Religion: biology ↔ psychology ↔ sociology ↔ history

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On the most recent bloggingheads.tv you can watch Paul Bloom explaining why he thinks the propensity for theism is an innate bias of our species. Several years back Bloom wrote a piece for The Atlantic, Is God an Accident?, where he makes a similar case. But the general outline of Bloom’s line of thinking is actually most powerfully argued in Scott Atran’s In God’s We Trust. The cognitive psychologists and anthropologists who work within this paradigm operate under some background assumptions in regards to our mental architecture. First, human cognitive states are strongly biased by innate tendencies which have a biological origin. Perception and language acquisition are easily explained by nativist treatments, but Atran and others have argued that more obscure biases such as folk biology also exist, while other domains such as theory of mind are broadly accepted within the scholarly community.

One can conceive of a model where on a lower structural level a set of biological parameters interact with exogenous inputs to generate a set of psychological biases. But the subsequent mental skills are not independent, and I suspect broadly distributed ones contingent upon environmental inputs such as language are among the least encapsulated from other cognitive domains. It seems rather clear that language aptitude is one of the components which can be used to explain the facility for mathematical abstraction, but it can not explain the totality of this skill. Cognitive anthropologists have also noted that preliterate peoples have extreme difficulties with comprehending the logic or rationale behind syllogistic reasoning (see Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind), suggesting that there are strong cultural preconditions to particular styles of thinking which may seem natural to us. Even though language, reading and writing all are learned, they are also facilities which we as humans have an innate aptitude for because of our neurobiology (language is obviously “more innate” insofar as it seems that our priming is so strong that it might emerge out of any conventional socialization processes, which literacy is historically and culturally contingent).

Another working assumption of Bloom, Atran & co. is that a great deal of our cognition is implicit. Again, this is well accepted among the community of scholars. It stands to reason that our conscious mind lives under the illusion that it is all that there is, but a substantial body of work tells us that most of our conscious decisions are strongly influenced and primed by subconscious background parameters. Not only does this include priming an individual immediately prior to a psychological task, but it also includes the enormous swath of territory which falls under the category of intuitive thinking. A dense network of background connections and implicit inferences is often an outsized shadow of the visible chains of reflective rationality. Even in structurally transparent and deductive disciplines such as mathematics the dark-net of subconscious facts and assumptions loom large in the process of creativity.

The fact that psychological biases have many different upstream neurobiological and environmental parameters, as well as the syngergistic nature of cognition which produces subsequent cognitive abilities (e.g., mathematics or painting which includes perspective), means that a hypothesis that posits a God Module is obviously going to be false. There are god modules such as the medulla oblongata, but only insofar as they are necessary for the proper functioning of a human in general. But it seems highly unlikely that there is one localized region of the brain which is specifically the causal element for belief in God (i.e., if said region is damaged atheism ensues, but most other cognitive function is left unscathed). This assumption doesn’t derive simply from an a priori understanding of how the mind works; we can see it in how the phenotype of theism plays out. The pathological character of many aphasia sufferers is pretty obvious; in contrast the avowed attitude toward the God hypothesis is characterized by a rich range of opinion in terms of both plausibility and character. In other words, religion is more properly characterized as a quantitative trait which exhibits a wide range of continuous variation, subject to a norm of reaction.

Do note that I said avowed attitude; when it comes to theism there are many ways to evaluate belief or lack thereof. Despite wide variations in verbal descriptions of the particular flavor of deity believers assent to, psychologists know that the implicit model of most humans in regards to supernatural agents is strongly constrained. This is one of the main reasons that many cognitive scientists believe that our mental architecture is rigged toward a belief in god; not only do the gods which individuals from widely disparate societies model in their mind’s eye differ from the entities which they avow a conscious belief in, but those psychological constructs exhibit a very strong universal central tendency. In other words, the human model of a god, or supernatural agent if you will, seems to be predicated on the various elements of universal neurobiology. Unless strongly constrained by experimental or observational methodologies as in natural science, or a rigorous formalism as in mathematics, our species tends to reason extremely sloppily so that inferences unmoored from experience or unchanneled by formalism invariably explore an enormous sample space of possibilities starting from the same axioms. That humans tend to conceive of the same god-construct despite lack of communication or outside input suggests that the channeling is occurring on an innate level.

Additionally, not only do theists no matter their affiliation agree upon an intuitive model of God, but so do atheists. Paul Bloom has noted that the offspring of secular parents are usually innate Creationists. Many of the ideas bracketed within “religion” are very natural and intuitive. In our gut we know them to be “true” without deep reflection or analysis. Atheism can not exist without theism because it is simply a negation of the latter. It is a conceit of many atheists that children are naturally unbelievers and that they are indoctrinated into a religious system of belief. This is correct; children are indoctrinated into a system of belief, but more specifically they are indoctrinated into a system, not a belief. That in almost all human societies a supernatural model of the world is numerically dominant strongly suggests that these sorts of belief do not necessarily need the institutional scaffolding of established churches or professional priesthoods. Rather, it seems that these features of religion are secondary and subsequent, and that they operate upon the preexistent assumptions of the population. Some atheists live under the delusion that the withering of organized religion will result in the collapse of belief in God or the supernatural; this is not so. Though the extremely high rates of theism in some societies may be an upper bound contingent upon social and historical conditions, in no society does it seem there exists an inverse dynamic where theism is extant at trivial levels. Note that even after 70 years of state sanctioned atheism Russians have now swung back to a default affiliation with their historical religious identity as Orthodox Christians. This is not to say that Russians are a religiously fervent people; rather, the high levels of atheism espoused during the Soviet era was a function of a skewing of the environmental inputs which shifted the median value of the trait distribution. With the norm relaxed the distribution has shifted back.

The plausibility of theism doesn’t need to be something we note only in terms of macrosocial metrics in regards to religious affiliation cross-culturally. As I imply above, theism is at root a psychological phenomena, and the bundle of biases and presuppositions which our biology confers upon us stack the deck in terms of weighting the plausibility of god concepts. This applies to atheists as well. We might not believe in god on the conscious level, but that does not mean that we are immune to the priming affect of agents, and likely supernatural agents as well. The folk wisdom about there being no atheists in foxholes is a reflection of this assumption. Now I’m not going to tell anyone who says they don’t believe in god that deep down they really do believe in god; rather, I simply believe that many of the psychological characteristics which prime one for finding god plausible are present in those who consciously assert that they don’t believe in gods. For example many atheists may feel unnerved in cemeteries despite a materialist world-view; the psychological response may be a result of social conditioning, but it is also possibly a cognitive reflex at an intersection of environmental inputs (think snake aversion as something similar).

So far I have alluded to biology & psychology, but what about the higher-level social sciences? Paul Bloom and most cognitive scientists are focused on the first two disciplines, so they tend to strongly adhere to a model that religion is a byproduct of our cognitive architecture. An analogy might be the heat given off by the functioning of a car’s engine; the heat is not a designed product of the various components of the engine, but it is an inevitable byproduct of the physical processes entailed by combustion. Similarly, theism may not be an adaptation to any exogenous selection pressure, but the intersection of various adaptive psychological characters such as agency detection, theory of mind and folk biology necessarily lead to the plausibility of supernatural agents within the minds of most humans. Because of Bloom’s disciplinary focus he tends to not be very open toward a functionalist explanation for theism; that theism (or religion) is an adaptive trait which increases individual fitness. Insofar as explanations at a lower level of organization are preferable to those at a higher level, I think that Bloom’s skepticism is warranted. But even cognitive anthropologists who tend to focus on the psychological dimensions of theism can’t dismiss the social aspects of religion, and a substantial body of social science research implies that variation in religious belief might track other social variables.

Instead of repeating the functionalist explanations elucidated by scientists such as David Sloan Wilson (see Darwin’s Cathedral), I think it is easy to illustrate the relation of these various theories by using an analogy with narrative. Despite the attempts of authors who dabble in “experimental fiction” it seems pretty obvious that a great story has a dimension of temporal permanence derived from the timelessness of the primary themes and styles. The Epic of Gilgamesh speaks to us even after 4,000 years, and many of its motifs are still extant in the heroic fantasy genre. Despite the lack of qualitative originality in plot and the constraints upon the plausible range of the psychology of characters we continue to consume fiction because our brains are attracted to particular themes arranged in a familiar structure. One could contend that fiction is a waste of time, but it seems likely that the same mental ticks which draw us to compelling stories are useful in other areas of life.

But narrative is not only a byproduct of our promiscuous mental functioning, it is an essential part of myth-making and religion. The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer has reported on research which suggests that minimally counterintuitive stories are the ones which are most memorable and “sticky” over the long-term. In other words, experimental fiction is just too weird to really make a deep impact, you don’t have any common basis for associative memory to operate. In contrast, exceedingly conventional and banal narratives just don’t add anything new to the base of data. A boring story is a boring story. But a familiar scenario with just the right amount of spice adds enough twists and turns within the comprehensible base to make it memorable enough to catalog and retrieve later. This explains why most science fiction and fantasy tends to constrain the deviation from normality; you can’t relate to a story where most of it is unfamiliar or disorienting.

