Complex Societies Evolved without Belief in All-Powerful Deity

Mar 10, 2015

Credit: Arian Zwegers/Flickr

By Philip Ball

All human societies have been shaped by religion, leading psychologists to wonder how it arose, and whether particular forms of belief have affected other aspects of evolved social structure. According to one recent view, for example, belief in a “big God”—an all-powerful, punitive deity who sits in moral judgement on our actions—has been instrumental in bringing about social and political complexity in human cultures.

But a new analysis of religious systems in Austronesia—the network of small and island states stretching from Madagascar to Easter Island—challenges that theory. In these states, a more general belief in supernatural punishment did tend to precede political complexity, the research finds, but belief in supreme deities emerged after complex cultures have already formed.

Joseph Watts, a specialist in cultural evolution at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who worked on the study, wanted evidence to examine the idea that “big Gods” drive and sustain the evolution of big societies. Psychologist Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, has suggested that belief in moralizing high gods (MHGs) enabled societies to outgrow their limited ability to police moral conduct, by threatening freeloaders with retribution even if no-one else noticed their transgressions.

The most common examples of religions with MHGs—Christianity and Islam, the dominant representatives of so-called Abrahamic religions—are relatively recent and obviously postdated the appearance of complex societies. But the question is whether earlier MHGs, for example in Bronze Age civilisations, catalysed sociopolitical complexity or resulted from it.

Rather than searching for statistical associations between social complexity and religious beliefs, researchers need ways to untangle cause and effect, Watts says. “Austronesian cultures offer an ideal sample to test theories about the evolution of religions in pre-modern societies, because they were mostly isolated from modern world religions, and their indigenous supernatural beliefs and practices were well documented,” he says.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

42 comments on “Complex Societies Evolved without Belief in All-Powerful Deity

  • Joseph Watts, a specialist in cultural evolution at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who worked on the study, wanted evidence to examine the idea that “big Gods” drive and sustain the evolution of big societies. Psychologist Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, has suggested that belief in moralizing high gods (MHGs) enabled societies to outgrow their limited ability to police moral conduct, by threatening freeloaders with retribution even if no-one else noticed their transgressions.

    That is interesting, because if we look at big empires like that of Rome, a diversity of deities was quite acceptable, until the elite in the crumbling empire of Constantine, needed a repressive big-god culture to try to hold it together!
    Report abuse

  • “All human societies have been shaped by religion…”

    Is this true? My understanding is that many human societies left no written record and disappeared with us knowing very little about them. Most human societies, perhaps. Therefore it seems a bold and unevidenced assertion to say “all” human societies were shaped by religion. In fact, I’ve read of some current human societies that have had no concept of religion.

    Example: http://edge.org/conversation/recursion-and-human-thought : The Pirahã people “have no concept of God”.

    So when the first sentence of this piece makes such an unbelievable assertion, I know I’m going to have strong doubts about the rest.
    Report abuse

  • Yes, it is true that some societies left no record so we have no way of knowing either way. But for virtually all societies that we DO know something about, no matter how ancient, there was some form of religion. That also goes for tribes discovered in the Amazon or the Pacific Islands that were cut off from all contact with outsiders, they also all had some form of religion.

    BTW, the findings of this particular study, while interesting are not at all surprising. While all societies have some form of religion the things that westerners take for granted as being part of religious dogma are often missing. Things like the idea of a spirit distinct from a body, of an afterlife, of Gods that punish bad people and reward good people, etc.

    Which current societies have you heard of that have no concept of religion?

