Belief, Christianity, Cultural Traits, Culture, Education, Faith, Family, Fun, God, Honesty, Intellectual Honesty, Mysticism, Nontheism, Parent / Child, Play, Reason, Religion, Skeptical Thinking, Thinking, Truth, Values

How Mom Raised Me to Think For Myself About Religion

(About a 9 minute read)

We used gold star stickers in Sunday School. You licked them and stuck them to you. I always wanted my teacher to lick them — because I would over-lick them — and I always wanted her to stick them to my forehead.

It was almost the only good and decent thing I could fathom came of attending Sunday School.

When we three sons would ask Mom why we could not stay home to play on Sunday mornings, she would tell us that “Christianity is your cultural heritage and you should be exposed to it.”

That was mildly confusing because not only did I fail to fully understand what “culture” and “heritage” were, but it also seemed to contradict Mom’s almost scandalously old fashion notion that we were not to make up our minds about religion until we had “reached the age of understanding”.  That is, until we were at least 18 and “preferably 21”.

Continue reading “How Mom Raised Me to Think For Myself About Religion”

Deity, Faith, God, God(s), Happiness, Human Nature, Infatuation, Life, Love, Passion, Poetry, Quality of Life, Religion, Self, Spirituality

A River Runs Beneath Us

(About a 2 minute read)

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” ― Rumi

A river runs beneath us called “Life”
That we sip from but do not drink
That once flowed abundantly above ground
When our short legs ran fast
So fast we believed we could
(In just a week or so)
Chase bullets and jump high to catch
The winged wonders of the air.

Strange how it went
The other way.

Something changed.
We became adults long before
Our bodies did,
And the flow of life
Sank beneath our feet,
Feet that were growing and slowing.

Now we are devout

In mimicking thoughts of strangers,
Men and women we call sages,
For the protection their words give
Least we look for ourselves again.

Our gods protect us too
Now that we have buried them
Between us and the river.

We look away from life
With radiant upturned faces,
Though we say we look to find
Eternal love and bliss
In the forever-closer distance.

Our loves protect us now
That we have buried them too.

They lurk in the earth,
Indistinguishable
From co-dependencies.

We discover in both
Our pleasures and our pains
Useful entertainments
And distractions
From the sound of water.

The water we recoil from,
Preferring a few dry stones:
Remnants of the hours
We come close
To making love.

We hide our fears,
Wrapping them in anger,
In hatreds,
And in anxieties;
Watching screens,
So many screens these days,
While beneath us
The river still flows.

Some day we aim to touch the stars,
Become the cosmic heroes of our dreams
On the soaring mound of lies
We’ve heaped beneath us.

Only the fresh smell of water
Grows fainter by the hour.

Abrahamic Faiths, Attachment, Belief, Buddhism, Christianity, Consciousness, Cultural Traits, Culture, Enlightenment, Faith, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Knowledge, Learning, Observation, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Satori, Self-Integration, Siddhārtha Gautama, Spiritual Alienation, Spirituality, Taoism, Thinking, Transformative Experience, Zen

Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Second-Hand Truths

“My point is, an enlightened person will overcome suffering because suffering is just a state of mind”, Henry told me.

“How do you know that?”, I asked.

Henry and I go back awhile.  He was one of the first people I met when I came to Colorado some years ago.  And his real name is so distinctive that I am calling him “Henry” here to preserve his privacy.

Although raised a Christian, Henry is today religiously eclectic.  He borrows things from several religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, and Buddhism.   Yesterday, I managed to mildly irritate him during a phone conversation by asking him how he knew somethings to be true.

“The Buddha himself said suffering is just a state of mind, and he said that an enlightened person will overcome it”,  Henry said.  “And don’t ask me how the Buddha knew — he certainly knew more than you do.”

“The Buddha also said you should look for yourself”, I reminded Henry, “and to not rely upon his or anyone else’s words for the truth.”

Rightly or wrongly, I suspected Henry was missing the point.  And I further suspected that he might be missing the point because he was stuck in taking the Buddhist scriptures he was reading on faith.

