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The Belief Instinct: The Psychology Of Souls, Destiny, And The Meaning


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“Since God didn’t exist, our human ancestors found it necessary to invent him. In this scintillating book, Jesse Bering, author of The God Instinct, explains, with characteristic wit and wisdom, how, in the course of human evolution, God returned the compliment — by helping individuals, despite themselves, lead better lives.”

– Nicholas Humphrey reviewer

 

Just found this book and will have it soon to read.

 

In this entertaining and thought-provoking book, he argues that this religious reflex is not an irrational aberration, and that God is not a cultural invention or an existential band-aid, but an intrinsic human trait, developed over millennia, that carries powerful evolutionary benefits.

 

Breaking new ground, The God Instinct uses hard science to show that God is not a delusion, but a sophisticated cognitive illusion. Bering reveals the roots of religion in our ability to think beyond our immediate surroundings, and explains why this capacity for belief sets us apart from other animals.

 

:D Impulsively,

 

Dutch

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Dutch,

 

Religion is a cultural universal. It is found in every human society, including those that have banned it like the USSR and Red China. Religion has been documented among humans back tens of thousands of years. As such, it has a good potential of having a biological basis.

 

There are two books that make a good case that we are genetically predisposed to religion: Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, by Pascal Boyer and Why Would Anyone Believe in God by Justin Barrett.

 

Neither argues that there is a ‘God gene’ as such, but that through evolution, we developed a biological impulse to infer supernatural agency. And, this basic impulse gets elaborated in the various religions that have developed.

 

George

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This work is fascinating and important, though I haven't had a chance to read much of it. Though I worry that summing it all up in the single term "RELIGION" may be problematic in some situations, I find it extremely easy to believe we have biological disposition to identifying certain things as sacred, for transcendent ideals to be compelling, and for ritual to be powerful, and maybe one or two other things. I'd be most curious about what their operational definition of religion is.

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@Nick the Nevermet,

 

"I'd be most curious about what their operational definition of religion is."

 

Good question. I looked quickly back at Boyer's book "Religion Explained" and did not find a nice, succinct definition. I will look more when I have a little more time (nothing is succinct in this book).

 

In any event, I sat through a series of university lectures on the anthropology of religion a few years ago. According to my notes, the components of a "religious system" are:

 

1. Pantheon: A cognitive inventory of spiritual beings (which includes the soul).

2. Rituals: Local behavioral repertoire for dealing with the spiritual beings.

3. Specialists: People with special knowledge or authority in relation to the spirit world.

 

George

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@Nick the Nevermet

 

A follow-up on the definition of religion in the two books I mentioned.

 

In Boyer, about the best I could find was, "Religion is about the existence and causal powers of nonobservable entities and agencies."

 

Surprisingly, I could find no specific definition in Barrett's book. He seems to presuppose a definition like that of Boyer.

 

George

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Though I worry that summing it all up in the single term "RELIGION" may be problematic in some situations,

 

Absolutely. Supernatural, moral, legal, cultural. "Religion" covers so much it is not always clear what we are talking about.

 

 

There are two books that make a good case that we are genetically predisposed to religion:

 

I don't think we are predisposed. i think there is an iterative development, a feed back loop.

 

Neither argues that there is a ‘God gene’ as such, but that through evolution, we developed a biological impulse to infer supernatural agency. And, this basic impulse gets elaborated in the various religions that have developed.

 

A supernatural being looking over our shoulder made/makes us behave better. The power of religion and sometimes a tool of oppression

 

Dear God, please confirm what I already believe

 

* 20:00 30 November 2009 by Andy Coghlan

* For similar stories, visit the The Human Brain Topic Guide

 

God may have created man in his image, but it seems we return the favour. Believers subconsciously endow God with their own beliefs on controversial issues.

 

"Intuiting God's beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one's own beliefs," writes a team led by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 

The researchers started by asking volunteers who said they believe in God to give their own views on controversial topics, such as abortion and the death penalty. They also asked what the volunteers thought were the views of God, average Americans and public figures such as Bill Gates. Volunteers' own beliefs corresponded most strongly with those they attributed to God.

 

Next, the team asked another group of volunteers to undertake tasks designed to soften their existing views, such as preparing speeches on the death penalty in which they had to take the opposite view to their own.
They found that this led to shifts in the beliefs attributed to God, but not in those attributed to other people
.