    I think one of the mistakes that atheists sometimes make is to assume that the fact that all primitive cultures that we know about had religion is somehow scandalous or something we need to challenge. If you look back on the history of ideas it is filled with “common sense” concepts that are clearly false as we study the universe scientifically, the fact that religion is just one more such idea seems to be clearly the case and hence the fact that primitive people all had it is no more of a problem for atheists than the fact that primitive peoples also thought the sun revolved around the Earth is a problem for Astronomers.
    Report abuse

  • It feels to me like early civilisations may have benefited from the belief in a higher power as a framework that made harder ideas like cooperation and sharing and planning and justice and even basic human rights all easier to understand and put into action, without resorting back to violent male-dominated self-interest.
    Report abuse

  • It feels to me like early civilisations may have benefited from the belief in a higher power as a framework that made harder ideas like cooperation and sharing and planning and justice and even basic human rights all easier to understand and put into action, without resorting back to violent male-dominated self-interest.
    Report abuse

  • @ Wil and Red Dog

    I find this concept absolutely fascinating. There must be something about our evolutionary path that leads us or makes us vulnerable to creating religions. While we don’t know for sure, I suspect the vast majority of tribes around the world all invented their own religion and local gods, with values and powers that reflected the local society. But why. Why was in universal. I ponder at what time in our evolutionary past did this behaviour begin. 100,000 years. 2 million years. Did Australopithecus have superstition? I suspect so. Skinner’s pigeons have superstition.

    I’ve yet to hear a strong argument. We know it happened, but what is it in our make up that facilitates this inserting of the supernatural. What value is it to our evolutionary survival. It must have a value or it would have disappeared. I speculate without evidence, that we seek to explain cause and effect. Something happened. I can’t explain it. What if a supernatural explanation fits. Once a religion gets going, it evolves and very quickly becomes the stop gap answer to all things. Moral, physical and temporal. (Till science comes along.)

    At an anthropological level, we have recent examples of the creation of religions from scratch. The Mormons creation is well documented and dispose of. Yet still millions (??) of Mormons swear by it. That anyone could believe the Mormon myth is beyond me but they do. Cargo cults in the Micronesia have well documented creation of religions from nothing. One even has the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queens husband as the object of worship and will be a second coming in the future. Fascinating.

    Whatever this evolutionary trait is in homo sapiens, it is powerful and difficult to overturn. Not even rational discourse supported by evidence will shake a religious believer. Evolution has bred us to believe in god. The obvious irony being that without evolution, denied by ID’ers, they wouldn’t have a god.
    Report abuse

  • I agree absolutely it is fascinating and we don’t have a good idea what the answer is. But IMO the most probably hypothesis is the one formed by Pascal Boyer in his book Religion Explained and then later (building on Boyer’s work plus additional research) by Scot Atran in In Gods We Trust. They essentially both believe that religion plays a key role in helping cultures define and enforce social norms. I think Steven Pinker also flirts with that idea a bit in The Better Angels. Atran and Boyer show how in culture after culture the various tribal norms (e.g., women must be virgins before marriage) are defined and enforced by religious rituals.

    The interesting thing is that even if that hypothesis is correct it leads to as many questions as it answers. For example, the justification seems to hinge on a group selection model but all the evidence we have for other kinds of models related to altruism show that selection happens at the individual level not the group level. So would religion be something new? Perhaps as humans develop cognition their are other models that aren’t strictly biological, that we need to analyze things at the level of tribes rather than individuals?

    That last bit I acknowledge is complete speculation. I’ve read some other work by people going in the same vein as Boyer and Atran who advocate a group selection solution but they never seem to me to address the fundamental issue that selection happens at the level of individuals. There is actually a good paper i read recently by some guys who analyzed the prisoners dilemma and group selection models and proved that when the models work but seem like group selection (e.g., termites) they are still really working at the individual selection level, they can be viewed equally as Wilson and others do as “multi-level” selection but in reality the “multi-level” part is just at best a useful abstraction, the real work always goes on at the individual level.

    One last thing on a different vein, none of what I said above should be seen as an apology or justification for religion. Even if religions did help define tribal norms those norms were usually what modern people would consider barbaric.
    Report abuse

  • I disagree. I agree that a promising hypothesis is that religions helped define moral and social norms (see my comments above) but in virtually all cultures those moral codes were highly sexist, patriarchal, and often violent and male-dominated. Consider things like FGM for example or that women must be virgins before they are married and that women who cheat on their husbands are punished completely dispraportionately to men who do the same.
    Report abuse

  • If religion is an evolutionary adaption, there must be some survival advantage for the species. What are the properties of religion, that if one human, or group of humans are susceptible to it, favour them over a group that doesn’t. If there was no survival advantage, then the religious “Gene” would have been selected out.