East and West

It seems to me there is a sense in which the West and the Middle East expect you to take important religious truths on faith, while the East expects you to test such things for yourself.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that in practice.  There are different attitudes towards teachers, for instance.  Westerners often challenge their teachers to defend their views.  Easterners tend to take it for granted their teachers are right.  But even with those qualifications and others, the West seems more prone to taking religious truths on faith than the East.

Why is that?

It seems the most important religious truths of the West are truths that you have no choice but to accept on faith — if you are going to accept them at all.   For instance: There is no conclusive evidence for the notion that Jesus was Christ, nor any conclusive evidence for the notion that Mohammed was the last of the prophets.  These are not truths that can be established by observation.

In contrast, it seems the most important Eastern truths can be established by experimentation and observation.  Henry’s notion that an enlightened person will overcome suffering can be tested.  That is, in theory at least, Henry could become enlightened, then observe whether or not he suffers.

Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Many Westerners seem to bring to Eastern scriptures the faith they were taught to have in Western scriptures.   Perhaps they never heard the Zen expression, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

So far as I can guess, there might be at least three reasons why the East often insists on killing the Buddha — that is, on not blindly following anyone, even the Buddha.

First, what works for the Buddha might not work for you.  Humans are a diverse species.  While humans do have a lot in common, there are enough differences between individuals that it’s pretty safe to say what works for some of us might not work for all of us.  You see that principle in such mundane things as the various shapes of the human nose.  There are no two humans, other than identical twins, with exactly the same shape of nose.  Yet, almost all human noses are recognizably human.   The psychology upon which our spirituality is based is probably just as diverse as our noses.  Why else are there no “Sixteen Sure Steps to Enlightenment” that can be successfully repeated by everyone who is interested?

Second, you are not really looking unless you are looking for yourself.  At the very best, scriptures and the sayings of your teachers are guides or maps.  Even when they are accurate, if you look no further than the scriptures and sayings, you are not really looking.  You have not really looked at Paris if all you have looked at are maps of Paris.  You are not really looking at, say, suffering if you do not look beyond what is said about suffering.

Third, scriptures and teachings can remove the urgency to change.  Basically, scriptures and teachings label things.  And what we label loses some of its vitality.  Often enough, once you have labeled a headache a “headache”, you no longer feel quite the same urgency to deal with it as before.

Fourth, we become attached to scriptures and teachings.  It is quite easy to become attached to scriptures and teachings.  But all attachments — very much including our attachments to ideas — seem to be impediments to realization.  If that’s the case, then attachments to scriptures and teachings are no less impediments to realization than are attachments to cars or houses.

 ◄A Good Habit

I’m no expert on East and West, so it’s just my impression that the East is more likely than the West to encourage you to test for yourself the truth or falsity of any scripture or teaching.  But whether or not the East insists on testing them for yourself, it strikes me as a good habit to be in.  “Killing the Buddha” is not just good advice.  It is probably necessary if you are really going to get anywhere in these matters.

Christ, Christianity, Class War, Ethics, Faith, Giving, God, God(s), Judaism, Judeo-Christian Tradition, Late Night Thoughts, Morals, News and Current Events, Obligations to Society, Politics, Poverty, Quality of Life, Religion, Society, Values, Yahweh

Why Was Sodom Destroyed?

Your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters. You not only followed their ways, and acted according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways. As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Ezekiel 16:46-50

The strongest argument for the existence of Yahweh just might be that He is necessary to explain why America is on the cusp of destruction today.  It was only a dozen years ago, folks were talking about the New American Century — as if it were inevitable.  But it seems that it sorely pisses off Yahweh when a rich, prideful nation refuses to aid the poor and needy.

“Therefore I removed them when I saw it.”

Quick! Hide the underclass!  Ah, too late!

Abuse, Alienation, Anger, Authenticity, Bad Ideas, Belief, Christianity, Emotional Abuse, Faith, Fundamentalism, Happiness, Intellectual Honesty, Learning, Meaning, Oppression, Psychological Abuse, Quality of Life, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Self-Realization, Spiritual Alienation, Spirituality, Values

New Rule: When You Lose Your Religion, You must Blog about it.

