Popular Theories of Religion

Discussion in 'Comparative Religion' started by BiologyOfReligion, Aug 3, 2015.

  1. BiologyOfReligion Registered Member

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    The most popular theories for why humans have religion are:
    1. To answer the existential mysteries--Why do we die? What is our purpose in life? Etc...
    2. To increase social cohesion in tribes/groups

    My question is, at least for #2, there are 1000s of animals species that live in social groups and have perfectly adequate social cohesion mechanisms such as territoriality, dominance hierarchy, grooming, etc. Why would humans need religion to improve their social relationships when there are already abundant mechanisms and successful social species? For those of you who might be familiar with some of the theory of religion writers--Pascal Boyer, Dennett, Matt Rossano, and others--I haven't seen anybody ask this question. Is this a valid question? Is this a valid question for #1?
     
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  3. exchemist Valued Senior Member

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    I'd have thought it is because things such as dominance hierarchy or grooming have only limited appeal - if any - to creatures capable of abstract reasoning, such as human beings. And as for point 1, only animals capable of abstract reasoning are going to consider existential mysteries - dogs or baboons won't be troubled by such things. Raw intelligence aside, they do not have the abstract language required to think about the concepts.

    So I'd see religion as a natural outgrowth of the human intellect - mediated as it is by language - specifically.
     
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  5. BiologyOfReligion Registered Member

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    I struggle with why early people developed religion consisting of completely non-empirical entities (gods) and irrational beliefs if they are/were capable of abstract reasoning. I mean, it sounds good but what's abstract reasoning got to do with needing to improve social cohesion? Is there something about it that reduces social cohesion? And ditto for existential mysteries. With abstract reasoning, why did humans have to fabricate a pantheon of mythologies that are obviously completely contrived?
     
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  7. spidergoat Valued Senior Member

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    Religion hasn't always been such a bad hypothesis. When science was non-existent, it was as good a guess as any.
     
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  8. exchemist Valued Senior Member

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    I should study one or two religions for a bit. That may give you an idea of what they do for people.
     
  9. Yazata Valued Senior Member

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    I'm a bit skeptical about both of those.

    Your number 2 seems to suggest the idea that religion evolved in the human species and that it confers some selective advantage. (Social cohesion in this case.) That idea is certainly more sophisticated than the kind of atheist thinking that it often replaces, namely the idea that religion was the intentional creation of a priestly class, intended to keep the masses under control.

    I don't buy the 'religion evolved' theory either, at least not directly where it's religion that's being selected for. I'm more inclined to see religious thinking (at some point we will have to define the word 'religion') as what we might call an 'unintended consequence' of other of our psychological characteristics:

    3. Because human psychology makes people prone to thinking in religious ways.

    What psychological characteristics are those and why do we have them? The most important are probably our human social instincts. What I'm suggesting isn't that we have religion in order to maximize our sociality as in your #2. I'm suggesting the reverse of that. We have religion because our sociality is already maximized. Human beings evolved to live in social groups, because cooperation conferred selective advantages. So we come from the factory loaded with pre-installed firmware that enables us to cooperate more easily with other people.

    Most obvious is our communicative abilities (unprecedented in the animal kingdom) and our associated language instinct. And it happened that language opened up all kinds of abstract reasoning abilities. Another less often recognized one is our ability to read, model and understand the internal states of our fellows from their external behavior. We typically have a pretty good intuition of the emotional states of the people around us and some idea of what motivates them. (Autism might be the result of the failure of that firmware.)

    As a result of all of this social stuff, people generally find themselves happier in the presence of other people than they would be in the presence of inanimate objects. Newborn babies will direct their attention more towards human face shapes than towards things not shaped like faces. Teenagers find it much easier to hang out with their friends than to learn algebra, even though doing the math is a far simpler and less demanding data processing task. Children take to their social lives effortlessly and without any formal instruction, while algebra has to be laboriously taught. And people will tend to think in the manner that they find easiest and their ideas will slip into those familiar patterns.

    So people will tend to anthropomorphize. People imagine that they see faces in the moon and in the clouds. They tend to think of inanimate processes such as storms and lightening in psychologistic terms, as being intentional and purposive acts. And that immediately suggests that there are super-powered invisible actors out there and we have the idea of gods.

    That's likely what the earliest paleolithic religion was like, a world of nature spirits and deities in which pretty much everything happening around them was conceived in psychologistic terms, imagined as animated by hidden spirits with psychologies much like their own. So they tried to win the favor of these hidden powers, much as they would try to win the favor of other people. They praised them and declared their submission to them as they would to a clan chieftain, and ritual was born. They tried to give them things. Fire was probably seen as something supernatural and profoundly magical by stone-age people, so burning sacrifices probably seemed like a good way to convey gifts to the gods. So we find the idea of burnt offerings all around the world.

