Thursday, February 22, 2007

Gods and Politics

So why do we have religious impulses anyhow? John Derbyshire succinctly answers this question from a naturalistic standpoint. It's all about politics:

WFB’s piece illustrates rather clearly two things that lurk in the interstices of a great many of the creation-evolution arguments. Both those things, I am going to claim, are core features of human nature, present to some degree — though greater or lesser in individual cases, of course — in all but a pathological few of us. Those things are:

The need to spot intelligent agency at work in the world outside our own precious selves, and

The need to be constantly evaluating and reevaluating our status in the various groups we belong to, and ditto with the statuses of other group members.

Both these core features of the individual human organism give rise to large-scale social phenomena: the first to religion, and the second to politics. (Two of the three topics, I note in passing, that you are traditionally forbidden to talk about in a British army or navy officers’ mess.) Over to WFB:

“Fifteen minutes after Charles Darwin explained his theory of evolution, his disciples — apostles — ruled out any heresy on the subject of the naturalistic explanation for human life.”

That one 27-word sentence contains three religious terms: “disciples,” “apostles,” “heresy,” and two political ones: “ruled out,” “heresy.” (Politics is about power. You can “rule out” something only if you have the power to do so. The word “heresy” is in both lists because its connotations are both religious — “You believe the wrong things!” — and political — “We have the power to punish you for believing those things!” Just how Darwin’s “disciples” managed to acquire so much power in just fifteen minutes, WFB does not tell us.)

Here you see the natural disposition of the normal human mind. We have a mighty need to believe that all ideas about the non-human world are at root religious ideas, ideas centrally concerned with human-like agency or its absence, promulgated by charismatic teachers and their followers; and we have just as mighty a need to assign social events, including public reactions to new scientific theories, to plays of status and power.

Why? Because the first, last, and only great truth about human beings is that we are social animals. To function as such, we need two particular abilities.

First, we need the ability to calculate what other people are likely to do, based on our assumption (our “theory of mind” or “ToM,” in the current cognitive-science terminology) that their beliefs, desires and intentions (“BDIs” — more cog-sci jargon) are much like our own. We could not function as social animals without this ability to impute agency to the humans around us. And to impute it elsewhere, too: Survival prospects in the wild are much improved if we can impute some kind of agency to higher animals. That this ability slops over into imputing agency to the sky (weather), the earth’s crust (earthquakes), and so on, is not very surprising. In extremely complex systems like human mentation, boundaries are rarely inviolable.

Second, we need the ability to compare ourselves with others, assess hierarchies, know whose orders can be safely ignored and whose had better be obeyed, with whom it would be reasonable to compete and with whom dire folly to do so… and so on.

The human inclinations to religion and politics follow very naturally.


Derbyshire leaves out one important connection, and that is that religion is, because it imputes the motives of a personal actor on the external world, necessarily political, since politics is the effort to order the relationships among personal actors. Once God is recognized as the actor behind the fate of the planet and all its inhabitants he becomes part of the political equation. All orderings of human society need to include God. Ignoring God from the political equation would be like ignoring the most powerful landowner in the kingdom.

From an evolutionary standpoint it is puzzling how this capacity for agency detection came to dominate other ways for predicting the what the external world would act. Storms are not personal actors, yet early man universally imputed the actions of the weather to gods. You would think that agency detection would best benefit people when it is restricted to the realm of true personal agency, which is people, and to a lesser extent intelligent animals. Why this "bleed over" to all phenomenon?

My own theory is that the social problems of early humans became so dominant that most of the higher brain capacity that evolved was put to use in bettering the person's social status. Agency detection and manipulation became the one overarching template for viewing the world. A mind that is based on one organizing principle for interpreting the world is simpler than one that has to switch between two modes, one for personal actors and one for impersonal phenomenon. There may have been little to gain for making more perfect distinctions between the two. Better to be excellent at the critical task and suboptimal at the lesser tasks than try to excel at both and do worse than the specialist in the one task that is most important for survival.