It is such a common thing to do, it might someday become a rule of etiquette.  If you lose your religion — the religion you grew up in — you must start a blog about it.  If you don’t, you will be accused of bad form!

Yet, regardless of whether it ever becomes a rule that you must blog after losing your religion, some of the best written, most insightful blogs I come across started that way.  And so far as I can see, they frankly outclass most — but not all — of the religious blogs.  Especially if you include in the “losing your religion” category blogs written by people who swapped the religion of their childhood for unaffiliated spirituality.

Maybe the losing your religion blogs are so often powerfully written because losing your religion can be — to put it mildly — disturbing.  And “disturbing” experiences have always been one of the fuels of immediate, fresh, and forceful writing.

So why are people who blog about it losing their religion?  Well, from what I’ve seen, there are two primary reasons.  The first gets the most attention, but — oddly enough — might be the less motivating reason.  Namely, the blogger left because he or she could no longer intellectually accept as true the theology or scriptures of the religion.  Typically, their doubts began to mount until one day some point in particular became the straw that broke the back of their faith.

A second reason — and it seems to me a moving one — is they discovered their religion was repressing them.  That is, if you listen to the bloggers, they are often folks who discovered their religion was not helping them to be who they are, but was actually opposed to who they are.

Maybe they were a strong woman in a patriarchal faith.  Maybe they were a homosexual in a homophobic faith.  Maybe they were an intellectual in a mind-numbing faith.  Or maybe they felt they had a spiritual side that was not only unaddressed by their faith, but actively suppressed by it.  Whatever the reason, they are people who discovered their faith was detrimental to their being authentic.

Both the bloggers who left because they could no longer swallow the theology or scriptures of their faith, and the bloggers who left because they could no longer stomach the spiritual oppression of their faith, have frequently been accused by some of the faithful of being petty and malicious in denouncing their former faiths.

Yet, that strikes me as self-serving.  I think it would be more accurate to say the bloggers are, in some sense, mourning their loss.  If they feel anger towards their old faith, I think that’s usually part of the process of any mourning.   Wasn’t it Kübler-Ross who first pointed out that we typically go through — and all but must go through — an anger phase when we mourn a loss?

Now, my survey is about as scientifically rigorous as a limp noodle, so please take my impressions for what they are  — impressions.   But, if my impressions have any degree of accuracy, then perhaps a significant number of people are leaving religion because they find it fundamentally opposed to them.   Aimed at their heart and minds: They find in religion an aggressor.

Belief, Community, Education, Faith, Family, God(s), Intellectual Honesty, People, Religion, Values, Wisdom

What Do You Tell Your Children About Believing in God?

My mother, who turned 94 this year, was in some ways open to negotiation in how my two brothers and I were to be raised.  For instance, it took a mere twelve years of sustained and passionate begging before she allowed a TV in the house.   A black and white TV fully capable of pulling in one channel, and only one channel — a station twenty miles down the road.

To give her credit, her opposition to television was not based on a whim.  She believed a TV might distract us from learning to read. Consequently, we did not get our TV until my youngest brother had finished his first novel.  And mom really did compromise in a way.  She had planned for us to go without a TV until he had finished his sixth novel.

Yet, despite her remarkable willingness to negotiate on such things as our learning to read, on one issue she was absolutely fixed and could not be moved: Mom was set against our deciding whether or not to believe in god.

You see, she believed the god issue was simply beyond the scope of a child’s intelligence, his emotions, and his wisdom.  At the same time, she was just as opposed to making that decision for us.  Hence, she insisted we were to decide the issue for ourselves — but not until we had “reached an age at which we could reason well enough about it.”

Naturally, I went through a period when I wanted her to tell me what to believe.  But I never succeeded in getting her to do that. “Why won’t you tell me what you believe?”, I’d ask.

“Because you would ape me.”

“No I won’t, mom. I promise.”

“I’m glad to hear that”, she’d say, “All the same, my beliefs are my business and not yours.”

“But when can I know?” I’d whine.

“When you have reached an age of reason, and no sooner.”

