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The Evolution of God, Part 2 12 April 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion.
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A friend from some of the post- and progressive Mormon forums I participate on, Bob McCue, wrote a great comment to my original post (read it here), and I thought it merited a new post and a continued conversation.

First, more on "memes." This is an idea that really must be addressed in the near future by either an anthropologist or a cultural sociologist. The idea that there are cultural units of meaning that circulate and function in a way analagous to genes drives me, a cultural sociologist, batty. The general idea that there are units of meaning may be mildly useful in cultural analysis, but drawing parallels with genes falls on its face after the most brief examination of how cultural meanings actually arise, circulate, transform, and fade away.

The research that claims that religiosity leads to more happy, healthy people is pretty well accepted now, but there are some problems with the conclusions that some people draw from them. First, these are studies conducted on Western populations that have had a noticable decline in community ties since industrialization. So in contemporary America, most Americans get community from religion, which affords them an identity and a 'group affiliation,' which can be lacking without a religion. What we know from community studies (this is outside my area, so I just know the basics) is that any positive and accepting group affiliation provides the sense of purpose and connection and community that religion does. In other words, that benefit is not unique to religion. After that, what you have is significant evidence that religiosity greatly reduces the likelihood that a teenager will have experimented with drugs, alcohol and sex. It does not eliminate the divorce rate among adults, but prolongs the marriage (the standard statistics use a four year time standard, whereas religious people go an average of 10 years without divorcing). Again, other factors, such as positive group affiliation and parental involvement, likewise reduce these risks in teenagers.

The problem with Dennett's analysis of tribalism of religion is simply that in small-scale, pre-modern societies, the identitification is with the tribe not the religion. In fact, religion as a separate thing is a product of large-scale, stratified social structures, and it doesn't even arise until after the agricultural revolution (only about 10,000 years ago). Dennett needs to look at the anthropology, here, because he has misplaced the cause of the group identification. The tribalism of small groups arises from the complex process of day-to-day interaction with people like yourself; it doesn't come from the religion. That is why I argued that historically and sociologically, to argue that the tribalism of religion gave a survival advantage is highly dubious (to me, at least). I agree that religion can have the effect of drawing intense insider/outsider boundaries, but historically, that is a feature of monotheisms; other world religions did not do that (and early Christianity actually didn't do it either).

That said, I completely agree with Dennett that regardless of all of that, religious tribalism (which is mostly a monotheistic trait) is highly maladaptive now.

I likewise agree with Bob that community identification is a major factor in overall human well-being, and that religious communities can often afford that sense to individuals without having the maladaptive and negative aspects of some forms of religion. I'm not anti-religion per se. I am highly critical of some of the ways some religions draw their boundaries; I reject the construction of "truth" in many contemporary religions (especially that of most monotheists); and I declaim the violence done in "god's" name. But I, like Bob, know of other socially responsible, deeply ethical religious communities, with open notions of "god" and "truth" that I find moving. On a personal note, since my break with mormonism nearly 10 years ago, I have been searching such a community for myself. I have found much joy in researching the world's religions, but haven't found that religious community that gives me both the communal affiliation I crave and allows me the intellectual freedom I need. Perhaps I'll simply always be skeptical of organized religion because of my experience in the Mormon church.

Excuse me while I put on my sociologist hat: The issue of the need for group belonging and identification and the dissolution of our communities and the devastating effect that has had on human well being has been the center of sociology since the mid-19th century. Basically, the argument goes that modernity represented a vast and sudden rupture in the lifestyles of human beings living in it, such that humans in modern societies (fully industrialized, organized bureaucratically, pluralist, and mass-mediated) live with a constant anomie (Durkheim) or alienation (Marx). The more I study modern society(ies), the more convinced I am of this reality. I think that it is no coincidence that the rise of fundamentalism coincides nearly always with modernization. Most recently, the rise of fundamentalist Hinduism in India demonstrates how even a universalist, pacifist, humane religion can be turned tribal, irrational, and bloody.

I think that a democracy fundamentally responsive to its consituents–instead of to capitalist interests–wherein people had the time and means and physical space to actual form communal bonds could go a long way to filling the hole left by modernization.

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Comments

1. Mysticusque - 13 April 2006

One of my classes at university was on the early cities of the world. The instructor mentioned the development of the temple in ancient Mesopotamia, that originally, it was a simple mudbrick structure, but then progressed so that you had to ascend steps to enter it, the altar was no longer directly visible from the road, the altar was recessed and elevated, et cetera. Seeing this, and seeing the Catholic mass today, you feel: we’re all just victims of effective theatre.

Someone in one of the books I read about Islam said that the Wahhabists (fundamentalist Sunnis) formed in reaction against the mystical sects of Islam, like the Turkish and Persian Sufis. Instead of going within for a subjective religious experience, the Wahhabists, like today’s American Evangelicals, want to defer instead to the objective, provable black and white. Unfortunately, the holy books of the religions (with all respect) are not perfect works of history. They’re more like medieval works of history, where much is gotten right, but much is self-contradictory, biased, factually incorrect, or questionable for some other reason.

I still feel that there’s something in the mystical experience, though. Like dreaming, even if mystical communion is not a legitimate communing with some power outside oneself, as the mystic believes, then perhaps it still has value in focusing our thought.

