Saturday, March 03, 2007

Why do people believe in God?   posted by Razib @ 3/03/2007 11:10:00 PM

The New York Times Magazine has a long piece which profiles the various naturalistic hypotheses which explain the origin of religious belief. The usual suspects show up. Scott Atran, author of In Gods We Trust looms large, while Justin L. Barrett, who I interviewed last year, also gets some face time. The author of the piece tries to establish a rough dichotomy between adaptationists and non-adaptationists, with the cognitively oriented scientists in the latter camp, and more conventional functionalists in the former. For the purposes of an article in The New York Times Magazine this is acceptable, it adds a necessary element of dramatic tension, but this is a gross oversimplification. Additionally, it should be noted that individuals such as Steven Pinker who are often perceived as adaptationist in their conception of cognitive function support Atran and the non-adaptionists on this question.

One thing that both these groups can agree upon, even if you take the dichotomy at face value, is that religion needs to conceived of as more than a plain set of axioms which serve as the blueprint for behavior and belief. I've been blogging about religion for a while now because I think it is an interesting and significant social phenomenon which touches upon our lives, whether we believe or not. If you talk about foreign policy in the Middle East, for example, it is imperative that you know the general sectarian landscape, as well as the psychological salience of religious identity on a deep level, and the ramifications that might have in how humans behave and act. As a congenitally irreligious person this process of understanding has been a scientific and scholarly one, I don't have recourse to introspection informed by my own religious sensibilities since I generally lack one.

Over time I have started to hold some assumptions as givens as I develop my ideas, otherwise each post would continue to grow in length as I elucidate the theoretical and empirical framework in which I am working within. This is one reason I do express some irritation with those in the comment boxes who are plainly talking out of their ass and repeating intuitions & convential wisdom which they've had nailed down since their bullshit sessions in their freshmen year at university. Life is short and I don't have much patience for mind-farting, even if you think it smells oh so nice. I am not interested in religion because I think that such talk will give me insight into the deep nature of the universe, rather, people are killing themselves in the name of an entity that seems manifestly implausible to me, and that requires some explaining. An explanation can be generated by a precise formulation of the problem at hand and patient data collection. Most discussions about religion are neither precise nor do they trade much in facts. Consider this comment on one of my posts:
Could you please break this statement down for me? On a day to day level, to practising Muslims, how exactly does Islam not promote peace? In what ways do the five pillars cause violence? Shahadah, praying, zakat, Hajj (if possible), and fasting during Ramadan, to most Muslims, this is what Islam consists of. To the dissapointment of most "Islamist ideolouges", I would actually argue that the average Muslim doesn't view Islam as some sort of political movement. At least not yet,and definitely not at the abstrract level that Islamists would desire.

Regular readers will anticipate my irritation with these sort of comments: they tend to imply that "Islam" (or any religion) is something which exists out there, prior to and apart from human belief or practice. "Islam is the 5 pillars..." or "Islam is peace." One of the most common problems with religion are the word games which people into. For example, "You believe in love, and god is love, so you believe in god, and so you aren't an atheist...." This is all fine & dandy, but these word games don't really explain much about the world in my opinion, and I'm not invested in the word atheist or theist. Similarly, I don't care what most Muslims think Islam is, or what the accepted majority of Muslims believe the pillars of the faith are, because such things are prior ideals whose implications in the real world are not always clear. Religion is for me a posterior phenomenon, it characterizes the beliefs and practices of a collection of human beings who avow an affinity for a particular word as a group marker, and these beliefs and practices have a focus upon supernatural concepts which violate some ofour banal and prosaic intuitions about how the world works. There is no "real" Islam, or "real" Christianity, there is simply the distribution of beliefs and practices of a number of individuals which exhibit ranges, variances and central tendencies. The average believer is then important, but sometimes minority practices are also important. Most Muslims are not terrorist nutballs, but my own interest is disproportionately toward the terrorist nutballs since their behaviors might result in my death or discomfort, or that of those who I care for. In contrast, I am less interested in the briefs of elite religious professionals which exhibit little relation to the world as it is (e.g., theological) because I doubt that there is relevance to these beliefs for non-believers (and even for the majority of believers I believe the relevance of theology is symbolic, a group marker).

