Why the gods will not die

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Over at my other weblog I have a long response to the Edge piece which argues for the power of the Secularization Hypothesis, roughly, that with modernity there comes a falling away from supernaturalism. In short, the authors dig into some data, but like those who make arguments about the inevitable conquest of secularity by religion, their narrative is characterized by selection bias. That is, where the data is powerfully in favor of their argument they draw upon surveys, where it is not powerful or argues against their case they just quote impressions about how non-religious people really are, and sometimes they just pull data out of context (e.g., focus here on South Korea). In any case, I’m just here to remind people of a little history: atheism and theism have basically always been around. The finally victory of either will likely not be won in the human future, as retreat seems to herald future advances. The relative power of atheism or theism varies over time and space, but neither morph ever seems to fix. The sample space of data is so large that like a high school essay it isn’t that hard assemble a list of data which support your thesis. It is natural then that the various camps will have their court propagandists outlining their case. But this just really masks the true variation and diversity on this character and its multi-dimensional nature.

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25 Comments

  1. This is a slightly wild comment, I suppose, but I wonder if the future of religion might lie more in the area of the supranatural as opposed to the supernatural. In a deterministic universe, events which violate the laws of nature are supernatural. In our secular age such “miracles” are obstacles to belief, instead of aids for the gullible (or naive). But when the laws of nature are probabilistic — though no less exquisitely precise in their exactitude — there is room for events which cannot be accounted for by the laws of physics. In fact all “meaningful” human thought and behavior, or the vast majority of it, might lie in this realm. It is the realm of ideas, thought, feeling, ideals, etc., which can interact with the physical world but cannot be “described” by the rules of particles and fields. Yet it might still be shaped by certain “rules” which we can understand intuitively, even though we cannot describe them with mathematical precision, or even measure them. We (concious human beings) are supranatural beings. God is a supranatural idea — or, rather, an unprovable hypothesis about the laws of the supranatural realm. (Karma, you get back what you put out, that sort of thing.) Feel free to delete this comment if you feel it is out of bounds.

  2. your argument holds if religion is in large part a model of how the universe works. i am skeptical of this. rather, i think supernaturalism, as a pillar of religion, is about perceptions shaped by our cognitive landscape of plausibilities and memorabilities. an aspect of religion is about how the universe works, but 
     
    a) i think intellectuals tend to emphasize this because they are concerned about how the world works 
     
    b) this isn’t very prominent in basal religion, as opposed to the ‘world religions’

  3. It’s remarkable how poorly people reason about the ultimate nature of reality. 
    It is the realm of ideas, thought, feeling, ideals, etc., which can interact with the physical world but cannot be “described” by the rules of particles and fields. This is just silly. Ideas are constructed out of the physical world – it’s what they’re composed of – and treating them as wholly separate is probably a cognitive weakness resulting from the way our brain categorizes physical objects (with agency vs. without). Dualism’s dead, yet people love to play meat puppet with the corpse.

  4. Been around for a while now.

  5. Been around for a while now. 
     
    minor note, the link to the god is dead article is, i believe, about the ‘god is dead’ movement, which isn’t really conventionally atheistic or anti-religious.

  6. To a degree religion can be explained in terms of innateness (hereditary, predispositions rooted in the brain which are or once were functional, e.g. toward unreasonable optimism or the tendency to ascribe agency). However, this can’t explain why religion does not seem to become vestigial or minor either — the lowest level of religious belief anywhere (in Israel and ex-Communist countries) seems to be in the 40-60% range.  
     
    For example, under rule of law feud, vendetta, and honor killing become vestigial, even though it is easy enough to show that they are innate urges, and even though they’ve been the rule rather than the exception in societies not governed by law (societies with a weak or no state). 
     
    The Nietzschean and Marxist explanation of religion is that it’s a crutch or consolation for people whose own lives are deeply unsatisfactory, unbearable, or intolerable, or who feel that the actual world is unjust. People think that from their own individual perspective — if you try to convince someone that their lives are being ruined and made unbearable for the greater good of everyone else, they will not listen.  
     