So we created imaginary beings and organized our societies around the worship of them. There's no cost to be paid for that, is there?

35 Comments:

Blogger EVadvocate said...

An alternate possibility is that there is a God and because He wants us to seek Him, He causes us to have feelings that there is a higher power. It is, of course, an unprovable theory, but then again, so is the theory that there is no God.

It takes just as much faith to believe that God does not exist as it does to believe that God does exist.

February 22, 2007 7:14 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

EV:

That's why we call ourselves 'Dunnoists'.

We don't say there is no God, we just say that there's no apparent reason to believe that there is.

February 22, 2007 8:03 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

EVAdvocate

If that is the case then you would have to conclude either that God really is behind every natural event, and not just as the overall cause but in sense that each storm and each falling stone was put into motion by him with a specific, intended consequence for people in a way that people have the ability to discern the intent and avoid the bad consequences of that or future events by appropriate actions in response, or you have to conclude that God is willing that people respond to countless natural acts in this way as "false alarms" just so that people gain an appreciation of His existence.

Very few believers hew to the first line of reasoning anymore - that is the natural world is largely disenchanted from the modern believer's standpoint. Most people don't continue to see a message from God in every storm or bee-sting. So we are left believing that God gave humans a faulty agency detector. He made earlier peoples sacrifice animals and worse in response to events that were not specifically intended by him to demonstrate or communicate anything to them or elicit any response from them.

Is such a faulty capability more a sign of intelligent design or un-intelligent evolution?

February 22, 2007 8:14 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I must confess that after all our debates my eyes now glaze over whenever I see materialists start an argument with "Man is a social animal", as Derb does here. It is usually presented as axiomatic and everything that ever happened is tied in somehow to how man needed this or that to promote his innate sociability, which soon morphs grammatically into survival.

Social compared to what? The caribou and wildebeasts? Now, there is sociability for you. It is just as easy to make the argument that man is the most anti-social of all the species.

Man wasn't instinctively attracted to religion because he is social and needed comforting fables to help him find friends and a good meal. He is religious because he is alienated--his existence makes no objective sense to him and it isn't particularly pleasant for most of mankind, so he searches for existential answers to keep from going mad, slaughtering everybody or committing suicide. That is why it is related to consciousness, which is what Genesis is primarily about, not natural history or physical creation. Because we really can't conceive of pre-historical man as having a subjective consciousness, we fall back on things like climate change, food and escaping predators, etc. to explain his behaviour, even though we are hyper-conscious of the role religion played in our own histories.

"Man is a socal animal" is just a variation on the old Enlightenment state of nature bliss theory and the modern "in harmony with his environment" variation. I'm surprised an intelligent, conservative guy like Derb falls for it.

February 22, 2007 8:42 AM  
Blogger David said...

Of course, for exactly the same reasons Derbyshire believes that we are ineradicable racist.

I really thought that we had moved the Dunnoists off arguing that "the god-myth is explained by our inherent yen to see patterns in the noise" since it has zero explanatory power. Rather, our instinctive turning to G-d, as the flowers turn towards the sun, is simply part of creation's design.

Also, note that Derb, a self-confessed devotee of evolutionary psychology, or whatever the haters are calling themselves these days, falls into the classic Darwinian trap of assuming that every least little trait we exhibit is honed by evolution to promote our survival.

February 22, 2007 8:59 AM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

As a rough rule of thumb, if you are offering to explain religion and somehow you forget to mention death, then you are playing games with yourself. One main attraction of the "man is a social animal" line of patter is that it distracts from the thing we all have to do, quite apart from society, some day very soon. But it shouldn't surprise Peter or anyone else, that men with middling or better intelligence think they can win at that sort of game.

