The Scientific Study of Religion

Discussion in 'Religion Archives' started by SkinWalker, May 24, 2006.

  1. SkinWalker Archaeology / Anthropology Moderator

    The Scientific Study of Religion

    On science message-boards, the religious section –if one exists- is typically divided into two camps: believers and non-believers. Many discussion forums omit religion sub-forums because of the controversy and division that ultimately erupts, but I think that in any decent discussion community of science, there should be time and space devoted to the topic of "religion." Whether those of us in the sciences like it or not, religion and science affect each other. In addition, I think that religion deserves to be examined and explained scientifically, and my goal with this thread is to explore this notion.

    Why study religion scientifically and what are we able to objectively examine?

    Science can objectively examine all the "earthly" manifestations of religion: the institutions, the rituals, the texts, the symbolism, psychological effects, the traditions, myths, etc. Indeed, we can examine the beliefs themselves and determine if evidence exists to support these beliefs. But it's because religion is such an "important and pervasive phenomenon in human society" that it should be studied (Dennett 2006).

    Another reason to study religion is to reach a consensus about what religion actually is. The definition I provided in the Definitions post certainly doesn't do the term justice. Guthrie notes that definitions imply theories and that there simply are no good theories about religion (1993). Anthropologists have their definitions; sociologists have theirs; believers of various religions have various independent versions; philosophers yet another; and so on. Even within these groups there is much disagreement about what constitutes a "religion" or "religious thought."

    There are, however, two main positions when it comes to religion: that of believers and that of non-believers. The positions of believers are primarily central to their own religious beliefs and typically discount other positions as inferior. As Guthrie puts it (1993:8), to them, "belief must precede understanding" in many cases and that "these theories primarily concern some single, ostensibly true, religion, not religion in general.

    The various theories that explain religion are, in brief:
    1. A given theistic belief of the hundreds, if not thousands, of individual theistic worldviews that are either extant or extinct, is correct.

      This explanation only works for one religion, however, and fails to take into account what motivations other religions have for their existence. Of course, it could rightfully be argued that each of the religions' believers think theirs is the correct religion, but, logically, the answer must actually be only one or none is correct. Some do argue that all religions are correct and their focus is on the one "true" God and that it is their individual methods or practices that are diverse, yet this doesn't explain the diversity –some of which is significant enough to be contradictory between religious cults.
    2. Religion is the human response to anxiety, fear, desperation and dissatisfaction and provides comfort to humanity.

      This explanation has been around for some time and is very plausible. It has been proposed by intellectuals like Freud, Hume, Spinoza, Marx, and Malinowski. Freud is quoted as having said religion "must exorcise the terrors of nature" and "reconcile men to the credulity of fate, particularly as it is shown in death." Hume noted that "the primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear." These opinions are supported by the work of Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands where he found that the Polynesian inhabitants had varying degrees of magic for varying degrees of risk in their daily activities. If the natives were going to fish in their local lagoon, no magic was required; but as they ventured further from shore to the deep sea, the amount of ritual and magic involved increased proportional to the risk involved. This theory also supposes that people in all cultures fear the finality of death and the unpredictable forces of nature and therefore find comfort in religious beliefs of an afterlife or rewards/punishments in the form of bountiful seasons or catastrophes like floods and volcanoes.
    3. Religion creates and maintains solidarity and social cohesion.

      This is a theory of religion for which Emile Durkheim was a strong proponent (Durkheim 1965), but it was variously proposed by others such as Auguste Comte and even as early as Polybius of first century BCE Greece. Freud and Malinowski also commented on this theory as did anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown. Durkheim, however, was the most influential proponent of this theory and his position was that religion couldn't be actually about gods and deities (since they don't actually exist) and must therefore be about something else entirely. Durkheim asserted that religion seeks to divide the universe into two realms: the sacred and the profane. The sacred, being that which is devoted to the illusionary gods, and the profane, being everything else, sets apart the two realms. In ancient Greek religion, this was often a physical barrier at a sanctuary called the temenos, often just a low wall that surrounded the temple grounds. The temenos wasn't designed to restrict access but rather to demarcate the point at which the sacred began and the profane ended. According to Durkheim, the believers considered the "sacred" to be set apart from the "profane," but what really occurred was that the society was setting itself apart and thus providing a cohesive unity or a solidarity between itself and all else, such as other religions. The problem with this theory is, of course, that there are many religions, extant as well as extinct, in which there is no separation between the sacred and profane. The Navajo along with most Native American cultures view everything as sacred, albeit in varied degrees.