    What’s at issue is the wrongness of individual suffering. People will suffer willingly if they see a larger context of justice. But often this larger context of justice is precisely religious, or some other kind of unprovable belief such as nationalism, Marxism, or Progress. 
     
    The rationalist assumption is that a rationally organized world will not be unjust and will not have victims who need consolation. There’s no reason to believe this, though. Conflict and unfairness don’t disappear.  
     
    Bentham’s “The greatest good of the greatest number” recognizes that there are victims. Marcus Aurelius assumed that if everyone understood the cosmic plan, they’d understand that their own pain was necessary for the universal order. On the other hand, he was the ruler of one of the greatest empires in world history, and he would think that. He did recognize that some would not accept fate — he contemptuously compared them to squealing little pigs unwilling to be sacrificed.

  7. Dualism’s dead, yet people love to play meat puppet with the corpse. 
     
    a philosophical position, but not a psychological one. much of paul bloom’s work is predicated on the dualistic bias in the human mind.

  8. To a degree religion can be explained in terms of innateness (hereditary, predispositions rooted in the brain which are or once were functional, e.g. toward unreasonable optimism or the tendency to ascribe agency). However, this can’t explain why religion does not seem to become vestigial or minor either — the lowest level of religious belief anywhere (in Israel and ex-Communist countries) seems to be in the 40-60% range. 
     
    For example, under rule of law feud, vendetta, and honor killing become vestigial, even though it is easy enough to show that they are innate urges, and even though they’ve been the rule rather than the exception in societies not governed by law (societies with a weak or no state). 
     
    religion vs. honor killing, etc. the difference is two fold i believe: 
     
    1) religion is more diverse and flexible. it means many things (from elite mysticism & philosophizing to mass devotionalism) and takes on many forms 
     
    2) the upstream causes of religion may be more numerous than honor killings. that is, if honor killings respond to x, y and z, addressing x, y and z results in a response to honor killings. if religion is dependent upon a, b, c, d, e, f, g, responding to e-g still leaves a-d. that is, the cognitive model of religion constructs it out of numerous component modules. changing the dynamic on any one module may alter the character of religion, but it will not abolish it because the other parameters remain. e.g., for many first world religionists magic is a minor part of their devotion. not so in the third world. catholics in france might encounter magic only during transubstantiation, but those in africa deal with exorcisms on a regular basis. yet both are still religion despite their divergent characters 
     
    Marcus Aurelius assumed that if everyone understood the cosmic plan, they’d understand that their own pain was necessary for the universal order. 
     
    ah, you make him sound like leibniz!

  9. Caledonian: 
     
    Your comment tells us nothing whatever except your low opinion of those whose opinion might differ from your own. If you want folks to see the “reason” involved in your conclusion, you might try giving them some of the factual elements and the logical progression used to get “from here to there.”  
     
    Both reason and experience reveal separate realms. One is of physical (including chemical and physiological) phenomena (which we presume) entirely comprehended by what are normally referred to as “science” and the “scientific method.” And another whose elements or substances are what we call “thought,” “feeling,” “valuation,” and their roles in bringing about purposive (human) action. Nor does the fact that I might entirely agree in the assumption of an ultimately monistic and deterministic universe detract in any way from a realization (on my part, if not your own) that the essential (and seemingly perpetual) argument has not to do with opinions on the characteristics of reality but, rather, with opposing opinions about the appropriate methodology to be employed in seeking to expand our understanding of that which we study or express ourselves upon. 
     
    The aim of the opinion you express is well known and widely shared; it would not be far off the mark to say that it is (and has been for quite some time) the intellectually dominant view. But it is, nonetheless, quite and entirely unreasonable–and I pronounce that conclusion not on the basis of some abstruse chain of reasoning but quite within the context of the usual reliance of scientists themselves on the data of experience. It is true that experience tells us nothing we can “take to the bank” about ultimate matters as between monism and dualism. But insofar as is concerned the method by which we ought proceed in order to expand understanding of the realm (thought, feeling, valuation, purposiveness) earlier mentioned, methodological dualism is, literally forced on us by the complete absence of success in proceeding any other way. Examples abound, whether one views the vast, baleful and calamitous result of the “experiment” with “scientific socialism” or the less-deadly demise of the Nobel Prize-winner-associated hedge fund, LTCM. Neither of these–and many more–would have eventuated were not their proponents so firmly under the sway of the reductionist, positivist view. 
     