I thought at times I would never live long enough, for even as a kid I sensed that for an American, the age of reason comes no sooner than 40 or so.

Like all parents, mom had her paradoxes.  No matter how much she insisted on doing things her way when it came to certain things, her policies on other things were models of laissez-faire.   For instance:  We were free range kids.  On weekends and during the months we were not in school, we could roam anywhere in the town or countryside so long as we pedaled back in time for supper.   She guarded which programs we were allowed to watch on television, but I don’t recall her even once opposing my choice in books.

Mom was criticized in the community for her manner of raising us.  People accused her of not being able to control her son when I grew my hair long.  After she allowed me, at 16, to hitchhike for the summer around the United States, her decision became for a week or ten days the talk of the town.  Yet, her most controversial decision was the god one.  Plenty of folks objected to our being raised that way.

The criticisms often enough worried her, but they never altered her course.  She refused to “take counsel of her fears”.  For mom was — and still is — a conservative in the genuinely traditional sense of “conservative”.  A sense that is all but gone out of fashion today.  That is, she is set against her or anyone else messing in other people’s affairs.  And few things are to her more a person’s own business than what he or she believes about god.

Abrahamic Faiths, Christianity, Ethics, Faith, Fundamentalism, Hinduism, Ideologies, Islam, Judaism, Morals, Religion, Values

Do Religions Teach Morals?

Suppose you had a therapy that was supposed to cure people of depression. Further, suppose your therapy was full of sharp insights into human nature.

But let’s say you did a study and discovered that your therapy cured only 15 people out of every 100 people who underwent it.  In other words, it failed to cure 85 out of every 100 people who tried it.

Worse, your 15% cure rate was no better than your control group.  Your control group consisted of people who got no therapy at all.  But your therapy, despite it’s noble goal and its sharp insights, couldn’t cure people any better than no therapy at all could cure people.

If all of the above were true, would you call your therapy “effective”, “powerful”, “life changing”?   Would you say: “The goal of my therapy — to cure depression — is far too fine of a goal for anything to be wrong with my therapy.  The sharp insights of my therapy into human nature are far too truthful for anything to be wrong with my therapy.  Since nothing can be wrong with my therapy, it is the fault of the patients themselves that more of them don’t get better.  Give me more dedicated patients! Give me more enthusiastic patients!  And I will show you then that my therapy works just fine!”  Would that be your approach?  Blame the patient?

One of the main problems I have with most strains of Christianity, Islam, and several other religions, is that — so far as we have any science on the matter — they are no better than no religion at all in helping people lead moral lives.  And sometimes they are worse than no religion at all.

Of course, one can argue that the evidence is inconclusive, that we are not really sure most strains of those religions are weak moral teachers, and so forth.  But at the same time, even Christians, Muslims, Bahá’ís, Jews, and others routinely recognize the fact their religions fall far short of being wholly effective moral teachers.  For while they habitually claim their religions are powerful, effective, life changing, and so forth, they actually spend an astonishing amount of time and energy accusing the members of their own congregations (and other congregations) of backsliding, lacking better morals, or  being religious in name only.

Yet, they don’t blame themselves for that.  They blame everyone but themselves, often in rather sophisticated ways.  “Men and women are simply too wicked to follow our True Religion”.  “Materialism has corrupted everyone.”  “Hollywood liberals are undermining our morals.” “Western secularism is attacking our religion and corrupting our youth.”  “There is a cultural assault on our values.” “It’s the anti-Semites.”  “We are born sinful.” “Homosexuals are undermining us.” “Atheists!  It’s the atheists!”   And on and on and on ad nauseum.

No one says, “Our religion has some good ideals and goals, and some sharp insights into human nature, but we don’t know how to make use of them.  We don’t know how to translate our goals and insights into genuinely changed lives.”  No one says that, because everyone is too busy claiming out of one side of their mouth that their religion is life changing, while stating out of the other side of their mouth, that not enough Muslims are true Muslims, not enough Christians are true Christians, and so forth.