February 22, 2007 9:25 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter,
You're conflating the terms social and agreeable, and you shouldn't. Saying that man is a social animal isn't to say that he gets along agreeably with his fellows. It just says that he has a need for fellows, and therefore the biggest problem he has to solve is how to stay in a reasonably good standing within whatever group of fellows he finds himself a part of. If cheating, dirty dealing, backstabbing, murder, lying and manipulation help him to do that, then those are traits that he will develop. We're not talking about the gooey-eyed "social" of kindergarten plays, but the red in tooth and claw "social" of Shakespearian tragedy.

I'm not buying the whole alienation angle. Most people aren't that hyper-conscious of religion, it's just part of the background muzak of their lives, and generally that was true of ancient religious societies as well. As Brit likes to put it, it is all part of belonging to the "club". The starting point of this argument is that religion is a natural outgrowth of our natures. We all agree that people come naturally to the idea that there are conscious beings behind the scenes of the world that we can see and touch. The argument is why we come naturally to those assumptions. Is it because they are true ideas, or are they false, and if they are false why do we have them?

February 22, 2007 10:07 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

We may create imaginary faces for beings beyond our ken, but some people have contact with said beings. They exist, although what that means for humans has always been a mystery to us.

In any case, if we're religious because we evolved in such a way as to promote spirituality as a side-effect to knowing whose apple to polish, how are we going to successfully abolish spirituality, even if we think that we ought ?

February 22, 2007 10:52 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

Rather, our instinctive turning to G-d, as the flowers turn towards the sun, is simply part of creation's design.

That's easy for you to say. I never had that instinct.

February 22, 2007 11:05 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Most people aren't that hyper-conscious of religion, it's just part of the background muzak of their lives, and generally that was true of ancient religious societies as well. As Brit likes to put it, it is all part of belonging to the "club".

Lucy, will you puleeze hold that ball steady.

I couldn't count the number of times you guys have raised all manner of horrors you attribute to religion. Racism, war, misogyny, ignorance, anti-semitism, terrorism, marital unhappiness, sexual dysfunctions galore, etc. Only that wondrous Enlightenment rationalism and materialism liberated us priest-controlled superstition. Just today you were going on about how we used to wile away pleasant afternoons stringing up atheists. Now all of a sudden you're telling us it's more like The Grand Order of the Elks or a little pleasant elevator music we hardly notice.

C'mon, Duck, remember the Inquisition!

February 22, 2007 11:52 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'First, we need the ability to calculate what other people are likely to do, based on our assumption . . . that their beliefs, desires and intentions . . . are much like our own.'

That's a good way to get killed or swindled, so I ain't buying it as a basis for evolutionary development, of religion or anything else. (See Samuel Huntington)

Joe may be right about religion being about death, but that's a second-order consideration. Religion is really about fear. We all fear death.

But how to explain how we go from 'we owe god a death' to 'if I kill somebody else, god will let me live'?

We can talk all we like about the high-minded and exceptional abstract morality that we trace back to our Hebrew heritage, but recall what those people really believed: that draining the blood out of a pigeon could alter the outcome of the cosmos.

That is surpassingly weird, and there was another model on offer at the time: that sex could alter the outcome of the universe (I am thinking of temple prostitution in Irak).

Either one was loopy, but you've gotta admit that the sex path was more humane, kinder and more fun for anybody but sadists.

I'm stickin' with my view that religion isn't about anything, it is just a feeling we personalize when we get feelings of immanence. As far as I can see, we get those as a by-blow of evolution of neural circuitry for some other, useful purpose. Though I don't know what it was.

February 22, 2007 1:54 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I really thought that we had moved the Dunnoists off arguing that "the god-myth is explained by our inherent yen to see patterns in the noise" since it has zero explanatory power.

I must have missed that discussion. I think it has tremendous explanatory power. How else to explain why people claim that beings exist without ever having seen them?

Rather, our instinctive turning to G-d, as the flowers turn towards the sun, is simply part of creation's design.