    After a quick think I can come up with:-

    A tribe where most of the population are blind obedient followers will do better than a tribe of individual actors. A united tribe will out compete separate individuals? A bit like having a good coach for your sports team. An articulate Shaman who through observation can nail a few predictions, can get his team to act in concert. Cooperate during the hunt. Wipe out those infidels in the next valley and take their land and ladies. Be prepared to do acts with short term loss for a longer term greater good. Reciprocal altruism?

    Is there a survival advantage to homo sapiens when under stress from grief or natural phenomena, or predation, find answers in supernatural actors. The ability to get over something and move on. If one had a higher propensity for this ability, does this give you a survival advantage over someone who goes to pieces. Does explanation even via a supernatural actor allow a person to say, “That’s cool. I can move on now.” I don’t know.

    It just seems to me that religion persists over time in Homo Sapiens, even in modern times when it can easily be show to be without evidence. The propensity to turn to the supernatural is common. Luck. Superstition. Belief in irrational explanations.

    I would expect supernatural explanations to die out as evidentiary explanations became available. Maybe that’s what we are seeing with this up swing in the number of people world wide shedding religion. Maybe we are in the process of “Loosing our religion.”
    Report abuse

  • I wonder at what point people realised death (through old age and decay) is inevitable?
    Is it possible that in stone age days, life was nasty brutal and short, so much so that death through old age was basically unknown? If that’s the case, with limited oral histories only, it might have seemed that everyone lived forever – until they caught the pox, or took a spear in the guts etc.

    And then at some point, perhaps, people started to live long enough – in the same location – to start dying of old age, in sufficient numbers, that it became undeniable that everybody dies of old age (should they live that long).

    This realisation of mortality could have happened independently in many different times and cultures. Gilgamesh liked to think he was immortal, tough guy that he was, and was devastated when he had lived long enough to realise that was just like anyone else. Though the circumstances are different, another tough guy Thor also tussled with old age. I’m sure there are other examples. Echoes of the realisation of mortality?
    (The Garden of Eden story serves as an explanation for man’s mortality. Illustrating perhaps the ultimate source of that story originated in a time when an explanation was newly needed.)
    Report abuse

  • Okay, chritianity and islam are fairly new religions, although I personally see them as mere adaptations of the already existing and somewhat older judaism.. but it’s not as if there was no religion in the regions where they took foothold and are seen today.. they replaced other religions. so religion has always been part of europe, albeit the romans had different gods than the normans.. now they all have the same god (which in fact also goes for jews, christians and muslims alike.. although they don want to know about it really. in fact they are all jews (religious jews, that is 😉 )
    Report abuse

  • We atheists confine descriptions of all religions to human invention and inquire into reasons pertinent to the various manifestations of these inventions. There is no single answer. Pre-scientific peoples from pre-historic eras needed explanations for the awesome natural phenomena that impacted their lives; and for Death, the mysterious departure of the “life force” from the body. Devoid of the scientific method, it was understandable why they would intuit supernatural powers behind the “creation” of the earth, nature and cosmos and come to believe that death released the life within a physical body to an unseen “spirit world” from which disembodied spirits could revisit their earthly counterparts. It was understandable the they would intuit spirits inhabiting and moving through nature: rivers, valleys, mountains, plants and animals, a form of religion we call “animism.”

    Because gods and supernatural powers are human inventions, humans invest them with human traits. Over time the loop solidified. Man is created in the image of God and God is created in the image of man. The compelling trait of the God-Man paradigm became absolute authority, authority that must be obeyed through worship, ritual, sacrifice, appeasement, taboo, social norms and deference under pain of ostracism, banishment, torture or death. The first supreme authorities in the life of humans are parents. A seminal and persistent form of religion has been ancestor worship especially in the paternal line of father and grandfathers.