    I could go on (it’s what I do best)–but you get the idea.

  10. I read this Prospect article Breeding Ground For God by Eric Kaufmann a while back, in an issue entitled ‘God Returns To Europe. At first blush I assumed it was the product of a slow news day, ie some wiseguy realized ‘hey, everybody’s talking about the secularization of Europe. What if we say Europe is actually becoming more religious! That’ll sell a few issues!’ As expected twas short on stats, but it actually made some good points. 
     
    It seems as though western Europe, with the possible exception of Italy, will converge towards a church attendance rate of little more than 5 per cent. However this will mask a much larger proportion?around half?who continue to describe themselves as religious and affiliate with a religious denomination... 
     
    And the religious population has two demographic advantages over its non-believing counterpart. First, it maintains a 15-20 per cent fertility lead over the non-religious. Second, religious people in the childbearing 18-45 age range are disproportionately female. Offset against this is the much younger age structure of secularists. 
     

  11. First, it maintains a 15-20 per cent fertility lead over the non-religious. Second, religious people in the childbearing 18-45 age range are disproportionately female. Offset against this is the much younger age structure of secularists. 
     
    the male/female difference is probably due to modulating of some of the innate parameters, and will always be with us i think (and has been). and the younger age structure of secularists is of course do to defection from the more fertile religionist segment (sometimes the defection also gives way to re-affiliation with age and children). also, re: fecundity, i think the underlying cause isn’t religiosity per se, but some other set of variables which generate a correlation between religion & fertility. i say this because some of the most religious nations in europe (italy, greece and spain) have far lower fertility than some of the most secular (sweden, france). within the ‘fertile’ nations the religious are no doubt more fecund than the non-religious of course.

  12. Both reason and experience reveal separate realms. Um, no. Reason and experience both indicate that reality is ultimately monistic. Positing two distinct and different “kinds” of real things, we have to produce a system of rules that describes how those things interact, and once we’ve done so, we’ve abolished the distinction. 
    One is of physical (including chemical and physiological) phenomena (which we presume) entirely comprehended by what are normally referred to as “science” and the “scientific method.” And another whose elements or substances are what we call “thought,” “feeling,” “valuation,” and their roles in bringing about purposive (human) action.In my weaker moments, I fantasize about a world in which people are not allowed to post statements about the nature of thought until they’ve become informed about the rudiments of cognitive psychology. Even better, cognitive psychology AND computer programming techniques. 
     
    Presume? We ‘presume’ nothing – all of reality is encompassed by the scientific method. What isn’t encompassed by science cannot have any consequences, and therefore doesn’t exist. That doesn’t mean that everything real is real in exactly the same way – the concept of “level of implementation” is very important here, and it’s a concept that really needs to be more widely understood.

  13. Caledonian — “all of reality is encompassed by the scientific method. What isn’t encompassed by science cannot have any consequences, and therefore doesn’t exist.”  
     
    So science isn’t a body of knowledge and a means of proceeding whereby we investigate and learn about a much larger reality, much of which will probably always remain slippery and hard to grasp? Instead, it’s an all-encompassing philosophy/religion that already explains it all? Interesting, to say the least!

  14. career women tend to be hot and fertile looking, but they don’t have many babies

  15. Instead, it’s an all-encompassing philosophy/religion that already explains it all?You certainly didn’t waste any time setting up a strawman. 
     
    Science is a method for generating conclusions from observations and experiments. There is nothing to which it cannot be applied – it is a truly universal method. There will probably eventually be further developments in our methods, but they will all be within the domain of science. It makes every other way of thinking obsolete.