Of course narrative is an essential part of religion. Even “primitive” religions have a robust narrative base; tales of gods & heroes unfettered by abstruse theologies. The story of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels has a power to draw people in and inspire them toward belief & action. In contrast, despite the fact that Christians accept the divine provenance of Deuteronomy, very few believers have ever recounted to me how it inspires them or serves as the ground of their faith. Just as narrative emerges naturally as a byproduct of our overall psychological architecture, it also immediately slots into the overall cultural entity which we label “religion.” I suspect the exact same model is applicable to gods; their plausibility precedes their integration into a religious framework and does not derive from direct adaptation. But the universal nature of religious frameworks as well as storytelling implies that these byproduct traits are almost always subject to co-option by cultural systems which are canalized toward a particular configuration.

But what is driving that canalization? I suspect there is some functional selection going on. Like many social science generalizations I’m not sure I can be very general here. David Sloan Wilson has collected data which shows that religious fundamentalism is more noticeable in economically depressed regions. Which way does the causality run here? I suspect that it is generally in the direction of economic insecurity to religious fundamentalism. The sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has elucidated a rational choice inspired framework which posits that religious institutions are firms which offer products which satisfy a fragmented market of religious consumers. This model seems highly plausible for the United States, but there are doubts as to its validity in other cultures where religious switching is not as socially acceptable or viable. Similarly, many of Wilson’s adaptive arguments for the functional significance of religion are quite likely more relevant in societies which lack the accoutrements of the welfare state so that religious institutions have few competitors or substitutes. In other words, generalizations about the functional significance of religious institutions may not hold across many environments. Nevertheless, though generalizations on higher levels of organization are less impressive when compared to the relatively simplicity and universality of a biopsychological paradigm, I think it is necessary that we analyze the expression of religion outside the bounds of the human mind. After all, though religious ideas are fundamentally mental, they are embedded within a social matrix and have a geopolitical relevance in terms of how they shape human relations and action.

We can, for instance, see that over the past few thousand years local tribal religions have ceded ground to the dominance of institutional religions which often have multiple products under the same brand name. The number of supernatural agents seems to be decreasing through a process of competition concurrent with the decrease in polities, languages and ethnic groups. But though institutional religions have gone through a process of consolidation this dynamic has limits; the fragmentation of Christianity during the Reformation or the schisms within the first centuries of Islam attest to this. Though religious institutions far exceed the scale of Dunbar’s Number, a One-World-Religion seems as plausible as a One-World-Government. Psychologists have also attempted to move into broader domains of social science. Scott Atran has been at the forefront of attempting to synthesize the cognitivist viewpoint with an analysis of the nature of religious terrorism. Atran emphasizes the power of religious narratives & rituals in cementing group cohesion. The functionalist interpretation on this is pretty obvious; this is a case where heat from one process is quickly being utilized to generate energy through another.

To some extent analysis of religious is like the species problem; we should measure the definition against the utility it provides in a particular context. Species define the joints around which nature is carved, and religion is a label for a cluster of integrated characters which we humans imbue with ontological significance. Both species and religion are important to understand, and can serve as frameworks for robust research programs, but a final definition will never be attained so long as scholars in disparate fields have distinct ends. A diversity of ends does not imply that these ends are contradictory, rather, when you have a many dimensional character it is necessary to observe from a variety of angles to obtain the clearest picture.

Addendum: I want to add something: theism & religion are very robust phenomena. This is why adaptationist explanations are so compelling. That’s why an analogy to misunderstandings due to intuitive physics (e.g., flat earth, variance of acceleration in proportion to mass of an objection) is informative, but only to some extent. Overactive agency detection feeds into something which is far more than the sum of their parts, the falsifiable manifestations of religion such as Young Earth Creationism can resist disconfirmation because of their association with psychological tendencies such as group conformity enforced by common rituals & beliefs. To say religion is a spandrel or exaptation understates its interaction with other aspects of human culture so as to make it inevitable and resistant to suppression.

Related: The nature of religion and Breaking the Spell, Modes of religion, Who Dan Dennett think he be foolin’?, An evolutionary anthropology of religion, , God lives, deal with it!, , Belief & belief in belief, Logical consistency is irreligious, God & moralityAre people naturally religious? Yes…. , The round-eyed Buddha, Nerds are nuts, Atheism, Heresy and Hesychasm, The God Delusion – Amongst the unbelievers , Innate atheism & variation across societies, “Hard-wired” for God, Buddhism, a religion or not?, Why do people believe in God?, Is religion an adaptation?, Theological incorrectness – when people behave how they shouldn’t….sort of , The gods of the cognitive scientists

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58 Comments

  1. Granted genetically-transmitted behaviors and ways of thinking, you still have to judge whether they are good or bad. Judgments of good and bad are not scientific, but they are functional necessities for any actual society. The old nature vs. culture concept in its conservative form (culture channels, limits, and sometimes represses innate urges) isn’t a bad place to start. 
     
    People speak of the innate as if it is either necessarily good (because it’s “natural”) or unstoppable (also because it’s natural). But neither is true. Innate urges are facts to deal with, not sources of value.  
     
    Innate urges that everyone thinks should be repressed are the urge to take whatever you want regardless of rights and ownership, and the urge to take murderous revenge on anyone who has harmed, insulted, or slighted you. A gang warrior who kill someone who scuffs their shoe (it actually happens) isn’t being crazy or irrational; he’s just following an obsolete honor code. That’s the kind of thing that duels of the Renaissance aristocracy were about. 
     
    Thus, granted that racism and sexism are innate, you still have to ask whether these are good innate drives to be encouraged, or bad innate drives to be minimized and repressed.  
     
    Not quite on topic yet. But something like that follows from Bloom’s idea that our innate self is “kluge” (spelled “kludge” by the people I know; also called exaption, spandrels, bricolage, and emergence by others). There’s a major question here. A lot of science assumes a rational system and tries to find it. But a kludged evolved organism is only partly rational; selection pressure has forced it to satisfice or die, and any adaptive changes the organism makes will be laid on top of the already-existing system, most of which was evolved within an earlier and possibly much different slection environment. 
     
    As I’ve tried to say before, this relates to intelligent design. It’s easy to show creationists and ID folk that the human organism is badly designed (e.g. the human shoulder, which was originally evolved for walking and has been rather poorly adapted for present uses — that’s the first thing doctors tell people with shoulder problems).  
     
    But a lot of early science (Newton and much pre-Darwinian evolutionary biology) assumed design — the scientist was deducing the “mind of God”. This belief in design seeped over into non-theist scientistic rationalism. That’s a lot of what Nietzsche was talking about with the death of God — many atheists and free-thinkers still assumed a designed, rational universe.)  
     
    This shows up most in economics. You can never tell whether economists are saying that human society is actually rational as it is — if we only understood it right — or whether it should be made rational by getting rid of non-economic rationalities. I think that this sometimes influences the sciences of the mind when AI (designed system) are carelessly taken as models for flesh and blood minds, and also when AI people set themselves to designing minds which will be in every way superior to evolved minds.  
     
    I basically do not trust either AI people or economists to understand human life well enough to redesign the human mind or human society.

  2. I simply believe that many of the psychological characteristics which prime one for finding god plausible are present in those who consciously assert that they donÂ’t believe in gods. For example many atheists may feel unnerved in cemeteries despite a materialist world-view; the psychological response may be a result of social conditioning, but it is also possibly a cognitive reflex at an intersection of environmental inputs (think snake aversion as something similar). 
    While I agree that that is the case and it’s fascinating, the opposite is true also of many people who do outwardly assert that they believe in gods. That is, many believers have confirmed that they have their crises of faith, or find it difficult to belief in the power of prayer, miracles, etc., although they admit so reluctantly.  
     
    That just points to a spectrum of variation within humans with respect to religiosity, indicative of stabilizing selection… *cue functionalism and group selection parts*…

  3. It’s natural and intuitive to believe that the Earth is flat. That doesn’t make the belief any more correct, or justifiable. That shouldn’t affect how we plot the course of airplanes or whether we worry about oceanic freighters falling into the void. 
     
    I just don’t see where you’re going with all of this “religion is inevitable” talk. Sure, religion will persist as long as humans do. So?

  4. Why “So?”

  5. A lot of science assumes a rational system and tries to find it. But a kludged evolved organism is only partly rational; selection pressure has forced it to satisfice or die, and any adaptive changes the organism makes will be laid on top of the already-existing system, most of which was evolved within an earlier and possibly much different slection environment. 
     
    are you sure you aren’t saying teleology here? 
     