I am only going to mention in passing in this post the world’s many fundamentalists — who are always the biggest fools in any religion, and always the loudest hypocrites in any religion, and always the most violent — and whose goals are seldom enough honorable, and whose insights into human nature are seldom enough sharp and accurate.  Fundamentalists make for the world’s worse religious folks, whether they are Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish fundamentalists.

Yet,  there is a problem with lumping them into the mainstream, alongside the average Christian, Muslim, etc.  Namely, fundamentalists probably represent a psychological disorder,  more than a religious failure.   They are authoritarians, and authoritarianism can be thought of as a personality disorder.  And while they have significant influence on religions, expecting fundamentalists to live up to ideals like compassion, justice, and love  is like expecting a slow child to tackle the mathematics of nuclear physics during his or her third year in the fifth grade.  It is not fundamentalists that concern us here, but the average, mainstream member of a religion — why isn’t he or she morally sane?

Anyone who thinks the average, mainstream American Christian is morally sane, should ask where that Christian stood the day America invaded Iraq.  Or — let’s be honest — where he or she stood  on any number of other issues.   Some moral issues are genuinely ambiguous, but most apparent moral ambiguity is just dust stirred up by the sides to confuse people.

Insofar as morality is — as Sam Harris suggests — a matter of promoting human well being, then most moral issues are not as ambiguous as we might think.  Raping choir boys does not promote human well being.  Neither does rioting in the streets to protest a Danish cartoon.  Invading another country that has neither attacked you nor genuinely threatened you is unambiguously bad morality.  And so is stealing someone else’s land and water while imprisoning them in their remaining territory.

There are several strains of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and so forth, that claim — as if they have any right to claim it — they are life changing teachers of superior morals.  That’s fine, but if we are going to make such claims, we had better have the science to back them up.  Otherwise, how are we any different from a braggart, or perhaps even con artist?   Merely because those strains have a few high ideals and some genuine insights into human nature does not mean they know jack about helping people to become morally sane.  Instead, they are like Freudian psychoanalysis:  A lot of lofty intentions followed by a 15% cure rate.

Perhaps it is time to shit or get off the can.  That is, religions should either drop their claims to being effective moral teachers, or they should devote serious resources into figuring out exactly how to become effective moral teachers.  One or the other.

By the way, I do realize that for most religions, salvation or saving people — and not necessarily improving their morality — is the religion’s real reason for being.  I got that.  But that point is irrelevant here.   I am not addressing the claim of many religions that they offer us salvation.  I am only addressing the claims that they are effective moral teachers.

Last, there is not a religion on earth whose ideals and insights are entirely good or reliable.  Religions have a lot of junk mixed in with their treasures: Far and away more junk than treasure.  But, again, that is not the issue here.

Here, I am only addressing whether religions are effective moral teachers. And, in fact, there does not seem to be a great deal of evidence — scientific, anecdotal, and otherwise — to suggest that several religions are.  Instead, we are only given excuses as to why they are not effective moral teachers.   But there is no widespread, realistic or systematic effort on their part to actually improve their effectiveness.

You know, if you do not think this blog post is the absolute best blog post of the day on any of the world’s 72 million blogs, then it is your fault.  You are too materialistic to appreciate it.  You lacked enthusiasm when reading it.  You failed to study it enough.  You did not grasp the core concepts.  Shame on you.  The post was perfect.  Look what you have done with it!

Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Behavioral Genetics, Belief, Biology, Evolution, Faith, God(s), Ideologies, News and Current Events, Religion, Science

What Is This Guy Up To?

Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.

Sigmund Freud

All religions, with their gods, their demigods, and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties.

Mikhail Bakunin

If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature [as religion], thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests.

Roger Trigg

It seems Roger Trigg wants you to believe some things about human religiosity.  Only one of those things is that opposing religion is bad because it deprives people of the ability to “fulfill their basic interests“.  Apparently, he also wants you to believe:

But, perhaps most of all, Roger Trigg wants you to believe that a recent series of 40 different studies conducted in association with the University of Oxford support his convictions.  Trigg is the Co-Director of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, which is the outfit that conducted the 40 studies.  The Project’s other Co-Director is Justin Barrett.