    As the need for social cohesion and effective central authority grew with populations; as primordial social groups expanded from several families into clans, tribes, feudal enclaves, kingdoms, empires and nation states, pre-scientific peoples embraced the imperative to equate the sovereign power of the human leader with Divine or Divinely-Ordained power. Pharaohs and Roman emperors were worshiped as gods; the Chinese emperor ruled with “the mandate of heaven.” In Europe as late as the 17th century, kings ruled by “Divine Right.” The harsh conditions of pre-modern times required submission, obedience, and individual self-sacrifice to advance collective interests focused on accumulating scarce resources through ceaseless back-breaking labor and military conquest.

    Science which implicitly then explicitly taught humanity that homo Sapiens are an animal species entitled to species-specific equality, empathy, liberty, rights and dignity compatible with Natural Law has spread from 18th century western Europe to much of the civilized world.

    Superstitious devotion to human avatars or surrogates of the Divine, once dictating the practices, interests and purposes of primitive peoples -sometimes with success; sometimes with failure – seems absurd and toxic to the modern secular humanist. Remnants still remain embodied in the Ayatollah of Iran, the deceased ancestral and current “Glorious [Divine] Leader” of North Korea, and the apparently benign but retrograde person of the Pope, God’s vicar on earth. These silly anachronisms exposed to the light of science and reason should enhance the persuasive power of secular humanism in the 21st century and for centuries to come.
    Report abuse

  • If religion is an evolutionary adaption, there must be some survival advantage for the species.

    Actually no,that is clearly incompatible with modern evolutionary thinking. It never ceases to amaze me how so many people who spend a lot of time on this site can be so ignorant of one of the key ideas that originally made Dawkins famous. One of the main points of The Selfish Gene was that adaptations happen for the good of individuals not (as had often been thought prior to Dawkins) for the good of groups or species.

    Btw, Dawkins didn’t do most of the research that demonstrated this, what he did was to summarize the work of people like Price, Hamilton, and others.

    That was the point I was making earlier, that if religion came about because it was good for the species some OTHER model (e.g., meme theory) is needed to explain it rather than standard evolutionary models.
    Report abuse

  • The idea that religion is primarily to give comfort about death is highly debatable and reflects a bias based on viewing religion as Abrahemic religions. If you read about the various tribal religions studied by anthropologists in the books I referenced in a previous comment almost none of them have any concept of heaven. Indeed, even Judaism and early Christianity barely had such a concept. Heaven (like the devil, original sin, and the holy trinity) were primarily invented after the biblical texts by catholic priests interpreting and reinventing the texts for their own ends.
    Report abuse

  • A further thought on Life after Death. I don’t think it goes back far enough. It is easy to see how it could be grafted on to religion given the selling power of this notion. I can’t see it as a cause though.

    Ugg. “What if I don’t die but go somewhere nice to live happily ever after.”

    This seems a well advanced concept. Religion or superstition as it should rightly be called must have had earlier gradual beginnings.

    What did Homo Erectus think. Was his cognition advanced enough to ascribe supernatural cause to the things he sees around him. I suspect there must have been a period in our evolution where our brain development reached a stage that we could surmise and ponder about subjects, rather than just devote our entire day to staying alive. As we further evolved, these memes persisted and became a convenient explanatory tool for things our brain could experience, but not comprehend.

    Maybe religion is just the collateral damage from the evolution of our larger brain.
    Report abuse

  • “Which current societies have you heard of that have no concept of religion?”

    I linked to the article in my comment, about the Pirahã people, who “have no concept of God”. I don’t have a problem with primitive cultures all having religions, except that I’m not convinced it’s true. I don’t think it makes them better or worse, whether they did or didn’t. Without other explanations for phenomena, it makes sense they would think of explanations that fit our definitions of religion or god.
    Report abuse

  • I see the development of the idea of a single all powerful ‘God” going along quite nicely with the development of private property society. Was the Jaweh of the Jews the first all powerful god ? I believe so, but others may disagree. So many rules and regulations in the OT about behaviour and devotion to the “Lord”. As to taking over the neighbours’ property and slaying them, apart from the marriageable girls, yep that fits nicely with accumulating private property, and on divine orders too !