     
    While I agree that that is the case and it’s fascinating, the opposite is true also of many people who do outwardly assert that they believe in gods. That is, many believers have confirmed that they have their crises of faith, or find it difficult to belief in the power of prayer, miracles, etc., although they admit so reluctantly.
     
     
    a lot of the extra stuff that they “believe in” is conscious overlay, i don’t think that they have a necessary biopsychological root. many xtians i’ve known have been confused by the trinity, but they have faith. also, many believers who honestly accept the idea of an afterlife and presume they will go to heaven will still be terrified if someone puts a gun to their head. a naive atheist might say that it “proves” they don’t believe in any of these things, but i think we need to move beyond dichotomous psychological states. different parts of the mind can “believe” in different things. one can conscious and intuitively accept the plausibility of an afterlife even though other reflexive systems associated with fight or flight operate to maximize the chance of not dying. 
     
    That just points to a spectrum of variation within humans with respect to religiosity, indicative of stabilizing selection 
     
    no necessarily. remember, the model i’m alluding to posits that most of the variables which result in the distribution of the phenotype are fixed by other selective and functional drives. e.g., if you spent all your time detecting agency you’re basically insane. if you spend all your time modeling minds you do nothing. it makes sense that these variables wouldn’t have extreme variables without necessitating selection for religion as such.

  6. different parts of the mind can “believe” in different things. 
     
    Point taken. 
     
    remember, the model i’m alluding to posits that most of the variables which result in the distribution of the phenotype are fixed by other selective and functional drives. 
     
    You say “distribution of the phenotype,” I say “spectrum of variation.” Tomaytoes, Tomahtoes.

  7. You say “distribution of the phenotype,” I say “spectrum of variation.” Tomaytoes, Tomahtoes. 
     
    it’s not balancing selection though. necessarily.

  8. “It’s natural and intuitive to believe that the Earth is flat.” Not if you live beside the seaside.

  9. re: flat earth and problems with folk physics. people have all sorts of weird notions like this but aren’t as resistant to being corrected. i think the difference is the emotional attachment to supernatural agents; because these sorts of intuitions co-opt social modules which are partly reinforced by emotions they’re way more robust. this might explain why blatant falsification like that of the millerites of central tenets of their religion only makes a subset of religionists more ingenious in their rationalization.

  10. I get the impression (and please correct me if I am mistaken in this) that you’re constructing an argument in favor of our accepting and working with humanity’s religious impulses instead of trying to overcome them. 
     
    Personally, I don’t see the difference between a flat Earth and some religion. Just because one is harder to dissuade people from doesn’t make it any less worthy of destruction.

  11. Flat earth theories are instances of communal delusions (just as religions are). Communal delusions aren’t a phenomena you can erradicate–they just morph into new and interesting communal delusions. So if you can’t erradicate them, manage them.

  12. I’ve heard the Piraha never developed any sort of religion.

  13. tggp, yeah. that’s the only reason why i added the modifier almost when i said “…almost all human societies….”

  14. Aren’t Chinese a quite “atheist” people that believe (for the most part) in no god? Neither Buddhism, nor Confucianism nor Daoism are theistic at all and Islam and Christianity have only got so far in that country… 
     
    I suspect Chinese culture is a good evidence that theism is not necessary at all.  
     
    Anyhow, I think theism fulfills the following psychological functions: 
    1. Imaginary parent. Let’s be frank: all gods and godesses are imaginary parents and are treated as such.  
    2. Dealing with fear of death by promising a (often better) imaginary life after the real life. 
    3. Dealing with fear of life by providing an imaginary protector/councilor. This works like a fetish but is also much like point 1: the imaginary parent. 
     
    Sociologically, religion, rather than a mere personal theism, provides moral codes and authority ready to be manipulated by those power-hungry enough, who often will claim to be protected by such god/s. Additionally it helps keeps the masses content in spite of all their sufferings because they are brainwashed into the belief that after this life their reward will come somehow (Marx’ peoples’ opium).  
     
    Is it evolutively fit? Certainly (at least it used to be in older proto-technological contexts): societies that embrace such ideologies are more easily manipulated according to the will of their leaders and make more effective ant-like societies, with many members ready to kill and die for a dream. And ants are definitively a very succesful genus.  
     
    Problems? Lack of innovation can get any fanatic society deeply stagnant, unfit and rip for takeover by more open (and therefore more advanced) civilizations.

  15. Aren’t Chinese a quite “atheist” people that believe (for the most part) in no god? Neither Buddhism, nor Confucianism nor Daoism are theistic at all and Islam and Christianity have only got so far in that country… 
     
    no. yes, the idea of a creator-god in a western sense is not strongly developed, but supernatural agents are pretty pervasive in chinese culture. e.g., guanyin. as i have noted before, the chinese have confused roman catholicism and pure land buddhism. east asian societies are relatively secular, but it would be wrong to call them atheist. even the non-religious philosophers tend to take for granted that religious ritual will play a central role in the lives of ordinary people (see xunzi).

  16. 1. Imaginary parent. Let’s be frank: all gods and godesses are imaginary parents and are treated as such. 
     
    not really. remember that in many societies gods are mischevious or even malevolent. 
     
    2. Dealing with fear of death by promising a (often better) imaginary life after the real life. 
     
    this is a new feature of religions since the axial age. there has probably been some cultural selection for this trait, but it isn’t the normal state of ‘primitive religion,’ which posits a less benign afterlife (like sheol or hades). 
     
    most ‘primitive’ religious ideas don’t seem to offer the necessary clarity that a psychotherapy-model of theism needs IMO. the more ‘feel-good’ variants are relatively new culturally constructed products. 
     
     
    Is it evolutively fit? Certainly (at least it used to be in older proto-technological contexts): societies that embrace such ideologies are more easily manipulated according to the will of their leaders and make more effective ant-like societies, with many members ready to kill and die for a dream. And ants are definitively a very succesful genus.
     
     
    there’s a lot here. but let me say that a universal empire probably demands a universal religion….

  17. In 1984 there was a very high level of superstition in Taiwan, which was then entering the developed world and sending many students to top US grad schools. It included belief both in spirits of many kinds, and belief in more abstract, impersonal occult forces (astrology, feng-shui, numerology, etc.)  
     
    What seems to have been almost always absent from Chinese thought was a belief in an all-powerful monotheist god and a single universal order centered on Him and his will. But that’s far from atheism.

  18. Fascinating posting – as was the older review of The Robot’s Rebellion.  
     
    The optimal reproductive IQ in modernizing societies is considerably less than the IQ of the ruling elites. In most nations this optimal reproductive IQ is below their average IQ.  
     
    But there may be (religious, or other) communities – such as the Mormons – which buck the trend of modern demographics.  
     
    For example, the Inductivist’s estimate of Mormon average IQ is 105 compared with Episcopelians (ruling elite) at 110.  
     
    Episcopelians – like most high IQ elites – are not replacing themselves reproductively. There is usually a strong inverse correlation between IQ and fertility –  
     
    http://anepigone.blogspot.com/2008/03/iq-and-incarceration.html 
     
    And generally IQ correlates inversely with religiousness.  
     
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religiosity_and_intelligence 
     
    Ususally, then, fertility is only above replacement levels in the most religious/ least intelligent populations – and the assumption is that high levels of human fertility is not *chosen* but simply an accidental and unintended consequence of sex.  
     
    But one fascinating aspect of Mormon religion is that (probably) the Mromons have a higher than average IQ and also higher than replacement fertility. Furthermore, Mormon fertility is positively correlated with socioeconomic status and therefore almost certainly with IQ. 
     
    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=N4p9eiXV6dMC&pg=PA50&lpg=PA50&dq=fertility+mormon&source=web&ots=e5W2HWw4Vt&sig=L-K-MkG1yyjzB7lbhe2bvy7Qea8&hl=en#PPA49,M1  
     
    And – the higher the IQ among Mormons, the more religious they are: 
     
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religiosity_and_intelligence 
     
    So… when you are a Mormon, the higher the IQ (and the higher the SES) the more kids you have on average – and this looks like the *only* instance (is it?) of *chosen*, and functionally-adaptive high fertility in a modern society.  
     
    In other words: the Mormon population is probably the only social group which is getting bigger, and more intelligent, and more religious.  
     
    Something to learn from here?  
     
    *** 
     
    Does anyone know more detail about the Mormon fertility – IQ – religiousness story?  
     
    For example, does fertility and religiousness continue to increase at the very highest levels of Mormon IQ?  
     
    Or is there an optimal IQ for fertility among Mormons above-which fertility +/- religiousness decline (but presumably this is at a much higher IQ level than the optimal fertility IQ for other groups).