Trig and Barrett quite recently released to a very select three or four journalists the merest whiff of concrete information about their Project’s findings.  And it now appears that whiff of information was simply an excuse — a mere vehicle — to allow the two of them (but especially Trigg) to place a spin on the Project’s findings well before the findings themselves are to be released. So, I would like to take a much closer look at Trigg’s claims.

Let’s begin by looking first at his notion that, “If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature [as religion], thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests.”  Is Trigg trying to suggest it is somehow wrong to oppose religion?  I suspect he is.

If so, Trigg’s argument is probably a variation of the naturalistic fallacy.  But merely because some trait is deep-rooted in human nature does not make it right, or all wars — without exception — would be right because war is obviously deeply rooted in human nature.  Again, rape occurs in all known societies and in all periods of recorded history.  It is as obviously deeply rooted in human nature as war.  But does that mean thwarting rape is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests — and therefore wrong to do?

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised anyone would ever argue that opposing religion was wrong simply because religion is deeply rooted in human nature.

Again, we have Trigg’s notion that, “…attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived….”  If Trigg means to suggest that people should not oppose religion merely because such efforts will prove to be largely futile, then he is on shaky ground for at least two reasons.

First, there are all sorts of things people oppose even though their efforts are some extent — or even largely — futile.  People routinely oppose robberies, murders, and political corruption even though their efforts are to varying degrees unsuccessful.  Should they cease to do so?

Second, the prevalence of religion varies from one place and time to another.  Some countries, such as Norway, are significantly less religious than other countries, such as the US.  And Norway was once more religious than it is today.  Both those facts suggest there might be practical means of reducing human religiosity.

Last, we have Trigg’s point that, “…human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods…”.  But does that provide adequate grounds for not opposing religion?

I’m pretty sure it does not.  Human thought also seems to be rooted in a number of various cognitive biases.  Does the fact human thought is rooted in a number of cognitive biases mean that we should not oppose them?  It seems Trigg might might once again be falling victim to the naturalistic fallacy.

I think it is safe to say that, to the extent Trigg’s comments can be taken as arguments against opposing religion, they fail.

Unfortunately, I think Trigg intends more by his comments than merely to argue it is somehow wrong to oppose religion.  He also seems to be making at least two more points — and getting these points across might be his real agenda.  First, that we humans have an innate predisposition to belief or faith in deity.   Second, that today’s dominant forms of human religiosity are the natural or default forms of human religiosity.  Assuming Trigg is indeed trying to assert those claims, I believe he is factually wrong about both of them.

That is, I do not think it is the case that belief in god is natural nor the case that today’s religions are natural.

So far as I understand it, scientists nowadays generally agree that religion evolved very early in human history, and many scientists even suggest there is evidence religion predates the origin of our own species.  The earliest religions, however, are not thought to be much like the many ideologically elaborate, hierarchical religions that are so common today. Instead, they were most likely ideologically simple, and more or less egalitarian.  Their core beliefs might have amounted to little more than the notion that most things — including inanimate things — have a spirit or life force, and that those spirits live on after death.  It is entirely possible those ancestral religions contained no god concepts.

A few years ago, PZ Meyers nicely summed up a few of the cognitive processes that most likely provided the psychological foundation for the ancestral religiosity of our species:

There are human universals. We are curious or concerned about the world around us; we look for causal explanations for events; we like explanatory narratives that link sequences of events together; we tend to anthropomorphize and project our motivations and our expectation of agency on objects in our environment.

Meyers then added, “That’s human nature, and religion isn’t at all intrinsic to it.”  Today’s religions have roughly about the same relationship to our ancestral religiosity as a automobile has to walking.

It seems to me — and I could be very wrong about this — that Roger Trigg’s recent statements about the findings of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project are to a meaningful extent attempts to frame those findings as providing grounds to believe that today’s elaborate, organized religions and their ideologies are natural expressions of human religiosity.  And if that is his message, then frankly, I don’t think he’s got it right.

