Monday Musing: Reexamining Religion

Pervez Hoodbhoy is a well-known physicist who teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan. He is also well-known for his frequent and intelligent interventions in politics. In an article entitled Miracles, Wars, and Politics he writes:

PervezOn the morning of the first Gulf War (1991), having just heard the news of the US attack on Baghdad, I walked into my office in the physics department in a state of numbness and depression. Mass death and devastation would surely follow. I was dismayed, but not surprised, to discover my PhD student, a militant activist of the Jamaat-i-Islami’s student wing in Islamabad, in a state of euphoria. Islam’s victory, he said, is inevitable because God is on our side and the Americans cannot survive without alcohol and women. He reasoned that neither would be available in Iraq, and happily concluded that the Americans were doomed. Then he reverentially closed his eyes and thrice repeated “Inshallah” (if Allah so wills).

The utter annihilation of Saddam Hussein’s army by the Americans which soon followed, did little, of course, to attenuate this student’s convictions. (Also, it is mildly interesting that Muslim conceptions of heaven focus so much on precisely the easy availability of alcohol and women.) Constantly confronted by such attitudes, atheists such as myself are often driven to hair-pulling exasperation by the seeming irrationality of religious belief, and specifically its immunity to refutation by experience, logic, argument, or it seems, anything else. Professor Hoodbhoy goes on to note that:

In Pakistan today – where the bulk of the population has been through the Islamized education initiated by General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980’s – supernatural intervention is widely held responsible for natural calamities and diseases, car accidents and plane crashes, acquiring or losing personal wealth, success or failure in examinations, or determining matters of love and matrimony. In Pakistan no aircraft – whether of Pakistan International Airlines or a private carrier registered in Pakistan – can take off until appropriate prayers are recited. Wars certainly cannot be won without Allah’s help, but He has also been given the task of winning cricket matches for Pakistan.

Dawkins_7 And this state of affairs by no means obtains only in Islamic societies. It is more-or-less universal. Consider the following about the born-again-Christian-led United States: all polls about such subjects show that a great majority of Americans believe in miracles, angels, an afterlife where one will be reunited with one’s relatives and friends, and according to one recent poll, 96 percent believe in God. It is only in the rarefied air of elite academic institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences that one finds a majority of atheists and agnostics. And contrary to popular misconception, Europe is not much different. The reaction to this ubiquity of faith-based superstition, on the part of intellectuals, is best epitomized by Richard Dawkins’s frequent and witty expressions of indignant frustration with and attacks on religion. (He is not always choleric on this issue: one of the more tenderly moving things I have read is Dawkins’s letter to his 10 year-old dauStephen_1ghter Juliet, published in A Devil’s Chaplain as “Good and Bad Reasons for Believing.” If I ever have children, it will be required reading for them.) And I stand beside him in calling attention not only to the silliness of religious superstition, but to the misguidedly anodyne view repeatedly expressed by Stephen Jay Gould and others that religion and science do not clash and can peacefully coexist. They can do no such thing, and one has only to look at the recent court battles over Intelligent Design in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Delaware to see that (battles similar to the creationist ones Gould was bravely at the forefront of fighting while alive). But until recently, few scientists have put much effort into explaining the ubiquity of religious beliefs. If it is so irrational, then why is religious conviction so widespread?

BoyerpicToday, I would like to report the fascinating work on this question of two young scientists: Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist, and Paul Bloom, a psychologist. Traditional explanations of religious beliefs have tended to fall roughly into two categories: first, there is what might be called the “opiate of the masses” view. This claims that religion is a way of assuaging the pain and suffering of everyday life. Faced with injustice and an indifferent physical universe, people have invented scenarios which help them imagine rewards and punishments in an afterlife, and other ways of injecting meaning into a seemingly purposeless existence. And second, there is the category of explanation of religion which relies on the social benefits which accrue to a society which shares religious beliefs. In addition to providing group solidarity through ritual, these might include the acceptance of uniform moral codes, for instance. On this theory, religious beliefs are seen as memes that are particularly successful because they provide a survival advantage to the groups that hold them (maybe even simply by making people happier). As Pascal Boyer points out in his excellent book Religion Explained, in both cases it is assumed that reason is somehow corrupted or even suspended by the attractiveness (and benefits) of religious belief. [That’s Boyer on the right, above.]

