

    You suggest that we have a tendency to anthropomorphise the car and the computer. I think you are saying this is in our biological makeup. If so then this would be the sought-after religion gene.

  14. James Farrell says:

    Mike, when you spoke of Tribe A outcompeting Tribe B you appeared to be referring to cultural practices. Otherwise you must have been saying that genes are selected because they promote group survival rather than individual, which is something Dawkins (I don’t know about other evolution experts) is sceptical of. I’m not saying you’re confusing them in your mind, rather that it was unclear what kind of mechanism you were referring to.

    I find the second paragraph of your last comment hard to follow. The by-product theory doesn’t necessarily explain why people embrace systems of collective belief (as opposed to individualised fantasies) but it explains why people are open to believe stuff that has no basis in experience.

    I agree with the last two paragraphs.

  15. Edward Mariyani-Squire says:

    James:

    For each of these As and Cs, I’m sure we could isolate an intervening B, but it won’t necessarily advance our understanding a great deal.

    Agreed that it won’t necessarily advance our understanding why religiosity increases or declines a great deal, although in some scenarios it might. One would have to check. E.g. South and North Koreans have fairly different standards of living – as far as can be told, the former being higher than the latter – yet (a) in both the majority are atheist and (b) the North more so than the South. We probably need some additional intervening causal variable(s), presumably relating to their history and culture, in order to advance our understanding of these scenarios.

    It seems to me that the interesting aspect of the relationship between religiosity and economic insecurity is whether it is more like case 1,2,3 or 4.

    The same point holds for the issue of choosing between 1,2,3 or 4. Perhaps in some scenarios the relationship between religiosity and economic insecurity is more like 1, in others more like 2, etc, or in others the empirical relationship may be reversed.

    If that’s the case, then one might still want to choose one type (1,2,3 or 4) as a generalisation on the grounds of empirical predominance as long as one was willing to give up some precision. E.g. rather than offering a different causal account of rising Christian religiosity in China among the emerging middle class – i.e. those whose economic insecurity is decreasing – one may simply ignore it (as long as the numbers don’t get ‘too large’). In the Chinese case, it would seem that

    My other point above, which seems to have fallen out, is that it also may change the character of ‘religiosity’ itself, which tends to make studies assuming an invariant notion of ‘religiosity’ more difficult. E.g. staying with the idea of economic insecurity causing religiosity, we might want to say that fundamentalist religiosity of the poor working class in the US and the lack of fundamentalist religiosity of the upper-middle class in the US is thereby explained. But if we are willing to consider different notions of ‘religiosity’, perhaps we could say that the religiosity per se of the upper-middle class is not lower so much as it is radically different. One might, e.g., posit a kind of secular religiosity: at the height of Obama-mania a borderline worship of a saviour who would deliver them from evil, belief that a man possessed of special qualities could perform acts that no rational person would believe lie within the ken of the material world (i.e. performing miracles) such as bringing a just peace to the Middle East, harmonious bipartisan political agreements, elimination of special interest politics and money from Washington, and expressions such as ‘belief in‘ (rather than ‘belief that‘). Okay, I’m just having fun here, but I trust you know what I mean.

  16. Edward Mariyani-Squire says:

    whoops ….

    In the Chinese case, it would seem that …

    there is economic advantage to be gained from the social networking function of prayer groups. What then needs to be explained is why religious belief and practices occur, for surely these are not necessary in order for business-related information to be exchanged and contacts to be made. Some other variables would need to be added in order to have an adequate explanation.

  17. Don Arthur says:

    Edward – I’m interested in your idea about beliefs having different functions for different people.

    What is a belief?

    How do you know if you have one?

    And how do you know if your belief is the same belief as somebody else?

  18. Edward Mariyani-Squire says:

    Don:

    What is a belief?
    How do you know if you have one?
    And how do you know if your belief is the same belief as somebody else?

    Oh man. Full answers to these questions would be too large for a post, so I’ll go in the opposite direction and give answers that are too short.

    1. A state of mind in which a proposition is consciously held to be true.
    2. You are conscious of it – see 1.
    3. If ‘know’ means ‘certain’, then you don’t.

  19. Don Arthur says:

    Edward – Could I intentionally decieve myself about the truth of a proposition in order to console myself or relieve anxiety?

    Could this be a utility maximising strategy?

    And if so, could self deception be a rational choice?

    Might it be irrational to insist on holding only true proposition to be true?

  20. James Farrell says:

    Don and Edward:

    Sorry to be a bossy boots, but would you consider continuing this discussion on the new thread that I just created? (I can see form Don’s last comment that it’s not off-topic, but I think it’s worth starting afresh in any case).

  21. Mike Pepperday says:

    Yes, cultural practices. The religion meme historically outcompeted the secularism meme; the delusion meme was more adaptive than the rational meme. No genes involved, though for the delusion meme to have achieved such a universal grip, it must have better suited our biology than the rational meme.