Our species has been around for about 260,000 years.  For only a tiny fraction of that time have we had ideologically elaborate, hierarchical religions.  And no matter how fond we might be of those newfangled religions, they do not seem to represent humanity’s natural or default religiosity.

It is almost certainly true that humans have a natural predisposition to certain cognitive processes that, taken together, usually result in something we call “religiosity”.  But — and it’s a huge “but” — that religiosity is not the religiosity of, say, Christianity, most Hinduism, or Islam, but rather the religiosity of our ancestral hunting/gatherers.  And their religiosity was most likely ideologically simple — perhaps even to the point of being godless — and more or less egalitarian.

____________________________

Other bloggers are discussing this same issue.  Here are four:

The Cognitive Dissenter:  New Oxford Study: Belief in god is natural.  Thinking takes more work.

Paradise Preoccupied: God in Genes?

Why Evolution Is True: New Oxford Study: Religion pervasive, ergo impossible to eradicate.

Friendly Atheist: Is Religious Belief Part of Human Nature?

_____________________________

I also have earlier posts on this issue here and here.

Anthropology, Behavioral Genetics, Biology, Evolution, Faith, Genetics, God(s), Liars Lies and Lying, News and Current Events, Psychology, Religion, Science

Is Belief in God Natural? Or Are the Early Reports Beginning to Stink?

It seems quite odd to me that early reports of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project’s findings (reports to the effect that belief in God is natural) are coming out today without those findings — or any account of them — having been published in a peer reviewed scientific journal.  Furthermore, there is no mention anywhere in the early press that I’ve found of any intention to submit those findings to a peer reviewed scientific journal.  It is true the study is associated with the University of Oxford, but the thing is beginning to stink!

UPDATE:  The more I find out about these early reports the more it seems to me quite possible that the Project’s findings are being purposely distorted to make it look like they support the notions that (1) humans have an innate predisposition to belief in deity, and (2) that today’s religions are more or less the default religiosity of humanity.

I might blog more about this.

Anthropology, Belief, Faith, God(s), Late Night Thoughts, News and Current Events, Religion, Science

Belief in God is Natural?

It’s about two in the morning here, and I’m wondering whether it’s natural to believe in God.

There are, at this hour, a handful of early reports that the Centre for Anthropology and Mind, which is associated with the prestigious University of Oxford, has concluded its Cognition, Religion and Theology Project — and that the Project has found it’s natural to believe in God.

But I doubt those reports are true. I cannot be certain and this in only a hunch — but it seems like the early reports have misinterpreted the Project’s findings.

The reports are saying such things as, “Human beings have natural tendencies to believe in God…“, and, “Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings…“, and, “Holding religious beliefs may be an intrinsically human characteristic…“.

So, what’s wrong?

Well, maybe nothing is wrong.  Maybe the Project did in fact find that religions are natural to humans, or that humans have a natural tendency to believe in God, and so forth.  But I wonder if those are the Project’s actual findings?  For I suspect they are not.

I suspect they are instead subtle misinterpretations of the findings.  And to explain just how subtle their misrepresentation of the findings might be, please consider very carefully these remarks of the biologist PZ Meyers, which he made sometime ago, but on the same subject:

There are human universals. We are curious or concerned about the world around us; we look for causal explanations for events; we like explanatory narratives that link sequences of events together; we tend to anthropomorphize and project our motivations and our expectation of agency on objects in our environment. That’s human nature, and religion isn’t at all intrinsic to it. Far from being the default, religion is a pathologic parasite that rides along on those human desires by promoting the illusion of agency as an all-encompassing explanation for everything, and by providing a framework for story-telling.

It is important to recognize here that, when Meyers talks about “our expectation of agency”, he is referring to the universal human tendency to think or expect that some “agent” (an “agent” is something that has a will, such as another human, a lion, or even a supposed god) is the cause of events in our environment.  When a tree suddenly falls down in a forest, our natural tendency is to think — at least at first — that something with a will caused the tree to fall down.  Hence, Meyers is saying that religions shamelessly exploit that natural human tendency.  They say, in effect, “Yes, your instincts are correct. Something with a will caused that tree to fall down, and that “something” was our God.”  Or a spirit, or a ghost, or fate, or some such thing.