    PS Nice to see Red Dog back.
    Report abuse

  • The Piraha are the one and only possible exception that I’m aware of and the current research on them is highly debatable. From what I’ve seen its all based on the work of two researchers who had agendas and whose research was poorly documented.

    When you say you aren’t convinced it sounds to me like a creationist saying they aren’t convinced about evolution. These questions arent a matter of opinion like if you like vanilla or chocolate. They are questions of fact just like evolution and just like evolution the vast majority of data supports the hypothesis that essentially all primitive cultures had religion.
    Report abuse

  • I do not think that this is quite correct, and you are assigning particulars of the Abrahamic religions across the board to all religions, and in this discussion, proto-religions.

    The pantheistic (gods are everywhere, everything is alive) religions in New Guinea do not share Yahwehs ideas around women. Yes, they are considered property, and can be traded, but relationships are polygamous, for the man, something of which Yahweh does not approve, except of course for his upper crust Islamic devotees. Similar differences can be found in pre Columbian North America. It is interesting that the “Ghost Dance” cult that was a large part of the justification for the enforcement that ended with the massacre at Wounded Knee had strong overtones of the white mans messaniac religious concepts overlaying and influencing the traditional religious concepts.

    In Polynesia, there were no particular concerns around virginity, or fidelity for that matter.

    There are other differences, and FGM seems to be His, Yahweh’s, idea alone, and circumcision, practised in Australian initiation ceremonies after puberty, and with a sharp rock, is by no means universal.

    The marked sexual dimorphism in humans, probably has a lot to do with the cultural subjection of women as anything else. Were women as universally as large and as strong as males, I doubt that the abusive behaviour patterns would have had the opportunity to become as ingrained as they are.

    I still, using Occams’ razor, see religion, especially nascent religion, as a convenient grab bag to explain the unexplainable. My dog accepts without wonder, nor does she seek an explanation, as to why the sun comes up. I, on the other hand, am not happy until I know the answer, and for my ancestors, a god, preached to them by a shaman, or priest, filled the bill.

    The priest of course achieved his position of respect probably by some knowledge, permitting some broad prophesies to come to pass, a charismatic personality, and a lot of skullduggery. How little things have changed.
    Report abuse

  • 24
    Lorenzo says:

    Hello Wil,

    it makes sense they would think of explanations that fit our definitions of religion or god.

    I think you could count me among those who doubt that “religion” is in fact a natural condition among human beings. I began forming this suspect when I was reading about societies of hunter-gatherers being quite the opposite of “slaves of superstitions” (and absolutely patriarchal). That got me thinking that, perhaps, we have some definition issue here.
    Perhaps, before asking ourselves whether religion is in human nature, we should ask ourselves what religion actually is -and bring the term back into its borders, since describing as “religious” a human in awe of some natural phenomenon sounds a bit like an abuse of notation.
    Also, there’s a difference between sharing stories -and perhaps a handful of ritual dances- around the fire and having a holy book worth killing for.
    Report abuse

  • Lorenzo Mar 14, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    Also, there’s a difference between sharing stories -and perhaps a handful of ritual dances- around the fire and having a holy book worth killing for.

    The Scots and Irish have a few ritual dances – often with an associated roaring fire!
    They have nothing to do with religion per se!

    Ceilidh (Gaelic): the word for a social event with music and dancing in Scotland and Ireland.
    Report abuse

  • I didn’t say anything about Yaweh and in fact in my other comments I made the same point that we should be careful not to generalize from Abrahemic religions. My point was that I ihink it is nonsense, similar to the “noble savage” pseudoscience from people like Margaret Mead, to assume that early religions encouraged collaborative cultures the way modern westerners would use that term. That in fact virtually all the religions we know about were highly sexist authority and dominance driven and paternalistic. In the example you sight: The women are considered property and the men (and I’m sure only the men) can be polygamous which I think is consistent with my original point.
    Report abuse

  • 27
    Lorenzo says:

    but in virtually all cultures those moral codes were highly sexist, patriarchal, and often violent and male-dominated.