  16. Razib 9:30: 
     
    If religion is dependent upon a, b, c, d, e, f, g, responding to e-g still leaves a-d. that is, the cognitive model of religion constructs it out of numerous component modules. 
     
    At some point you have to start to ask whether “religion” is too broad a concept, including for example both superstitious beliefs ungrounded in any elite tradition, and elite beliefs and practices totally disengaged from superstition or even supernaturalism. Was Marcus Aurelius religious? He believed in a very distant, impersonal God which seemed identical to the laws of nature; he believed that the laws of nature functioned benevolently overal (“design”) though nmot for any given individual; and he honored the Roman polytheistic observances, seemingly out of respect for tradition but without actual belief (he never mentions any polytheistic God in his book IIRC.) 
     
    In Chinese medicine, geomancy, and cosmology there are many beliefs that look religious or superstitious to us, but which are justified naturalistically, without gods. 
     
    As for the feud / honor killing complex, agreed that it is more specific and better defined than “religion”, and thus more replacable (especially since the costs of feud are also more blatantly evident). I think that the persistence of religion derives from the neediness I spoke of. 
     
    I also think that if popular religion disappeared, elite religion would too, but not the reverse. Elite religion is a rather weak creature, I think.

  17. Caledonian: is not your position one of faith? As evidence, I notice that you seek to affirm it by assertion rather than argument: you can “see” that this is the way it is, why can’t everyone else? How do you deal with Humean skepticism? I hope this is not a straw man. thanks 
     
    Also, in the final analysis, maybe the truth is whatever strikes a chord? To me it is intuitively obvious that the world of words, for instance, while not disconnected from the world of atoms and fields (somehow, in the brain) is nevertheless not determined by them. Surely you don’t think Shakespeare was an automoton?  
     
    And how do you deal with the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics? Like Einstein, do you suspect (or posit) an underlying determinism that we haven’t discovered yet? 
     
    You might also be interested in Feynman’s discussion of the topic of determinism (or rather indeterminism) in the world of classical physics. Turns out it doesn’t exist there either. It’s in his lectures on physics (one of the all-time great books about science!)

  18.  
    At some point you have to start to ask whether “religion” is too broad a concept, including for example both superstitious beliefs ungrounded in any elite tradition, and elite beliefs and practices totally disengaged from superstition or even supernaturalism.
     
     
    yes, this is a major issue. that’s why focus on mass religion: that’s where the huntin’ is good. 
     
     
    I also think that if popular religion disappeared, elite religion would too, but not the reverse. Elite religion is a rather weak creature, I think.
     
     
    i think the constituents are popular religion are the necessary background conditions around which the rationalizing & control machine of the elites is scaffolded.

  19. Since this is razib’s post, let me make a couple of comments about his point of view, at least as I understand it: 
     
    For one thing he is interested in a far broader and more inclusive definition of religion than I and some others seem to be, a much more anthropological approach that takes in the totality of what we know about the belief systems of primitive and peasant societies of the past, with much less emphasis upon elite opinion (notwithstanding that his knowledge of theology is pretty vast). It is a past in which science, magic, religion have not been separated (to use a Malinowskian typology), to which we should probably add superstition to the extent it can be distinquished from magic (or sorcery). 
     
    As an analogy, take language as an inclusive category, and imagine philosophy, poetry, history, math, and modern physics and biology as sub-categories. Plus of course popular culture, the biggest chunk of all. 
     
    It is apparent that people like me are much more interested in “elite” systems of belief than popular ones, and whether they have a future? For example, this discussion itself. I doubt that anyone with a sub-par intelligence would have the least interest in this dialog, or rather multi-log. It would be all giberish and nonesense.  
     
    So, in a way, we (the anthropologist-cum cognitive scientists on the one hand, and the future of elite belief systems on the other) are like ships passing in the night? 
     