      This theory also makes "perpetuation of the society the purpose of religion (Guthrie 1993:17)," but there are religions that have destroyed their societies such as the Xhosa, whose beliefs caused the "cattle killing" in South Africa; and the inhabitants of Easter Island, who decimated their forests in their beliefs that included the giant monuments. Likewise, it can be argued that the Maya destroyed themselves because of ritual warfare and deforestation due to temple construction.
    4. Religion is whatever a given set of believers think it is and provides explanations valid for a given culture.

      Boyer (Boyer 2003:10-12) summarizes this theory quite well by pointing out that people created religion to explain puzzling natural and mental phenomena as well as the origins of things like plants, animals, humans, the world, etc., and that religion explains evil and suffering. Guthrie (Guthrie 1993) also calls this theory the intellectualist and rationalist theory, and compares it with science (though, clearly Guthrie is not a proponent of this theory) as a means of explaining the world. He cites Bernard Fontenelle, a 17th century intellectual: religion started when lighning, wind, and other natural phenomena made people imagine human like agents, "more powerful than themselves, capable of producing these grand effects." People imagine these agents as like themselves because they think analogically. Fontenelle's recognition that analogy and metaphor are universal makes possible a naturalistic and rationalistic account of religion."

      E.B. Tylor was one of the first to assert this theory with his study of Australian Aboriginals and his hypothesis that primitive religions begin with animism. Few who study religion today consider his work to have provided a valid or concise theory, but his discussions about animism bring up good points that relate to anthropomorphism, a concept that may well tie into each of the theories (except the irrational first in this list). Tylor proposed that early people contrived the notion of a soul or "spirit" after experiencing dreams or hallucinations about deceased loved ones and assuming that the reason these people could be "seen" after death was that there is something that survives the body when it stops living. This "life-force" can find its way into non-human things as well, such as crows, bears, rocks, etc. Tylor asserted that these "spirits" that inhabited various things by "animating" them, evolved into polytheistic religions then, finally, were reduced to a single god.

      [*]Religion has its origin in some biological or cognitive predisposition.

      Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neuroscientist from the University of California-San Diego discovered that an individual's religiosity may be heavily influenced by the electrical activity of a specific region of the brain. Ramachandran evaluated 3 groups of people: 1) patients of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) who had religious "preoccupations;" 2) "very religious" people who were not TLE; and 3) non-religious people without TLE. He found that the first group had the highest response to religious words and icons, significantly more than the control group (Ramachandran et al 1997; Ramachandran 2003). There are other theories and suggestions that religiosity in humanity is an evolutionary advantage and is passed on through DNA. It could very well be that the willingness to "believe" is just the right addition to intelligence that allows us to develop technology. The technology of agriculture may have developed from the propensity for belief: procedures for food production and water management show up in the archaeological record as having "ritual" significance that varies in intensity and frequency from culture to culture. Undoubtedly, early humans applied magical thinking to the availability of food, rain, predators, etc.

    There are certainly reasons to study religion scientifically. The theories of religion I outlined briefly above are by no means complete nor have I mentioned each theory. If anyone is willing, I'd be willing to discuss these theories in more detail in this thread as well as look at other scientifically diagnostic methods of examining religion as a human condition.

    The Theory of Human Relationships

    Another theory of religiosity in humanity originates from Robin Horton (1960).

    Horton suggests that people will turn to relationships outside of "purely human society" when those relationships within society fail to meet needs. Horton asserts that large, complex and technologically advanced societies have the ability to predict and control their physical world but the members of such societies are often individualistic, alienated and lonely when contrasted with small, simple societies that are technologically less advanced. The smaller, less complex societies are typically better at creating intimacy and friendships within their populations. They are, however, bad at material control and prediction of the physical world with regard to things like weather, agriculture, disease, etc.

    The small, simpler societies look to deities for technical assistance with the environment: they have rain gods, for instance, as well as rituals and deities associated with the forces they cannot control. The larger, more complex societies look to deities for personal relationships: "Jesus is my co-pilot;" or "do you have a personal relationship with God?" are both phrases common in American religious communities.

    Horton's theory seems to be similar to the "Wish Fulfillment" theory of #2 in my first post that suggests, "Religion creates and maintains solidarity and social cohesion." The objections to Horton's theory are similar as well: that there is much in religion that is deleterious and frightening. The Xhosa Cattle Killing; the sacrifices of children or warriors by the Maya and Aztec; the Inquisition; the Salem Witch Trials; Suicide Bombers; etc.