    Wait a minute: “virtually all [human] cultures” must encompass everything that happened in the last ~75 thousands of years to the genus Homo. And for most of that time we have been, substantially, hunter-gatherers mammals living in small groups.
    To my (limited, admittedly) knowledge, those societies aren’t usually all that bothered with what we call religion in our mega tribes; furthermore, gender parity is often somewhat closely approximated.

    If I may, I’d advise caution while speaking if “all human cultures”, because the vast majority is substantially unknown. What we do know are “the quirks”: huge sedentary societies focuses on farming -and, in the last few decades, industrial production. This template overwhelmed and probably ground to extinction the almost totality of hunter-gatherers’ societies. But they are a very recent innovation and by no mean a faithful representation of what humans have been for the almost totality of their evolutionary time.
    Report abuse

  • I still, using Occams’ razor, see religion, especially nascent religion, as a convenient grab bag to explain the unexplainable

    You don’t understand Occam’s razor. It is often mentioned as you did in contexts where it is irrelevant. OR applies when you have two competing theories both of which explain the data equally well. In that. Case you use OR to select the theory that is the simpler of the two. It actually rarely applies since it’s rare to have two theories that explain the data equally well.

    I’m not even sure what you meant really in this context but I can’t see how OR applies.
    Report abuse

  • I hate to tell you but you sound just like a creationist. You could (and creationists do) make the same argument about the fossil record and other kinds of data about extinct species. In those cases as well “the vast majority is substantially unknown” In fact as a percentage probably far more of the fossil record data is unknown because it takes such a collection of highly improbable events to make a fossil.

    This is a common practice in science, you use the data you have even if, as is often the case, it is a fraction of the potential data. You have to of course be cognizant of the fact that it is a small data set and if someone can make an argument that the missing data is likely to be highly different than the data we have that must be considered but absent such an argument the rational thing to do is to assume that the date we have is representative and it is legitimate to draw conclusions from it.
    Report abuse

  • Of course you are right Red Dog. (Don’t be a stranger hereabouts) Evolution acts on the individual level.

    What I wonder is if religion originated as an explanatory tool, why does it persist today when it is no longer needed. If it was a tool of political control, then that characteristic persists hugely till today. It just seems to me that their is some propensity in humans to accept superstitious answers, religion, and that propensity is strong, in that even scientists who are rational in their field of study can believe in a god.

    What was the first hominid thinking when he became capable of imagining a cause for an event, and ascribing it to an unseen mythical agency. After that, why did that meme get so entrenched, that most of the worlds population are infected by a superstition virus with no known cure. Not even a liberal dose of a rational vaccine can move the religiously infected.

    To channel Star Wars, the Force is Strong in these people Obi Wan.
    Report abuse

  • One point on which do I owe you an apology is that I missed your response to Richard Cooper, which did, as you say, speak against taking the Abrahamic religions as some sort of “gold standard” of religious thought.
    Report abuse

  • 33
    Lorenzo says:

    Oh, I could sound like Spongebob as well, but cultures don’t fossilize at all if someone doesn’t bother to take notes -and that happens since 5000 years, which is an evolutionary nothing. Also, warning about generalizing deep into the past what happens now is very much founded on facts: sedentary, large societies are a very recent innovation, and a substantial paradigm shift, for the last of the lasts of the genus Homo -fossil record asserts.

    All we have from that distant past (which is, in evolutionary terms, 5 minutes ago) are a few artifacts and from those we have to start -mostly, speculating: the carry-over of cultural constructs is softer than the carry-over of biological structures; memes are way softer entities than genes. Furthermore, we do not have a good definition of what “religion” means. As I stated above: it looks like an abuse of notation to label every behavior beyond the mere utility as motivated by “religiousness”.

    This doesn’t mean that “religion” as we know it came from thin air or similar nonsense: it almost certainly was built on preexistent cultural constructs, stories, ritual behaviors and all that. But I hardly see enough evidence hanging around to state that, yes, it’s with us since ~75 Ky.