    If there is any future for religion at the elite level in our society — questionable at the moment, obviously, to judge by Ivy League university culture — then quite clearly it is going to have to be divorced from science, and yet somehow find a space that seems real and comprehensible and not totally out of touch with matters of moment, including what was called religion in the West in the past, ie, Judaism and Christianity, and its historical residue. 
     
    This is not easy an easy task. Why? I would say because in the past there was not a clear distinction between knowledge of the external universe (the world of science) and the internal universe (the life of the mind and emotions).  
     
    As proof, look at what Darwin has done to religious faith among the educated classes over the last several generations: by apparently shattering the argument from design, it completely underminded their conception of Christian faith, which was much more tied up in empirical questions than they might have imagined. 
     
    The lack of this distinction very much dominates the ID controversy of today (on both sides I must say). 
     
    Of course there are still a few scientists out there (Collins, Polkingstone (sp?)) who claim to be religious in an orthodox sense — but when they start importing orthodox theology (the trinity, Jesus is God, etc. ) it drives me nuts, as no doubt it does most scientists. 
     
    But then maybe that is because for me all orthodox dogma or theology is church politics, while for them it is just one more metaphor? I am not a church goer btw. 
     
    I know razib once made a passing reference to stuff he wonders about sometimes in the privacy of his own pillow talk with his significant other, but which he did not care to share. Without meaning to pry as to particulars, I can’t help wondering what this might be about — whether it touches upon our discussion in any way?

  20. oops! judging from razib’s last comment someone already made my point above. hope it wasn’t me.

  21. Oh, I see that was you, John. Sorry. These comments seem to be coming pretty thick and fast.

  22. Caledonian: is not your position one of faith? No, no more than the position that Conway’s Game of Life is Turing-complete is “one of faith”. It follows as a conclusion from rudimentary premises. 
    Also, in the final analysis, maybe the truth is whatever strikes a chord? People who so abuse the gift of language should have it taken from them.

  23. Caledonian (and others who may have interest): 
     
    You’ll note that I did not dispute (actually, expressed my own agreement) with the assumption of monism/determinism. But, even so, and despite the actual complete absence of any evidence to the contrary, the ultimate matter remains one in which finality of knowledge is denied us: we are limited in this respect by the very nature of our cognitive apparatus. An everyday expression has it that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” In like wise, we are unable to know with any certainty whether there are realms of knowledge beyond the possibility of our comprehension: as a practical matter, everything we do not currently know might belong to such realm (the condition which shall obtain when we know everything), despite everyday occurrence of bits and pieces drawn from that realm into that of our comprehension. In rough fashion, we are even able to distinguish “low-hanging fruit” on the basis of what has, in the past, yielded to inquiry. 
     
    But none of this (and especially none of your own commentary) begins to address the manner in which you (and many others like you and before you) become able to decide in favor of one likelihood or choice of reality-descriptors merely because that had proven successful in its application to certain branches of the endeavor to expand human understanding. Luke Lea (or someone else in preceding comment) has likened that to faith such as is characteristic of the religious attitude; he is correct, despite your protestations. 
     
    Humans are characterized by a faculty we call reason, whose structure (and mode of operation) we call logic. Although people vary in their abilities to use this structure (and it may even be the case that, in some, the structure is incomplete or partially dysfunctional), no “experience” can be said to “prove” the proposition that “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other” to someone unprepared to comprehend such relationship on the basis of his own reason (and despite whether the thought had ever occurred previously or not).  
     
    You have insisted “scientific method” encompasses all reality and implied it’s the only method to comprehend all within. I’m with you on that, if by “scientific method” you refer to the exercise of reason but entirely in disagreement if, by that term, you imply the narrower (and more widely accepted) definition by which is meant the empirical or experimental method.  
     
    That method (the empirical) is not a different way of knowing. There are not two methods–only one: reason. The empirical, laboratory, or experimental method of proceeding is but a subset of the ordinary reasoning process, albeit one which has proved extraordinarily fruitful in bringing understanding and progress in many material aspects of existence. Not only the advanced standard of living of many of the world’s people (compared with previously) but even the very possibility of existence of half the totality of its population can be directly attributed to exploitation of this method. 
     
