Saturday, April 01, 2006

10 questions for Justin L. Barrett   posted by Razib @ 4/01/2006 08:50:00 PM

Justin L. Barrett is the author of Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Below are his resposes to 10 questions.

1) Most people tend to view religion as a set of rules, points of belief or a particular range of practices. Researchers who work from a cognitive prespective seem to take a broader and narrower view simultaneously. Broader in that they address the general phenomenon of religion across time and space, as opposed to specific religions, and narrower in that they interpret it through a specific disciplinary methodology. Now, people talk about religion all the time in a loose and intuitive fashion, but they tend not be systematic. Scott Atran has attempted to bring a theoretically richer and empirically grounded cognitive anthropological perspective to the analysis of suicide bombers, and it doesn't seem to have made much traction against general platitudes relating to poverty or mental insanity. Do you believe that the cognitive research program in religion will ever make an impact as an "applied social science," or will it remain at a remove from day to day public policy indefinitely?

The cognitive science of religion has the same problem in gaining traction that social psychology has had: everyone thinks that they are experts. Social psychologists have to work hard to show that their findings and insights are not just jargon-laden common sense. Similarly, most people seem to think they have a perfectly good theory of religion or religious behavior. No need to study religion! Nevertheless, as social psychology has made major applied advances (e.g., in advertising, persuasion, inter-group conflict resolution, team-building, etc.), I am confident that eventually the cognitive science of religion will gain traction. But perhaps our first applied successes will have to be in religious communities concerning religious practices and instruction and not in politically charged areas such as Islamic suicide bombers.

2) In your book "Why Would Anyone Believe in God?" you answer the question why people believe in God. More specifically, why the majority of humans believe in God or Gods. As an atheist, I have to ask, why don't I believe in God? Or, more seriously, do you believe that there are cognitive reasons why some people are just biased to be atheists? I actually emailed Robert N. McCauley about his conjecture that autistics might be 'natural' atheists because of their lack of social intelligence, but he responded that he hadn't stumbled upon any hard empirical confirmation of this hunch...yet. Do you know something we don't?

As self-proclaimed atheist Jesse Bering has observed it can be very hard to identify true atheists. He even suspects that they comprise a very tiny number of people. By true atheists, I mean people that consistently hold no belief (cognitive commitment that motivates behavior) in superhuman agency. Lots of people say they don't believe in superhuman agency (including gods and ghosts) but will still modify their behaviors around cemeteries on spooky nights ("just in case"). I also run into plenty of people who say they don't believe in God but they really have chosen to act as if they don't believe in God because they are angry with God or don't like God. With these qualifications in place, certainly there are a number of factors that might predispose individuals to become atheists. As I agree with McCauley that theory of mind or social intelligence plays a critical role in theism, those who are weaker in these areas (relative to other higher-order reasoning) might be less disposed toward theism. I find it suggestive that women-who tend to have stronger social intelligence-tend to be more religious than men; and men are disproportionately represented among self-proclaimed atheists. Autism has been referred to as a severe form of "male-brainedness," I believe by Simon Baron-Cohen. I suspect social and environmental factors are even more important in supporting atheism, and I speculate on these in my book.

3) Do you consider yourself an evolutionary psychologist?

I don't think of myself as an evolutionary psychologist even though I have a lot of sympathies and agreements with that camp. I have at least two hesitations with adopting that identification. First, I do not attempt to explain all religious or other cultural thought and behavior in terms of evolved capacities or with a stone aged perspective. The evolutionary history of a particular function of the human mind is less important to me than its contemporary properties and dynamics. If a regularly occurring cognitive structure is an evolutionary accident but still helps explain recurrent human behaviors, I'm interested. Second, "evolutionary psychology" sometimes gets identified with some controversial positions within cognitive science that I do not necessarily affirm. Evolutionary psychology often gets conflated with hard-line nativism when it comes to cognitive development; massive structural modularism when it comes to brain organization; and data-light ad-hoc theory production when it comes to theories of cultural phenomena. When trying to forge an new subfield, I suspect it is best not to identify too closely with a controversial perspective, even when it holds great promise.

4) You are a graduate of Calvin College and now work for Young Life. Do you accept the Five Points personally? If so, how do you feel about D. Jason Slone's contention in "Theological Incorrectness" that Arminianism is the natural state of the human mind?

