Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Naturalistic Explanations For Religion

The goal of this article is, quite simply, to explain how religion came to be. This is, of course, a completely unachievable task for a humble little blogger such as yours truly. So, to be more realistic, my goal is to try and offer some thoughts on the subject, and hopefully provoke some debate amongst my readers.

Definitions, Definitions...

Of course, as is always the case, our definition of our subject will strongly affect the results. In order to avoid delving into a lengthy debate on definitions, I will simply use a rather broad definition here: Religion is any belief in a supernatural entity. (Whether or not reason itself is an entity like that, is past the scope of this article.) I am favouring this broad definition because I believe that the critique of any one specific religion is extremely likely to turn into a veiled apologetics for yet another religious endeavour: My explanation for religion has to potentially encompass my own religious convictions, past, present or future -- or it is not very convincing at all.

The Challenge

When we try to come up with an explanation for religion, we're facing a few obstacles that we cannot simply ignore.

The most important issue, in my opinion, is that we cannot reliably find a human being who is completely unaffected by religiosity. Even if it is true that more children are being brought up in decidedly nonreligious households today than, say, 100 year ago, they are still exposed to a culture that is informed by religion in several major ways: if you forgive my abuse of a somewhat trivial example, "Oh my god" is a widely accepted idiom in media productions to express strong emotion - indicating the terrors of the nuclear holocaust as much as the tremors of the very first orgasm. It is a nearly impossible task to determine to what degree Western ethics are influenced by 2000 years of Abrahamic domination, simply because we have nothing to compare it against. The best we can do is state that the Eastern religions have codified astoundingly similar principles, as have practically all known cultures, and then speculate that they must refer to something they all have in common.

A culture without any religious affiliations is simply unknown to us.  So whatever hypotheses we favour, can not be tested against any "control group". They will not have any predictive capabilities. They will always, necessarily, be somewhat circular and thus never have the explanative power of the theories of natural science.

Ironically, this is the same problem that the biblical authors had to solve when they tried to explain how evil came into the world (and that Freud faced when trying to explain the first patricide): We're trying to work our way back from the current state to an imagined paradisiac past state, in order to determine how one came to become the other.

While I do not believe this to be completely out of the question and fruitless, I think we can learn something from the bible here: Thine answer shall not be monocausal. A single line of causality, as useful as the metaphor is in many cases, does not apply to social and ecological systems. Those systems are better described as complex arrangements of feedback loops interacting with each other, and rarely does one phenomenon simply pop into existence because of one specific cause, at one single time. Thus, I think it's much more likely that religion developed over time, caused by many different phenomena interacting with each other and causing each other, ultimately leading to the huge organized religions we know today.

In short, I favour an "evolutionary" approach over linear causality. (I do use the word "evolution" with some caution here, though -- we should not thoughtlessly use biological imagery to explain sociological phenomena.)


I will ask the reader to bear in mind that I am not a scientist. I will not offer any scientific citations, but instead refer you to the works of people such as Mircea Eliade (for general comparative study of religion), Niklas Luhmann (for sociology and systems theory), Pascal Boyer (for evolutionary psychology of religion), Hegel (to achieve altered states of consciousness), etc.  Please consider what you read here as somewhat informed speculation, hopefully inspiring further investigation by those interested in the subject. While I enjoy writing this stuff, my daily bread is not given to me by a deity, so I have to earn it in the conventional way, shoulder to the wheel (or fingers to the keyboard, as it were).

Why It Matters

Why should we even bother to explore how religion came to be? Well -- apart from the general notion that the unexamined life is not worth living -- if you are convinced, as I am, that religion may have been a crutch for a while but has to be overcome if we are to survive another century, your strategy for building a better world will heavily depend on how you answer that question. And of course, as an atheist, you have to have an idea why people believe in god.  Only if we understand how humans come to believe in the supernatural, can we avoid falling into the same traps ourselves.

Starting An Explanation

Perhaps the most obvious explanation is that religion is simply an outdated worldview. Sitting in their caves, the first humans could not come up with any explanation for thunder and lightning, and therefore attributed them to a fictitious higher being.

This time-honoured hypothesis has a lot going for it: It explains all religion from a common experience that everyone can relate to and that we can assume was present in even the earliest humans: the desire to explain the reason for seemingly inexplicable phenomena.