    Still, his correlation of societal size and technological advancement to religious trends cannot be ignored, even though no clear line of causation has been established or suggested.

    Five Stages of Religious Evolution

    Another well-known theory of religious development was proposed by Robert Bellah (1964) in which he defined an axial point of religious evolution. Bellah describes 5 stages:
    1. Primitive Religion (Native American & aboriginal)
      This stage contrasts with others in that it isn't "world rejecting" and mythical characteristics are related to characteristics found in the experienced world. Thunder, for instance, would be the expression of a deity's anger. Whereas later stages utilize sacrifice, the Primitive Stage is characterized by identification, participation, and acting out. Rituals involve reactualization where events aren't simply portrayed but made to happen again. The Hopi or Zuni mask ceremonies are good examples of this. The person in the mask becomes the mythical being.
    2. Archaic Religion (ancient Greece; early Judaic)
      This involves gods, priests and sacrifices. The distinction between men and gods is defined and demarcated. The world is not rejected, but there is likely to be a concept of hierarchical cosmology where every being has its place in the hierarchy. Fluidity of the religion exists, where individuals exercise some creativity in their worship, but the presence of priests will limit it. Different cults come into being during this stage and certain priests are attached to cult centers such as the Oracle of Delphi in Greece. Greece provides a good example of an archaic religion since there is clear record of the temenos that physically existed between the sanctuary (the sacred) and everything outside the sanctuary (the profane/secular).

      Egyptian and early Judaic cults also show these characteristics with hierarchical gods and demarcation of the sacred versus the secular. Growing populations in each of these societies also gave rise to new cults as priestly-classes and ruling-classes variously merged and emerged.
    3. Historical Religion (i.e. Roman Catholicism)
      This marks the axial point. The world is rejected both morally and philosophically and writing is now present. A dualism emerges with a concept of a supernatural world as well as an earthly world. Salvation becomes a paramount purpose of religion and old myths are put aside as the participants are taught to believe in monotheism. The human moral condition is now perceived as much worse than by primitive and archaic stages (pre-axial). Consequently, humans can only participate in the "ultimate reality" by seeking salvation.

      In this stage, a four-class system emerges
      1. Political/Military Elite
      2. Cultural/Religious Elite
      3. Peasantry (farmers)
      4. Merchants and Artisans

      Struggles begin to exist between political rulers and the religious elite, such as the King versus the Pope in pre-Anglican Britain.
    4. Early Modern Religion (i.e. Protestantism)
      This is best exemplified by the Protestant Reformation. World rejection continues as does the dualism of heaven and earth. An unmediated relationship between humanity and God is now taught and religious doctrine is no longer kept as privilege to just the religious elite but made available to all. God is now accessible to the peasantry and merchant classes. Emphasis is placed on "faith" and total dedication of oneself in all areas of life. The distinction between "elect" and the "non-elect" is substituted for the distinction that existed between ascetics like monks and the "mass of believers" as with the Historical Stage. In the Calvinist cult, for instance, the elect equates to those chosen by God for salvation. The non-elect are all others; the non-chosen.
    5. Modern Religion
      Not world-rejecting and has diminished interest in creeds or "right" doctrines. There exists an increased emphasis on the individual and the idea of moral deprivation is not taught. Bellah finds difficulty pinning this new religious movement down and admits to as much, though he cites the growing tendencies (even in the 1950s and 60s) of people to find new forms of enlightenment and that ...

    Of course, Bellah's Five Stages theory doesn't imply that the previous stages disappear, but it gives an interesting point of reference that we might apply to the anthropological perspective that Horton provides with regard to society and complexity.

    To date, I've presented the various theories of thought that others have had over the years and what some of the objections are. There are others that deserve to have their theories presented as well, such as Nietzsche's perspective as requested by HomoUniversalis - I just don't have access to Nietzche's work at this time, though I may have some notes somewhere that include it.

    In answer to a couple of critics in this thread, I'm not seeking a debate to the validity of Religion (big "R") or of an individual religion (little "r"). My goal is to provide a source of what can objectively be said about Religion or religions and what has been theorized about Religion in humanity and why it exists. Obviously there are strengths and weaknesses to these theories, some of which I've already discussed. It may be that none of the theories discussed are valid or it may be that some combination of two or more are the answer. What's important is what can be said about Religion and what has been said about it.