    I wouldn’t posit group selection. For my money Dawkins killed that dead. It is clearly wrong regarding good-of-the-species arguments. Good-of-the-individual is, as he says, also only an approximation. Good-of-the-gene seems to be the only solid thesis, the gene being the only entity that does not die.

    Still, species do exist; individuals do exist. Tribes and religions exist and they compete and displace one another. I was thinking that humans tend to compete in teams and that all the members of a tribe will be of the same religion. If tribe A wipes out tribe B then A’s religion will spread and B’s religion (or secularism) will be gone. Not to say there ever was a secularist tribe.

    The same would apply at an individual level. Evidently religious individuals outcompete secularists, meaning that being religious is (was) of survival advantage. Thus the psychological and biological features (whatever they may be) which require, or are sympathetic to, the supernatural will prosper in the gene pool.

    “…it explains why people are open to believe stuff that has no basis in experience.”

    I have been pondering this. Experience teaches animals that there are agents who do things so it is reasonable to assume an agent is operating the volcano (What else?). And then the volcano razes the neighbouring village. Since it is well-known that village did not follow the correct appeasement rites, experience confirms the belief.

    I think a modern religious believer will tell you that their experience constantly supports their belief, indeed that they have daily evidence of its correctness and no experience to the contrary.

  22. Ken Parish says:

    Mike

    I suspect that your hypothesis about control is relevant to James’ questions, but not quite in the way you’re asserting. You say that “religion provided a feeling of power or control which technology now provides”. I can’t see how that follows, despite your several subsequent attempts to explain it. What I think IS true though is that religion provides/d solace for people whose undeniable life experience was that they had very little control over events or their personal condition in this world (vale of tears etc). Even the wealthy usually lost several of their children to disease before they reached adulthood. Things might be horrible and unjust in this world, but justice and mercy would prevail in the next. Such religious convictions might well have provided a range of “evolutionary advantages” e.g. sustainable attitudes of patience, persistence in the face of setbacks, forebearance, charity and benevolence towards fellow human beings rather than bitterness and resentment (thereby engendering positive rather than negative responses in others) etc.

  23. Paul Frijters says:

    Ken,

    religions that provide solace seem only very recent and are thus unlikely to be involved in the evolutionary rationale. Early religions included things like a worship of the sun, the carrying out of rain dances, and appeals to hunting spirits. Believing in such ‘spirits of nature’ that had to be bribed would not seem to provide solace for past losses (rather, it adds to the misery!), but can be seen as providing the illusion of control. The ideas that god is pleasant, that there is cosmic justice, that life has a meaning, etc., is all exceptionally recent and are often attributed to the Zoroastrians (i.e. within written memory, tens of thousands of years after humans came on the scene). Pagan gods were by and large nasty and selfish. If you wanted things from them, you had to give up something you valued.

  24. Mike Pepperday says:

    Ken

    Not only was solace not part of paganism but there is another vital aspect. The matter of logic. The thesis “We are religious because it provides X for us” requires evidence that religion (more generally, the supernatural) is the only way to provide X, and that the survival of those who lack X is in jeopardy.

    X might be explanation, consolation, philosophy, or morality. It might be trance or other way to transcend ordinary existence. Whatever the myriad things religion does, as far as I can see the only thing religion does which only it can do, and which we must have or die, is provide the feeling of control in those areas where we actually have no control.

    ‘You say that “religion provided a feeling of power or control which technology now provides”. I can’t see how that follows, despite your several subsequent attempts to explain it.’

    What can I say? Do we pray for rain or turn on a sprinkler? Do you pray for your child to recover or take her to the doctor? Do you think the doctor is a priest calling on divine help? Religion is undermined a dozen times a day by the control we have through technology.

  25. Edward Mariyani-Squire says:

    Paul:

    religions that provide solace seem only very recent … The ideas that god is pleasant, that there is cosmic justice, that life has a meaning, etc., is all exceptionally recent and are often attributed to the Zoroastrians (i.e. within written memory

    Isn’t it possible that these are just the first recorded ideas, rather than the first time the ideas existed? I would have thought that given the paucity of evidence about the intricacies of pre-textual religious practices and beliefs, one couldn’t really make confident claims about what functions and associated psychological states (such as solace) did or did not exist ten thousand years ago. By analogy: I assume we have no evidence as to whether people ten thousand years ago ate their own toenails, and if they did, why. Surely we couldn’t then confidently state that therefore they didn’t engage in such a practice.

    Believing in such ’spirits of nature’ that had to be bribed would not seem to provide solace for past losses

    I can understand that if that were the entire box and dice of an animistic religion then it is difficult to imagine solace could be drawn from this (although this may be just due to a lack of imagination on my part). The question is whether this was indeed the entire box and dice.