    The excellence of the inductive method as applied to the study of “stuff” lies in the fact that experiments may be designed to focus on certain influences under conditions in which other known potential influences are eliminated or controlled. Such “laboratory conditions” are entirely absent when the intent is to study human behavior, especially behaviors termed “social” because both the influences to be studied and their effects involve relationships not only between those chosen as “experimental subjects” but also between them and others (we cannot make a man not part of the society from which he’s been drawn in order to serve as an experimental subject) and even between subjects and those conducting the experiment. This inadequacy permeates every attempt to proceed in such manner and obviates what can be learned to the point that we could, as well, say “people will behave in such-and-such a way as we’d have predicted without any experiment except that often some will behave in some different ways, as we also may well have expected without the experiment.” Moreover, if the criticism be levelled that this “snap judgement” be not nearly quantitative enough to serve practical purposes, I’d merely observe that the same experiment is liable to yield differing quantitative results when performed with the same group at different times (or with different groups at the same time).  
     
    Your own surmise (whether a “leap of faith” or not we’ll not dispute here–especially with the negative undertone of that expression) as to the ultimate determinism of all reality, like my own, is not based on evidence but is, rather, an outgrowth of the aprioristic character of human thought, without which the reception of sensory stimuli could have no meaning whatever (as would be the case with, we might presume, a rock) or would have a different kind of significance entirely (as with an armadillo or an amoeba). I state this because I wish to insist (as I have done frequently on this site to little noticeable effect) that the application of a properly scientific methodology–that of carefully-drawn, logically-impregnable reasoning from an unassailable aprioristic starting point–can, indeed, yield much of use to human society and life (and of a character and quality completely impossible through pursuit of other means).  
     
    By the way, Caledonian–you are quick to see straw construction in others’ criticisms. But you’re fairly handy (or experienced) with the stuff, yourself; otherwise, you’d not have taken objection to my separation into two “realms” the quite different problems presented to human understanding by, on one hand, physical phenomena quite amenable to study via the methods of the natural sciences and the (thus far) intractable matters of thought, volition, valuation, and action–those for which I insist aprioristic methods are best suited. Ordinary reading of the very passage in question emphasizes my view that the “realms” are not separate in any sense other than characteristics fitting them for different modes of analysis.

  24. the quite different problems presented to human understanding by, on one hand, physical phenomena quite amenable to study via the methods of the natural sciences and the (thus far) intractable matters of thought, volition, valuation, and action 
    But that’s just the point – they NOT intractable. Computer science, cognitive psychology, and neurology have all made real strides in uncovering the nature of and mechanisms underlying thinking. 
     
    Perhaps you ought to familiarize yourself with the rudiments of those fields before making ignorant and remarkably idiotic pronouncements about what we do and do not know?

  25. The hard questions associated with “dualism” aren’t gone, although I appreciate Caledonian’s irritation at those who push a naive brand of substance dualism (and often get away with it due to sufficient complexity in the phenomenon that is the brain). 
     
    Solipsism is a legitimate vantage point in the philosophy of mind. Apparently, I’m conscious and you’re not. The existence of the subjective universe is somehow tightly dependent upon (some of the features of) this human body right here, but not any others. So why this one? Why at all? 
     
    Some of the sci-fi thought experiements remain connected to hard questions. For example, (this side of substance dualism) the well-functioning replicator device presents no hard philosophical problem from a third-person perspective, but from a first-person perspective it certainly does. “Where should ‘I’ expect to go after I step in?” is a contentful question for which standard materialism in unequipped. Similarly for “backup/reinstall” scenarios. If I’m supposed to be satisfied with my present death given that my five-minute previous self will be reinstalled, then how is it that I’m indifferent to whether a copy of my five-minute previous self has already been installed far away somewhere? 
     
    Again, these questions are still philosophically “hard”, and the future may very well hold some pretty bizarre ontological answers. Of course, in the service of getting there, I’d still very much put in for materialist cognitive science over archaic/folk ontologies.

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