Now, let’s return to the early reports of the Project’s findings.  When those reports say things like, “Human beings have natural tendencies to believe in God…”, they might be subtly misinterpreting the findings.  That is, I would not at all be surprised if the Project found a natural human tendency to see agency behind events.  But, for a number of reasons, I would be greatly surprised if the Project actually found a natural human tendency to see God behind events.  Or even a natural human tendency to see any deity — let alone the deity that gets capitalize as “God” — behind events.

One of the several reasons I would be surprised if it were God is that God seems to be a relatively late comer to human religiosity.  Our species has been on the planet for about 260,000 years.  During that time, most of the few folks who make relatively informed speculations about our ancestral religiosity, speculate that we were animists.  Animists do not believe in God.  Nor do they usually have a concept of any god, but they are instead people who think in terms of souls, life-forces, or spirits.  The Shinto religion of Japan is highly animistic.  If the Project actually found that humans have a natural tendency to see God — or a god — behind events, it would go against much that is either currently known, or currently suspected, about our ancestral religiosity.

Another thing about the early reports that I don’t much care for is their use of such terms as “religion” and “religious beliefs”.   It seems to me — even if it seems so to no one else — that the “human universals” PZ Meyers talks about are probably pretty close to the core of most early human religiosity.  That is, I doubt our ancestors did much to formalize their religiosity as firm or fixed beliefs, let alone develop much of anything in the way of elaborate belief systems.

Some of the earliest sedentary communities, for instance, such as at Çatal Höyük, seem to have had no hierarchical or organized religion.  While our ancestors surely had ritual, and while they surely had beliefs, they probably did not place anywhere near as much emphasis on their beliefs as many of us — especially in the West — do today.  As one Shinto priest told a Western theologian when the theologian asked him what he believed in, “I don’t think we have any beliefs.  We just dance.”

The most likely explanation for the word usage in the early reports of the Project’s findings is that the authors of those reports are simply trying to make the findings easily accessible to a wide audience.  You make things easily accessible by couching them in terms people already know and understand.  But doing so usually misrepresents to one extent or another anything that is out of the commonplace and ordinary.

Since I have not had a chance to read the Project’s findings, I cannot say for certain that the early reports misrepresent them. But I would be greatly surprised if they did not.  It will be interesting to find out.

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Richard Dawkins on Nonsense and Evidence

A couple days back, The Washington Post asked Richard Dawkins to comment on the current round of end of the world lunacy that has been so successfully ginned up by Harold Camping.  One of the questions The Post asked Dawkins was the misleadingly phrased, “What does your tradition teach about the end of the world?”  Here is a small, edited portion of Dawkins’ response:

Why is a serious newspaper like the Washington Post giving space to a raving loon? I suppose the answer must be that, unlike the average loon, this one has managed to raise enough money to launch a radio station and pay for billboards.

I won’t waste any more time on that, but I do want to mention a less trivial point arising from the question posed by the Washington Post: ‘What does your tradition teach about the end of the world?’ It’s that word ‘tradition’ that should raise our critical hackles. It refers to a collection of beliefs handed down through generations – as opposed to beliefs founded on evidence. Evidence-free beliefs are, by definition, groundless.

Science is not a tradition, it is the organized use of evidence from the real world to make inferences about the real world…

Among the quaint principles of the European Enlightenment was the notion that customs and traditions should be subject to justification by a weight of logic and evidence — that is, by a weight of reason.  Apparently, not everyone has taken that notion to heart, nor do I suppose it will ever be that case that everyone will appreciate that notion — or even understand it.

By the way, anyone interested in transferring their life savings to the author of this blog is most welcome to do so.   I do not anticipate that I will be among those fortunate to be raptured.  Yet, you may be assured your generosity will console me.

Meanwhile, Sandra over at Paradise Preoccupied has started a fun discussion of the books she hopes to write in order to help us all get through the end of the world.  They have promising titles, such as: Ashes, Ashes All Fall Down: Entertaining Kids In the Final Hours ($9.99).  Enjoy the fun!