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.