    The obvious thing about Religion is that some form of it exists in every human culture. Most differ drastically and they, therefore, cannot all be valid since many contradict each other in doctrine and belief. There must, then, be an objectively observable reason or propensity for Religion in humanity. This notion obviously threatens individual religions, but that doesn't eliminate the need to objectively study Religion in the same manner we study the effects of culture or population or gender or any other anthropological or sociological topic.
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  3. SkinWalker Archaeology / Anthropology Moderator

    Definitions and Terms

    Definitions for the following words and terms were obtained by typing "define:[word]" in Google. I've tried to stick with either Religious or Princeton Universities WordNet because both seem to be largely well researched and often contained the most objective as well as the most concise definitions.

    Definition and Terms will be added and updated in this post as needed.

    1. Animism -a type of religious belief that all components of the universe, including humans, animals, plant life, rocks, etc. contain some form of life force, soul or spirit.
    2. Anthropomorphism – The representation of a non-human as a human. God in the earlier parts of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) is described in human terms, as having a body. Sometimes anthropomorphism is extended to animals who are assumed to have human feelings.
    3. Atheism – According to many Atheists: having no belief about a deity; According to most non-Atheists, actively denying that a deity exists.
    4. Belief - any cognitive content held as true; impression, feeling, notion, opinion (a vague idea in which some confidence is placed)
    5. Christianity - a monotheistic system of beliefs and practices based on the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus as embodied in the New Testament and emphasizing the role of Jesus as savior
    6. Cult - adherents of an exclusive system of religious beliefs and practices; a system of religious beliefs and rituals
    7. God - the supernatural being conceived as the perfect and omnipotent and omniscient originator and ruler of the universe; the object of worship in monotheistic religions;
    8. g od - deity: any supernatural being worshipped as controlling some part of the world or some aspect of life or who is the personification of a force
    9. Mysticism – religion based on mystical communion with an ultimate reality; obscure or irrational thought
    10. Myth - a traditional story accepted as history; serves to explain the world view of a people
    11. Mythology - the body of stories associated with a culture or institution or person; the study of myths.
    12. Religion - a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny; an institution to express belief in a divine power
    13. Scientific Method - a method of investigation involving observation and theory to test scientific hypotheses
    14. Theism - the doctrine or belief in the existence of a God or gods
    15. Theory - a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena; "theories can incorporate facts and laws and tested hypotheses"; "true in fact and theory"
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  5. SkinWalker Archaeology / Anthropology Moderator


    Some of these sources are referenced directly, others were consulted. All are good places to find information relevant to the topic. I'll update this post as needed. Sources mentioned or cited elsewhere in the thread will go here as well.

    Bellah, R. (1964, June). Religious Evolution. American Sociological Review, 29(3), 358-374

    Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

    Dawkins, R. (2003). A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

    Dennet, D. (2006). Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking Adult.

    Durkheim, E. (1965). The Elemental Forms of Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.

    Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1950). Witchcraft, Oracles and magic Among the Azande, 2nd ed. Oxford: Carendon Press.

    Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Horton, Robin (1960). A definition of religion, and its uses. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 90, pp. 201-226.

    Malinowski, B. (1979/1931). The role of magic and religion. In W. Lessa & E. Vogt (Ed.), Reader in comparative religion (4th ed., pp. 38-46). New York: Harper & Row.

    Ramachandran, V., Hirstein, W., Narmel, K., Tecoma, E., & Iragui, V. (1997). The Neural Basis of Religious Experience. Annual Conference of He Society of Neuroscience, 23(Abstract #519.1).

    Ramachandran, V. (Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California (San Diego)). (2003). Audio Q&A: Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese. In Reith Lectures. Oxford University.

    Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.
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  7. I haven't read anything more sensible on this subject than the words of G. K. Chesterton:

    Science and the Savages

    A permanent disadvantage of the study of folk-lore and kindred subjects is that the man of science can hardly be in the nature of things very frequently a man of the world. He is a student of nature; he is scarcely ever a student of human nature. And even where this difficulty is overcome, and he is in some sense a student of human nature, this is only a very faint beginning of the painful progress towards being human. For the study of primitive race and religion stands apart in one important respect from all, or nearly all, the ordinary scientific studies. A man can understand astronomy only by being an astronomer; he can understand entomology only by being an entomologist (or, perhaps, an insect); but he can understand a great deal of anthropology merely by being a man. He is himself the animal which he studies. Hence arises the fact which strikes the eye everywhere in the records of ethnology and folk-lore--the fact that the same frigid and detached spirit which leads to success in the study of astronomy or botany leads to disaster in the study of mythology or human origins. It is necessary to cease to be a man in order to do justice to a microbe; it is not necessary to cease to be a man in order to do justice to men. That same suppression of sympathies, that same waving away of intuitions or guess-work which make a man preternaturally clever in dealing with the stomach of a spider, will make him preternaturally stupid in dealing with the heart of man. He is making himself inhuman in order to understand humanity. An ignorance of the other world is boasted by many men of science; but in this matter their defect arises, not from ignorance of the other world, but from ignorance of this world. For the secrets about which anthropologists concern themselves can be best learnt, not from books or voyages, but from the ordinary commerce of man with man. The secret of why some savage tribe worships monkeys or the moon is not to be found even by travelling among those savages and taking down their answers in a note-book, although the cleverest man may pursue this course. The answer to the riddle is in England; it is in London; nay, it is in his own heart. When a man has discovered why men in Bond Street wear black hats he will at the same moment have discovered why men in Timbuctoo wear red feathers. The mystery in the heart of some savage war-dance should not be studied in books of scientific travel; it should be studied at a subscription ball. If a man desires to find out the origins of religions, let him not go to the Sandwich Islands; let him go to church. If a man wishes to know the origin of human society, to know what society, philosophically speaking, really is, let him not go into the British Museum; let him go into society.

    This total misunderstanding of the real nature of ceremonial gives rise to the most awkward and dehumanized versions of the conduct of men in rude lands or ages. The man of science, not realizing that ceremonial is essentially a thing which is done without a reason, has to find a reason for every sort of ceremonial, and, as might be supposed, the reason is generally a very absurd one-- absurd because it originates not in the simple mind of the barbarian, but in the sophisticated mind of the professor. The teamed man will say, for instance, "The natives of Mumbojumbo Land believe that the dead man can eat and will require food upon his journey to the other world. This is attested by the fact that they place food in the grave, and that any family not complying with this rite is the object of the anger of the priests and the tribe." To any one acquainted with humanity this way of talking is topsy-turvy. It is like saying, "The English in the twentieth century believed that a dead man could smell. This is attested by the fact that they always covered his grave with lilies, violets, or other flowers. Some priestly and tribal terrors were evidently attached to the neglect of this action, as we have records of several old ladies who were very much disturbed in mind because their wreaths had not arrived in time for the funeral." It may be of course that savages put food with a dead man because they think that a dead man can eat, or weapons with a dead man because they think that a dead man can fight. But personally I do not believe that they think anything of the kind. I believe they put food or weapons on the dead for the same reason that we put flowers, because it is an exceedingly natural and obvious thing to do. We do not understand, it is true, the emotion which makes us think it obvious and natural; but that is because, like all the important emotions of human existence it is essentially irrational. We do not understand the savage for the same reason that the savage does not understand himself. And the savage does not understand himself for the same reason that we do not understand ourselves either.

    The obvious truth is that the moment any matter has passed through the human mind it is finally and for ever spoilt for all purposes of science. It has become a thing incurably mysterious and infinite; this mortal has put on immortality. Even what we call our material desires are spiritual, because they are human. Science can analyse a pork-chop, and say how much of it is phosphorus and how much is protein; but science cannot analyse any man's wish for a pork-chop, and say how much of it is hunger, how much custom, how much nervous fancy, how much a haunting love of the beautiful. The man's desire for the pork-chop remains literally as mystical and ethereal as his desire for heaven. All attempts, therefore, at a science of any human things, at a science of history, a science of folk-lore, a science of sociology, are by their nature not merely hopeless, but crazy. You can no more be certain in economic history that a man's desire for money was merely a desire for money than you can be certain in hagiology that a saint's desire for God was merely a desire for God. And this kind of vagueness in the primary phenomena of the study is an absolutely final blow to anything in the nature of a science. Men can construct a science with very few instruments, or with very plain instruments; but no one on earth could construct a science with unreliable instruments. A man might work out the whole of mathematics with a handful of pebbles, but not with a handful of clay which was always falling apart into new fragments, and falling together into new combinations. A man might measure heaven and earth with a reed, but not with a growing reed.

