Ron Ferguson has been writing at the Herald, For good or ill, religion is a basic human need. I disagree with most of it. Some lines like:
The attempts to provide evolutionary reasons for the widespread persistence of religion are unconvincing. Dogmatic reductionism — “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world”, in Dawkins’s words — doesn’t satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart.
suggest to me someone who hasn’t read much or perhaps any evolutionary explanations of religion, but has read what other people — who may or may not have read such articles — say about these explanations. I can dispute Ferguson’s claims on scientific or philosophical grounds, but theological grounds too.
If we accept that religious insight is needed to understand religion, then the fact that at most one religion is true becomes a problem. How do we explain all these false religions? Are they the product of a trickster god? If they are products of a trickster god then there’s no way to know that your deeply cherished beliefs are not a cosmic jape. If they’re not the product of a supernatural force then they are natural and potentially explicable. This means that people like David Sloan Wilson, Walter Burkert, Pascal Boyer, people actually working on explanations of religion have something say on the subject.
It’s a very basic error and I think it highlights a problem with the study of the evolution of religion. A lot of people professing to be talking about the origins of religion really aren’t interested in the debate. Instead it’s about contemporary politics. Ron Ferguson, former minister at Saint Magnus Cathedral, Orkney, is saying ‘don’t listen to Dawkins’ because of what Dawkins means for the authority of the church now. Lest you think this is specifically a problem with theists I should add I’m not convinced that Dawkins is that bothered about the origins of religion either. If he were then he would have conducted his ‘Chinese junk’ thought experiment which he introduced in 1998 in his foreword to ‘The Meme Machine’ and then returned to in ‘The God Delusion’. Again I’d argue that Dawkins is far more concerned at the political influence religion has today.
So how do you explain religion? I was going to say that you have to adopt a judgementally neutral view. When zoologists examine lions they don’t load moral judgements of their inhumane method of slaughter into their work. Similarly the social benefits or detriments of religion shouldn’t be an issue when examining the facts of origin and growth of religion. However this is where the separate magesteria model proposed by Steven Jay Gould breaks down. It is a view of many religions that the reason why their religion existed and grew is that a supernatural being made it so. So, for example, David Sloan Wilson who is extremely careful to try and avoid offending believers nonetheless still does so when he proposes an explanation for Calvinism which doesn’t include a God, as explained by ardent Protestant kfeich at LibraryThing:
Why would we want to spend time discussing a book by an atheist whose basic presupposition about reality (There is a God) is faulty? Most, if not all, subsequent propositions and conclusions would therefore be estranged from the truth.
Most Christians I’ve met wouldn’t be so dogmatic in their refusal to accept there can be non-religious explanations for things. I’ve yet to see serious agitation that many popular cookbooks refuse to say that the dish will be delicious only if it is part of God’s plan.
I’d be surprised if Ron Ferguson were that dogmatic because of how he sees his place in relation to the longer history of Orkney. In his article he connected the Middle Eastern mystery cult he follows with the prehistoric rituals of peoples thousands of years before then. This only works if you sense of continuity of people and place. For Ferguson the Orkneys weren’t orientalised, it was Christianity which became Orcadian. This makes current Christianity the latest phase in a long tradition of introspective methods to understand the universe. It also clearly requires a specific view of reality, and it’s not one I can share. I’m really not sure to what extent if any modern religion is analgous to ancient religion. Modern Christianity is strikingly different to ancient Christianity. In Catholicism the martyrs who gave their lives to keep their faith in the Roman Empire, were wasting their time according to the current Pope who refused to do the same in Nazi Germany. Protestants seem to veering towards veneration of the Bible as an authority, an authority which the earliest Christians lacked. The Greeks themselves didn’t have a word for religion, so in some ways the study of it in its earlier stages is an anachronism. Continuity of belief is an article of faith for most religions. We believe now what they believed then because the truths of religion are timeless. But that’s a huge assumption which doesn’t hold for religion in historical periods. I can’t see how that assumption could be justified when looking at earlier beliefs.
So if modern religion does not map easily onto past beliefs, how do I currently see religion evolving? I think it grows from the personal experience of intent.