 

I don't think this is a certain critique of our religious tendencies but demonstrates the loop that humans have participated in for more than 10,000 or 40,000 years and how important conversation and community, experience and story are. Potentially creative and live giving and also suffocating and deadly. We are the stories we tell. It is all metaphor.

 

Religion is a cultural universal.

 

but not fixed. It evolves, I think. Although it is beneficial more than not (something small like 0.2% better will change evolution) in some cultures it is maladaptive.

 

Maybe that's the way it is.

 

Take Care

 

Dutch

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@Dutch,

 

"Absolutely. Supernatural, moral, legal, cultural. "Religion" covers so much it is not always clear what we are talking about."

 

"A supernatural being looking over our shoulder made/makes us behave better. The power of religion and sometimes a tool of oppression"

 

Yes, I agree with you that religion can be used for good or ill. However, that does not explain why religion exists.

 

Although religion is related to social functions, the problem with the various functional explanations of religion is they don't work in all cases. Malefijt, in her book "Religion and Culture" examines the common explanations (like maintenance of social order, economic, etc.) and gives specific examples of exceptions to each claim.

 

What is consistent is belief in the supernatural. This is what I think definitionally distinguishes religion from philosophy, ideology, civic clubs, political parties, clam bakes etc.

 

George

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George,

 

What is consistent is belief in the supernatural.

 

I think even this has to be unpacked: being watched to see if we are naughty or nice, our response to that which is not us or not known, numinous experiences, or the experience of meditation.

 

 

Have to go work

 

Take Care

 

Dutch

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@Nick the Nevermet

 

A follow-up on the definition of religion in the two books I mentioned.

 

In Boyer, about the best I could find was, "Religion is about the existence and causal powers of nonobservable entities and agencies."

 

Surprisingly, I could find no specific definition in Barrett's book. He seems to presuppose a definition like that of Boyer.

 

I am sure (hope?) Boyer has more detail than that. Accepting the existence and causal powers of nonobservable entities and agencies is a very complex act of cognition. In another thread, someone mentioned an article about liberalism being genetically influenced. In the content of that article, the researcher notes a statistical correlation between people who, because of their genetic makeup, have a brain chemistry that makes novelty more enjoyable, and the likelihood that they would either vote for liberal candidates or join engage in liberal political activities (I forget which).

 

I realize I'm being slightly unfair, since I haven't read the book and wouldn't have time to until about June to do so. That said, I would still like to see that level of detail. "We're biologically designed to be religious" is a pretty low resolution statement.

 

 

What is consistent is belief in the supernatural. This is what I think definitionally distinguishes religion from philosophy, ideology, civic clubs, political parties, clam bakes etc.

By this definition, Spong's Christianity is not a religion. That doesn't make it a wrong definition, but it certainly is provocative.

 

 

 

Absolutely. Supernatural, moral, legal, cultural. "Religion" covers so much it is not always clear what we are talking about.

 

Agreed, or to use a phrase from another forum, quoted because it was worth repeating in bold. Depending on how a society is organized, the elements we normally associate with religion may be categorized in a way that eliminates the category totally. I know there is work on pre-Buddhist China that argues something along that line, that there wasn't a analytically distinct concept of religion present in that culture.

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@Nick.

 

"I am sure (hope?) Boyer has more detail than that."

 

Indeed, 330 pages of text, 10 pages of end notes and 15 pages of references. Not light reading for the beach.

 

There probably is a better definition somewhere and I just couldn't put my finger on it.

 

 

"By this definition, Spong's Christianity is not a religion. That doesn't make it a wrong definition, but it certainly is provocative."

 

Boyer doesn't waste much ink trying to decide what comprises religious thought and what doesn't, but explaining why humans are inclined/predisposed to what we all recognize as religious thought.

 

George

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George W. says "What is consistent is belief in the supernatural. This is what I think definitionally distinguishes religion from philosophy, ideology, civic clubs, political parties, clam bakes etc."

 

I've been an active member of one Protestant congregation or another for most of the last 50 years, and I have no feel at all for the "supernatural." You may be right, though. I suppose there are other church goers about whom you could argue that they are not actually religious. I dunno.