    E.g. as far as I know another very ancient (pre-monotheistic) kind of religion was ancestor worship. I’ve met people who still hold to a variant of this, and they did seem to draw solace from the idea that their 500 year old ancestors were still present and watching over them. Is it too far-fetched to suspect that ancestor-worshippers from ten thousand years ago might have similarly derived such solace?

    Mike:

    as far as I can see the only thing religion does which only it can do, and which we must have or die, is provide the feeling of control in those areas where we actually have no control

    Surely this is not true of all religion. I seem to recall there was quite a debate around the 4th century AD and then again in the post-Reformation period about ‘grace’ in Christianity. A slightly disturbing possibility that arose out of these debates was that humans control absolutely nothing and that no matter what humans do – be they deeds, rituals, or belief – they cannot force God’s hand. There is no quid pro quo. The doctrine boils down to ‘whatever will be will be’ by the completely unpredictable grace of God. The same debates and doctrines seem to have emerged in Judaism and Islam. It’s hard to see how this religious doctrine “provides a feeling of control” rather than the opposite.

  26. Mike Pepperday says:

    Edward

    Yes, all religion. The thesis is that religions provide a means (feeling) of control. Whatever else they do, they must all do this. If there is a religion that doesn’t, the thesis is wrong.

    I don’t know anything about the 4th century debates but if they were theologians then it was just theory and when a child was sick or there were pests in the veggie patch, it counted for nothing. Note that the debaters didn’t take over Christianity. I would also bet that the debaters themselves, between sessions, were saying their regular prayers. Prayers seek divine favour which is an attempt to control.

    As for “forcing God’s hand”, that is a straw man. In polytheism the gods are notoriously fickle. You may buy their favour (as you can that of ancestors) if they are in a good mood. A monotheist God is all-powerful and will be merciful if you are worthy. Practitioners are aware that they only get a modicum of control through the supernatural. That is why technology has displaced it.

    It was a basic tenet of Calvinism that your fate is predetermined (at birth, I think). Yet they still prayed.

    Consider, too, Buddhism, which some say has no gods. But it has prayer-wheels and Buddhist internet sites show plenty of prayers. One may also find admonitions not to pray for material favours (from Buddha, Dharma, Sangha…), which is good evidence that that is what people do.

    If just one religion can be found where people do not pray (this may take the form of song or dance) the thesis is destroyed. More generally, if there is a single pre-modern society where people do not employ the supernatural ? prayers or spells ? to control significant events, the thesis is wrong.

  27. Paul Frijters says:

    Edward,

    yes, our suppositions about what people believed before recorded times are just that: suppositions. The best we’ve got are the stories penned down by early missionaries to surviving pockets of hunter-gatherer societies (including Aborigines society, about which we know relatively a lot). Before that, we have to make inferences based on burial sites, etc., but such sites are usually already related to agriculture.
    Yes, ancestor worship, as far as i know, goes a long way back, particularly if we would count ancestor spirits in this. I dont know much about what such ancestor worship contained.
    Hence, in a way, you are right. The solace hypothesis is not as obviously wrong as I initially thought. it is simply that within recorded times, brutal pagan gods and nasty pagan spirits came before the forgiving nice ones.

  28. Edward Mariyani-Squire says:

    Mike:

    I don’t know anything about the 4th century debates but if they were theologians then it was just theory and when a child was sick or there were pests in the veggie patch, it counted for nothing.

    Yes, it was theologians, but the debate – Augustinian vs Pelagian – was over the nature of Christianity. The Pelagian position, that if a person did their best according to God’s orders, then they would earn God’s grace, was defeated and became a heresy punishable by death. Given that it became a defining doctrine of early Christianity and was backed by force, it is a little difficult to maintain that it counted for nothing.

    Note that the debaters didn’t take over Christianity.

    Note that they did take over European Christianity (what we now call Roman Catholicism)…. Middle Eastern Christians (the Maronites, the Copts and the Assyrians) excluded. Later theologians in the 14th C – esp. William of Occam – mucked around with the Augustinian doctrine a bit to let Pelagianism in the back door (basically, God has absolute power and is under no obligation to save anyone, but because his loving nature has made a rule that he will save those who do good deeds). This was regarded as highly controversial and was hotly disputed at the time. Luther also denounced it as evidence of the Church using doctrine for corrupt ends (the neo-Pelagian doctrine could be used to theologically justify the collection of indulgences).

    I would also bet that the debaters themselves, between sessions, were saying their regular prayers. Prayers seek divine favour which is an attempt to control.

    Highly likely that were saying their prayers, but according to them, they were not saying their prayers because it guaranteed divine favour. That would have been heretical and is precisely what they were arguing against. If they did believe it, it’s hard to see why they opposed the neo-Pelagian doctrine with such fervour.

    As for “forcing God’s hand”, that is a straw man.