  19. There was a pretty good (though not up to the level of this post, natch) Analysis program on BBC Radio the other week on this very theme, featuring Scott Atran among others. The website has a transcript of the program but no ‘Listen Again’ feature for some reason. I’ve got it on mp3, though, and could upload it to yousendit, if anyone’s desperate to hear it. 
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/analysis/7304998.stm

  20. … in many societies gods are mischevious or even malevolent 
     
    Hmmm… I don’t know of any, at least in which the main gods are that way. There may be secondary deities or “anti-gods” (like Christian Satan or Nordic Loki) that are that way, or the gods are more strictly patriarchal (authoritarian), like Zeus or Allah, than the modern Christian mainsteam perception. But which are those societies in which main gods are malevolent? Papuan? Papuan culture is pretty weirdo in general, I admit – but I don’t know much about their ancestral religion.  
     
    Ah, I guess which religion you mean now: Aztecs, right? I suspect these beliefs are rather exceptional, not the norm. Anyhow, if looked in depth it was surely an adequate ideology for a society that lived on permanent war and risk of death. In their peculiar ways they also hoped for a blessed netherword even if for that purpose one had to die in combat or as voluntary human sacrifice maybe. 
     
    … it isn’t the normal state of ‘primitive religion,’ which posits a less benign afterlife (like sheol or hades). 
     
    But it’s a promise of an afterlife after all. Not sure about Sheol but Hades offered distinct status for the death: it was not the same to be Sisifo than Semele, for instance. Additionally, if you were a hero you could even hope to ascend to Olympus as a demi-god, and also there were many mysteric aspects that we don’t understand well but are generally interpreted in that sense of overcoming fear of death and are related to death and resurrection myths (Christians were definitively not the first to invent the blessed afterlife, believe me).  
     
    19th century Christian preaching in Madagascar failed strenuosly because it was impossible to make the natives believe in Hell. Ancient Egyptian civilization orbited around the belief in just gods, the hope of an afterlife and holy cows. 
     
    I think that when dominant deities have a dark aspect to them (human sacrifices maybe) that reflects something very meaningful in their collective psyches, though it’s difficult to determine because most of those societies don’t exist anymore (what probably means they resulted less fit after all).  
     
    a universal empire probably demands a universal religion…. 
     
    Agree. 
     
    That’s what Christianity and Islam are (and probably Buddhism too): they make no distinction re. people (at least in theory) based on their ancestry, ethnicity, caste or whatever. Only their faith matters. Some also used to consider Marxism as a sort of godless religion – and it was universalist as well.  
     
    But even before any of these “new” universalist types of religions arose, polytheisms managed to be pretty universalist. Before Christiniaty arose, Greeks and Romans had already managed to create a significative theological consensus (Ta Theia) via syncretization and cultural (and religious) assimilation. What you need is actually an open mind and a strong willpower: Romans eventually solved that problem by declaring everybody equally “Roman citizens” (and only a few minorities, significatively Jews, resisted such integratonist attempt, as the conditions of the deal were generally quite reasonable and distinctiveness was normally not punished but rather absorbed).

  21. What seems to have been almost always absent from Chinese thought was a belief in an all-powerful monotheist god and a single universal order centered on Him and his will. But that’s far from atheism. 
     
    Would you consider pantheism as a type of theism? I tend to think it’s more like a mystic form of atheism, where the absolute negation of god is replaced by a more flexible acceptance that everything is god. Pantheism is as distant from monotheism as atheism, though it can hybridate somewhat with polytheism, I guess.  
     
    Daoism is pantheistic (post-shamanistic), Buddhism is agnostic tending to atheism but accepting traditional religious expression (normally polytheistic and is actually a foreign import from India), Confucianism is maybe the closest to a theism (it mentions Heaven too often) but it’s rather a lacist moral philosophy. Of course superstition and all kind of unstructured beliefs can coexist even with the more atheistic of societies but the popular beliefs in China are normally of the pantheistic/shamanistic type (feng shui fits well within Daoism, for instance, as does acupuncture, tai chi, astrology…) – or some polytheistic remnant.  
     
    Belief in the ancestors and cult to them is important all around the world but maybe specially in East Asia. Ghosts should indeed belong to their imaginary therefore. 
     
    But there’s a lack of “god”. Tien (Heaven) is too abstract and has not a religion around it, Sung Wukong is an imported deity, probably an evolution of Hindu Hanuman, later absorbed by Buddhism… I fail to see theism in China, really. Religion there is, superstition certainly, but not god or even a significative presence of plural gods.

  22. Razib and I have talked about this. Pantheism is a refined elite form of religion and not characteristic of the practice and belief of most Chinese. The average Chinese believes in a large and ill-defined group of gods of various kinds and statuses. Elite Chinese have various attitudes toward polytheism. To a degree the less theistic Chinese have a higher status than the more theistic. Among the elite (monks and philosophers), even if the gods and spirits are recognized as real,as they usually are, they’re not given a central role — they’re just bit players or supporting players.  
     
    By and large I think that you’re overly influenced by sympathetic rationalizations of Chiense religion by Westerners and Westernized Chinese. It’s not that these rationalizations are wrong entirely, it’s just that they’re not good representatives of typical Chinese practice and belief.

  23. Hmmm… I don’t know of any, at least in which the main gods are that way. There may be secondary deities or “anti-gods” (like Christian Satan or Nordic Loki) that are that way, or the gods are more strictly patriarchal (authoritarian), like Zeus or Allah, than the modern Christian mainsteam perception. But which are those societies in which main gods are malevolent? Papuan? Papuan culture is pretty weirdo in general, I admit – but I don’t know much about their ancestral religion. 
     
     
    luis, zeus was a serial raper. all-fathers have many faces; and fatherhood is just one of them. 
     
    Additionally, if you were a hero you could even hope to ascend to Olympus as a demi-god, and also there were many mysteric aspects that we don’t understand well but are generally interpreted in that sense of overcoming fear of death and are related to death and resurrection myths (Christians were definitively not the first to invent the blessed afterlife, believe me).  
     
    yes, i know about elysium, etc. my point is that widespread belief in a glorious afterlife accessible to most people is relatively new. i don’t know the shadowy afterlife characteristic of greeks, chinese and sumerians is particularly marketable. 
     
     
    19th century Christian preaching in Madagascar failed strenuosly because it was impossible to make the natives believe in Hell. Ancient Egyptian civilization orbited around the belief in just gods, the hope of an afterlife and holy cows.
     
     
    my understanding is the really glorious afterlife is attainable only for some (those who could preserve their bodies and had a lot of stuff which they could take). 
     
     
     
    That’s what Christianity and Islam are (and probably Buddhism too): they make no distinction re. people (at least in theory) based on their ancestry, ethnicity, caste or whatever. Only their faith matters. Some also used to consider Marxism as a sort of godless religion – and it was universalist as well. 
     
     
    marxism is a godless religion because it has some of the aspects which are characteristic of religion. as i have stated, i believe that marxism’s weakness is that its gods, the tyrants who seem inevitable in marxist states, die. 
     
    Before Christiniaty arose, Greeks and Romans had already managed to create a significative theological consensus (Ta Theia) via syncretization and cultural (and religious) assimilatio 
     
    well. the theological consensus was an elite affair. the difference between christianity and the older pagan pluralism is that all citizens now worshipped in a more concrete manner the same god, instead of the philospohical elites declaring all gods to be the face of the one. i don’t think that the difference between the older paganism and christianity is that substantial though; there was a particular evolutionary track which i suspect these homogenizing civilizations are on, and they take on path dependent flavors. xtianity was on the one in the west. hinduism in south asia. and so on. 
     
     
     
    Daoism is pantheistic (post-shamanistic), Buddhism is agnostic tending to atheism but accepting traditional religious expression (normally polytheistic and is actually a foreign import from India), Confucianism is maybe the closest to a theism (it mentions Heaven too often) but it’s rather a lacist moral philosophy. Of course superstition and all kind of unstructured beliefs can coexist even with the more atheistic of societies but the popular beliefs in China are normally of the pantheistic/shamanistic type (feng shui fits well within Daoism, for instance, as does acupuncture, tai chi, astrology…) – or some polytheistic remnant.
     
     
    i don’t think these defining aways of theism really work. the ethnographic evidence for buddhism for example is only elite practioners are non-theistic. 
     
     
    But there’s a lack of “god”. Tien (Heaven) is too abstract and has not a religion around it, Sung Wukong is an imported deity, probably an evolution of Hindu Hanuman, later absorbed by Buddhism… I fail to see theism in China, really. Religion there is, superstition certainly, but not god or even a significative presence of plural gods.
     
     
    shang di? mozi promoted a sort of theos.

  24. but not god or even a significative presence of plural gods. 
     
     
    also, this is just a semantical difference. i will be OK with switching to ‘supernatural agents’ if that suits you more. i really don’t doubt we agree on the facts of what the typical han has believed through history no matter the label you put on it.