Personally I’m an epiphenomenalist, but while I don’t believe I have free will I certainly feel as though I have free will. Indeed I feel that it was the lack of any plausible mechanism for free will, and the demostration of complex and chaotic behaviour that persuaded me free will is, in material sense, meaningless. Did I have any choice but to believe it if I had no free will? At this point your head may be spinning with trying to work out the sensation of being an insensate automaton, but you’re not. This is important. The sensation of thinking, regardless of whether or not it’s free will, is the strongest sensation you have. Everything you know about the universe is based in the sensation that there is a you to sense it. This is first order intentionality.
Something else you know is that other minds exist. You see it from the actions of people. You can also see it in the actions of animals. I don’t mean that if you get too close and most animals can be scared off. That could be a purely mechanical relationship. Instead I mean there are times you can recognise purpose in something else’s actions. Sometimes you see the goal achieved and you can work out what the purpose was. Sometimes you don’t but that doesn’t mean that you always conclude thate there was no purpose. This is second order intentionality. The thing about second order intentionality is that you’re often not fussy about what you give it to. Humans and animals seem reasonable but it’s also common for people to yell at inanimate objects. Alan Turing proposed that when people cannot differentiate between a human and a computer interacting with them, then a machine can be considered artificially intelligent. Given the abuse I’ve heard poured at Mr Clippy I’d argue the opposite. The visceral reaction, the anger and the venom aimed at a computer means it passes a test for Artificial Stupidity or possibly Artificial Malevolence, which requires at least some form of perceived mind regardless of whether or not the computer really has a mind. This ability to assign intent where there may or may not be any can be applied to other objects. Putting intentionality into nature can have all sorts of side-effects. I’ll pull together three.
I wish I knew who first described religion as Man’s attempt to communicate with the weather. The random patterns could make it a candidate for assigned intentionality. It would certainly provide a puzzle which needs explaining. It’s likely that explaining random patterns is something we’re really good at. The evidence comes from pigeons.
Feeding pigeons. Photo (cc) dhammza
Superstition in the Pigeon is a genuine scholarly article by B.F. Skinner. In it he recounts experiments which he believed showed pigeons were capable of supertitious behaviour. Basically if you put a pigeon in a cage with a button which, when pressed, will operate a grain dispenser — the pigeon will learn to use it. Where it gets interesting is when you change the button so that when it’s pressed it’s purely random as to whether grain is dispensed or not.
When you do this then the pigeon still presses the button, with intermittent success. What it doesn’t know is that the success is purely random. It acts as though it thought it got action right on the occasions when food came out. Perhaps it cocked its head to left before pressing the button. Now the pigeon repeats that action with variations, until the next random payout reinforces that behaviour and leads to further elaborate actions by the pigeon. I think it’s a bit of a leap to conclude that the pigeon is superstitious, but it’s clearly responding to some conditioning. The same can be observed in humans too.
I suppose I could have given fruit machines as an example of conditioning people to random rewards instead, but there’s something pleasing about citing a man who taught pigeons to dance, play table tennis and guide missiles. The pigeon guided missile had only one flaw.
Our problem was no one would take us seriously.
The response to random events could therefore appear to be random and arbitrary in humans. I’d suggest that arbitrary is fair, it will not be related to success of a technique, but it will not be random. It will be a learned behaviour and so vary between ethnic groups. If you like we’re all talking to the weather, but nonetheless we talk to it in the local language. I like the Spanish term used by a lot of archaeoastronomers, cosmovisión, to describe the way peoples see the world. Stripped to its basic meaning it’s how people perceive the universe, regardless of whether this world-view is scientific or not. Different peoples have different cosmovisións and so their world-view is an ethnic marker.
The marker is not purely decorative. Once you make some arbitrary assumptions about how the universe works, some combinations of actions are more coherent than others. Some actions by people from another ethnic group may even be actively disruptive. Cosmovisión will be used in many important activities. It is vital to sow the seeds correctly, to harvest and winnow in the same way. The protection of the food surplus must be done in the right manner. Failure in any of these could have fatal consequences. The view from within the group is that this vision of reailty, and so is the same for all members of that group. Therefore we should see cosmovisións emerge as detectable group characteristics. This is old hat to archaeologists and historians who already know that if we were Vikings we’d build our houses this way, or commemorate our dead that way.
