New Scientist has just published “The God Issue”, which begins with an Editorial: “To rule out god, first get to know him.” The subtitle is: “The new science of religion tells us where secularists are going wrong.” The surprising thing is that there’s nothing really new here that most of us haven’t heard before. Indeed, practically everything mentioned in the articles published in The God Issue is included in Anderson Thompson and Clare Aukofer’s Why We Believe in Gods: A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith. I don’t want to repeat it all here, since you can read the articles for yourself. Just register — it’s free — and you will be given access to all the articles in The God Issue. What I want to do is to put some pressure at a few points, because (i) I don’t think secularists are going wrong, and (ii) I think some of the claims made about the science of religion are less convincing than they may appear at first sight.
First, consider the point made in the introductory editorial. The claim is that most people perceive religion
as something that must be imprinted on young minds. [But on this, the editorial continues] The new science of religion begs to differ. Children are born primed to see god at work all around them and don’t need to be indoctrinated to believe in him.
And then we are referred to Justin Barrett’s “We are all born believers.” According to Barrett,
Children are born believers not of Christianity, Islam or any other theology but of what I call “natural religion”. They have strong natural tendencies toward religion, but these tendencies do not inevitably propel them towards any one religious belief.
Instead, the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born.
Now, this is, strictly speaking, untrue. Barrett provides not a shred of evidence that we are born believers in what he calls “natural religion.” What Barrett does show — and what is shown as well by researchers like Anderson Thompson, Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, and others — is that children’s cognitive development makes belief in non-natural agents attractive. Here’s what he says:
Drawing upon research in developmental psychology, cognitive anthropology and particularly the cognitive science of religion, I argue that religion comes nearly as naturally to us as language. The vast majority of humans are “born believers”, naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive and easily acquired, and to attain fluency in using them. This attraction to religion is an evolutionary by-product of our ordinary cognitive equipment, and while it tells us nothing about the truth or otherwise of religious claims it does help us see religion in an interesting new light. [my italics]
That is worded deceptively. Saying that “it tells us nothing about the truth or otherwise of religious claims” is not only an understatement; it is misleading.
This comes out most clearly where he deals with belief in Santa Claus. He begins by asking whether, since it is an evolutionary by-product, gods have the same status as Santa Claus, and he answers that question with a fairly definite no.
The analogy begins to weaken when we recognise that many adults come to believe in God having rejected the idea as children, or after rethinking their childhood beliefs and embracing them as adults. That is, they sometimes reason their way to religious beliefs. People do not begin or resume believing in Father Christmas in adulthood.
However, this won’t do as a demonstration that Father Christmas and God are on different levels. The truth seems to be that the adult world conspires to trick children into believing in Santa Claus, because they already have the cognitive tendency to believe in unseen agents who know things that are not known by ordinary people like themselves, and who also act for their benefit. The difference between Father Christmas and God is simply that God continues to be taken seriously by adults, but belief in Santa Claus is easily defeated by the fact that (i) his effects are easily assimilated to ordinary events in the world (mom and dad buying gifts), and (ii) parents don’t want their children to continue to hold such childish beliefs which are so easily disappointed. The effects brought about by gods, on the other hand, are much less concrete and determinate than presents under the tree every Christmas morning, so not open to easy refutation; and religious parents in fact do want their children to continue to hold those beliefs. And since the parents themselves hold the beliefs, or at least feign such belief, it is not unreasonable to think that the perdurability of those beliefs at least in childhood is the outcome of precisely the same cognitive mechanisms that are used to encourage belief in Santa Claus.
Of course, it does not follow from this that religious beliefs did not, at one time, at least, play a crucial role in the growth and development of larger social groupings. The fact that, in earlier times, clear distinctions were probably not possible between the reality of the world while awake, and the world experienced in dreams and under the influence of various psychotropic drugs or epileptic and other neurological events, combined with the natural tendency readily to ascribe agency and even personality to anything which brought about either good or bad effects for individuals or groups, it is not unreasonable to think that the ordering of such experiences, and adherence to the ordering principles devised, would help to cement social relationships of larger and larger social groups. Couple this with the fact that minimally counterintuitive accounts of experience tend to be easily remembered, and it is not hard to see how beliefs based on such accounts should come to be identifying markers for membership in a social group.