    According to Augustine that’s what it amounted to and why he was so opposed to it. If one can do X and as a result God will do Y for you, this makes God’s will contingent on your own. This effectively amounts to denying the absolute power of God and thus is heretical.

    In polytheism the gods are notoriously fickle. You may buy their favour (as you can that of ancestors) if they are in a good mood.

    It depends on which polytheism, I suspect – but taking the obvious ones of Hinduism and Greco-Roman religion – the gods do seem to be pretty erratic. But I would have thought that this is precisely why it doesn’t support your thesis very well. If the gods are unpredictable, then it’s hard to say how this provides a basis for perceived human control over one’s life and circumstances. If a burnt offering is just as likely to get you struck dead by a bolt of lightening as is it to bring rain, I would have thought that this would generate a sense of severe anxiety rather than a sense of security.

    A monotheist God is all-powerful and will be merciful if you are worthy.

    True, but as noted above, the orthodox position for a very long time was that your “worthiness” depended solely on God’s grace, which was entirely up to him, and didn’t depend on your actions or your thoughts, nor did “mercy” necessarily consist in good things happening to you in the material world. E.g. a ‘good Christian’ who prays, fasts, confesses, marries, etc., can be made by God to have an entirely miserable life (and, btw, this would be entirely just), but may, if God so wills it by his grace, speedily enter heaven. (Note that this is the consolation in the face of a miserable life. One assumes it would serve a survival function: without this consolation, one might throw oneself off The Gap.)

    It was a basic tenet of Calvinism that your fate is predetermined (at birth, I think). Yet they still prayed.

    Indeed, so maybe prayer serves a different one to that which you are presupposing. It would seem that the act of prayer isn’t so necessarily evidence of your thesis being true. Depending on what the function of prayer is for people, it may in fact be evidence against the thesis.

    Consider, too, Buddhism, which some say has no gods. But it has prayer-wheels …

    If Hindu and Buddhist practitioners hold to the concept of karma, then that would better support your thesis, as the very idea is that your good works are ‘returned’ to you.

    If just one religion can be found where people do not pray (this may take the form of song or dance) the thesis is destroyed.

    As I noted, perhaps it is not just were people don’t pray, but if they don’t pray for ‘stuff’ then the thesis may be in trouble in those cases.

  29. Tel says:

    Looking at the list of countries, I’d guess that 90% of the DNA used for this study was taken from Europe or European bloodlines. This material was squeezed through the filter of church-dominated Iron Age Europe; a place where not believing in God tended to result in a painful and splatty death sentence. The fact that a large proportion of the residual contains “religiosity” leading to belief in God merely is a statement that under an oppressive regime, bending to the will of your oppressor is one workable survival strategy.

    Japan as the outlier is hardly any surprise given that the Japanese were influenced by Buddhism, Animism, Ancestor-worship and Zen — all of which are highly compatible with the theory of Evolution. The Japanese found all sorts of other reasons to kill people, without feeling the need to execute religious heretics.

  30. Tel says:

    If just one religion can be found where people do not pray (this may take the form of song or dance) the thesis is destroyed.

    To the best of my knowledge, Zen has no prayers. It has meditation, gardening, poetry and a bit of minimalist artwork.

    There are historical links between Buddhism, martial arts training, and monastic austerity — with enough wriggling you might be able to link that back to a request for divine intervention (e.g. Buddha talismans in Muay Thai). Zen is right out on the fringe, and tends to reject icons.

    I suggest that religion provided a feeling of power or control which technology now provides.

    You could adequately cover the whole family of meditative and monastic religious practice if you were willing to include self control as one of the faculties assisted by religion. Be careful though, you might end up scooping up Scientology and the Audits in the same sweep.

  31. Don Arthur says:

    Edward – I can see how Mike invited your tutorial on heresies in the early church by insisting that the thesis requires that ALL religions provide a sense of control.

    But your response made we wonder — how many believers understood enough about theology in order to recognise which beliefs were heresies and which were not?

  32. Mike Pepperday says:

    Edward

    “If the gods are unpredictable, then it’s hard to say how this provides a basis for perceived human control over one’s life and circumstances.”

    Why is it hard? You make a sacrifice in the hope that the god will help you. I think it’s obvious. Some modern medicines have a less than 50% chance of working but they are still prescribed. They are expensive, too, like a sacrifice. Quest for control.

    “If a burnt offering is just as likely to get you struck dead by a bolt of lightening as is it to bring rain, I would have thought that this would generate a sense of severe anxiety rather than a sense of security.”

    Another straw man. No one would think that there is an equal chance of being struck dead by lightning as there is of getting rain. Equal would be rain or not rain. What DO you think the person intends by the offering? I say it is to ask a favour of the rain god and I say this is obvious. And having performed the ceremony, everyone can go to bed comforted by the knowledge that everything has been done that can be done.