I emphasize the various dimensions of religion because a part of the problem that comes with discussing scholars who study the topic is that they are addressing different levels of organization. The article emphasizes three primary camps:

1) Cognitive anthropologists who believe that religion is a cultural byproduct of the necessary architecture of our minds (i.e., non-adaptationists)

2) Group selectionists who tend to take a functionalist tack in regards to religious beliefs and institutions

3) Behavioral scientists which utilize game theory and its related disciplines in analyzing the "rational" import of religious belief

An astute reader can probably guess that a major issue here is that group 1 is addressing a different level of religion than group 2 or 3. Specifically, functionalists who are looking at religion through the lens of broad cultural institutions and mass society, bound by common confession of faith and ritual. In Darwin's Cathedral David S. Wilson lays out his argument using various examples, e.g., the Calvinist religion, or water temples in Bali. One problem is that functionalist explanations often do not hold up to closer analysis, as illustrated by my co-blogger David B's analysis of the Nuer conquest of the Dinka (a canonical example of the superiority of one cultural complex over another). Additionally, the functionalists often have an issue in regards to accepting the explanations of peoples whom they are studying without peeling back the cognitive layers. Modern psychology makes clear that humans are natural fabulists, and we concoct rationales promiscuously and unconsciously, even when they are clearly false or implausible. One reason many tribal people give for shifting toward a world religion, or altering their practice, is that it is simply economically more efficient. For example in East Java slametan is a ritual feast which is ubiquitous as way to cement relationships, mark important festivals and show one's status and generosity. Some conversions to more "orthodox" Islam are justified by the fact that this form of Islam, shorn of Javanese cultural accretions, is simply cheaper and not as wasteful, as slametan is no longer necessary. The exact same reason is given by pagans who convert to Christianity other parts of Southeast Asia, the cost of a ritual feast is obviated by conversion to a religion which bans the practice. In these situations Christianity and a less culturally mediated form of Islam are presented as more rational by the converts, and anthropologists who study these peoples do see them abandoning expensive feasts. But, life isn't always so simple, and the bequests by wealthy Christians or Muslims made to houses of worship or charities shows that wealth signaling continues via other methods. 1,500 years ago in Europe the conversion of pagans to Christianity resulted in a similar abandonment of traditional ritual be replaced by the Saints Calendar. Of course religions do differ, and it is notable that the worshipers of philosophically girded faiths seem to withstand the test of time against those cults which focus on the worship of cult statuary endowed with large penises or the heads of animals. Yet I think that it is more complex than simply assuming that more "primitive" religions by their nature were what resulted in lesser cultural fitness, rather, one could assert that a common causal component is at work in the rise of expansionist and aggressive states and the religions which they champion.

In contrast to Wilson game theorists and those who come out of economics tend to focus on the individual utility of religion. But, this utility is scaffolded in a group level context. Just as co-ethnics may start credit cooperatives, so co-religionists in a foreign land pass a currency of trust bound together by a communal god to whom they owe fealty. Jewish & Jain merchants are classic examples of this, small religious minorities who enter into businesses which require a high level of trust to smooth transactions. It is no surprise that the diamond business in Antwerp is controlled by religious Jews as a particular caste of Jains. The article frames these strategies as adaptationist, and they are, as religious adherence maintains and reinforces belonging to the social group upon which one depends. Recall that in the pre-modern time individuals did not live as an island, that their lives were defined by, and contingent upon, communal ties of trust and cooperation. This form of adaptationism is not as thoroughly functionalist as David S. Wilson's models, such as the water temple, because group solidarity can be engendered by a wide range of beliefs. The nature of the god matters less than the common and universal aspect of that god.