    ~~~

    While it is true that in science we always deal with sub-optimal set of data, it is also true that jumping to conclusions and bridging pieces that are too far apart is a deprecated practice. Indeed, we humans bothered to build the LHC to actually find the H boson, even if it really had to be there. For a smorgasbord of reasons.

    the rational thing to do is to assume that the date we have is representative and it is legitimate to draw conclusions from it.

    This is a) a recipe for disaster if not done very carefully indeed and b) doesn’t apply to the present situation because we know the data we have about the present is not representative of the past.
    Report abuse

  • 34
    Starsector001 says:

    Very interesting discussion 🙂

    I have to wonder about the ‘fear of death’ as the prime motivator for religious belief. I work in the mental health field and as such see extreme, recognizably delusional religious fixations. But the staff I work with run the gambit from Catholic, Assembly of God, creationist, Atheist (me), and at least two New agers who believe in alien visitations, crystal skull power, homeopathy, and quantum consciousness. The new ager beliefs seem as superstitious as the religionista except they believe the special ‘favors’ granted come from alien spirits, rather than angels/gods. They don’t believe in bible prophesy, but they ‘believe’ in tarot; etc., etc.

    The religionista have ‘spritual’ experiences (adrenal rush?) that they attribute to God, the new agers have ‘spiritual’ experiences that they attribute to universal energy or some BS.

    On both sides of this continuum, I see science denialism, superstition, and an underlying belief that humans are the product of ‘special’ attention or intervention (whether angels or aliens).

    What it boils down to me is 1) a complete misinterpretation about normal human physiological responses;
    2) a strong ‘pattern’ seeking bias (sees hits, not misses);
    3) an egotistical belief that they individually, or as a group, are special.
    Report abuse

  • In response to David r. Allen (ran out of reply levels)

    What I wonder is if religion originated as an explanatory tool, why does it persist today when it is no longer needed

    Well, this isn’t an answer but I just would like to point out that there are countless things that we have very good evidence that are adaptations and that stick around despite having clearly outlived their usefulness. The most obvious is our craving for sugar and fat. It made perfect sense when starvation was a major threat to survival but now such cravings are maladaptive.

    Given what a curmudgeon and pain in the butt I can be I’m always amazed that anyone would ask me to stick around so thanks for that. I’ve been on one of my trips that I would rather not go on recently so I’ve had time to kill where it was fun to comment again for a bit. But once I get home I doubt I will be commenting much again. Every once in a while the is an article like this that I think could generat interesting discussion but more and more I find it seldom does. With a few exceptions such as yourself most people seem incapable of discussing these topics scientifically. Instead many people feel compelled to lace their comments with insults and venom toward religion. It’s not that I even disagree with many of those comments, I just find them boring. I think I’m just bored with social media in general, it’s the mob mentality where people pick sides and snarl at those who aren’t on their side while back slapping those that are. I can’t see how any intelligent person would find that a good use of their time and I’m dismayed that Dawkins seems to implicitly support such behavior with his tweets and rallies.
    Report abuse

  • it’s the mob mentality where people pick sides and snarl at those who
    aren’t on their side while back slapping those that are

    Forgive me if I slap your back on that one. It seems the first to leave the forums, when this happens, are the very people that should stay and make a stand. Those that have a great deal to teach but, I am sad to say, enjoy the same back slapping of high end discussion only. I can understand both sides of the argument and have no answer on how to make it work. I spent ten years on a forum on Cyprus as, one by one the voices of reason disappeared.
    Report abuse

  • 37
    Lorenzo says:

    I hope to catch you in time.
    To start a scientific and factual discussion about religion, it’s recommended to have a non ambiguous definition (or a good approximation of that). Do you have one?
    Report abuse