    As one of the enormous follies of folk-lore, let us take the case of the transmigration of stories, and the alleged unity of their source. Story after story the scientific mythologists have cut out of its place in history, and pinned side by side with similar stories in their museum of fables. The process is industrious, it is fascinating, and the whole of it rests on one of the plainest fallacies in the world. That a story has been told all over the place at some time or other, not only does not prove that it never really happened; it does not even faintly indicate or make slightly more probable that it never happened. That a large number of fishermen have falsely asserted that they have caught a pike two feet long, does not in the least affect the question of whether any one ever really did so. That numberless journalists announce a Franco-German war merely for money is no evidence one way or the other upon the dark question of whether such a war ever occurred. Doubtless in a few hundred years the innumerable Franco-German wars that did not happen will have cleared the scientific mind of any belief in the legendary war of '70 which did. But that will be because if folk-lore students remain at all, their nature win be unchanged; and their services to folk-lore will be still as they are at present, greater than they know. For in truth these men do something far more godlike than studying legends; they create them.

    There are two kinds of stories which the scientists say cannot be true, because everybody tells them. The first class consists of the stories which are told everywhere, because they are somewhat odd or clever; there is nothing in the world to prevent their having happened to somebody as an adventure any more than there is anything to prevent their having occurred, as they certainly did occur, to somebody as an idea. But they are not likely to have happened to many people. The second class of their "myths" consist of the stories that are told everywhere for the simple reason that they happen everywhere. Of the first class, for instance, we might take such an example as the story of William Tell, now generally ranked among legends upon the sole ground that it is found in the tales of other peoples. Now, it is obvious that this was told everywhere because whether true or fictitious it is what is called "a good story;" it is odd, exciting, and it has a climax. But to suggest that some such eccentric incident can never have happened in the whole history of archery, or that it did not happen to any particular person of whom it is told, is stark impudence. The idea of shooting at a mark attached to some valuable or beloved person is an idea doubtless that might easily have occurred to any inventive poet. But it is also an idea that might easily occur to any boastful archer. It might be one of the fantastic caprices of some story-teller. It might equally well be one of the fantastic caprices of some tyrant. It might occur first in real life and afterwards occur in legends. Or it might just as well occur first in legends and afterwards occur in real life. If no apple has ever been shot off a boy's head from the beginning of the world, it may be done tomorrow morning, and by somebody who has never heard of William Tell.

    This type of tale, indeed, may be pretty fairly paralleled with the ordinary anecdote terminating in a repartee or an Irish bull. Such a retort as the famous "je ne vois pas la necessite" we have all seen attributed to Talleyrand, to Voltaire, to Henri Quatre, to an anonymous judge, and so on. But this variety does not in any way make it more likely that the thing was never said at all. It is highly likely that it was really said by somebody unknown. It is highly likely that it was really said by Talleyrand. In any case, it is not any more difficult to believe that the mot might have occurred to a man in conversation than to a man writing memoirs. It might have occurred to any of the men I have mentioned. But there is this point of distinction about it, that it is not likely to have occurred to all of them. And this is where the first class of so-called myth differs from the second to which I have previously referred. For there is a second class of incident found to be common to the stories of five or six heroes, say to Sigurd, to Hercules, to Rustem, to the Cid, and so on. And the peculiarity of this myth is that not only is it highly reasonable to imagine that it really happened to one hero, but it is highly reasonable to imagine that it really happened to all of them. Such a story, for instance, is that of a great man having his strength swayed or thwarted by the mysterious weakness of a woman. The anecdotal story, the story of William Tell, is as I have said, popular, because it is peculiar. But this kind of story, the story of Samson and Delilah of Arthur and Guinevere, is obviously popular because it is not peculiar. It is popular as good, quiet fiction is popular, because it tells the truth about people. If the ruin of Samson by a woman, and the ruin of Hercules by a woman, have a common legendary origin, it is gratifying to know that we can also explain, as a fable, the ruin of Nelson by a woman and the ruin of Parnell by a woman. And, indeed, I have no doubt whatever that, some centuries hence, the students of folk-lore will refuse altogether to believe that Elizabeth Barrett eloped with Robert Browning, and will prove their point up to the hilt by the, unquestionable fact that the whole fiction of the period was full of such elopements from end to end.