    We should perhaps keep in mind that prayer is not one-off: the ceremony worked last year and it used to work really well a few generations ago when the gods walked among men and talked and mated with them.

    In the event that failure to rain also eventually generates severe anxiety, choose another god, make a bigger offering, recognise that you are being punished for that stunt you pulled last year… Means of control remain. Probably the more the anxiety, the more you cast about for options for control.

    Like those 4C debaters, there have doubtless been many reflective people who suspected the truth, namely that supplication is irrelevant. (I recall reading how older women in some PNG tribe spoke contemptuously of “men’s rubbish”.) But even one as modern, clever and convinced as George Bernard Shaw, was prepared to admit the possibility he was wrong. It’s enough.

    Let the official doctrine of the church be what it may. Why did the argument about influence continue? The theologians’ argument was ivory tower theory. If it was official policy the prayer still said “Give us this day our daily bread…” and the parish priest was still telling parishioners they could get to heaven if they donated to the church. And they did donate. I have read that around the ninth century the Christian church owned half the productive land in Europe. And people did buy indulgences. Why? They’re like those Buddhists praying for material benefits contrary to official Buddhist doctrine. They seek control ? what else?

    Incidentally, I think Hinduism is monotheist but that’s another story.

    “…perhaps it is not just were people don’t pray, but if they don’t pray for ‘stuff’ then the thesis may be in trouble in those cases.”

    Hmm. Not “in those cases.” Any case which refutes the thesis kills it. (If you find a body that should obey the law of gravity but doesn’t, the law of gravity is no law.) Otherwise I think I agree. I presume you are saying that people might only pray for benefits in the afterlife (which is actually still control) rather than material benefits. Yes, the afterlife is not enough. We have to control illness, flood, fire and famine, and the number and sex of children. Find a pre-modern society which did not (delude itself that it could) control these material things through supernatural means, and the hunger-for-control thesis is worthless.

  33. Mike Pepperday says:

    Don Arthur

    “how many believers understood enough about theology in order to recognise which beliefs were heresies and which were not?”

    Yes, religion is as she is spoke; it is not what some Academie Religieuse dictates as official dogma.

    I think Shinto is another where you don’t ask for material benefit. I just glanced at Wikipedia on Shinto and am not enlightened. There is history and demographics and descriptions of shrines and on and on and there is mention of rituals but what do people SAY during these rituals? It is only through what people say that we know what is on their minds, i.e., whether they seek control.

    Tel

    If Zen has no prayers or other supernatural practices it is not relevant to the discussion. Unless, of course, there is a society somewhere which “believes in” Zen and where the people have no supernatural beliefs. That is a question of ethnographic fact. I would very much like a reference.

    One qualification which may be relevant to Zen: the phenomenon of the hermit. The phenomenon is rare but apparently universal though I suspect hermits are exceedingly rare in hunter-gather environments for I think that there would need to be some economic surplus to support such detached individuals.

    Hermits are people who have withdrawn from the society where they were raised. Mostly hermits are older men who are beyond the socialising effects of women, work and war (though there is a Buddhist practice of young men taking a year or two off to be monks during which they lead an eremitic life and then return to mainstream society). Hermits are people whose resources exceed their needs. That usually means they have almost no (perceived) needs which means there is nothing they feel they need to control.

    Except ? and I think this would be an explicit awareness with hermits ? self-control. Thank you for the warning on Scientology; I shall watch out.

  34. Edward Mariyani-Squire says:

    Mike:

    You make a sacrifice in the hope that the god will help you. I think it’s obvious. Some modern medicines have a less than 50% chance of working but they are still prescribed. They are expensive, too, like a sacrifice. Quest for control.

    My point was that if the gods are genuinely unpredictable – think of all the Greek stories – then it is not a case of ‘good’ vs ‘no response’ but ‘good’ vs ‘no response’ vs ‘one hundred and one other crazy possibilities’. For the Greek gods it sometimes seems like a lottery where the probabilities are unknown. Do modern medicines of that kind get prescribed? (I suppose that could be accounted for by the sorts of fallacious thinking that inveterate gamblers exhibit – ‘you’ve gotta be in it to win it’, etc.)

    No one would think that there is an equal chance of being struck dead by lightning as there is of getting rain.

    I don’t see where you are drawing your information from about what people were thinking. Why would no-one think this? (In any case, it would not have to be an equal chance. If the prayer-givers are as rational as you seem to be suggesting here, they would be weighing up the value of the potential outcomes and their respective probabilities. E.g. there may only be a 1% chance of accidentally making Zeus angry but the cost is your life, and 99% chance he’ll be happy and thus will give you the new sandals you prayed for. In that case it would be a bad bet to pray.)

    What DO you think the person intends by the offering?