    The thing to note is that in this theory none of this proto-religious behavior is being selected for by any evolutionary process. It's being produced as what we might call (with a bit of anthropomorphizing again) an 'unintended consequence' of human social instincts that obviously do confer evolutionary advantages, since humans are much more effective in groups than individually.
     
    Last edited: Aug 4, 2015
  10. spidergoat Valued Senior Member

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    It's actually pretty common among atheists. I think it's likely too.
     
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  11. spidergoat Valued Senior Member

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    Primitive societies tended to be more egalitarian. Classless.
     
  12. BiologyOfReligion Registered Member

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    I agree that most folks who consider these questions believe practicing religion is a choice. At least that's my experience hanging out with other non-believers and reading these discussions.

    My hope was to get feedback from the social cohesionists, and they are out there. Nicholas Wade wrote an entire book, The Faith Instinct, on this one theme. But they aren't responding here, or they don't have a good answer. But since you gave such a thoughtful response, I want to pursue your thinking.
    Are you suggesting that people's social interest or desire is different from other animals because of language, abstract reasoning, and theory of mind (ToM)? Your statement applies to all social animals (minus the "social stuff" part).
    I agree they do, but I don't get how that follows from what you said before it. This idea that people are prone to think in religious ways is an example of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy in which the guy shoots buckshot at the side of the barn and then draws the target around the holes. There's a lot of this religion is natural stuff like Pascal Boyer's The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion, but whenever anybody says religion is natural, it gets my hackles up. Nothing is natural. In the closed world of physics, everything has a cause--or probability in the quantum world--even if we don't fully understand what that is.
    I guess I'm missing something. I don't see how language, abstract reasoning, and ToM result in a tendency to think in religious ways. In fact, abstract reasoning should result in thinking in terms of the tangible and the empirical, not supernatural god-fantasies.
     
  13. Yazata Valued Senior Member

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    There clearly is an element of choice to it. Certainly many people in this day and age choose to reject the beliefs and practices that are widespread in those around them.

    People typically prefer the company of other human beings to being alone among inanimate objects. I think that this probably has cognitive implications. Coming from the factory pre-loaded with an innate theory of mind means that human beings find it a lot easier to think about other people than to think about mathematics or physics. Kids learn to socialize, to hang out with their friends, without any formal training at all. We don't see that with algebra, trig or chemistry. People will often prefer doing the kinds of things that come easily and naturally to them. (High-school kids prefer texting their friends to doing their algebra homework.)

    If people prefer to interact with human beings compared to things that aren't human, and if they find it a lot easier and more natural to think about other people than to think about nonhuman things, then my hypothesis is they are more likely to think about the surrounding universe in the easy and familiar ways that they think about people. And that's likely to result in the projection of human characteristics onto things that aren't human.

    Why? If you don't like thinking that religion is natural, why did you choose to call yourself 'BiologyOfReligion'?

    The opposite is more likely. Our ability to think in words allows our conceptual models of the universe and the ontologies that those suggest to become much more elaborate, filled with substances, properties, numbers, logical relationships, causes, forces, atoms, beauty, moral values, minds, consciousness, supernatural powers, creators and gods.

    My now sadly departed dog probably never spent any time thinking about any of those kind of things, including religious concepts. Mainly because she couldn't. Her concept of the world was restricted to what she could imagine seeing, hearing and (especially) smelling.
     
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2015
  14. Spellbound Banned Valued Senior Member

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    You may be interested to know that there have been reported cases of a few dogs speaking in a human language. This is not surprising as evolution could very well cause them to understand and communicate with us in the far future as they have brains which allows them to learn.
     
  15. spidergoat Valued Senior Member

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    As reported by the Son of Sam?
     
