by Gary Berg-Cross
John Shook, author of The God Debates has much to say about the
public critics of religion, but at a recent WSH MDC chapter his
topic was “The Psychology of Religion, the Sociology of
Theology, and the Humanist Strategic Response". The talk was
partially inspired by Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and
the new research advances to the scientific study of religion. One
expression of the idea is to: “study religion as a natural
phenomenon, as carefully as you might study the trajectory of a
baseball or the embryology of the mouse”. Recently,
the Center for Inquiry (CFI) held a conference called "Daniel Dennett and the
Scientific Study of Religion: A Celebration of the Fifth
Anniversary of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural
Phenomenon. " Shook interviewed Dennett as part
of this workshop and this talk represented an update to
some the thinking in Dennett’s earlier book. Three type of
scientific studies have emerged those of brain, Behvipr
(cognition) & Belief (e.g.commitment) – as shown in the Picture at the top of this
Blog. Group practices, such as ritual conformity, can be seen as
connecting the Belief and behavior making it “ meaningful
belief” for such things as existential coping.
Only a small portion of these from Shook’s talk are covered in
these notes (and non of Lee's great food/snacks is available, for that you have
to come to the meetings), but an important point of departure concerns the
question of why religious belief phenomena happens. Why are
there religions? <As many have suggested there are
many explanations of why religion exists: as an
- explanation for what we don’t understand;
- psychological reaction to our lives and surroundings; as an expression of social needs;
- tool of the status quo to keep some people in power and others out;
- focus upon supernatural and “sacred” aspects of our lives; and
- evolutionary strategy for survival.
fear, ignorance and mistake. The new view is a bit
different and argues that religious belief naturally
develops as part of human cognition. This makes sense when
we consider human curiosity mixed with such things as
reaction to tragedy within small group. Groups must
develop habits of correct conduct so we see the eventual
purposes of churches for group support. Deep
evolution of communication in human species from 1-2
million years ago, which allowed simple rituals which
religion evolved from and builds on. We’re not
sure when more organized beliefs to support group
dynamics arose as what we now think of as religion, but
a working guess is between 50 -100,000 yrs ago when
biological anthropologists and others speculate that a
superior narrative ability arose as a systematization of
earlier animism & magic into one with priests and
other baggage - a position of early researchers E.B. Tylor & James
Frazer. The good news is that religious evolution and
transformation is a step towards more intellectual
discovery. But this means more than disproving older theories that are
wrong if it is to lead to secularism. Among the points made and
argued in John’s talk were:
There is no religion brain or modules but religious thinking uses existing modules..
No amount of research helps provide evidence forsupernasturalism.But believers like that we see differences in brain activity during meditation and other quasi-religious
activities. It is really not surprising that we get brain activity responses that correlate with a
variety of unusual experiences.
Some will appeal to the brain as a direct cause of religion. But there are no pure brains. Brains are connected and encultured. It co-changes with culture.
And brains won't do everything, there are limits to what it does in isolation
There are consistencies between belief systems.
But belief correlates with error, sacrifice and risk are
problematic for believers and their supporters. How do such
The idea is that there are benefits/yields to consistent social benefits that
outweigh the downsides. So religions get social payoffs for
trust in some beliefs and committed behavior. They can get
away with false positive because we are not killed for false
belief like believing in spirits as we would about a belief
of wolves being in the woods.
Such beliefs helps groups get though hard times when there
are no rational solution.
But to do this the beliefs must conform to older universal moral intuitions and must be able to explain some things in some fashion.
So religions tend to use slightly, but only slightly, unnatural beings, usually anthropomorphic, like Gods that have human like qualities.
Stewart Elliot Guthrie argues that “Religion is Anthropomorphization Gone Awry”
They may employ naive psychology that most people have like the idea of
a mind without body. These are simple narratives and as
noted before seem to part of the human makeup.
Cultural anthropology is making progress on real roots of religion in terms of social
functions, animism, totenismm, ancestor worship (assuming
common ancestors), and magic to deal with problems. These
older ideas seem to have been systematized several thousand
years ago especially as part of “urbanization”.
As the river valley civilizations arose religion evolved like language.
Cities required shared duties and religion helped pass through the crisis of having
unrelated people living there by increased inclusiveness and
commonality. A group of people from diverse previously small
tribes are brought together as part if early city life. They
may then learn new skills - they may now be easily replaced
so they must learn skills. To conform they must converge
dialects and start to dress alike. They start to eat the
same foods from the same sources and they endure the same
hardships of living in close quarters (meeting many new
people each day), drought, shortages, prevent cheating etc
(See picture below). It takes quite a bit of work
to indoctrinate kids into all of this.
So early cities became
religious to handle high density and its problems. The Gods of religion had to evolve. People had
moved so were gods far away of not? Now they became gods for all people to relate people of different kinship.
This phenomena was seen early in Egypt & Dowism, but was an obvious solution
happened all around the world and was not a unique idea as was later claimed as part of Jewish
tradition. It had apath and polytheism was intermediate stage explaining how gods are related. The trend is seen from 3000 - 1000 BC where monotheism wipe out polytheism as an aid to managing
During this time politics controls religion getting a lid on all them to help
perpetuate empire. Theology evolves to try to enhance
devotion with higher values that serve empire and religion.
With a common god the new urban masses have to becomes
‘fictitious kin’ to get along and make city life work.
Organized religion arose in these circumstances to serve
these needs. One of the new ideas is of a commonality to
humans, We are more than individual but we are also unique. A soul idea helps
explain that so religions start selling the idea of immortal
soul. It makes us we feel good as we are more than a small cog in big wheel of
city and empire, but there is always a tension, Do we have a soul capable of being punished?
John mentioned the work
of Scott Atran [Anthropologist, University of Michigan; Author of In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Pascal Boyer as people who help us understand some of the transition.
One of the important contemporary lessons that John argued is that religious
belief collapses when given social support. Evidence of this
is Western Europe is one phenomena that worries American
fundamentalists and explains some of their urgent efforts to
gain cultural influence and diminish secular influence.
Sociology can't say what theological religions are adaptive
or natural. It may have been in long past, but with cultural
change has forced a theological position.
John finished on some lessons for Ethical Secularist and these are shown in the
picture below. Lessons for humanists include the idea that
naturalism by itself can't handle ethics and that we need a
philosophy for modern morality and secular social justice to
There was a spirited Q and A that followed including:
- Can science prove religion wrong?
- Sam Harris argument that science can provide morality.
- Harris bridges it with normative principles.
- Naturalism can serve, but not prove an ethics.
- How enlightened self interest serves group interest in a consequentialist
- How control by
narratives comes in and precedes powerful rational thought
of god vs animals.