    Possibly the most pathetic of all the delusions of the modern students of primitive belief is the notion they have about the thing they call anthropomorphism. They believe that primitive men attributed phenomena to a god in human form in order to explain them, because his mind in its sullen limitation could not reach any further than his own clownish existence. The thunder was called the voice of a man, the lightning the eyes of a man, because by this explanation they were made more reasonable and comfortable. The final cure for all this kind of philosophy is to walk down a lane at night. Any one who does so will discover very quickly that men pictured something semi-human at the back of all things, not because such a thought was natural, but because it was supernatural; not because it made things more comprehensible, but because it made them a hundred times more incomprehensible and mysterious. For a man walking down a lane at night can see the conspicuous fact that as long as nature keeps to her own course, she has no power with us at all. As long as a tree is a tree, it is a top-heavy monster with a hundred arms, a thousand tongues, and only one leg. But so long as a tree is a tree, it does not frighten us at all. It begins to be something alien, to be something strange, only when it looks like ourselves. When a tree really looks like a man our knees knock under us. And when the whole universe looks like a man we fall on our faces.

    (from Heretics)
  8. SkinWalker Archaeology / Anthropology Moderator

    Do you have something other than plagiarized works of other to offer? Perhaps your own thoughts?

    In response to the post below, I revise my characterization of plagierism above. It clearly has a source mentioned. However, it is spam. Clearly the poster was not interested in discussion, but rather simply copy/pasting a large amount of text that he/she felt was contrary to the original post and the thread topic.

    This is indicative of several things, including 1) that the poster may not be capable of forming his/her own thoughts in response because of either intellectual limitations or simply not reading the OP and bothering to form opinions or criticisms based on its content; 2) that the poster has only the desire to spam the thread.

    Had the poster bothered to quote passages of the large copy/paste he/she made and offer his/her own thoughts and opinions, we might see a more valid response -one that could even be characterized as intellectual. However, we are left with simply a large copy/paste. One that is, if not outright plagiarism, a clear violation of Fair Use.
    Last edited: May 24, 2006
  9. baumgarten fuck the man Registered Senior Member

    That was not plagiarism. Confutatis offered a source at both the beginning and end. They may not have been his own words, but it was a valuable contribution nonetheless.
  10. SkinWalker Archaeology / Anthropology Moderator

    And, as it turns out, Chesterton was quite wrong. Science may have been unsuccessful at adequately examining culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there is considerable evidence that certain ethnographies were inadequate, but they provided very valuable data that is still useful today. In more recent times, however, qualitative research models have improved drastically and ethnographies are conducted and improved upon from E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Bronislav Malinowski to current researchers like Karen Mc Carthy Brown.

    Science has proven itself capable of obtaining both qualitative and quantitative data on culture and religion.

    Moreover, Chesterton's assertions about the problem of anthropmorphism don't hold up. There are many examples of anthropomorphism in nearly every facet of human life and culture. From the earliest cave paintings to modern advertisement, anthropomorphism is a fixation of Homo sapiens.
  11. baumgarten fuck the man Registered Senior Member

    This doesn't necessarily contradict Chesterton. Humans do have a strong tendency to anthropomorphize. What are the causes or motivations for this? One idea is that anthropomorphism allows one to better relate to his surroundings. As humans, we often find it easier to relate to the world around us on human terms, and this must have been especially true during the times when most religions found their roots, before science became a cultural phenomenon and people began being regularly encouraged to think from an impersonal standpoint. (Individuals who find it natural to think this way are still relatively uncommon.) With such a dominant thought process, it would be easy to see human traits in a river and personify it as being like, say, an old man. In time, personification becomes anthropomorphism - the river is an old man - and so the spirit of the river is born. It would seem natural to satisfy our curiosity at this point by asking ourselves, rather than the physical and chemical properties of the river, its will and intent. Fish come from the river not because they inhabit a freshwater environment but because the river, in its generosity, has provided them.

    However, such a thought process is not necessarily fallacious. For science, it is useless indeed, but it is nonetheless a coherent (if informally so) conclusion based on observations of the behavior of the river. Initial mindset is key, as humanity ultimately lies in the eye of the beholder.
  12. superluminal I am MalcomR Valued Senior Member

    This is a complete load of absolute bullshit. This Chesterton fellow seems to be an asshole with no idea of the way physics, astronomy, biology, etc. are approached by scientists. What a jerk.
  13. Well, it's your simplistic idea expressed in poor, vulgar English against Chesterton's erudition. The readers can decide for themselves.
  14. usp8riot Registered Senior Member