  16. BiologyOfReligion Registered Member

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    Religion has consistently persisted for 99% of humanity in polytheist tribal bands. That's where we must look to understand how and why religion began. Our modern world is not representative of historical religious practice. First we figure out what happened tens of thousands of years ago before we ask what's happening now.
    You're sticking to your guns here, but I asked if other social animals prefer their own kind over inanimate objects. (They do.) You didn't address that or maybe the way I asked the question was unclear. My point is that this is not a way to distinguish humans from other animals. You try to make the case that the desire for sociality leads to familiar patterns of thinking, which leads to anthropomorphizing. That is an enormous leap of faith. By presuming that anthropomorphizing is natural, that it's an "easy and familiar way," you've already absolved yourself of having to explain why humans do it. Since it's natural and easy for animals to socialize with their own kind, is it easy and natural for them to anthropomorphize?
    On the other hand, ToM is a way to distinguish humans from animals, but that is NOT because it's a natural and easy way of thinking. It's specifically because humans evolved the necessary cognitive traits that enable ToM. What those traits are requires an involved discussion.
    There's a lot of this 'religion is natural' stuff like Pascal Boyer's The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion, but whenever anybody says religion is natural, it gets my hackles up. Everything is natural, but everything still needs explanations. When people label something as natural, it means they don't know how to explain it. In the closed world of physics, everything has a cause--or probability in the quantum world--even if we don't fully understand what that is.
    It's not that it's more likely; it's that it happened. But we use the term reasoning, which to me means dealing with reality, not make believe. The fact that humans invent a pantheon of mythologies requires a much fuller explanation. I do believe ToM is involved, but just stating that one derives from the other isn't enough.
    Exactly. Every species has limitations and predispositions based on its evolved circumstances. ToM, religion, and everything else in our fabulous species has an evolutionary basis that demands evolutionary reasons.
     
  17. origin Trump is the best argument against a democracy. Valued Senior Member

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    I think you are little confused here.

    First of all Brian Griffin from Family Guy is not real.

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    Secondly, I think you may be dyslexic because this thread is about God not Dog.

    That reminds me of a story. A guy walks into a talent agents office and says his dog can talk. So the agent says let me see. The guy say to the dog, "What is on the outside of a tree?" and the dog says "bark". The guy then says, "What is on top of a house?" and the dog says, "roof". So the agent kicks him out of the office. The guy and the dog are sitting on the curb outside the office and the dog says, "I guess I should have said shingles".
     
  18. Jan Ardena Valued Senior Member

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    Has it occured to you that maybe those theories are a little simplistic, and there may be more to the reasons why humans are religious?

    jan.
     
  19. sideshowbob Sorry, wrong number. Valued Senior Member

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    "Perhaps there's more to Newman than meets the eye."
    "No, there's less."
    - Elaine and Jerry, in "The Big Salad"
     
  20. Jan Ardena Valued Senior Member

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    “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”
    Albert Einstein

    jan.
     
  21. Yazata Valued Senior Member

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    Ok. But there does seem to be a possibility of choice regarding religious belief and practice that any theory of religion will have to address. So whatever is driving religiosity in the human species is more of a propensity, a statistical tendency, than an innate necessity in all individuals in the same way that adenosine triphosphate cellular energy metabolism is.

    If you don't like what I think, then tell us what you think. You chose the name 'BiologyOfReligion', so I'm guessing that this subject is near and dear to your heart. You already have your own theory, right?

    I wasn't trying to distinguish human beings from other animals.

    Social animals obviously have social instincts, but that needn't always mean that they have the ability to model each other's psychological states. They might just be huddling together or following the leader. But some can. I'm reasonably certain that dogs can read humans' emotions pretty accurately, much as they do other dogs', and can intuit when we are angry, happy, excited or sad. We can read dogs as well, which is probably one reason why our species bonded in paleolithic times.

    What dogs lack, the thing that really distinguishes them from humans in psychological terms, is the language instinct and the power of conceptualization that ability seemingly gives us. The language instinct is another social instinct, since it evolved to facilitate humans cooperating in groups.

    My old dog was absolutely terrified of thunder. I don't know how she imagined it, she never talked with me about it. Perhaps she pictured some giant animal barking in the sky.

    I don't doubt that what we might call proto-religiosity is very old and predates the appearance of anatomically modern humans. Neanderthals seem to have conducted what appear to have been ritual burials, which may or may not suggest that they had some ideas of an afterlife. Even Homo erectus seems to have collected human skulls on occasion, suggesting that they may have associated heads with powerful magic of some sort. My guess is that manifestations like these blossomed as human linguistic abilities evolved and our powers of conceptualization grew along with them. The same can be said of all aspects of human culture, I guess.

    That's not exactly what I said. My view is that sociality evolved for obvious reasons, since human beings are far more effective in groups than individually. Humans with heritable psychological adaptations for group life would have a selective advantage. And that results in selection for social instincts. I'm hypothesizing that these innate social instincts result in it being easier for us to think in some ways than in others. (The fact that it's easier for us to hang out talking with our friends than it is to learn algebra is evidence of that.) So people will likely have a tendency to think in the ways that they find easiest, most comfortable and most familiar when presented with things like storms or diseases. Which results in people imagining non-human things in terms of concepts like purpose, will and intention, which are more properly used to interpret the behavior of other people. And that leads to the idea of invisible super-powered persons in whom that purpose, will and intention reside, and we have arrived at the idea of gods.