To interject some personal experience here. Having spent all my school years in India, and being brought up as what is called a Third Culture Kid, that is, not a member of the local society (not Indian), and yet not Canadian either, and belonging, therefore, to a non-existent third culture, the experience of culture shock when I finally returned to Canada at 18 was overpowering and disorienting. I cannot say that I have ever quite overcome it. Shortly after returning, however, I spent a short time in the Royal Canadian Navy — from which I was honourably discharged in order to attend university. One of the most notable things about basic training — which took 19 weeks in those far-off days — was the sense of belonging which flag, national anthem, and concepts such as service, honour, and comradeship provided. In those days we were still part of Nelson’s navy, and our traditions included stories of the “tars” of old, and battles long ago. This mythology provided the cement that fashioned groups of strangers from across Canada into cohesive units (Divisions) of a much larger structure, with stories, songs, traditions, and a common task.
So, when Ara Norenzayan, of the University of British Columbia, tells us that religion is the key to civilisation, I’m quite prepared to accept the cementing role that common stories and traditions as well as common allegiances can have on groups of strangers. The strange thing is, though, that Nelson was as effective a god around which to coalesce as Jesus or the god of Akhenaten. Indeed, in the plethora of religions accepted within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, it was the God-Emperor around whom, and on whose behalf, the legions rallied. There may have been other gods for personal devotion or sense of security. The religion of Mithras, it seems, was very popular amongst Roman soldiers, but their common task was presided over by the Genius of the Emperor. It seems obvious that great common tasks require allegiance to some (almost mythical) account of goals and purposes. And so, as Norenzayan points out, the great religious centres, temples and cathedrals, mosques and other relics of the religions, are testimony to the power of religion, and especially of the Big Gods, to engage people, give them a sense of common identity, and imbue them with devotion to a common undertaking. Only this kind of ‘hard to fake” commitment — dedicated to large projects and distant goals — can explain the striking physical memorials left behind by religions, such as the massive ruins of what is probably a hilltop temple (Göbekli Tepe) in Turkey, dating back some 11,500 years.
I am not in a position to comment on Ara Norenzayan’s theories of the evolution of altruism. He claims that religion began as obscure experiments in social cooperation, of which only a few survived. The survivors eventually tended to go on to become big religions with big gods. Here is what he says:
In evolutionary biology cooperation is usually explained by one of two forms of altruism: cooperation among kin and reciprocal altruism — you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. But cooperation among strangers is not easily explained by either.
As group size increases, both forms of altruism break down. With ever-greater chances of encountering strangers, opportunities for cooperation among kin decline. Reciprocal altruism – without extra safeguards such as institutions for punishing freeloaders — also rapidly stops paying off.
The second puzzle is how certain religious traditions became so widespread. If you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or an agnostic or atheist descendant of any of these, you are the heir to an extraordinarily successful religious movement that started as an obscure cultural experiment.
Successful religious movements survived, according to Norenzayan, mainly because of their emphasis on prosocial behaviours
… such as cooperation, trust and self-sacrifice while encouraging displays of religious devotion, such as fasts, food taboos, extravagant rituals and other “hard-to-fake” behaviours which reliably transmitted believers’ sincere faith, and signalled their intention to cooperate.
The religions began by co-opting cognitive mechanisms, and then reinforcing the beliefs so generated with social rituals and enforcement (hard to fake behaviour). Norenzayan thinks that the reason for the survival and distribution of the big religions is a puzzle, but I find the suggestion surprising. If, as he says, successful religions are those which engage social controls and enforcement procedures, the reason for the success of religions and the widespread distribution is not far to seek, and suggesting that there is a puzzle why some religions are widespread neglects this most salient feature of the successful religions.
Indeed, speaking about the widespread agnosticism and atheism of Scandinavian societies, he provides a perfectly good explanation, not only of the success of religion, but of its redundancy.
Religion, with its belief in watchful gods and extravagant rituals and practices, [Norenzayan writes] has been a social glue for most of human history. But recently some societies have succeeded in sustaining cooperation with secular institutions such as courts, police and mechanisms for enforcing contracts. In some parts of the world, especially Scandinavia, these institutions have precipitated religion’s decline by usurping its community-building functions. These societies with atheist majorities – some of the most cooperative, peaceful and prosperous in the world — have climbed religion’s ladder and then kicked it away.