    The giving of offerings may just be a command of the religion with no expectation of material gain entailed and it is followed due to peer pressure. It may be that the supplicant is trying to get a loved one out of purgatory (or whatever). It may be that they think the ritual is good for their soul or their character. It may be that it is an enjoyable social outing with the family. It may be that the supplicant loves their chosen god and thinks it will make them happy, without expectation of reward (in the same way one might give a gift to a friend without expecting anything in return). It might be some combination of these. There are probably more reasons, but that should be sufficient to make the point: the sheer act of offering doesn’t constitute evidence of the thesis. It only becomes evidence if one can establish that offerings/prayers etc are only ever offered in a quest for control. Merely asserting that this is the reason is not sufficient. That would be unjustified dogmatism. Nor is it sufficient to say that any other reason that is given is not a real reason because the only real reason is for control. That would be circular. The sheer assertion that other reasons are given but they are in fact sublimations of the underlying motivation of a quest for control. That would also be circular.

    I say it is to ask a favour of the rain god and I say this is obvious.

    But it is only obvious if you don’t consider other possibilities, or rule out other possibilities ispe dixit. You would need to actually check rather than just assume it to be the case – esp. given the entire thesis hangs on it. (I think it is just obvious that my table is solid, but thanks to empirical investigation, that is apparently quite wrong.)

    Let the official doctrine of the church be what it may. Why did the argument about influence continue? The theologians’ argument was ivory tower theory. If it was official policy the prayer still said “Give us this day our daily bread…” and the parish priest was still telling parishioners they could get to heaven if they donated to the church. And they did donate.

    Your defense of the thesis is starting to sound unfalsifiable here. Are you suggesting that anyone would did follow official church doctrine was not really practicing their religion, and only those who were following Pelagianism were? This sounds like the No True Scotsman Fallacy – A: no Scot goes without a kilt; B: McGregor is a Scot who goes without a kilt; A: but McGregor is not a true Scot.

    Any case which refutes the thesis kills it. (If you find a body that should obey the law of gravity but doesn’t, the law of gravity is no law.)

    I don’t see why you have to make it an all-or-nothing thesis. Laws don’t have to be universal of nature in order to be ‘laws’. The law of demand can mean an idealised/theoretical universal statement, but it can also be an empirical generalisation. On both interpretations, there can be exceptions to the law without bringing into doubt its status. Both a respectable interpretations of laws even in physics – on the former see, e.g., Nancy Cartwright’s work and on the latter see, e.g., Wesley Salmon’s.

  35. Mike Pepperday says:

    “It only becomes evidence if one can establish that offerings/prayers etc are only ever offered in a quest for control.”

    No. It would fail to be evidence if prayers never sought control. But a prayer is essentially a petition ? a polite (grovelling) request for help from powerful supernatural beings. The things you mention might also be there. As I have said before, there is much in religion, particularly modern monotheism, that is not relevant to religion’s explanation. Of your items, purgatory is pertinent since the only solution is through supernatural intercession. It’s not a very general example as purgatory is a fancy of a modern monotheism.

    The paper by Gregory Paul which was the centre of James’s original post presents the following purported explanations for religion:

    – fear of death,
    – fear of societal chaos,
    – desire for a father or universal companion,
    – explanation for the meaning of life or the existence of the universe,
    – social primate need for social support,
    -a means to achieve political power,
    – a psychological need for spirituality,
    – the ecstasy [trance, I called it],
    – the tendency to perceive patterns where they do not exist,
    – retention of childhood patterns of gullible thinking,
    – “God gene/s” in which religious belief imparts a survival or reproductive benefit,
    – “memes” that spread religious ideas even if religious devotion is maladaptive

    You would add consolation and morality to that list. All these things are associated with religion but as explanations they won’t wash. They are not vital. If you could show that people who do not fear death function better and the only way to control it was through the supernatural, or if you could independently demonstrate that we have a psychological need for spirituality, those items would be in the running as explanations of religion. By the way, in our society we control death. Except for rare accidents and illnesses no one in it dies; we retire at 65 and then we die.

    “Your defense of the thesis is starting to sound unfalsifiable here.”

    I offered falsification criteria in my first post above. One test would be to get the football coach and the army commander to convince their men immediately before games and battles that their cause was hopeless. If they then tended to win more often the thesis would be falsified. You can just imagine it. There are countless books about the power of positive thinking. I bet there isn’t one about the power of negative thinking. That is why I say hunger-for-control as an explanation for religion is staring us in the face.

    Does what an educated elite argue over count as religion? Or is religion the actual practice? The parish priest and the Lord’s prayer support the thesis and they were pretty much universal. Why would worshippers so disobey official orders? As I already pointed out, Buddhism has prayers everywhere ? contrary to official dogma. Shinto, when I read the rest of the Wikipedia entry, actually turns out to be all about asking the gods for things. In writing, believe it or not.

    “Laws don’t have to be universal of nature in order to be ‘laws’.”