  25. Re: Mormons 
     
    I saw somewhere that Robert Putnam (Harvard, of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community fame) and David Campbell (Notre Dame) are writing a book that deals with Mormonism, their high SES, etc, etc. So keep an eye out for it. If my note is correct, it is supposed to be titled American Grace.

  26. @Razib:  
     
    1. God as parent: You’re seeing only the positive side of parenthood: parents can perfectly be tyrants, specially in Patriarchal societies (most). I never meant “parents” as in an idealized something: but as creator and/or authority figure. Sometimes a protector and advisor, sometimes who kicks you out from what you used to think your home, sometimes a drunkard that beats the hell out of you, sometimes an incestuous rapist.  
     
    But the figure of authority in any case: the father (less commonly the mother too). 
     
    2. Afterlife: Certainly different religions had different approaches to it. But what you see as something exclusive of the elites, it was surely a more widespread belief. Elistist societies often had elitist concepts of afterlife: an afterlife that mirrored this one but not that excluded the masses. The “good” thing about polytheisms was that several beliefs and doctrines could go hand by hand: a doctrine for the elites to spend heavily in temples and religious funerals could well be along a less spectacular, a lot cheaper but equally “comforting” one for the masses. Naturally we’d know much less about it.  
     
    Egyptians could not agree if the afterlife was in a celestial or ctonic netherworld, they had thousands of gods, each one with his/her own mythology and doctrine… It’s not like we know everything about ancient Egypt nor like the tombs of the rich reveal all.  
     
    But you may be right that, in a different context, a ghostly afterlife dependant on the gifts given by the living, as is believed in many non-theistic (or lowly theistic) societies may not be particularly desirable and therefore not a product so much of propaganda as of the psychological needs of the living, who need to express such feelings to their dead relatives and loved ones, and who may also fear those that were “evil” or whom they offended in life. Fear and love are emotions, and therefore irrational. 
     
    3. Marxism: god-less, the leaders may be “saints” but not gods. If Marxism has a god it’s Humankind: after all it’s an atheistic humanism.  
     
    4. Ta Theia: I did not mean elitist philosophies about a single god behind the gods: I meant pure polytheism. Polytheism is much better than monotheism at synchretism and tolerance towards other beliefs. If the Jews would have allowed they would have easily assimilated Yaveh as another god of their pantheon, maybe assimilating it to something pre-existent (Saturn?) – they did that with Phoenician, Celtic and Egyptian ones. Polytheisms are typically tolerant and inclusive, “multicultural” if you wish. 
     
    The problem with monotheisms is that only their own belief, their own true doctrine, is acceptable and all the other are necessarily heressies. That’s why Christians and Muslims (and the different sects inside them) have been banging heads with each other along history: because they own the truth
     
    4. China:  
     
    … the ethnographic evidence for buddhism for example is only elite practioners are non-theistic. 
     
    The ethnographic evidence for Christianity is that only elite practicioners are monotheistic… :D 
     
    The case is that the Christian doctrine is monotheistic and the Buddhist one is agnostic/non-theistic.  
     
    mozi promoted a sort of theos. 
     
    Maybe but he never had many followers anyhow. 
     
    i will be OK with switching to ‘supernatural agents’ if that suits you more. 
     
    It’s different. Your original post talked about the theistic phenomenon (i.e. the belief in god or gods) and that’s what I’ve been discussing so far. Genies, magic, ghosts… are paranormal (supernatural if you wish) but do not necessarily imply the existence of any god by themselves. They can for instance exist perfectly in a sort-of-pantheistic mentality, as the world is not really just material but essentially magical too.  
     
    A very interesting point is for me that most religions of old (pre-monotheistic, polytheistic or pantheistic or whatever) don’t have the theistic concept of a single all-powerful being that is responsible of all (creator) but that the reality just unfolds as sort of perpetual creation, often at the hands of different agents (specially in polytheistic paradigms). It’s very different.  
     
    Trying to get all together into the concept of theism is, I’d say, dangerously “modern” and surely false. What is surely inborn is the magical phenomenon: the belief that things may happen for reasons that we don’t understand. This is surely derived both from an intuitive (non-rational) way of thinking that we all have and from the fact that we ignore so many things (even today), for which magical explanations can give a feeling of certainty (like a tale to a kid).

  27. god-less, the leaders may be “saints” but not gods. If Marxism has a god it’s Humankind: after all it’s an atheistic humanism. 
     
     
    no. anyway, what’s the big difference between saints and gods? but look at the cult-of-kim in north korea. they’re god-kings. 
     
     
    The case is that the Christian doctrine is monotheistic and the Buddhist one is agnostic/non-theistic.
     
     
    right, but this post isn’t really about doctrine. you keep confusing that issue.  
     
     
    A very interesting point is for me that most religions of old (pre-monotheistic, polytheistic or pantheistic or whatever) don’t have the theistic concept of a single all-powerful being that is responsible of all (creator) but that the reality just unfolds as sort of perpetual creation, often at the hands of different agents (specially in polytheistic paradigms). It’s very different.
     
     
    a god doesn’t have to be a creator. like i said, supernatural agents. chinese believe in gods. just not a “god.” i’m not really hung up on words like polytheism, monotheism or pantheism. none of that matters for most believers. i really don’t think “it’s very different” at all. theology (philosophical analysis and naming of religious ideas) is something people kill each other over, but very few people understand the differences. they’re just labels used to define in vs. outgroups.

  28. luis…i think i’ll have a follow up post just to clarify some of the issues we’re having with the comments. like i said, part of it is an argument over words. part of it is probably different emphases (e.g., i don’t think that the chinese lack of indigenous concepts for a creator-god makes much of a difference in terms of the mental states of almost all believers with their supernatural agents of choice vs. muslims-xtians-jews).

  29. Saints are like nobel prizes: they may be “great” but mortal after all. I mean, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, St. Paul, Einstein, Lenin… nobody thinks of them as gods: they are just “great men”. Mortals are not gods – even if in some cases they can be deified.  
     
    Polytheistic Romans and Agnostic Chinese have not been known for “killing each other” in the name of religion (at least not often). Only monotheists do that on regular basis – and that’s because only monotheists tend to be truly intolerant (because they own the truth
     
    I think that extending the term “theism” to everything supernatural is fundamentally incorrect and shows a western bias (and for this case, India is surely “western” too).  
     
    We can agree 100% if the case is that the belief in supernatural is universal (or nearly so) – but not the “god phenomenon”, that is just a particular form of the supernatural one, that is not quite as universal, even if quite common.

  30. Perhaps the distinction we’re looking for is the status of the high God. In monotheistic religions God transcends all other things and controls them. In most other religions (shamanistic, polytheistic, etc.) god does not have this transcendence and control, but must respond to his own context which preexisted him. 
     
    In Rome, China, and Greece philosophy worked to describe the context behind the gods, without ascribing the order they found to one of the gods. (I think that Stoicism and other Hellenistic / Roman philosophies are comparable to Confucianism).  
     
    To me, though, any belief in gods or spirits is a form of theism.

  31. We can agree 100% if the case is that the belief in supernatural is universal (or nearly so) – but not the “god phenomenon”, that is just a particular form of the supernatural one, that is not quite as universal, even if quite common. 
     
    right. like i said, i’m not too invested in semantics, but honestly i think you’re going to confuse people if you go around saying chinese don’t believe in gods…. 
     
    Saints are like nobel prizes: they may be “great” but mortal after all. I mean, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, St. Paul, Einstein, Lenin… nobody thinks of them as gods: they are just “great men”. Mortals are not gods – even if in some cases they can be deified.  
     
    and i don’t get this. how do you define a saint? cuz what i know in catholicism and islam implies that many believers accept saints have intercesory and supernatural powers.

  32. (I think that Stoicism and other Hellenistic / Roman philosophies are comparable to Confucianism).  
     
    i think stoics were generally pantheists on doctrinal grounds. spinozans before spinoza. also, late antique paganism, at least in its more elite form, converged upon monistic pantheism (sort of like forms of hinduism).

  33. Marcus Aurelius’s language was more theistic than I expected. His references to “the gods” (which he identifies with stars) seem to be nods to Roman public religion, whereas his reference to God seems to mean the order of the universe. However, he definitely seems to believe that the world is designed for the best, and his cosmology neatly fits with his theory of a world political order.  
     
    Short, easy to read, but a lot of unexpected stuff. Recommended. 
     
    Note that Marcus A. was an eclectic stoic, and far from the first rank of stoic technical philosophers. But most of that stuff has not survived.

  34. Saints are not gods: they are not immortal nor all-powerful (or nearly so, in the case of polytheisms). They are just celebrated humans that, in the case of religions with belief in an afterlife (hence not in Marxism) are supposed to be closer to God/the gods.  
     