    That doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. So you don't think that religion is natural? Or maybe you do, but you don't like how anyone else says it? If you have a different way of approaching these questions that you think is better than anyone else's, then tell us what it is.
     
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2015
  22. sideshowbob Sorry, wrong number. Valued Senior Member

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    The problem is that fools often think they understand what they don't even know.
     
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  23. BiologyOfReligion Registered Member

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    Innate or instinctual doesn't mean all or nothing. Like language, I believe religion has genetic underpinnings, but we all learn the specific language or religion based on the culture we grow up in. It requires both genetically-controlled brain modules/wiring and learning. Yes, it's a propensity that has a genetic basis.

    So I'm going to pitch a couple of ideas I have about humans and religion, and we'll see if it gets any traction.
    Agreed.
    These social instincts originally evolved 100s of millions of years ago, and we've inherited them. So the fact that humans are social is not unique or special. They already were social during the transition from Ramapithecus to Australopithecus to Habilis to Erectus and everything in between. The selective advantage was already there long before humans arrived. We didn't evolve our special cognition because humans were social beings. The real question is what changed? My original question here was Why would humans need religion to improve their social relationships when there are already abundant mechanisms and successful social species? This is where ToM comes in and a bunch of other cognitive features.

    Both ToM and symbolic language function to improve social interaction. One challenge is to determine what was the evolutionary impetus for language and ToM? If we're already social during early human evolution, can there be selection pressure to be more social? I can't really say, but it seems counterintuitive to me. At least I don't see any evidence to support the idea. My guess is that the real change and real advantage for these cognitive changes had to do with our ability to (somewhat) uncouple from the restrictions of instinct. Our evolving brain gave us far more flexibility. Humans are capable of learning/processing contingent or conditional information and can adapt to different environments. We can deal with temporary inputs compared to other animals whose range of behavior is much more limited by their inherited behavioral repertoire. This flexibility allows us to use information that might only be valid locally or temporarily. The upshot is we can alter our culture and environment within our own lifetime unlike other animals who, in general, have to undergo slow biological evolution when their environments change. The enormous power of this ability is evident today in civilization; in the way humans have changed the earth. Language and ToM co-evolved as part of this overall evolutionary strategy, which have particularly social consequences.

    The other idea I want to propose has to do with what religion is. Most people think of religion in terms of belief in gods and mythologies. No doubt, but as you noted, I'm biologyofreligion, so how would we approach religion biologically? Beliefs are not so much scientifically studied; only the fact that humans have beliefs can perhaps be scientifically studied, but people have beliefs about everything: social, political, even scientific beliefs. So belief is a characteristic of people but not specific to religion. True that beliefs are particularly important to religion, but I still want a more biological approach.

    Ethologists are the scientists who study animal behavior and analyze animal moods and intentions based on their overt actions, Jane Goodall being the most famous example. Animals display various forms of communication including vocalizations and what is termed body language, which provides a rich dialect for scrutinizing meaning. You mentioned the way dogs see the world. As you know canine dispositions are assessed by body position such as a wagging or lowered tail, bared teeth, ears flattened or up, and other indicators. Can we apply the same approach to humans? Can we understand human behavior based on what people do rather than what they say or think? When we assess people ethologically, we don't ask them overtly for belief or intention. People have body language just like other animals as revealed, for instance, by Paul Ekman's facial emotion studies. Can we apply the same or similar approach to religious behavior?

    If you haven't bailed on me yet, what might be religious behaviors? I could point out sacrifices, rites of passage, ceremonies and festivals, prayer. These are, indeed, connected to religion, but they describe a wide range of rituals. Instead, are there specific ritual activities that are behaviors, actions that people actually do? In Religion: An Anthropological View, Anthony Wallace lists 13 "minimal categories of religious behavior." For him, they are prayer, music, physiological exercise, exhortation, reciting the code, simulation, mana, taboo, feasts, sacrifice, congregation, inspiration, and symbolism. That's fine, but he's not concerned with biology, so I slice and dice it a different way, not that mine is the final word at all, but I focus on what I think is ethologically observable. For me, the pertinent ritual behaviors are: music, dance, art, mythology, and prayer. I choose these because I think they are amenable to a more scientific approach...not necessarily an easy scientific approach. That's plenty for now. I'll leave it up to you if you want more diatribe, but at least you know a bit more where I'm coming from.
     

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