  • Reply to Lorenzo

    but cultures don’t fossilize at all

    You missed the analogy I was trying to make. My point had nothing to do with claiming that cultures fossilize, I’m rather amazed that wasn’t clear but I’ll try making the point one more time. My point was that in science, we often draw conclusions based on data even though that data may be a miniscule percentage of all the possible data. The fossil record is an excellent example. Considering all the animals that have ever lived, we have fossils for an extremely tiny percentage of them. That is why I made the point that your argument is analogous to one of the arguments used by creationists. They sometimes claim that the fossil record isn’t compelling since there are so few fossils and so many “gaps” in the fossil record. I see your argument about how we don’t have evidence for all cultures to be a very similar fallacious argument. In fact, your argument is much weaker than the fossil argument. I don’t know the specific numbers but I am certain that the number of animals divided by the number of fossils (I.e., the percentage of animals we have fossils for) is far, far smaller than the number of estimated civilizations divided by thos that we have some viable documentation for. So you are clearly wrong unless you also want to throw out the fossil record, it is solid science to generate hypothesis based on what we know about primitive cultures.

    Btw, you might reply that cultures that didn’t have any means for oral traditions or written history may not have had religion. In fact that hypothesis is consistent with many of the anthropological research in the books I mentioned in previous comments. The hypothesis is that when a primitive society develops culture religion is invariably an essential part of thes primitive cultures.
    Report abuse

  • From the beginning of Atran’s book

    Roughly, religion is (1) a community’s costly and hard-to-fake commitment (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents (3) who master people’s existential anxieties, such as death and deception. All known human societies, past and present, bear the very substantial costs of religion’s material, emotional, and cognitive commitments to factually impossible worlds.

    It’s far from a perfect definition but I think it is a decent start.
    Report abuse

  • 41
    Lorenzo says:

    You missed the bit of the comment I dedicated to the part of your “suboptimal dataset” argument, which is virtually always true but extreme caution is advised when filling in “the gaps”. I’m not going to repeat it because I think we agree on that point.
    I may add that, whereas the study of fossil record deals with biological hardware, the study cultural record has the problem of reconstructing the meaning of some artifacts -which very often came without a label explaining them. That was what I was trying to say by using the word “soft” up there. You substantially deal with semantics instead of a very complex chemical system -and that’s going to affect a bit the reliablility of your conclusion, if anything because dealing out your own cultural biases is far from banal.

    But this is just a very long way to say that a scientific approach to the subject should be cautious and try to stick to facts.

    Moving on:

    Btw, you might reply that cultures that didn’t have any means for oral traditions or written history may not have had religion. In fact that hypothesis is consistent with many of the anthropological research in the books I mentioned in previous comments.

    This is not what I was going to reply, it’s what I’ve been trying to say from the beginning! That, and the definition issue, but we have one up there and I’m going to discuss it there.

    The hypothesis is that when a primitive society develops culture religion is invariably an essential part of thes primitive cultures.

    Yep, and I do agree that this is something that seems to happen, based on the outcome of the cultural evolution. The key and very interesting point is the “invariably” adverb. For example, I do expect to find more codified and stringent religions in larger societies than in smaller ones.
    Also, and probably that is a matter of personal taste, I’d break down religion into its componets and track their evolution separately -for example, I expect rituals and myths (on a much wider variety of topics than what is then used by organized religion) to predate noticeably the rise of a clergy, rather than having a clergy coming up with rituals and myths. Which seems an obvious statement but I don’t think it is.
    Report abuse

  • 42
    Lorenzo says:

    Thanks: that is very helpful.
    And, based on that definition, I come a lot closer to agree with you when you say that religion is a virtually ubiquitous companion of humanity’s.

    I happen to think that such a definition is a bit too general and focusses too much on the mythological part of religion, which is surely there and it’s obviously large, but mythology and religion still don’t overlap and, in particular, I think religion should be considered to have a different, larger scope than mythology.

    A modification to that definition I’d suggest is *[…] deception, and (4) react in determinate ways in response to people’s behavior, for example they may be judgemental or pleased with offerings.

    In other words, I’d refrain from speaking of a fully fledged religion if some kind of proto/pseudo-moral message isn’t present.
    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.