    I know that in monotheisms they often take the place of displaced pagan deities, but they are not gods in any case: any magical power they may have attributed is only because of divine favor, not their own. And they are not worshipped but just (optatively) venerated, btw.  
     
    Guess it’s like ancestors in China: they are (imaginarily, emotionally) between two worlds but hey are never gods nor are expected to act like these.  
     
    I think monotheistic believers trust them because they have that feeling that God is too abstract and distant, while saints (as humans) should be more receptive to human wishes (like finding a boyfriend/girlfriend, for instance), and they can (presumably) intercede for such petty human caprices that are not really of the interest of “allmighty God”.  
     
    But there are many secular (unofficial) “saints” that are not expected to work miracles but are respected, admired and imitated anyhow. That’s what I meant by Marxist “saints”. One can admire Lenin or Che and behave towards them somewhat like towards a Christian saint: seeking inspiration in heir words or deeds, maybe having a picture of them on the wall… things like that. Other kind of people can maybe have a bust of Beethoven, or a poster of Malcom X, or… That’s a secular saint: someone admired and inspiring – but not a god in any case.

  35. luis, i think a lot of your argument about gods vs. saints vs. monotheism vs. pantheism is pretty irrelevant on the level of psychology. there is some relevance in terms of intellectual history and ingroup vs. outgroup markers, but there’s a pretty robust literature that most of the verbal distinctions you’re making (and are normally made in religioust studies and scholarship in general) aren’t psychologically relevant. i.e., it doesn’t matter if a saint’s powers theoretically derive from a higher being, as a proximate psychological phenomenon it’s pretty much the same as a direct prayer. the god that all believers have in their mind’s eye, whether polytheist or monotheist, saint-worshiper or high-god worshiper, is conceptually the same. i’m not making this up, it’s just what the research suggests. i’m not saying people won’t kill each other over esoteric and incomprehensible distinctions or the fine points you’re making, i’m just saying that they’re nothing but words. so you can define x, y, z as god-traits, and a, b, c as non-god-traits, but i don’t really care as long as my instrumental ends are met in terms of generating a plausible model to relate causes to effects. i can see why religionists put a lot of effort into sincerely quibbling over the margins of these terms since they’re ontologically significant to them, but as an atheist i’m not particulary invested in any word, nor do i think they have any substance aside from the emotional valences which people attribute to them (e.g., a muslim and christian may attack each other putatively because of their different ideas about god, but i am skeptical that the muslim really has any model in his mind of the omnigod described in the koran which sunnis believe negates any possibiliy of free will, or the christian the trinity which is a central plank of the profession of his faith).

  36. And they are not worshipped but just (optatively) venerated, btw.  
     
    i assume in many cases the terms ‘worship’ and ‘venerate’ mask an identity (though not always). put these people who are worshiping and venerating under fMRI, and what’ll you see?

  37. p.s., many of my assertions are reflected in this book, Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t.

  38. I’m also quite atheist (somewhat pantheist maybe – I don’t make much difference between the two) and I don’t think gods are the same as deceased people with a ghostly presence anyhow.  
     
    Gods are not super-people or ghosts or even angels: gods are (virtual) pillars of reality (for the one who believes in them). A Christian’s perception of the world would be about the same with or without St. Thomas but it would be totally different without his/her God. For a polytheistic ancient Greek, Herakles or Achilles were certainly certainly human references, sort of “supermen” of their time, but Zeus, Hermes, Poseidon or Dyonisos were the ones that made the world spin. For Hindus, a revered guru is not the same as Vishnu or Durga. For Daoists, Lao Tzu or their most venerated granfather is not the same as the Dao (that is not a personal god but anyhow).  
     
    Gods provide the essential mythical parameters that define the world in a given religious cosmological paradigm. Saints, ancestors, genies and heroes are accesory. There can be borderline cases (Jesus, for instance – or minor gods with a peripherical role) but they are the exception rather than the norm.  
     
    The tendency to believe in supernaural phenomena, including some sort of soul immortality maybe, does not necessarily include the concept of god(s). Superstition is probably universal, theism is not.  
     
    As certain Amazonian tribe say: “God is great, but the Jungle is greater”. :)

  39. @John Emerson: 
     
    Perhaps the distinction we’re looking for is the status of the high God. In monotheistic religions God transcends all other things and controls them. In most other religions (shamanistic, polytheistic, etc.) god does not have this transcendence and control, but must respond to his own context which preexisted him. 
     
    I think this is a good point. It estabilishes a clear difference between the all powerful mono-theos and the less so poly-theos, to describe it some way.  
     
    To me, though, any belief in gods or spirits is a form of theism. 
     
    That’s what I don’t really agree with: a human ghost is not a god in any case, nor I think that lesser genie (nymphs, for instance) or angels can be classified as god. And by definition “theism” is the belief in gods (theos).  
     
    According to Wikipedia: Theism is the belief in the existence of one or more divinities or deities. There is also a narrower sense in which theism refers to the belief that one or more divinities are immanent in the world, yet transcend it, along with the idea that divinity(s) is/are omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. 
     
    Obviously neither of these definitions refers to lesser spirits, human or genie.  
     
    The article goes to describe Theism as opposed to Deism (belief in a non-intervening god) and to Pantheism and Animism, as well as Nontheism (agnosticism, atheism).  
     
    Just to check the accuracy of Wikipedia’s definition, I looked the term at MerriamWebster online and it reads: 
     
    : belief in the existence of a god or gods; specifically : belief in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world 
     
    So it’s pretty clear that using the term “theism” for anything else can only cause confusion. Use “spirituality”, “mysticism”, “superstition”… whatever – but some better term.

  40. Gods are not super-people or ghosts or even angels: gods are (virtual) pillars of reality (for the one who believes in them).  
     
    no, they aren’t. you need to make this distinction: 
     
    1) there is what people say they believe 
     
    2) there is the model of reality which people hold in their head which serves as an appropriate guide to the heuristics they’ll use in their day to day life 
     
    for the vast majority of adherents to higher religions there’s very little difference from animism in terms of their psychological states in relation to their god. the differences, as you note above, tend to have to do with how their relate to other religionists. 
     
    as an example, most sunni muslims and calvinists accept a pretty strident line in terms of predestination because of their model of an omnigod. does that mean this is going to be a strong independant variable which predicts the dependant variable of fatalism vs. free will in their own life choices? not really. 
     
    So it’s pretty clear that using the term “theism” for anything else can only cause confusion. Use “spirituality”, “mysticism”, “superstition”… whatever – but some better term. 
     
    right, so we can use the term “supernatural agents.” but again, in relation to the primary substance of this post this definition is rather irrelevant. i know what the textbook definitions are, but if we’re going to talk about anthropological and psychological realities we need to take a step back from the philosophy & theology which nerds have a predilection for. ontology is the modal cup of tea.

  41. Gods are not super-people or ghosts or even angels: 
     
    and btw, in terms of cognition this is exactly what gods are. they’re super-people, more or less. in many ways they transcend or step above and around “peopleness,” but the philosophical/theological stance of dualism and separation of the divine from the mortal is an abstract ideal which is rarely operationalized in the typical believers cognitive states. ergo, even within the verbally elucidated abstract traditions incarnations, emenations and angels grow to fill the vacuum and functional role of polytheistic gods. 
     
    i know very well most of the definitions you’re appealing to, and i grant that if you look them up in an encyclopedia of philosophy & religion you’re on solid ground. my bigger point is that the project of understanding religion through philosophy or a priori reflection fails to generate a plausible model of the reality of the phenomenon. you have to look to psychology and anthropology first to start building something anew from empirical data. i follow the conventional procedure in co-opting terms which philosophers have claimed for themselves. we can rename everything if that satisfies you, but for those of us who are familiar with the cognitive anthropological literature at this point (and after years of talking about it most regular GNXP readers are aware of this paradigm) excising words like “god” because they don’t fit a philosophical definition seems inconvenient.

  42. To the Chinese, deceased humans effectively became Gods and would be worshiped. A number of historical figures have divine status, for example all of the founding ancestors of the Chou dynasty. A clan’s ancestors are also worshiped by members of the clan — dynastic ancestors are just larger clan ancestors. Often the spirits of the famous dead are integrated into the naturalistic religion by assigning them mountains, stars, or constellations. 
     
    Another example is Guan-yu, a historical figure worshipped as the God of War: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guan_Yu 
     
    You’re marking a real distinction, but your definition of theism is too narrow, and pantheism as far as I can tell is a Western analytical construct or interpretation of various practices.  
     
    If there are peoples who believe in little spirits and magical creatures without believing in big spirits (Gods) I might just barely grant that they are not theistic. I don’t think that there are any peoples whose personalized spirits are all too small to be Gods, though. But maybe there are.