    This is off topic but I disagree. A natural law must apply in every case. If, unpredictably, a body turned up which defied gravity, gravity theory would be wrong. As Popper says, no amount of confirmation proves but one falsification disproves.

    In this instance, a premise is that an organism which did not seek to control its environment, would cease to exist. Among animals, with allowance for social care, each individual must perceive its success at controlling and act accordingly. In general, a creature that perceives that it lacks control will cut and run. That is, ceteris paribus, the creature which thinks it lacks control will give up (quit, retire) before the creature which thinks it has control.

    It follows that awareness of environmental influences which humans could not in fact control left humans no option: for psychological health, and to compete with other humans, they had to turn to the supernatural. To falsify this, find a single pre-modern society that did not ask the supernatural to intercede in their lives.

  36. Edward Mariyani-Squire says:

    Mike:

    a prayer is essentially a petition ? a polite (grovelling) request for help from powerful supernatural beings.

    If that is the definition of prayer, then of course all prayers entail the desire for help and thereby control in some sense. In that case, there can be no evidence against it because it is an analytical statement – like ‘all bachelors are unmarried’. The only empirical questions then are (a) whether all religions enjoin prayers (or better, supplications), and (b) whether supplicators do indeed believe that it is likely to increase their control over the world. I suppose one could ask whether the definition is too narrow as well – i.e. does it exclude what would ordinarily be called ‘prayers’ that are not also supplications.

    Does what an educated elite argue over count as religion? Or is religion the actual practice? … Shinto … actually turns out to be all about asking the gods for things.

    If for you, religion is not official doctrines, but whatever happen to be the beliefs and practices at any given moment for laypeople, the empirical work becomes much more burdensome. Some of them may actually follows official doctrine. Some may improvise their own. Of those who improvise, one would need to check why they believe what they do. Incidentally, to take the Shinto example, this is official doctrine, but I think you’ll find that this is not always the practice of actual Shintoists. Are those who don’t follow the official doctrine ‘real’ Shintoists in your book?

  37. Mike Pepperday says:

    “If for you, religion is not official doctrines, but whatever happen to be the beliefs and practices at any given moment for laypeople, the empirical work becomes much more burdensome.”

    Burdensome? All you need is that one moment in one society. If the people do not supplicate (rather: employ the supernatural to try to control their lives), the thesis is in the bin. Figuring out “official doctrine” in a non-literate society sounds burdensome.

    The problem is not to define religion or to explain the proliferation of bullshit among the literati. The problem is to explain the universal practice of the supernatural among humans for the last million years and its near disappearance from modern society.

  38. Mike Pepperday says:

    Thanks…

    It is many years since I dreamt up my explanation for religion but I have never (before) published it. I occasionally read something and think “Ah, just carry that thought a bit further and you’ve got it.” The well-known anti-religion proselytisers ? Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens… ? haven’t twigged at all but Gregory Paul, whose paper was the subject of James’s original post, has.

    I ploughed through Paul’s paper. It seems pretty careful and the many graphs are most interesting. On the basis of his evidence, he says:

    “…the middle class majorities of western Europe, Canada, Austro-Zealand and Japan apparently feel sufficiently secure in their lives that increasingly few citizens feel a need to seek the aid and protection of a supernatural creator… …The majority of Americans are left feeling sufficiently insecure that they perceive a need to seek the aid and protection of a supernatural creator…”

    And later he generalises:

    “…early humans were poorly informed hunter gatherers living impoverished and dangerous lives. These conditions were so ideal for the invention of supernatural entities that could be petitioned for aid and protection that it is difficult to construct a scenario in which primitive cultures would be rationalistic atheists.”

    He’s almost there. My generalisation is that all creatures have evolved a subjective need to feel in control of that which matters to them and the supernatural has, until recently, been the only way to satisfy this need in humans.

    In the posts above, I offered little confirmatory evidence but just stated the thesis to expose it to refutation. It seems to have survived. To the commenters, thanks very much. If I ever get around to writing it up properly no doubt your views will be reflected.

    [email protected]

  39. Tel says:

    A natural law must apply in every case. If, unpredictably, a body turned up which defied gravity, gravity theory would be wrong. As Popper says, no amount of confirmation proves but one falsification disproves.

    Bit of a problem attempting to apply this to statistical systems such as Quantum Mechanics where part of what you know is that certain specific types of knowledge are impossible (uncertainty principle, etc). Thus, you might be able to make very accurate inferences about the long-term convergence of many observations but not be able to make any particular statement about one particular observation.

    To pick a slightly different example, suppose I have a system for stock market investment, that makes a reasonably good return 90% of the time and a survivable loss 10% of the time, it’s still a good system despite being “wrong” from Popper’s point of view. The fact that it does not exactly model stock market behaviour shows that it could indeed be improved, but if it makes me money I’ll take it, thank you very much.