I don't reject it. In fact, I think that, on one level, this is a very good explanation. However, it is like a door in a labyrinth -- it leads to more doors. For, once we accept it, we have to ask ourselves: Why do humans, those living in caves just as much as those in crowded skyscrapers, favour a supernatural explanation over the accurate and realistic confession of ignorance?

As I said, I'm not a neurologist. Simple reading and experience lead me to believe that certain traits are universal in humans: One being that unsolved riddles make us decidedly anxious. We cannot stand them, and at the same time, we love them. They keep us awake and agonizing at night. It's an obsessive relationship of love and hate. (That's probably why we love crime fiction so much: It tittilates our cognitive palate, and the riddle is certain to be solved on the last few pages.)

Once we have a name for it, we imagine that we are in control in some way. Once we have some kind of causal explanation, things seem easier to handle -- even if the explanation is completely bonkers. It has a soothing effect on us.

Of course, we can -- and we should -- ask a little further: Why do we favour having an irrelevant explanation over having none at all? And why do our supernatural explanations always involve deities? (That's a lie, of course -- but I think it is highly suspicious that the Abrahamic monotheisms completely trump Buddhism, at least in terms of their respective number of adherents.)

This is the point where we enter the shady realm of evolutionary psychology, where all is conjecture and little is fixed. Let me take the time to say goodbye to the most skeptical among our readers. I think that it is a promising field, it just hasn't had enough time to evolve, if you pardon the pun.

For example, there is the suggestion of a Hyperactive Agent Detection Device active in humans: We instinctively try to explain things by animate creatures, rather than anonymous chance, especially when we're under pressure. "For example, if a human came across an indentation in the ground that might be a lion's footprint, it is advantageous to err on the side of caution and assume that the lion is present." (from Wikipedia's article on "Agent Detection")

Anyway, it seems reasonable to suggest that our brains evolved to speculate first, and delay the skeptic anylysis of our speculation until we have ample time. You can't decide on ignorance, therefore any explanation is better than none. And it seems only natural to use already-known paradigms (from within the human social group) to explain the unknown (such as thunderstorms).

Add to that some well-explored cognitive biases, and you have the ingredients for religion: First, you see an unexplained phenomenon, and instinctively attribute it to some unknown intelligence.  Then, you explain it as the result of a being that is just like you. And before you even get to properly examining it (which may well be way beyond your grave, if you're still struggling with the problem of how to make fire), your selection and confirmation bias kick in, along with appeals to audience and, probably, authority -- and bang, you've got yourself a veritable religion. The next step is to declare doubt a grave transgression that will make deity mad and has to be punished by death. From there on, the road leads straight to Golgotha.

(Please recognize that this sounds suspiciously like a monocausal explanation -- first this, then that, leading to that --, but that's not my intention. All factors will most likely have interfered, disturbed, reinforced each other quite a few thousand times before they resulted in something that we moderns would recognize as religion. One turn of the evolutionary screw is rarely ever enough to produce something useful.)

Why Do People Still Believe?

At this point, becoming slightly annoyed with my ramblings, you may ask, why does the guy hammer on about that stuff? Isn't the original explanation totally enough to clear up the issue? We just kindly and patiently explain them kids why rationality doesn't work that way, and over time, we can only win.

Short answer: No. It is not enough.

Long answer: There is yet another phenomenon that our original hypothesis does not account for. It does not explain why people still choose to believe in all kinds of supernatural and self-refuting ideas, long after the Age of Enlightenment.

If religion were nothing but an outdated explanation, then it should be easy to convince people of its irrelevance. You just teach them about Ockham's Razor, and that's it.

If, on the other hand, religious explanations coincide with our deeply rooted intuitions about how the world works, which in turn are based on our neurological shortcomings, then you should expect people to believe in all kinds of supernatural entities, even in the presence of equal or better natural explanations, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, even though they respect the rules of rational thought in every other aspect of their life.

It seems to me that evidence points to that option.

People stubbornly believe that the number two can't show up in the next round of lottery, because it has shown up in this round. They believe that water has memory and that the more diluted a solution becomes, the more potent it is; that dying your hair will make it change its inherent colour after some time, that the Queen is a reptile and that Elvis is alive.  People consult the Tarot, the horoscope, the psychoanalyst and the priest. They believe in the existence of demons and ley lines and world-spanning conspiracies.