  43. @Razib: 
     
    and btw, in terms of cognition this [super-people] is exactly what gods are 
     
    Ok. You are right – but I was thinking in terms of Superman. Gods are much more above Superman. In Monthy Python’s celebrated line: “Oh God, thou who are so super!” 
     
    But certainly theistic gods are super-people in a very loose sense: they are personal gods after all. 
     
    excising words like “god” because they don’t fit a philosophical definition seems inconvenient  
     
    Obviously this is a matter of opinion. But as I understand it, “God” in a philosophical (not religious) approach is the ultimate cause of everything, same for believers as for atheists. For some it’s the Big Bang (or whatever mystery behind it) and for others a Jewish legend. But the only real difference is that the former don’t normally like to use the term “God” for the very same fundamental concept.  
     
    So even atheists would be theistic in this sense. Why? Because we all have the same fundamental questions about this curious phenomenon of Existence: cause, origins, reason, destiny. The answers are variegated though.  
     
    Maybe using the term god is what really causes confussion, specially in the West, where it’s tightly attached to the JCI supreme deity.  
     
    I’d rather prefer that people, at least when tryig to think philosophically, would use more precise terms: 
    - Origin/essence of the Universe (presumpt) 
    - Spritiual/ghostly being (presumpt) 
    - Mythological character  
    - Supreme moral authority (presumpt) 
    - Being with superpowers (presumpt) 
     
    These are maybe only some of the attributes of gods, ghosts or genie. But not all them have all. Certainly Yaveh does, but Zeus lacks the first one, while a nymph may lack several of these characteristics. The Pan-Theos would instead have only the first attribute if I’m not wrong, though it’s maybe mentioned vaguely in a handful of mythologies here and there, and that would be also the case of the Big Bang in the modern cosmological paradigms (that is what most atheists “beieve” in).

  44. So we have some “militant atheists” who view religion as a memetic virus preying on it’s host and now religion may be an “accident”, and therefore “innate” and “natural” rather than an alien interloper creating a malfunction. 
     
    However this ignores what is fairly obvious that religion in all it’s diversity cannot be entirely innate whatever innate propensities it anchors itself too. We know this because there are religions that have competed and disagreed. We know of religions such as that of the Aztecs that indulged in mass human sacrifice. Religions such as those of some Papuans that morally permitted, if not directly encouraged, tribesmen to raid weaker neighbouring tribes, kidnap them and eat them. This was obviously not innate genetic behaviour since they are no longer doing it. The reason they are no longer doing it is religious. They have converted to Christianity. 
     
    I think that many people are frightened of facing up to a certain truth. Large swathes of our own morality are based on nothing more solid than essentially religious faith. Our own concept of human rights such as are embodied in the UN Declaration we preach as universal to all mankind didn’t seem to trouble the Aztecs and the Papuans through genetic restrictions of mores to conform to a universal human nature. Didn’t they get the memo from Jesus, oops I mean their genes? No their mores were non-universal learned behaviour, passed from mother to son and peer to peer in a process of indoctrination of sorts. 
     
    It seems to me that the Papuan’s customs may well have been some kind of local maxima for Darwinian fitness. The rapid and ground up nature of the spread of Christianity amongst pagans in many different contexts from pre-Constantine Europe to the massive spread in 20th century Africa suggests to me that this is due in large part to the nature of Christianity itself, perhaps partly even it’s sacrificial nature. Christianity seems to be an innately powerful converter of pagans. I don’t think that the fact that 33% of the world is Christian can all be pinned on European colonialism and sheer random chance. One indication of this is that the types of Christianity that effectively spread in Africa were far from a representative cross section of European Christianity. In many cases they were those practicising channeling of the holy spirit and faith healing like something from the book of Acts that mainstream Christianity had long rejected as only historical, even embarrassing. I would see a similar innately powered spread for Islam, but generally with a very different method. 
     
    It seems also that Abrahamic faiths have sexual mores in favour of Darwinian fitness such as those against incest, adultery, homosexuality etc. that have acted to maintain stable families to maximise resource provision to children, prevent inbreeding and reduce venereal disease. These appear to go beyond humanities baseline “innate” instincts in these areas, making them seem unnatural, and hence viewed as “wrong” by the flower power generation of the sixties and later. 
     
    It may not just be generic religion that was a natural outgrowth of evolution. Could we go even further and say that the largest religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are themselves products of evolution by natural selection? That specific religions themselves exist as competing fitness maximisers and are not just accidents or parasites?

  45. @John Emerson: 
     
    Ancestors do not become gods in Chinese traditions. Ancestor “worship” is more properly refered to as ancestor veneration.  
     
    We all know that in many cultures some people have been divinized (Herakles is the first one that comes to my mind, but some Egyptian pharaos too, and even Roman Emperors – and Jesus, btw). But that’s a border case of a very high regarded saint or hero
     
    The very Emepror Guang Yu is refered as: an indigenous Chinese deity, a bodhisattva [enlightened] in Buddhism and a guardian deity in Taoism. He is also held in high esteem in Confucianism. These are not necessarily contradictory or even distinguished.  
     
    It’s a matter of terminology rather than this person being a real god, as Zeus could be.  
     
    As for peoples believing in souls and not in gods, I can’t be sure without further research but probably there are more than one. Pygmies for instance have a pantheistic belief in the Jungle (the Universe for them) and also have typical animistic beliefs (that everything has a soul). Colombus mentioned that the Tainos had no gods and that they made statuettes only for artistic reasons (for the beauty of them). I can’t say much more from memory right now but I’m pretty sure that other peoples, specially hunter-gatherers with similar belief systems must exist.  
     
    And I don’t think Pantheism is a modern Western elaboration only. It does happen naturally a lot, but, not being into philosophy nor academic discussions, these peoples do not have an articulate description of such belief – but an intuitive one.

  46.  
    I’d rather prefer that people, at least when tryig to think philosophically, would use more precise terms:
     
     
    but if you’re talking about the psychology of religon then you can’t really think philosophically. most people are stupid and don’t think philosophically, they think intuitively. most atheists who bother to engage in discourse on god-issues are of a philosophical bent, and they clash with theists who are of the same bent, and so they misperceive (i believe) the fundamental nature of modal religiosity before they don’t encounter typical believers, nor have many of them ever been typical believers. in any case, these sorts of arguments are why many psychologists who study this topic just talk about “supernatural agents.” 
     
     
     
    It may not just be generic religion that was a natural outgrowth of evolution. Could we go even further and say that the largest religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are themselves products of evolution by natural selection? That specific religions themselves exist as competing fitness maximisers and are not just accidents or parasites?
     
     
    did you read my whole post? i get to that at the end pretty clearly, don’t i? 
     
    And I don’t think Pantheism is a modern Western elaboration only. It does happen naturally a lot, but, not being into philosophy nor academic discussions, these peoples do not have an articulate description of such belief – but an intuitive one. 
     
    there is a very big difference between the philosophical monism of someone like spinoza and the intuitive animism of primitive peoples. the latter are supernaturalists obviously.

  47. @Erasmus: Nonsense. 
     
    Human right: freedom of religion 
    JC commandment: worship only Yaveh 
     
    Human right: freedom of speech 
    JC commandment: prohibition of using the “name of God” 
     
    Human right: sexual freedom 
    JC commandment: no adultery 
     
    Human right: right to the basics of life (food, clothes, house, a dignified job) 
    JC commandment: no stealing 
     
    Generally speaking, Human Rights are clearly against Christian doctrine and mythology as much as they are against the Islamic one. Just read what Yaveh does to the Canaanites and other peoples who do not bow to such ghostly tyrant.

  48. @Luis 
     
    I did not mean to say that the contents of the UNDHR are a derivative from Christianity. I believe that they are partly derived from Christianity and partly derived from other sources. Since they largely concern legal matters which Christianity does not address they are largely orthogonal to each other. Also note that there is a difference between disapproving of something and banning it. You surely do not have to believe that adultery is a good thing in order to be a supporter of human rights as we presently understand them. 
     
    My important point is that they are NOT universal. They are based on nothing more solid than faith in non-empirically verifiable “facts” and group-think, and not everyone agrees with them. They are largely learned from others and are not entirely genetic. You will never derive them from human DNA and nature. There is no human universal morality since evolution produced within us the capacity for cultural diversity including moral diversity. Thereby the cultures promoting the most fitness enhancing behaviour could survive. Technology such as agriculture is part of that but religion and morality are too. They are adaptable and changeable and our current concepts of human rights won’t be the last word. 
     
    To put it another way the Aztecs, Papuan cannibals and Nazis who broke their terms were not doing anything “unnatural” nor against some invisible ideal that exists in a literal sense. They were doing things against the moral values that we have developed for ourselves up to this point.