That's just acceptance without explanation. But it simply isn't so simple. People aren't flowers, and God isn't some warm, inviting glow. We aren't living in the Teletubbies universe. God is a fearful, wrathful tyrant, and yet people feel compelled to believe in him anyhow.

Sunshine doesn't need an explanation, sunshine is there. Everyone knows about the sun. But God needs explaining, that's why there are priesthoods and scriptures and magical rites.

February 22, 2007 4:43 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

C'mon, Duck, remember the Inquisition!

Yes, I thought you'd want a little more explanation. What I meant to convey is that in times where people are not in conflict with other peoples with other faiths, then their own religious tradition is just a natural part of their daily routine. You have priests defining the rituals for them and providing the worldview, but it was so easy for them to do this because they were by their nature ready to accept these kinds of explanations.

Your whole "alienation" theme is just too modern a concept to explain the origins of religion. To listen to you one would imagine all these James Dean rebel types badmouthing the tribe and its leaders and shirking their hunting duties, until some counter-cultural shaman inspired them with some "relevant" rap on the way the universe really operates, and that these tribal elders aren't such hotshots compared with this God dude.

I'm sticking with Derbyshire on this.

February 22, 2007 4:55 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

What I meant to convey is that in times where people are not in conflict with other peoples with other faiths, then their own religious tradition is just a natural part of their daily routine. You have priests defining the rituals for them and providing the worldview, but it was so easy for them to do this because they were by their nature ready to accept these kinds of explanations.

Yes, I guess that was why there was no theological, artistic, architectural or religious ferment in the Middle Ages. Everybody was Catholic, so it was all so day-to-day that everybody just kept on truckin'.

February 22, 2007 5:38 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Your whole "alienation" theme is just too modern a concept to explain the origins of religion.

"For it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in [Jesus], and through [Jesus] to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet [Jesus] has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach."
--Colossians 1; 19-22

"For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death."

Romans 7:18--8:2

February 22, 2007 5:43 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Religion was long in the tooth by the time Jesus came around. You'll have to do better than that. For every convert to Christianity who was alienated from his former life there have been many more who glided through life as a member of a socially secure state sanctioned church. Your blogging buddy Orrin has a better handle on this than you do - religion is 90% about conformity.

February 22, 2007 5:57 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

religion is 90% about conformity.

Oh my goodness. Never mind the Grand Order of the Elks. Now it's just a big excuse to hold a cotillion.

February 22, 2007 6:13 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

How about an excuse to hold a society? You know, social glue and all that? Since when are you the voice of the counter-culture?

I don't think this line of argument is going anywhere. What were we originally talking about? Oh yeah, the origin of religion. Why did we evolve a sense that there are invisible personal agents behind the scenes of everyday life? If we were given this sense by design, why does it result in so many false alarms?

So maybe you can explain this alienation angle better, because I just don't get it. Were we always alienated, or did we get that way later, and if so what caused it? And why did that lead to religion? Does religion come to the unalienated? What's the connection?

February 22, 2007 6:24 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Social compared to what?

As Harry memorably noted, the concept of a lone human makes no more sense than a lone ant.

We are social animals because we are not solitary animals. Did you ever see the movie Cast Away?

I couldn't count the number of times you guys have raised all manner of horrors you attribute to religion. Racism, war, misogyny, ignorance ...

May we add to that list the sectarian slaughter going on this very minute in Iraq?

Certainly you must agree that, for instance, the 300 apocalyptic Shia killed a couple weeks ago before they could carry out their plan to assassinate prominent Shia imams in order to hasten the return of the 12th Imam epitomized the very apex of religious irrationality.

David:

Also, note that Derb, a self-confessed devotee of evolutionary psychology, or whatever the haters are calling themselves these days, falls into the classic Darwinian trap of assuming that every least little trait we exhibit is honed by evolution to promote our survival.

I'm not sure how evolutionary psychology makes one a "hater."