Largely unrelated to cosmovisión is the development of power. My view of cosmovisión could be described as memetic, extelligent or based in TXM. My view of power in contrast owes more to structuration theory, which I’m told is incompatible with memetics. The lightweight summary of structuration theory is as follows:
Social action is performed by agents work work within structures. The structures confine and constrict what actions are open to the agents. At the same time agents by their actions make and maintain these structures. The relationship between agents and structures can get very complex, and it’s widely viewed that agents will seek to maximise their position within structures which creates the longevity of some structures. For example its the view of quite a few politicians that democracy in the UK is broken. The power is held by people voted in by an overwhelming minority and so the balance of power does not reflect the views of the country. The Liberal Democrats and many Labour politicians in the 1980s were keen on a form of Proportional Representation to elect governments. The Liberal Democrats, who remain out of power, still are but there’s not really the same desire of PR from Labour. No-one who thinks they can win the whole game under the current structure is likely to willingly change the structure to share power. Power structures should be self-reinforcing which, if you’ve read 1984, is really scary. If any power structure which increases the power of individual(s) with in it will automatically self-reinforce, then it would also suggest that there should be a universal tendency to more from egalitarian societies to socially stratified societies. Again history shows then when an economic surplus is possible stratification follows.
Morality is not necessarily related to either of the facets above, which might seem preposterous to anyone with a modern view of religion. Indeed one of the reasons fundamentalists give for the importance of religion is that it is a moral foundation. Plato disagreed.
The doings of Cronus, and the sufferings which in turn his son inflicted upon him, even if they were true, ought certainly not to be lightly told to young and thoughtless persons; if possible, they had better be buried in silence. But if there is an absolute necessity for their mention, a chosen few might hear them in a mystery, and they should sacrifice not a common [Eleusinian] pig, but some huge and unprocurable victim; and then the number of the hearers will be very few indeed.
…the narrative of Hephaestus binding Here his mother, or how on another occasion Zeus sent him flying for taking her part when she was being beaten, and all the battles of the gods in Homer –these tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have an allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.
If you’re familiar with the Greek myths then it’s perhaps no wonder that Plato didn’t see the Gods as great moral guides. The same objection can be made of other Gods. Richard Dawkins has been accused of being offensive when talking about the actions of the Abrahamic god. Apparently the notion of drowning all the newborn children on the planet for the greater good is, in contrast, perfectly acceptable. The issue is not whether or not your god is a guide to morality, but rather that clearly societies lived with concepts of morality which were not derived from religious examples.
Combine some of these features together and interesting things start to happen. For instance you could derive morality from cosmovisión. It might seem obvious to some people if this is the way the world is then that is the way we should be. I don’t think it is obvious. Many animals bring home injured prey for their young to play with, but I wouldn’t advocate bringing home a rabbit to vivisect for fun and education. Nonetheless this is/ought feature is common. Homosexuality is said to be wrong because it isn’t natural. Anyone who points out that if you go out and look there are plenty of homosexual relationships in the animal kingdom and that actually it’s not natural to dress up in manmade fibres and have your own cable televangelism channel is thought to be missing the point.
From morality you can derive power. Again this does not necessarily follow. There are plenty of tales of people eschewing the trappings of wealth. On the other hand in the hand the idea you are doing right makes you an attractive person to follow, which why affairs for politicians are such a problem, but you knew that. Nonetheless to be a powerful person it is expected that you are also a moral person. This might seem nonsensical when you look at the sort of people who get power. Nonetheless they generally have justified their bloodlust on the grounds that it’s the right or necessary thing rather than saying “What’s the point of being in charge of an army if I don’t use it?”
Bizarrely you can in turn use power to show your prowess in cosmovisión. It generally isn’t necessary to demonstrate any coherence with reality for your ideas. Your own power can justify your position of reality. For instance your favourite religious leader must be right about the universe, else he wouldn’t have gained so much power would he? This isn’t a purely religious perspective. The success of financial traders in the city is very similar to what would be expected by chance. Nevertheless the successful traders are given the bigger bonuses because their success is used as evidence that they know what they’re doing rather than simply being lucky enough to occupy the upper quartile of a statistical scatter. Failure later on isn’t due to chance either, but to Freddie losing his grip/hunger/focus etc.