  49. Our own concept of human rights such as are embodied in the UN Declaration we preach as universal to all mankind didn’t seem to trouble the Aztecs and the Papuans through genetic restrictions of mores to conform to a universal human nature 
     
    well, it seems pretty obvious to me that the main innovation of “higher religions” is universalism. inhumanity to outgroups was normal, but once they are turned into ingroups morality applies. this is why muslims and xtians during the medieval period enslaved infidels, but not their own religionists. 
     
    your generalizations probably have some validity, but the assertions you make imply to me you don’t know enough about religious history to push the ball forward yourself.

  50. @Razib: 
     
    most people are stupid and don’t think philosophically 
     
    That stinks to elitism, really. Of course not all people are equally intelligent or have the same inclinations or have been educated to think critically. But I normally start from the opposite viewpoint: most people are at least somewhat smart and can think on themselves. I get a few surprises now and then but not systematically. That doesn’t mean that they end up thinking my way (nor vice versa), of course. 
     
    But well, this is a matter of how each of us sees the ones around him.  
     
    … they think intuitively 
     
    We all do, luckily. Otherwise we’d be very slow.  
     
    these sorts of arguments are why many psychologists who study this topic just talk about “supernatural agents.” 
     
    Which is a good choice of words.  
     
    “It may not just be generic religion that was a natural outgrowth of evolution. Could we go even further and say that the largest religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are themselves products of evolution by natural selection? That specific religions themselves exist as competing fitness maximisers and are not just accidents or parasites?” 
     
    did you read my whole post? i get to that at the end pretty clearly, don’t i?
     
     
    Ehm… I believe you were quoting someone else. I did not write that. Never mind.  
     
    there is a very big difference between the philosophical monism of someone like spinoza and the intuitive animism of primitive peoples. the latter are supernaturalists obviously. 
     
    Sure. But animistic or not, if they both are Pantheistic they are coincident in that. The essence of Pantheism is not the existence or not of the supernatural or souls but the perception of the Universe and God as one and the same thing. In that Spinoza and the typical Pygmy are in full agreement.  
     
    Again the problem lies in placing the emphasis in the concept of “theism” (pantheism in this case) or in that of spiritualism/supernaturalism. Spinoza is surely much more naturalist than supernaturalist (he was even accused of mere atheism in spite of his use of the term “God” once and again) but he is exactly as pantheist as the anonymous little guy of the African jungle. They are different in the rationalist/magical perception of reality but they are not different in the overall cosmological perception.  
     
    Also, when “primitives” think in terms of everything having “souls”, that is not as irrational as we may think apriori anyhow: they deal with such items (animals, plants, rocks) from a very different view than ours; for them humans are not different from other things: they have an horizontal relation with their enviroment; for us instead humanity and the natural world are two almost different things and have an unequal relation with us humans on top – this is deeply embedded in the mind of the civilized people and is not very correct probably.  
     
    Their approach may be more intuitive but also very practical for the most part. And certainly respectful, a respect for the enviroment that we should learn from.  
     
    Obviously if you think that being rational is essentially superior (and not just superior in its kind), you’ll find very hard to deal with nature in terms of equality and immersion, as there are probably no other beings on this planet that are as rational as we are. But if you think about it, it is not much different from the prejudices an octopus could have for non-elastic beings as us. 
     
    For me there’s more problem in this pseudo-humanist arrogance than in percieving souls in the trees. After all it’s this attitude which created the human-like gods, wether polytheistic or monotheistic. Even if we don’t believe in them anymore, we have the same attitude that those JCI faithful who believe that some imaginary guy called variedly Yaveh, God or Allah gave us the right to rule over “creation” in “his” name.  
     
    This marks a line for me: those who believe in humankind apart from nature (possibly to be inherited by super-intelligent robots some day) and those who believe in humankind as an indivisible part of nature.

  51. That stinks to elitism, really. Of course not all people are equally intelligent or have the same inclinations or have been educated to think critically. But I normally start from the opposite viewpoint: most people are at least somewhat smart and can think on themselves. I get a few surprises now and then but not systematically. That doesn’t mean that they end up thinking my way (nor vice versa), of course. 
     
    most people are stupid. 1/4 of people in the western world are stupid enough to respond to questions about the validity of geocentrism in the affirmative (not that they actually are geocentrists, they’re just so stupid they barely listen & understand questions). you said you get a few surprises. i choose to generalize from the majority, not the diamonds-in-the-rough. most humans are retards. not that there’s anything wrong with that. they’re just as human as you & i, and probably happier too. doesn’t mean they’re not retards.

  52. @Erasmus: 
     
    The basic of Human Rights is that we would like them to be applied to ourselves, so better make sure they are applied everywhere and for everyone. That’s intelligent egoism.  
     
    The attitude of a “Hitler” is either: 
     
    a) there are no ruler 
    b) the rules applies to “us” (the ubermenschen) and not to “them” (the untermenschen) 
     
    The attitude of the classical Papuan is most likely B: they are not “us”, so we can eat them.  
     
    Human Rights have set a major precedent by being acknowledged “universally” and diffunded massively. It won’t be easy to put them down and no alternative ideology can be as universal, really.

  53. @Razib: 
     
    That you may have a high IQ (I figure) doesn’t mean that most are “retards”, just that you are “special”, “gifted”. Average is normal: gifted and limited are the special ones – by definition. And normal intelligence is pretty smart anyhow.  
     
    I can have pretty intelligent conversations with people of plain average 100 IQ – it’s not such a problem if we share the interest. But guess I don’t mind playing the “teacher” role when needed, and I also feel an intense respect for not so intelligent criatures like bonobos or octopuses. They can outwit me in aspects I’m not so strong at in any case.

  54. and I also feel an intense respect for not so intelligent criatures like bonobos or octopuses. 
     
    but you wouldn’t try to teach them integration by parts.

  55. btw, luis this discussion about the definition of god really reminds me of homoiousia vs. homoousia.

  56. Hey guys! You can watch the latest Battlestar Galactica episode online
     
    There’s enough confusing theism in there to make a smart person dumb.

  57. @razib 
     
    well, it seems pretty obvious to me that the main innovation of “higher religions” is universalism. inhumanity to outgroups was normal, but once they are turned into ingroups morality applies. this is why muslims and xtians during the medieval period enslaved infidels, but not their own religionists. 
     
    You are using “universal” in a slightly different sense to how I was using it in the referenced sentence. I was using it in the sense of “we hold these truths to be self evident” or of “the law written in the heart of the Gentile” as Paul put it in the New Testament. A variation on this often preached (and I use the word deliberately) by secular humanists and positivists is that morality is based on natural law, something fundamental to human nature. Part of their motive for this is of course that they want to dispose of religion as being a source of practical morality. However it doesn’t work. It’s an illusion. They always have to base their claims of moral truths and falsehoods on things which are supernatural in the sense of existing beyond nature in that they are not empirically verifiable, even in theory. A J Ayer was right in that if you are a positivist then you have to be amoral. You can’t be a positivist and go around making statements like “sex trafficking is wrong” for example. If you do then you have faith based beliefs. The claims of the UNHDR or US constitution are in this sense supernatural claims, and they go well beyond the possibilities evolution will genetically allow us as the possible basis of a societies morality. 
     
    Human beings were “designed” to be religious. Religious indoctrination of children is a feature not a bug. Human morality was not “designed” to be innate and the same for all humans everywhere. It evolved to be a variable subject to environmental influence and adjustment. The creation of the UNHDR was like the creation of Esperanto. It sought to change people not to describe what everyone already thought. The fiction that a particular set of human rights is innate is a way to hide faith based beliefs in a cloak of naturalism. However it is natural for human morality to be a variable. What boundaries are set on that variable through the influence of genes fall well short of something like the UNDHR. 
     
    This is why, for example, the Iraq war was a faith based enterprise. Some thought that all we had to do was topple Saddam, introduce a voting system and then human nature would sort out the rest. This was naive precisely because people were in error over the extent to which their own concepts of human rights were based on universal human nature rather than in their faith in the existence of things beyond natural verification (even in theory). The modern secular western “nonreligious” person, even the elites, have not replaced religion so much as removed a superficial veneer from it. Of course we can get caught up in semantics about what the word religion means, but what I mean is that they believe in truth claims beyond nature based on faith and learned from the people around them.

  58. ermasmus, your arguments would make more sense if they were informed by modern cognitive psychology instead of introspection. there’s something there, but you don’t seem to know enough to get where you want to, and it isn’t appropriate for you to speak ex cathedra in such detail because of you make a lot of vague overgeneralizations (your allusion to socialization toward an understanding of human/moral nature is so correct as to be trivially obvious). it’s kind of irritating reading your prose when you don’t know what you don’t know. you remind me of people i used to talk to in college bull sessions. i think this thread has run its course, we’ll talk again luis….

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