You are correct that there is a Darwinian trap that presumes everything is the consequence of natural selection.

A better explanation for many things is that they are emergent properties. Lower back pain and hemorrhoids were not selected for by evolution, but are emergent properties of a quadraped becoming a biped.

Similarly, religion is (IMHO) most likely the emergent property of a brain capable of explanations and understanding time. It is worth noting that as the gaps have shrunk, so has religion's pervasiveness. If religion were strictly a matter of genotype, then our need for it would be largely invariant; that is not the case. (Note likely contradiction here: Global Warming advocates strongly suggest a genotypical foundation for religion ...)

My wife favors an alternate explanation. She views religion as the one path other than politics to power for men without merit.

Oroborous:

They exist, although what that means for humans has always been a mystery to us.

And excellent point, and one that substantiates the need for a term like Dunnoist, and noting that in at least all cases but one, G-d != religion.

February 22, 2007 9:01 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

People aren't flowers, and God isn't some warm, inviting glow. [...] God is a fearful, wrathful tyrant...

Except that for many people, God is a warm, inviting glow.

Others prefer "Drill Sergeant God". But that's just a face that people put on God, not the essence of God.

You may not feel the love, but what of those who do ?
Just deluded ?

Skipper:

I'm a "Good-enoughist", which is a Dunnoist with faith.

February 22, 2007 10:09 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'You may not feel the love, but what of those who do ?
Just deluded ?'

My first instinct was to say, yes, but I'm not going to.

I'm going to ask, what love are they feeling when they sacrifice animals? That was a nearly universal early manifestation of this religion thing, whatever its origin.

I can understand dedication of the fruits of the earth, I guess. But killing animals that suffer?

Why in the world would anyone come up, de novo, with the idea that a burning corpse would find favor in the nostrils of the Big Spook?

And why didn't we keep doing that?

You guys are going to have a lot to answer for, though, if it turns out that the beings 'who exist' really do get off on scorched sheep.

February 22, 2007 11:39 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Why in the world would anyone come up, de novo, with the idea that a burning corpse would find favor in the nostrils of the Big Spook?

Because the idea isn't really de novo - cooked meat first finds favor in human nostrils.

We quit doing that because we found more sophisticated ways of attempting to please the Big Spook.

If the question is, did scorched sheep really please any other-than-human being, the answer is probably yes, in the same way that a hideous, messed-up valentine finds favor in the eyes of a parent.

February 23, 2007 1:10 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

That's clever, but in the Bible I read the Big Spook did not respond like a doting parent. He was very picky about the quality of the scorched sheep.

The Hebrews may have referred to their spook as 'father,' but their concept of fatherhood was stern.

There were people in the neighborhood who did have a cuddly view of their spook. Inanna was presented as a loving and indulgent (at least to her brood) mother.

But our heritage did not descend from Inanna worshippers.

February 23, 2007 8:53 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

But our heritage did not descend from Inanna worshippers.

Not directly, but whose vision won out ?

Is the modern Christian spook primarily cuddly, loving, and indulgent, or a stern master who waxes wroth ?

February 23, 2007 11:13 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

That's what I'd like to know.

February 23, 2007 12:07 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Joe:

As a rough rule of thumb, if you are offering to explain religion and somehow you forget to mention death ...

I forgot to mention: good point.

February 23, 2007 7:57 PM  
Blogger David said...

Ah, sacrifice. I agree that it is interesting so long as one can mull it over from afar.

Why did we offer sacrifices? Because we were commanded to. Why were we commanded to? We can't know, but there are some likely explanations. Part of it was, obviously, that loosing a prime animal was a true sacrifice on the part of the tribe.

As for the killing, I assume you all eat your bulls and sheep dead. The process for killing a sacrifice is strangely similar to the process of killing an animal according to the rules of koshrut.

We did we stop? Because the Temple was destroyed. Once the Temple was destroyed, G-d accepted reading about the sacrifices as equal to an actual sacrifice.