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I've been an active member of one Protestant congregation or another for most of the last 50 years, and I have no feel at all for the "supernatural." You may be right, though. I suppose there are other church goers about whom you could argue that they are not actually religious. I dunno.

 

I would be interested in how you would distinguish 'religion' from other concepts.

 

I was asked how Boyer defined 'religion.' I thought that was a valid question if one is to analyze and discuss the idea.

 

George

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Here is a basic definition. It is based on others I found a while ago. It is missing the fifth, or what some would say is the primary, point: Supernatural (however it is defined)

 

 

a basic definition

 

1. an ideal

2. practices, both interior and external, for achieving the ideal

3. a worldview relating the individual to the cosmos

4. ethical teaching

 

beginning thoughts on the ways "supernatural" is experienced/expressed in "religion"

(If instead of beliefs, we said metaphor we would have a different conversation, I think.)

 

fear/awe of the unknown and uncontrollable,

Belief in capricious forces/gods

belief that offerings/sacrifices can affect the forces/gods/

belief that we can converse with god

belief that god rewards and punishes us with super/natural events

belief that God is watching and expects "good" behavior /judges

belief that the Divine is within

belief that numinous experiences are of God

belief that god loves/nourishes/suffers with us

prayer/contemplation

meditation

 

Take Care

 

Dutch

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Dutch,

 

Thanks for your thoughts.

 

I think the problem with defining religion with the first set (1-4) is this does not distinguish religion from other concepts such as philosophy, ideology, worldview, etc. Can secular humanism be both religious and secular at the same time? Then, to take another step, I am confident there are those who are both highly ethical and fiercely anti-religious.

 

Conversely, there are those who are extremely religious by any reasonable definition and whose behavior and worldview would be the antithesis of these criteria.

 

 

"If instead of beliefs, we said metaphor we would have a different conversation, I think."

 

Yes, I think we would. But, this conversation began (at least my contribution) with the idea put forward by several scientists that humans have a biological predisposition to religion. Then, it developed into a definition of religion for discussing this hypothesis.

 

Maybe, it would be more productive to divide the discussion in two parts:

 

1. The proposition that humans are biologically predisposed to believe in supernatural beings (avoiding the word religion which the authors use).

 

2. What does religion mean? That could widen the discussion to metaphor, etc.

 

George

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George I think you are making the right distinction. but then I think predisposition may not apply to the "supernatural" aspect. But what does anti-religious mean? I think that begs the question because they are not objecting to the experience of transcendence or belief in ground of our being specifically. The "new" atheist vitriol is aimed at behaviors.

 

I don't think religion is different from non-supernatural cohesive groups. Belief in a supernatural being who watches, punishes and rewards, loves and comforts us is the center of power in religion as an institution. Once you leave this institution, I think you have left that kind of religion and then must talk about something like spirituality separate from religious systems. (Not sure about that point)

 

Armstrong, History of God, relates that there is a difference between keryma (teaching) and dogma (deeper truth). The Eastern Church says that dogma is best experienced in silence. The Western church focuses on talking, to its detriment. This also speaks to that which I left out my definition of religion. One reason for leaving it out lies in the list of ways believers relate to the supernatural. Are contemplation, meditation and an experience of transcendence rooted in the fear of the dark of night, of the unknown? Or are they qualitatively different and not on a spectrum of religious spiritual experience.

 

In the reading I have done, when an evolutionary biologist refers to the benefits of religion, at the top of the list is encouraging cohesiveness, and some suggest that religion can counter the power of language to lie.

( That I don't quite grasp.)

 

I hope some of that makes sense.

 

Take Care

 

Dutch

 

Andrew Newberg's research into the state of the brain while meditating or speaking in tongues finds similarities. Longtime practitioners. If there is a predisposition it clearly must be expressed through long practice.

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Dutch,

 

"I think predisposition may not apply to the "supernatural" aspect."

 

No, this is what they are addressing. To highly oversimplify their claim (and do an injustice) is that through evolution we developed a default impulse to attribute agency to occurrences in our world (i.e. the idea that stuff just doesn't happen). When there is no obvious natural explanation (like in Tsunamis, winning a gazillion dollars in the lottery, etc.), we are inclined to attribute divine agency.