Regarding five-point Calvinism, I'm not sure I can answer without nauseating explanation and qualifications. Within contemporary "Calvinism" we see considerable variation in exactly what the five points entail. Let me just say that I think it is completely legitimate to affirm God's sovereignty and human free will simultaneously, and I do. Slone is certainly correct that the natural state of the human mind is to assume free will of humans. Many modern Calvinists do not deny this. In fact, one of the most important 20th Century answers to the problem of pain was Alvin Plantinga's Free Will Defense - another Calvin College alumnus and former faculty member.

5) If you had to tell bicoastals one thing about Kansas which might surprise them, what would it be?

Kansas is surprisingly beautiful and I find the weather superior to that in many other places I've lived. Then there are the people. Having grown up in California but lived in New York and Virginia and spent considerable time in Maryland, I know how easy it is for bicostals (especially living in urban centers) to think that their world is normative. Academics who ought to know better seem especially prone to forget just how odd they are. Anthropologist and psychologist Larry Hirschfeld often says something about how ivory-palace academics discovering regular people are a bit like two-headed people discovering one-headed people and thinking the one-headed people are strange. Kansans are more similar to normal people-the world over-than are people from Boston or Berkeley.

6) Do you have opinions about the Intelligent Design program being forwarded by William Dembski and his confederates?

The hubbub about Intelligent Design has been a wonderful display of coalitional thinking overriding honest discussion and inquiry. Instead of genuinely seeking truth, too many folks on both sides of the issue seem more concerned with figuring out who is on "my side" and who isn't. (I once witnessed an agnostic, Darwinist, psychologist get accused of being a "closet creationist" because he raised concerns about hasty attempts to explain various phenomena in Darwinian terms.) Placing aside stereotypes about "anti-science fundamentalists" and "anti-religion Darwinists," the Intelligent Design movement is important in two respects. First, it helps to remind us that not all of biology can be explained in terms of natural selection-as if biology didn't exist before Darwin. Second, Intelligent Design reminds us that intellectual inquiry does not have to begin and end with naturalism. I happen to think that methodological naturalism is a great place to start in the sciences, and we should get as much mileage out of it as we can. But not all of intellectual discovery lies in the methods and assumptions of the contemporary natural sciences. Along with cosmology, the Intelligent Design movement also illustrates that the borders of natural science are not always clear. Refusing to do scholarship that might cross conventional borders strikes me as unfruitful and cowardly.

7) Are your co-workers and associates from Young Life aware of your scholarly work in its details?

No. Though I have some supportive Young Life colleagues, Young Lifers don't generally read academic publications.

8) In his recent trilogy "The Victory of Reason," "For the Glory of God," and "One True God" Rodney Stark argues, in sum, that modernity as we know it (democracy, liberty, human rights, science, etc.) are necessarily preconditioned by the particular form of monotheism that Christianity promoted. Do you have any opinions as to the plausibility of such a suggestion?

Not having read Stark's trilogy, I had better not offer an opinion.

9) Do you anticipate a possible return to academia in a more full time capacity in the future?

I do indeed. I'm not ready to give details yet, but stay tuned.

10) If you had a chance to do it all over again what would you change about your education?

I believe I received a first rate education at Calvin College and then received excellent instruction and guidance from Frank Keil and the Keil - Spelke (Elizabeth) lab group at Cornell University. I have been asked if an education at a Christian college/university such as Calvin College is restricted and incomplete. The assumption seems to be that at such places there are some questions and perspectives that are taboo. I can not comment on all Christian universities, but my experience would support the opposite conclusion: at the good Christian universities you have fewer restrictions than at, say, major state universities in the United States. Professors at Calvin will present why evolution makes sense and where its weaknesses lie and how it might be reconciled with Christianity. At most secular universities, you will never hear various perspectives on evolution. At Calvin, you can grapple with philosophical arguments for and against theism. Even on matters of politics, the political science department at Calvin (and other such schools) represents more diversity than most state university departments. Perhaps the only change I would make in my education would be to have studied more philosophy of science. I see many cognitive and evolutionary scholars with rather weak understandings of science's philosophical foundations.