    Science confirms one is part of all, and all part of one in the universe. Scientists, in general, seem to suggest this one, a summation of all that is and will be, is just that, it is a thing. While some religious, such as I, describe it as God. Scientists can view the body as a machine, after all, scientifically it is, but religious such as I, view it as a body, human. Science sees things for what it is made up of, any algorithms in which it can see. Religious may too, such as I, but I also see them for what they are intended. Scientists view the extreme. The purpose of the galaxy, the purpose of quarks, and so on and it's effects on us and how we effect it. Science is hard fact. It can only prove what can be proven by finite minds such as ours. And we will never know all. Science tells us, we don't have the capacity. Simply not enough logic connections in the brain to equate to all the logic connections in the universe. No where near it. So we just have to make theories for what we don't know. Some call it faith, some belief, I call it a perspective, perhaps even a theory, since my faith was founded and based on science. That is how I found God.
  15. chesterton's erudition is in fact, ignorance masquerading as enlightened criticism. the man was a "hack" for lack of a better word.
  16. SkinWalker Archaeology / Anthropology Moderator

    I think you missed the point of the thread. It wasn't a "science vs. religion" thread with the goal of defining which is better at explaining the universe. It's a thread on the way science can, and does, look at religion at a natural phenomenon that exists in one (perhaps more?) of the species on the planet.
  17. usp8riot Registered Senior Member

    Of course, science is better at explaining the universe. That should go without saying, it is, after all, the study of the universe.
  18. Jaster Mereel Hostis Humani Generis Registered Senior Member

    I think that everyone in here missed baumgarten's point about the purpose of religion, in it's most simplistic form, which is finding ways to relate oneself to the universe and the things within it. It was a good point, and very well written if a bit short, and everyone here completely ignored it.

    Instead, you guys are arguing over the Chesterton quote and turning this into another "Science vs. Religion" thread. This is ridiculous. SkinWalker, you had a good thread going here, and it has degenerated. Hopefully someone can revive it with something worthy of such an elevated topic.
  19. superluminal I am MalcomR Valued Senior Member

    Yes Mr. confutatis. I am one of the readers and have indeed decided for myself as, apparently, have others here. You seem to be particularly enamored of flowery philosophical pronouncements simply because they sound "erudite". Many words, no substance.
  20. superluminal I am MalcomR Valued Senior Member

    1) Religion was quite the noble attempt to relate to the mysterious universe given the almost total lack of a scientific mindset possesed by our ancestors. It was a good point but so what? If you choose to relate to the universe by following mysticism with no hope of ever discovering verifiable truths (as far as they go) where does that leave you? Sitting around the fire with Kreb and Broud, grunting at the sky, beseeching it not to fall on you and to please keep the bears away at night.

    2) Today, anyone who seriously follows a religion is ignoring or diminishing or afraid of the most spectacularly successful attempt to relate to the mysterious universe, science of course. Most scientists I know are far more humble in the face of the immensity of the universe than any theist I know. The theists of course are certain that they have some higher purpose in the GRAND SCHEME of things.

    3) The "scientific study" of religion is undertaken everyday by anthropologists who have long ago discovered the roots of religious thought as being an almost inevitable outcome of a natural curiosity coupled with an ability to imagine and fear the unknown coupled with an almost fanatical need to understand the world (since it's a matter of life and death for early man).

    4) The most that any self-respecting educated person today will entertain with regard to religion is that there might be some intelligence behind the overall gestalt of the universe, although it's mighty unlikely given the complete lack of any convincing evidence that points to a diety of any sort.

    5) This "elevated" topic has been hashed and rehashed for millenia with the only outcome ever being that science makes sense of the universe around us while religion does nothing but give people shallow personal comfort and a sense of superiority over those who reject religion, leading of course, to all of the wonderful historical outcomes of religious doctrine.
  21. baumgarten fuck the man Registered Senior Member

    Don't hijack this thread. It's awesome. At least pretend to objectively consider religion.
  22. baumgarten fuck the man Registered Senior Member

    I don't believe in a deity, but your and my personal beliefs are not in question right now. We aren't asking whether one exists, we are discussing the nature of religion as a social process, how and why it originated, and what it offers to humanity that it should have survived for so long.
  23. superluminal I am MalcomR Valued Senior Member

    Well, that's better then.

    Right now, I have to go mow the lawn. But...

    I feel that the nature of religion certainly complex.

    It originated as a means to satisfy our need to comprehend the world around us for survival reasons.

    It used to offer an explanation for mysterious things. Things that are still mysterious to many of us.

    It has survived so long because only recently have we discovered a better way to understand the cosmos. We evolved the complex behaviors that give rise to "religion" as a part of our survival strategy. We have no evolved instinct for science as it is currently practiced. That's why science is hard, and religion is easy. The little toes, the tail bone, the appendix, the retinal conduit placed stupidly in front of the receptor area... have all survived long past their usefulness.


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