These relationships can all be reversed too so success in cosmovisión, predicting the world’s behaviour more accurately, can be used to gain power. Have enough power can you can define what is moral. As for morality, if what you know of how the world should be is contradicted by reality, then you can show when reality is wrong. You now have a foundations for a mutually reinforcing meta-structure, bind them together in a social narrative which explains the intent observed in natural forces and you have a religion. Except there is a problem.
Reality strikes back
I said above that morality can tell you when the world has gone wrong. In a random system this will work because sooner or later things will work. The rains fail because of immoral behaviour. This can be fixed by a return to morality and if this doesn’t work then clearly someone isn’t behaving in a moral way. For thousands upon thousands of years this line of logic has been unchallengeable. Science has provided a means to challenge it.
The reason why Science is a potent danger to Religion is that it eliminates the need for gods in its explanations. The cosmovisión strand can now be profane. This will not eliminate the need for a cosmovisión, nor for morality or power structures, but it will demolish the material which has bound these three strands into one. The social meta-narrative cannot stand. If you don’t need a god to describe what is, then no god-based morality can be derived from a cosmovisión. Similarly if your cosmovisión and now morality lack a god, then gods are unnecessary for power. The basic needs which religion controlled remain, Ferguson is right about that, but the ties that bind are show to be window-dressing. Religion must adapt or die.
The view of people like Stewart and Cohen, or Dawkins is that Science, understood properly, kills Religion. It is possible that this will happen but the rise of people like Deepak Chopra suggests to me that there’s a part of the brain evolved to be gullible. History also shows that Religion is not one static thing. It adapts. The Christianity of the USA is not the Christianity of Mexico, nor Greece. The Christianity of the early twenty-second century will not be the same as the Christianity of the twenty-first, though I’ve no doubt it will claim to be. Any other social change would be subject to debate by all society, and the behaviour of a group of people whose actions will impact us all should be placed under the same scrutiny. Ferguson is not only ignorant when he says ‘Scientific materialism has little to say at the open grave, other than “get over it, pal”.’ but also ignores the follow-up question ‘…and what can we reliably know from religion that isn’t just someone’s opinion?’ This is why religious matters must be scrutinised just as any other social movements would be. Yet scrutiny does not always have to be hostile.
I was looking for a photo to illustrate the concept of religion evolving. What I found was a wide range of photos including one of a woman in hotpants, who I presume from her pose, had answered the photographer’s prayers. But the one which caught my eye was the one above of someone volunteering to help out after a tornado. I’ll admit it doesn’t seem to be about religion evolving, but the description is compelling. Here’s a part:
If I want God, I will pick up this rake and scrape this ground. What religion is that? If I want to feel God, I will get a tearful hug from a lady I’ve never met just because I found her spoons. Tell me, what one true religion is that? It is no religion. Religion is completely and utterly irrelevent from my work, yet at the very same time I’m doing God’s will, get it? I’m doing all Gods’ wills.
Alas, a site I forgot to bookmark was a Christian weblog I stumbled upon a couple of years ago. The entry was about the reward that God gave Christians for doing good — and about how it was irrelevant. They argued the point about Christianity was that it taught you should do good. Not that you should do good because it it got you into heaven. That’s not a basically good idea which is negated by being framed in a religious way. It’s simply a good idea. Equally bad ideas should not be protected because they’re religious. Bigotry is bigotry even if it’s a bloke in a dress raging against transsexuals.
I doubt I’ll believe in a God, there simply isn’t the evidence, but that doesn’t prevent you from believing that as a human you can be part of something bigger. When Ron Ferguson looks back at what connects him with prehistoric peoples I think that he could take that belief as something basic to all humans. Yet that something is something all humans can share and can be examined scientifically as it has measureable consequences. I could also be persuaded that a belief that serviced our needs rather than our lusts might be a good thing. Yet without that element of lust, the sating of the desire for power, could you call that belief a Religion?