February 23, 2007 8:31 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

An odd god who lets his unchosen people push him around.

I can see that it sort of makes sense to offer first fruits back to the earth, though it would seem more logical to bury them.

But with animals, if you are offering them back, it might seem that setting them free to breed among themselves would be both more respectful and more practical.

As for what god told the chosen people to do, that explains that, if you wish, but it doesn't explain all the bloody sacrifice among the unchosen.

And I haven't even mentioned own-species sacrifice yet.

February 24, 2007 1:39 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

As for the killing, I assume you all eat your bulls and sheep dead.

Well-played.

Duck:

As to why humans experience alienation or make offerings or whatever, I am no more able to give you a rational explanation based on evolution that I am to explain why we associate eating together with intimacy or send flowers to funerals and bury with ceremony. I don't believe there is one. You are right on the divide here.

Harry:

I just would love to go back to those times and see someone like you there making all those arguments with everybody. It actually might give us a key to understanding the origin of human sacrifice.

February 24, 2007 7:34 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't think that last remark was very complimentary to the religious mindset.

February 24, 2007 10:35 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Why did we offer sacrifices? Because we were commanded to. Why were we commanded to? We can't know, but there are some likely explanations. Part of it was, obviously, that loosing a prime animal was a true sacrifice on the part of the tribe.

To pick up on Harry's line of argument, if you are going to argue that God commanded the Israelites to offer burnt sacrifice, you have to either come up with an alternative explanation for why non Israelite peoples offered sacrifices, both animan and human, to other gods or accept that the same god that commanded the Israelites to offer sacrifices also commanded the Aztecs to offer human sacrifices. If you don't want to accept that implication then you have to come up with a non-divine, psychological explanation for Aztec religious practices. And then you have to explain why that non-divine, psychological explanation shouldn't apply to the Israelites.

Older belief systems had no problem with the idea of multiple, tribal gods, which nicely handled that dilemma. But monotheism can't handle that.

February 24, 2007 11:26 AM  
Blogger David said...

Why do I "have to" do that?

In any event, it seems evident that the instinct to offer burnt sacrifices to G-d is inherent in human beings including, apparently, human sacrifices. What makes Judaism special is that we are forbidden to make human sacrifices. That is, after all, one of the big obvious lessons from the story of Isaac: Abraham was willing to sacrifice his much-loved son -- to some extent he expected that it would be required of him -- but G-d was not willing to accept that sacrifice.

Again, we see that the Dunnoists want to draw a line between nature and G-d.

February 24, 2007 2:45 PM  
Blogger Randy Kirk said...

Hey,

Duck has been commenting over at my blog, so I thought I'd drop in and leave a thought.

Everybody knows (recent study) that we are possessed of a God gene. The question should be whether those who are missing that gene are going to be better adapted or less.

If there is a God gene, we could no easier not sense God than we could not hear music, assuming we have the hearing gene. (loosely speaking)

Great post. Fun group. I'll drop by again. I also put your blog on my blogroll.

February 24, 2007 5:55 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, it isn't exactly true that god didn't accept human sacrifice. The Isaac story is far from the only instance in the holy book.

Not sacrificing sheep properly was a big no-no. If you get killed for not sacrificing, or for bad sacrficing, is that not a form of sacrifice?

As Lileks the Lutheran once epitomized the Old Testament: whole lotta smitin'.

Nor can it be said that burnt offerings are a natural human behavior. Common yes. Universal no.

February 25, 2007 12:56 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Randy:

Everybody knows (recent study) that we are possessed of a God gene. The question should be whether those who are missing that gene are going to be better adapted or less.

Presuming that to be true (Matt Ridley, in Nature via Nurtuer solidly supported (before there was any concrete notion of a "God" gene) that the propensity for religious belief is heritable.

That still leaves the question of whether the God gene is objectively, or subjectively, true.

February 26, 2007 3:55 AM  

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