This, I suggest, is disingenuous, though possibly not deliberately so. To say that recently some societies have shown that it is possible to get along without religion, and that it can sustain “cooperation with secular institutions such as courts, police and mechanisms for enforcing contracts,” is merely to point out what has explained not only the spread but the continuity of the big religions. They have been successful precisely by enlisting the powers of the state. A cursory study of both Christianity and Islam will, I think, show this to be true.
Nor is it correct to say that Scandinavian societies “have climbed religion’s ladder and then kicked it away,” for the truth seems to be that Scandinavian societies have recognised what should be evident in any event: namely, that the durability of religion is due as much to enforcement as it is to the fact that religion is a natural proclivity of the human mind, much less to the belief that religious beliefs are true. No one needs to climb the ladder in the first place, however natural it is to do so. And while it is true that adults in societies where religion is granted enormous respect tend to argue themselves into as well as out of religious belief, it does not follow that these arguments have equal weight. What it shows is that, for social acceptance reasons, and because the existence of so many believers is still able to raise questions in people’s minds about the rationality of disbelief, sometimes believing appears to be as reasonable a position as any other. However, that the option exists rests largely on the continued refusal of believers to recognise that, while the intelligible by-product of human cognition, and in fact apparently natural, religious beliefs do not have any rational or empirical basis. This is made clear by Victor Stenger’s contribution to The God Issue. Lacking widespread public support, religious beliefs would be seen to rest on little more than the evidence that can be conjured up for belief in Santa Claus.
This becomes especially clear, it seems to me, when the New Scientist God Issue speaks about religion and science. One of the articles, by Robert McCauley, author of Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, entitled “Science won’t loosen religion’s grip,” is in fact being disproved by events. Wherever science has taken deep root, whether or not religion is a by-product of cognitive mechanisms and is to this extent perfectly natural, religion has been put on the defensive. In fact, religion’s grasp is being loosened by degrees. Scientists in the National Academy of Science in the United States are almost uniformly non-believers. Whatever benefits religion provides to believers should be able to be supplied in some other way; and to this extent, surely, we can all agree with Alain de Botton, whether we agree with his atheist temple idea or not. For his point is simply that it would be unfortunate if the social benefits of belonging to religious groups should be unavailable to atheists. While there are many contexts in which large numbers of people gather for secular purposes, in most cases — such as concerts, pubs, football games, etc. — these are not occasions for interaction with strangers.
As de Botton says in an interview (which is also included in The God Issue):
How do you bind a community? It’s very simple — you need a host. You need someone who introduces people to each other. The modern world is full of gatherings, but they’re not hosted so they remain anonymous. You go to a concert but don’t interact with anyone. You go to the pub, but you don’t talk to anyone apart from the mates that you walked in with.
I also look at morality and the need that religions feel to remind people to be good and kind. This is seen as a bit suspicious by secular society. But we are weak-willed. We have aspirations to goodness but just don’t manage it. So it seems important to have reminders of these aspirations.
The point that he is making is that atheists, without some kind of ordering mechanism, are losing out on important aspects of human experience. He says, for example, that
Essentially, religions are choreographers of spiritual moments, or psychological moments, and on the whole atheists have not been choreographers at all. I think the genius of religions is that they structure the inner life.
I used to say that religion structured time. It also structures the use of money and possessions. Simply the demand to support the church with contributions meant that one had to consider more closely what one was doing, day by day, with one’s possessions. The same with time. Having a responsibility to join together with a community of “strangers” once a week — or even, sometimes, more often – meant that other uses of time are also strutured. And the community itself led on to concern for other communities, so one belonged, in a sense, to a farflung community, and could join that community even if one were half way round the world. So space is also structured. The structuring of the inner life also included the different tempos and feelings and moods, the whole spectrum of human experience, from the joy of love and birth to the sadness of sickness, accident and death. That large emotional palette is something that, no longer being an active member of the church, I miss, and it is something that helps to contribute substance to the living of a coherent life. These things are not to be too glibly thrown away, and cannot be thrown away without loss. So long as secular life is annonymous, individualist, and unstructured it probably will not replace religion, or the things that people feel that they gain from it. Even in Scandinavia the national churches play a role in the national community, so that even those who reject faith are in a sense living members of that wider community. In this context Richard Dawkins calls himself a cultural Anglican, but what would happen if those cultural roots were suddenly shorn away? Certainly, there is room here for more focused thinking by disbelievers. Would atheism survive the demise of the religions? Or would new religions simply develop, using the familiar cognitive mechanisms, to take their place? These are certainly questions to which atheists should give their attention.