Bloom_1There are problems with these views, and I will, again, just mention two: first, it is clear that people will not just believe anything that provides meaning or promotes social cohesion. There is a very limited type of belief that people are willing to accept, even in religion, and these explanations do not address this selectivity. For example, it would be very hard to convince people of a God who ceased to exist on Wednesdays [Boyer’s example]. The second problem, which has also been pointed out by Steven Pinker, is that both these types of explanation rely on showing that some advantage comes from believing in religion, but this is really a putting of the cart before the horse. We do not generally just believe a thing because having the belief might help us; we believe things that we think are true. If you are hungry, it may help you to believe that you just ate a huge meal, but you will not. As Bloom says in an article in this month’s Atlantic, “Heaven is a reassuring notion only insofar as people believe such a place exists; it is this belief that an adequate theory of religion has to explain in the first place.” [The picture is of Bloom.]

The new approach to explaining religion that Boyer and Bloom (and Scott Atran and Justin Barrett and Deborah Kelemen and others) represent does not see religious belief as a corruption of rationality, but rather as an over-extension of some of the very mental mechanisms that underlie and make rationality possible. In other words, rather than religion having emerged to serve a social or other purpose, in this view it is seen as an evolutionary accident. In particular, Bloom uses some developments in child psychology to shed light on the issue of religious beliefs, and it is these that I would like to focus on now. I cannot here go into the details of the experiments which demonstrate this, but it turns out that one of the things which seems hardwired (is not learned by experience) in young infants (before they can even speak), is the distinction between inanimate and animate objects. Infants are clearly able to distinguish physical things from objects which demonstrate intentionality and have psychological characteristics. In other words, things with minds. In Paul Bloom’s words, children are “natural-born dualists” (in the Cartesian sense). It is quite clear that the mental mechanisms that babies use to understand and predict how physical objects will behave are very distinct from the mechanisms they use to understand and predict how psychological agents will behave. This stark separation of the world into minds and non-minds is what, according to Bloom, makes it eventually possible for us to conceive of minds (or souls) without bodies. This explains beliefs in gods, spirits, an afterlife (we continue without bodies), etc. The other thing that babies are very good at, is ascriptions of intentionality. They are very good at reading desires and intentions in animate objects, and this is necessary for them to function socially. Indeed, they are so sensitive to this that they sometimes overshoot and even ascribe goals and desires to inanimate objects. And it is this tendency which eventually makes us animists and creationists.

Notice that while previously most people have proposed that we are dualists because we want to believe in an afterlife, this new approach turns that formulation around: we believe in an afterlife because we are born dualists. And we are born dualists to be able to make sense of a world which has two very different kind of entities in it (in terms of trying to predict what they will do): physical objects and things with minds. Bloom describes as interesting experiment in which children are told a story (with pictures) in which an alligator eats a mouse. The mouse has clearly died, and the children understand this. Bloom says:

The experimenters [then] asked the children a set of questions about the mouse’s biological functioning–such as “Now that the mouse is no longer alive, will he ever need to go to the bathroom? Do his ears still work? Does his brain still work?”–and about the mouse’s mental functioning, such as “Now that the mouse is no longer alive, is he still hungry? Is he thinking about the alligator? Does he still want to go home?”