Finally, there is the byproduct school. One analogy I've used for this idea is that just as a car's engine generates heat, so a mind's function generates religion (and art). One can reduce the heat that the engine turning it off, which is clearly not feasible. But, the byproduct heat can also be put to use (to warm up passengers). The various components of the engine, as outlined in the article, are:

* Agent detection
* Causal reasoning
* Theory of mind

There are almost certainly more. The cognitive anthropologist's basic model is that in a the typical human being these cognitive tools interact in a manner which produces byproduct phenomena, religion being a prime one. This is why they reject a simple adaptionist narrative for religion: belief per se is not what is being selected for, but the various propensities and competencies which make that belief highly likely to emerge. The distributed nature of the characters which give rise to religion is, I believe, the reason that atheists exist: each element above (and more) exhibit variation within the population, and so a small proportion always exist who are highly likely to find supernatural beliefs uncompelling because of the architecture of their minds. If, for example, you are weak on agency detection and causal reasoning a simple teleological argument for the existence of god might seem extremely inscrutable. Similarly, an autistic individual who has difficulty forming models of the minds of flesh & blood humans around them might find it nearly impossible to comprehend on a gestalt level the possibility that a noncorporeal entity which they have never seen exists out there and wishes to have a special personal relationship with all humans. Engines are after all designed and constructed differently, and so the amount of heat which they generate might vary (as might their performance at various tasks).*

And yet as I said: the heat of an engine can be put to good use, it is energy, even if a somewhat chaotic and uncontrolled form. This is why the dichotomy between adaptationist and non-adaptationist views is problematic. A "strong form" adaptationist model is, to my mind, implausible. Powerful directional selective forces exhaust variation as all the alleles become fixed, and though atheists are in a majority, it seems that religious zeal, interest and propensity does exhibit variation through all societies. This implies that the underlying components still exhibit variation. Nevertheless, it is clear that religious beliefs can yield a utilitarian value, behavioral economists have shown that highly zealous individuals may defy "rational" expectation. As human culture has become progressively more complex the niches have proliferated, and frequency dependent selection and the importance of mixed behavioral strategies in complex societies may likely play roles in perpetuating variation in belief and practice. In a society where the vast majority are religious it maybe that a "free rider" atheist minority can always make a living simply because the religious majority can rationally assume everyone will be altruistic based on common godly belief. In other words, a form of the Hawk and Dove game might be at work. Similarly, group level selective effects might come to bear and co-opt religious belief, even if that beliefs initial origins had nothing to do with increased fitness.

Why does this matter? First, I believe it is important to put into their place doctrinal elements in religious systems. They do have importance, but for too many they become the root and ends of all religion. Too many atheists who accept this line waste their time engaging in debate precisely because they believe that falsifying doctrine, or showing its incoherency, will result in disbelief. The problem with this idea is that the body of evidence is growing that doctrine exhibits a very weak hold on the mind, and theological details are generally incomprehensible to most humans aside from notional attachments (e.g., Christians and Muslims know the basic outlines of the theological differences which define their faiths, but, the identity of being part of the faith and a personal understanding of god is far more important on a day to day level than the nuances of tawhid or Substance and Natures). Second, if religion is a natural phenomenon that opens the window for future engineering. Consider the role of Southern white Protestant Christianity in cementing the orthodoxies of its day, or the influence of evangelicals in northern abolitionism. Religious spirit is an important factor in amplifying the magnitude of any social vector, for good or ill. If you can't kill the tiger, learn to ride it so that you may drive your enemies before you.

* I believe that this quantitative genetic model explains why atheism varies between societies over time and space: the distribution of belief exhibits a norm of reaction in disparate environments.

Related: Theological Incorrectness. Why Religion. The gods of the cognitive scientists. Reflections on the "God Module." "Hard-wired" for God. Innate atheism and variation between societies. Atheism, Heresy and Hesychasm. Modes of Religion.

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