 

 

"In the reading I have done, when an evolutionary biologist refers to the benefits of religion, at the top of the list is encouraging cohesiveness, and some suggest that religion can counter the power of language to lie"

 

 

Malefijt ("Religion and Culture") and others have examined the 'functional' explanations and found them lacking. Religion, of course, intersects with various social functions, but none consistently. Sometimes it is used for social control, sometimes not. Sometimes it is used for economic distribution, other times not. Yet, religion is a cultural universal.

 

Shalom and Salaam,

 

George

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George,

Malefijt ("Religion and Culture") and others have examined the 'functional' explanations and found them lacking. Religion, of course, intersects with various social functions, but none consistently. Sometimes it is used for social control, sometimes not. Sometimes it is used for economic distribution, other times not.

I think this book will be on my next library trip. I agree that religion has different functions in different places and times in our lives (such an understanding might help the discussion about why slaves became and stayed Christians) but then I wonder if religion doesn't have different definitions as it functioning differs. Is "supernatural" sine qua non?

 

that through evolution we developed a default impulse to attribute agency to occurrences in our world

'Is God an Accident?', Paul Bloom, Atlantic Magazine, 12/2005

 

Recently psychologists doing research on the minds of infants have discovered two related facts that may account for this phenomenon.

One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena.

And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry.

...

We have what the anthropologist Pascal Boyer has called a hypertrophy of social cognition. We see purpose, intention, design, even when it is not there.

 

There is what can be called a predisposition, but I would argue, with what I believe Bloom is saying, not a predisposition to inferring supernatural agency but a predisposition to finding meaning in social interactions, a necessary ability. This social ability is then mistakenly applied to the world of objects, the physical world, and our fear/awe of the dark, of the unknown.

 

I do think that there is a co-evolution of culture and/or religion following Walter Goldschmidt's "affect hunger" in his book, "The Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene". And this sense of religion is not spiritual or supernatural.

 

If there is an evolution of something spiritual, I think it is the evolution of the function in the brain that allows us to feel one with the universe, no longer needing a firm border between self and Other. Another way, I guess, is the development of trust and the diminishing of fear.

 

Take Care

 

Dutch

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Dutch,

 

"I wonder if religion doesn't have different definitions as it functioning differs. Is "supernatural" sine qua non?"

 

I think this is what distinguishes 'religion' from other schools of thought. Without this element we have something else like secular humanism, a contract, a constitution, a social club, a civic organization, etc.

 

This is the element that is the cultural universal.

 

Please understand, in this discussion, I am not being prescriptive. I am not proposing that anyone believe anything except that which is benign.

 

"There is what can be called a predisposition, but I would argue, with what I believe Bloom is saying, not a predisposition to inferring supernatural agency but a predisposition to finding meaning in social interactions, a necessary ability."

 

I think there is no question that we are also biologically predisposed to be social animals. However, this, I think, is independent of religion. We can have social interaction and cooperation with religion present or with it absent.

 

George

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George W, a few posts back you inquired as to how I "would distinguish 'religion' from other concepts." My favorite definition of religion comes from The Interpretation of Cultures (p. 90) by Clifford Geertz. I picked it up in a course on the sociology of religion that I took 20 or so years ago. At that time I think I understood pretty much what it means, but I'm not so sure anymore. Anyway, here it is:

 

Religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [people] by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

 

OK. Not everyone agrees that symbols can have that kind of an effect. But I think what Geertz observed was that they can change the way people think to the extent that they believe things to be true that aren't. So for example the cross generates all sorts of notions in people having to do with concepts like sin and salvation that are, at best, speculative. I don't remember the book very well, but I do recall that Geertz applied this definition pretty effectively to a wide variety of religions.

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I can vouch for the sheer awesomeness of Geertz. He's a great observer of humanity, and a great writer to boot (something academia doesn't have enough of).

 

EDIT: Another relevant thing about Geertz is that he actively avoids universal claims. Humanity is infinitely variable, and he would rather find out how religion is performed in a single village in rich detail than try and formulate a universal (and consequently "thin") definition of religion (or masculinity, or anything else). There is a value to coming up with definitions and ideal types, but they are supposed to be tools for understanding the lived experience of humanity, and are never ends in themselves.

 

I think that is a very important point in this thread. Coming up with an operational definition of religion allows you to examine behavior or genetic code, looking for specific things, but the goal is to find relationships, not to define religion once and for all for all time for all people.