    Getting back to Buddhism and Zen, I should point out that the history of Buddhism and the general methodology was such that it melded with older native religions as it spread to new cultures. Thus, Animism in China and Tibet is older than Buddhism, and the Buddhists never made an attempt to obliterate this earlier religion (as Western monotheistic religions were wont to do), instead they reinterpreted older ideas to make sense from a Buddhist perspective. The consequence is that Buddhism acts as a broad guiding force, not as a purist social foundation, and any particular example you care to study will be tainted (from a research perspective) for this reason.

    Moreover, there is nothing to prevent people having supernatural beliefs without any significant supernatural practices. For example, reincarnation would generally be regarded as a supernatural belief — in as much as it cannot be proven or disproved by experiment, so it is an article of faith. However, once you believe in reincarnation, how do you pray to that? There is no Zeus or Wotan deciding who gets what in the reincarnation game, if just happens. We could say that reincarnation is belief in a supernatural force that behaves as if it was part of nature itself.

    Is this a religion? That’s a matter of interpretation… but it is not science, based on any reasonable understanding of the Scientific Method.

    The concept of Karma is very similar, it is an article of faith that what goes around comes around. Maybe some day someone will prove this and deliver precisely a quantifiable measure of how it operates, but until then it must be considered a supernatural belief. Many secular people hold beliefs that are close or interchangeable with the concept of Karma (intuitively it is easy enough to accept), but I’ve yet to see a scientific proof.

    Biblical people say “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” which is just Karma in a different wrapper (still a supernatural belief at the heart of it). Some people say, “Do unto others before they do unto you” and annoyingly, that is equally reasonable despite having the opposite intonation.

    Can you pray to Karma? No point, might as well pray to the wind or the ocean. All you can do from a Karmic point of view is be the best person that you can be… but what defines “best person”? Nothing in Karma defines what is good and bad, that is for an individual to decide and ultimately when it comes back to them (and Karma says it will do) then they will understand the truth of their decision.

    But of course, you would want to be the best person that you can, irrespective of Karma, right?

  40. Mike Pepperday says:

    Sorry, Tel, I though the thread had died and went to check something and saw your post of a couple of days ago.

    Thank you for cutting me the slack but I am prepared to go out on that limb: find one society that did not call on the supernatural to help control what they saw as important and I’ll say the thesis is dead. Just one society out of thousands available. No need to speculate on the definition of religion. No need to ponder how reincarnators pray or worry whether such-and-such should be interpreted as “religion”.

    Quantum theory: I don’t understand it and I gather only a handful of people do understand it. I must say I have not heard anyone assert that it puts Popper in doubt. From what you say the theory says individual instances cannot be predicted. If there is no theory of individual instances there is nothing to refute. On the other hand, I believe supermarket barcode readers are based on quantum theory. If so, the theory is certainly expected to work in every single instance.

    What I do understand, for example, is Pythagoras’s theorem and if ever a right-angle triangle were found which didn’t obey it, the theorem would be wrong. Discover just one triangle out of the infinite number available and as long as no one can see why the formula doesn’t work in that instance, Pythagoras is useless. Same with my gravity example: just one body and the theory is wrong. Maybe when social science theories become as rarefied as quantum theory, there will be corresponding weirdness to take into account but that’s a while off; social science has yet to reach the level of Newton’s first law (which, of course, allows no exceptions).

    Your stock market model with its 90 percent success is a bit too unrealistic to be a good example. Still, try this on: What if it worked year after year and then one year sent you bankrupt? Your model would be disproved by that one instance.

    More generally, counting the number of occurrences of a phenomenon is anyway not theory. This is the statistical approach. Statistics tell the history of the data set used to compute them. Statistics are useful for administration ? How much of this soap will we sell? How much vaccine should we order? Where and how do we campaign to maximise impact? I do know of one place where science theory depends on counting the number of occurrences of a phenomenon in a population. That is the concept of the evolutionarily stable state whereby competing genes in certain proportions in a population are stable. Otherwise, as far as I know, a scientific theory must always work. It is valid for every single instance within its domain.

    No, belief without practice cannot be feasible. There must be some practice or the beliefs wouldn’t be passed to children, wouldn’t be social. Reincarnation and karma are not relevant if they are things which people don’t pray to. No more relevant than the wind and the ocean. Do unto others etc is the golden rule which, it is said, every society has. What is its relevance to supernatural beliefs and practices?

    “…Animism in China and Tibet is older than Buddhism…

    Yes, Buddhism is a monotheism. As I and others remarked a couple of times above, the monotheisms are recent, being only about 3000 years old. Polytheisms must go back to the beginning of homo sap or earlier.

    “…any particular example you care to study will be tainted (from a research perspective).”

    That whole paragraph is irrelevant; there is no need to “study” an example: just come up with a society that has no supernatural practices. Since the Chinese certainly had, and have, plenty, no further consideration of them is required.

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