As predicted, when asked about biological properties, the children appreciated the effects of death: no need for bathroom breaks; the ears don’t work, and neither does the brain. The mouse’s body is gone. But when asked about the psychological properties, more than half the children said that these would continue: the dead mouse can feel hunger, think thoughts, and have desires. The soul survives. And children believe this more than adults do, suggesting that although we have to learn which specific afterlife people in our culture believe in (heaven, reincarnation, a spirit world, and so on), the notion that life after death is possible is not learned at all. It is a by-product of how we naturally think about the world.

While it is this natural dualism that makes us prone to belief in an afterlife, spirits, gods, and other supernatural entities, it is what Pascal Boyer has called a hypertrophied sense of social cognition which predisposes us to see evidence of purpose and design even when it does not exist. Bloom describes it this way:

…nascent creationist views are found in young children. Four-year olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions (“to go in the zoo”) and clouds (“for raining”). When asked to explain why a bunch of rocks are pointy, adults prefer a physical explanation, while children use a functional one, such as “so that animals can scratch on them when they get itchy.” And when asked about the origins of animals and people, children prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism–and belief in God–is bred in the bone.

As another example of attribution of causality to intentional agents where there are none, consider the widespread belief in witches. In an article entitled Why Is Religion Natural?, Pascal Boyer writes:

Witchcraft is important because it seems to provide an “explanation” for all sorts of events: many cases of illness or other misfortune are spontaneously interpreted as evidence for the witches’ actions. Witchcraft beliefs are only one manifestation of a phenomenon that is found in many human groups, the interpretation of misfortune as a consequence of envy. For another such situation, consider the widespread beliefs in an “evil eye,” a spell cast by envious people against whoever enjoys some good fortune or natural advantage. Witchcraft and evil eye notions do not really belong to the domain of religion, but they show that, religious agents or not, there is a tendency to focus on the possible reasons for some agents to cause misfortune, rather than on the processes whereby they could do it.

For these occurrences that largely escape control, people focus on the supernatural agents’ feelings and intentions. The ancestors were angry, the gods demanded a sacrifice, or the god is just cruel and playful. But there is more to that. The way these reasons are expressed is, in a great majority of cases, supported by our social exchange intuitions. People focus on an agent’s reasons for causing them harm, but note that these “reasons” always have to do with people’s interaction with the agents in question. People refused to follow God’s orders; they polluted a house against the ancestors’ prescriptions; they had more wealth or good fortune than their God-decreed fate allocated them; and so on. All this supports what anthropologists have been saying for a long time on the basis of evidence gathered in the most various cultural environments: Misfortune is generally interpreted in social terms. But this familiar conclusion implies that the evolved cognitive resources people bring to the understanding of interaction should be crucial to their construal of misfortune.

To state it one more time, the correct explanation for the ubiquity and stability of religious beliefs lies not in postulating rash abandonments of rationality for the gain of some social or mental benefit, but rather, such superstitious beliefs are firmly rooted in our ordinary mechanisms of cognitive functioning. In addition, these beliefs are parasitic upon mental systems which have evolved for non-religious functions, but which have similarities to religious concerns: for example, fear of invisible contaminants (religious rituals of washing), or moral intuitions and norms (religious commandments).

Obviously, to see this sort of naturalistic account of religious and other supernatural beliefs as an endorsement or defense of religion would be to commit a naturalistic fallacy of the worst sort. What Boyer, Bloom, et al have done is to point out a weakness in our cognitive apparatus, which is a by-product of the way our mental systems have evolved. This is analogous to the well-known systematic weaknesses that people show in thinking about probabilistic phenomena (shamelessly exploited in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, not to mention the highly deplorable state-run lotteries). Having discovered an accidental source of incorrect beliefs within ourselves, we must struggle against it, and be ever-vigilant when thinking about these sorts of issues.

Have a good week!

My other recent Monday Musings:
Posthumously Arrested for Assaulting Myself
Be the New Kinsey
General Relativity, Very Plainly
Regarding Regret
Three Dreams, Three Athletes
Rocket Man
Francis Crick’s Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President