Edited by Nick the Nevermet
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Nick

 

I think that is a very important point in this thread. Coming up with an operational definition of religion allows you to examine behavior or genetic code, looking for specific things, but the goal is to find relationships, not to define religion once and for all for all time for all people.

 

I keep wondering why all this thinking isn't getting me any cheese. :)

 

This thread went on much longer than I expected. I find these interesting juxtapositions in my life.

 

For the Evolutionary Christianity Project I have been editing the transcript of Michael Dowd's conversation with Ilia Delio.

 

from page 10

Ilia: But we know that knowledge itself is much deeper than reason alone. The deepest knowledge, and this goes to all religions since the ancient traditions, is really wisdom. And wisdom is knowledge deepened by love. And I think wisdom is the bridge, between the rational knower and the faith knower

 

from page 13

Michael: I wanted to see what you thought of this — part of regaining the mind of a child might be shifting our thinking about faith more in the direction of trust and what life would be like without interpretation, just direct experience. Of course, we can’t not interpret. I get that. But to whatever degree that we can move into noticing life as it is, noticing reality and having a heart of love, a heart of trust, and a heart of gratitude — to whatever degree we can do that we do regain that heart of a child and in those moments — those times can last for days or weeks or months — we can be living in the kingdom of God.

 

Am reading in fits and starts Armstrong's History of God.

 

Aristotle made a similar distinction (between teaching or learning by reason and teaching handed down by means of mythology) when he noted that people attended the mystery religions not to learn anything but to experience something. [similarly] Basil distinguished between kerygma and dogma. Kerygma was the public teaching of the church, based on Scriptures. Dogma, however, represented the deeper meaning of Biblical truth, which could be apprehended only through religious experience and expressed in symbolic form."

 

 

 

Just practicing here -- a collage :unsure:

So: To fulfill our wants and to assuage our fears of the dark enemy - that which is not me, that which limits me, that which constrains me - we asked the Other, the enemy -- since I alone am not sufficient -- for help by inferring agency to the objects and events of the natural world. When the inferred agencies of the natural world were insufficient we inferred agency to that which is beyond the natural, the supernatural. Cultural understandings of the supernatural evolved (skipping over a lot) - then the "Axial Age" (my next book by Armstrong) during which there were paradigmatic shifts in the major religions of the world resulting in the development of the "individual conscience". Our guidance is no longer from without but within... and then...and then...we find that when we allow our selves to trust, our needs are met and our fears are calmed. We sought help from that which-is-not-me but we were turned back to confront ourselves. Some would then say that confronting ourselves leads to a transcendent, awe filled, and not fearful, experience of that which-is-not-me for I and the Other are one for a moment.

 

Books, books, books, to read. :blink:

 

Take Care

 

Dutch

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I keep wondering why all this thinking isn't getting me any cheese. :)

 

:P

 

 

Just practicing here -- a collage :unsure:

So: To fulfill our wants and to assuage our fears of the dark enemy - that which is not me, that which limits me, that which constrains me - we asked the Other, the enemy -- since I alone am not sufficient -- for help by inferring agency to the objects and events of the natural world. When the inferred agencies of the natural world were insufficient we inferred agency to that which is beyond the natural, the supernatural. Cultural understandings of the supernatural evolved (skipping over a lot) - then the "Axial Age" (my next book by Armstrong) during which there were paradigmatic shifts in the major religions of the world resulting in the development of the "individual conscience". Our guidance is no longer from without but within... and then...and then...we find that when we allow our selves to trust, our needs are met and our fears are calmed. We sought help from that which-is-not-me but we were turned back to confront ourselves. Some would then say that confronting ourselves leads to a transcendent, awe filled, and not fearful, experience of that which-is-not-me for I and the Other are one for a moment.

 

Books, books, books, to read. :blink:

 

Take Care

 

Dutch[/font]

 

Armstrong is on my list as well, but I need to finish MacColloch's 1000+ page Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (:blink:) first. It's one of those wonderful and horrible at the same time things that there's always more to read.

 

As for that closing paragraph, you sound like you're in for some fun deep thinking. Bon apetit!

 

EDIT: And in the name of giving you even more to read, I should mention that a central theme of Karl Barth's theology is God as the wholly Other, something that humanity is simply unequipped to grasp.

Edited by Nick the Nevermet
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