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Isn't it pretty?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

An Anthropological Look at Religion

I just finishing reading this (rather long) article (hat-tip to ALG). It's a fascinating read, merging two prime interests of mine - religion and the brain. The article discusses a couple different evolutionary theories about why religion is so predominant amongst humans in every generation and civilization.

The first theory discussed is that the neurological desire to create a religion is a byproduct of some other need. But I didn't find the theory especially compelling because the explanation of the theory that the article offered didn't give any kind of substantial primary need that would explain such a byproduct. (Just a caveat - I don't know any more about the theory than was offered in the article. It is possible that those theorizing do have a primary need that I am not aware of.)

The second theory that the article discussed was that religion was an evolutionary adaptation of the brain meant for our survival as a group. This theory made a bit more sense to me, especially when discussing it from the standpoint of group dynamics, because I think religion is so much a group process and to study it only from the aspect of individual dynamics leaves a lot out.

It's interesting to me that most of the scientists involved in the theories discussed in the article are atheists who are studying religion. I have had encounters in college with many a science-oriented atheist. And honestly, I've never really understood it. (Though maybe I am naive.) But in general, while I do have questions about particular religious thoughts and denominations, I have never been able to deny that there is a God, or gods, or some kind of supernatural higher power. For me, the more I learn about the incredible complexity of the world and the body and science in general, the less I can believe it happened by chance, with no force behind it. My mind certainly can't conceive even an inkling of what had to happen in order for the world to be the way it is, so I don't really understand how someone can reasonably believe without doubt that there was no higher power involved. But that's just me, and the point of this post is not to debate theism vs. atheism (been there, done that, no winners because there is no proof either way).

I guess what really comes up when reading the article is, if these theorists are correct, and religion is an evolutionary adaptation or byproduct of the brain, does that necessarily mean there is no God? If scientists can prove that there is a neurological pattern and logic for believing in an afterlife, a high power, or deeper meaning, does that prove that it's all bull as well?

I don't think it necessarily does. Maybe it proves that specific religious beliefs and codes and strictures are falsified and created in order to serve some purpose in the grand evolutionary scheme of sustaining ourselves and attempting to maintain survival of the fittest in regards to the fittest religion. Maybe they could pick apart different religious practices and rituals and find the reason humans developed them in a grand survivalistic code.

But all that still can't say that there is no God. It still can't compel me to accept that just because there is a reason for it means that it isn't true. Yes, maybe God is a construct of the brain and religion is the dressing for that construct. Maybe. But maybe there's something to it and that is the reason so many throughout history have been compelled to use such beliefs as some kind of survival mechanism.

Again, the more I learn about how the world is put together, the more compelled I am to believe in some kind of power outside of random chance. I practice Judaism - do I know for sure that it's the right explanation? Nope. But I do have the desire to pay some kind of respects to what makes the most sense to me, so I do my best. Does that mean I don't accept the findings of scientists and the study of evolution? Nope, and I don't think that believing in religion means you have to reject those. I make my best efforts to marry all the information that is compelling and with what information I have, I believe.


  • now, as i can't hope to be nearly as eloquent as you just were, i'll just say, simply...::applause::, very interesting.

    By Blogger BagelUndertheCouch, at 3/9/07, 2:09 PM  

  • I recently began reading Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer who shows how cognitive inference systems (that were necessary for our ancestors to cope with the challenges of life in bands, hunting for food, surviving drought, escaping enemies, forming alliances etc.) developed through evolution and have become part of how human minds work. These inference systems work in very specific ways and those ways coincidentally make it easier for the mind to accept religious, supernatural, or magical ideas (to different extents). This is different than the idea in Marc Hauser’s “book ‘Moral Minds’ that the brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules...” Boyer claims that there are universal mechanisms for processing information that would allow for moral rules to develop but NOT that there are specific mechanisms designed for this. IT IS A BY-PRODUCT.

    Boyer stresses that people DO NOT suspend their reasoning and allow ideas of religion in their minds. Rather, our minds have developed systems that allow religion credible entry into our thoughts.

    Just one example of an inference system is the agency-detection system allows us to ascribe ‘agency’ as the cause of a particular phenomenon. If we hear rustling of the leaves we immediately infer that there is some agent causing it. The first thing that occurs is that there is someone there, an animal, or predator. Upon further reflection we can ascribe its cause to the wind but our initial impulse is that there is someone out there doing something. This was beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint because you don’t get eaten by having too many false positives (overestimating the danger of there being a predator making noise in the leaves). There are a whole host of other inference systems that when looked at in totality combine to make a belief in a non-corporeal being the agent of action in our lives more believable.

    [I haven’t gotten to far into the book so I can’t elaborate much more on this but it is an interesting read so far]. I’ll post a more total summary on my site in the future.

    A second note:
    The theory you mentioned that religion allowed for the successful evolution of the group has one major flaw. Group selection is not what evolution is all about. It’s about the individual. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, also deals with the emergence of altruistic, cooperative behavior through evolutionary means. In his book, he shows that various behavioral patterns will be present in a given population. Over time a certain percentage of these behaviors will reach its ‘evolutionary stable state’. Perhaps there will be a predominance of grudgers (those who will help others but remember those who didn’t reciprocate) but there will also be cheaters (who only try to take advantage of others) and altruists who will help any one no matter what. The individual’s behavior will play a significant role in how well he fares amongst a group. His success translates to transmissions of the genes that gave him his successful tendencies in the first place. The more successful individuals are, the more they will comprise the majority of the group and that is how the group gets its character. Dawkins points out that there isn’t group selection (as others insist), but there are individuals that give the group its dynamics.

    So if the individuals who had a tendency towards empathy or ‘morality’ fares better and reproduced, these traits would obviously be advantageous. It makes sense that “The reasoning came afterward as a post hoc justification. ‘Human behavior derives above all from fast, automated, emotional judgments, and only secondarily from slower conscious processes,’ Dr. de Waal writes.”

    By Blogger smoo, at 3/26/07, 12:56 PM  

  • By the way,
    I do agree with much of your post regarding belief in God being unprovable and that there is certainly a place for it in our lives.

    Also, the link you provided to the article means I have to register on the site. By some odd chance is the article entitled "Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior" or "The beginnings of Morality?"

    By Blogger smoo, at 3/26/07, 1:04 PM  

  • Smoo -
    Thanks for all the interesting info. I obviously have a lot more reading to do. The article is called "Darwin's God," but I also read the "Beginnings of Morality" article and found it quite interesting as well.

    By Blogger Shoshana, at 3/26/07, 1:59 PM  

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