In short, people trust their intuitions over their rational capabilities, long after they've learned about how to use rationality. (And, of course, teaching rationality is still a sadly underdeveloped enterprise in our schools.)

And of course, the author of this article is no exception. I am currently unaware of any metaphysical beliefs in my neural network, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're not there. Outside the Starbucks where I'm sitting now, just a hundred feet away, a few members of Scientology are eagerly waiting to test my personality. Most probably, I will not give them the chance -- mostly because I've looked through their system and am not interested. But also because I believe that engaging with cults is risky business. We are all vulnerable, we are all susceptible to cognitive biases and wrong intuitions. I probably wouldn't fall for Scientology, right now. But for some guru, for some system that suits my emotional needs, at some point down the line when life deals me gall-spiced lemonade-- who knows. I can't be completely certain.

About 17 years or so ago, I was sitting on my own, in my flat, reading an essay by C.G.Jung on synchronicity. Just then, I thought I heard a noise from my neighbour's flat. That was odd, because my neighbour, a kind old lady, had died a few weeks before. I felt a cold chill running through me, but forced myself to read on. A few minutes later, the lamp on the ceiling started making weird humming noises. This time, I couldn't ignore it -- not with the image of a female patient of Jung's turned into a corpse still lingering in my mind. So I stood up to turn on a CD, in order to soothe me. Guess what -- the CD was broken and started repeating a phrase over and over again. That was the point when I retreated to my bed and hid under the blanket.

A mere coincidence? Well, yes, of course. But it certainly didn't feel like that. I can assure you that the impression of something supernatural and uncanny going on was extremely convincing. It was definitely the vague impression of an intelligent, or at least living agent. Otherwise, what would have been the point of my fear?

I believe that the only way to deal with those mechanisms is to become aware of them, and treat them with respect.

Closing Remarks

Even though this has gotten way longer than I intended, I still have the feeling that I barely scratched the surface. I didn't talk about sociological or economic hypotheses, or about the identity politics attached to religion.

Still, let me give the customary closing remark: If there is something to what I said, then it implies that simply explaining the irrationality of a given religious system will never be enough to convince the True Believer. You are essentially arguing against their intuition, against their experience - many will even confess that, saying, e.g., "christianity is not about teachings, but about a relationship with Jesus". At that point, the conversation becomes a lost cause -- the strong intuition of "some force that's out there" will always be stronger than the strongest logical argument.

I believe that explaining how those intuitions come about may be slightly more productive than the explanation why the content of said intuitions is wrong. After all, one problem of the theist/atheist discourse is that the atheist is always directly attacking the beliefs that are dearest to the believer, so the instinctive reaction is always to block any further thought.  If you get people to think about the shortcomings of the human brain independently of their religion, at least there is a chance that they may apply that knowledge to their own beliefs at some point.

I do admit, that this is just a vague, uncertain hope. But that doesn't mean that nobody else will have better ideas than me.


  1. brent.mosher@yahoo.comAugust 14, 2012 at 4:50 AM

    There's a book called The Republican Brain you might like. You can downlaoad the Audiobook off Pirate Bay. Had a recent "debate" with a theist and Icited Lawrence Krauss' A Universe From Nothing to explain how we got here without god. I thought he'd listen to it on You Tube and be converted. Sigh...he came back next day and said it was "drudgery" to listen to and "tomorrow science will have another answer" and "god's word is eternal"...and I just wanted to weep. We just aren't that smart. We think we see patterns, we want their to be meaning. And experience tells me you are right, rationality will lose to feelings almost every time. It's the almost part I cling to...but then I listen to a Republican/Conservative Christian, and I start weeping again. Great post. And yes, much more to talk about on this subject,

    1. Tell me about it. One guy on youtube said that he read the first words of my posting about the Münchhausen trilemma and instantly knew he could dismiss this crap because the actual creationist argument is about things that have a beginning... Yeah right.

      One interesting question is, how do we deal with that nonsense in a way that doesn't frustrate us so much? I guess one part of it is knowing that the religious person simply cannot go where we are. But that's obviously not enough.

    2. brent.mosher@yahoo.comAugust 18, 2012 at 2:26 PM

      Do you have a You TUbe Channel? What is it?

    3. Yes, I do. You can find it at http://www.youtube.com/user/alphabetablogger

      Don't be disappointed though, I'm not terribly videogenic. ;-)