2. bob mccue - 13 April 2006

Todd,

Again, I thought that was helpful. I have annotated your post to emphasize a few of your points and suggest some areas of possible disagreement that I would appreciate “further light and knowledge” respecting.

Best,

bob

T: First, more on “memes.” This is an idea that really must be addressed in the near future by either an anthropologist or a cultural sociologist. The idea that there are cultural units of meaning that circulate and function in a way analogous to genes drives me, a cultural sociologist, batty. The general idea that there are units of meaning may be mildly useful in cultural analysis, but drawing parallels with genes falls on its face after the most brief examination of how cultural meanings actually arise, circulate, transform, and fade away.

b: Are you familiar with Dan Sperber’s research? See http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge164.html#sperber for a summary of some of his thought re. memes. His website at http://www.dan.sperber.com/ has a lot of other useful information in this regard. His approach, for the most part, makes sense to me.

T: The research that claims that religiosity leads to more happy, healthy people is pretty well accepted now, but there are some problems with the conclusions that some people draw from them. First, these are studies conducted on Western populations that have had a noticeable decline in community ties since industrialization. So in contemporary America, most Americans get community from religion, which affords them an identity and a ‘group affiliation,’ which can be lacking without a religion. What we know from community studies (this is outside my area, so I just know the basics) is that any positive and accepting group affiliation provides the sense of purpose and connection and community that religion does. In other words, that benefit is not unique to religion.

b: That was precisely my point. Parts of Europe – Scandinavia in particular – have very low rates of religiosity, high rates of community participation and score far above the US in most measures of social health.

T: The problem with Dennett’s analysis of tribalism of religion is simply that in small-scale, pre-modern societies, the identitification is with the tribe not the religion. In fact, religion as a separate thing is a product of large-scale, stratified social structures, and it doesn’t even arise until after the agricultural revolution (only about 10,000 years ago). Dennett needs to look at the anthropology, here, because he has misplaced the cause of the group identification. The tribalism of small groups arises from the complex process of day-to-day interaction with people like yourself; it doesn’t come from the religion. That is why I argued that historically and sociologically, to argue that the tribalism of religion gave a survival advantage is highly dubious (to me, at least). I agree that religion can have the effect of drawing intense insider/outsider boundaries, but historically, that is a feature of monotheisms; other world religions did not do that (and early Christianity actually didn’t do it either).

b: I did not read Dennett carefully on this point. In fact, all I have read are summaries of his views in this regard. So let me speak generally.

I should probably has said “proto-religion” as well as religion. The earliest religious rituals seemed to have been coping mechanisms that were built on the kind of psychological/neural mechanisms you described. I thought Pascal Boyer’s description in “Religion Explained” was good, though many disagree with his “modular” approach to how our brains came together. Quartz and Sejnowski in “Liars, Lovers and Heroes …” outline the other main approach – a more “generic” or plastic developmental model of the brain. But for present purposes, they end up on the same place.

The features of our perceptive and psychological capacities these scientists provide drive the formation of all of our individual and social behaviours. Religious behaviour is just one of many in this regard.

For example, some of the most important early religious rituals and related beliefs dealt with the necessity of killing animals by setting this brutal act in a grand narrative that both rationalized and justified it. Similar rituals justified war and killing other human beings. And as social groups gradually became more complex, their religious rituals, institutions etc. also became more complex as did their political rituals and institutions, their economic rituals and institutions, etc. I don’t distinguish religion from other branches of social behavior. I suspect we are similar in this regard.

So, religion is part of the social fabric that held small human groups together throughout most of human history, and then during the past several thousand years, as complex civilization arose, religion and other aspects of human social life became exponentially more complex. Religion, as well as political and economic institutions, became widely used as power or control tools.

Tribalism predates complex civilization by a long ways. However, what it meant to be part of a particular tribe became more complex, along with all other aspects of human social behaviour, as society became more complex.

Throughout the period prior to the formation of complex civilization, and well into it, the connection of the individual to a particular, and usually relatively small, group was often essential for survival, and so we became hardwired to tend to perceive reality in a way that would keep our group together and keep us connected to our group. Religion is simply part of the matrix that does that for us.

As an aside, Quartz, Sejnowski and others posit that the relatively lengthy period of neural development after birth is a key human evolutionary innovation that has allowed human kind to adapt to a huge range of habitats during our existence, and that this has equipped us to adjust to a wide array of complex societies as we have. That is, the brain is set up to do a lot of its development while formatting against its environment while a child grows and then matures as an adult into the mid-20s. The religious of “faith” environment is part of this, and hence has an important effect on the functions that the brain evolves. This explains to me why people in Utah are demonstrably more naïve than those elsewhere in the very naïve USA. As you know, Utahns are defrauded more often than other US citizens, participate more often than others in MLMs and otherwise in a number of ways evidence maladaptive social conditioning relative to other people in North America.

As the parent of children ranging from 24 to 11 years old (with one grandson aged 4) and dim memories of my own young adulthood, I was fascinated to learn that the connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain do not fully form until the mid-twenties, and that these are critically important to the mental functions that govern the identification of cause and effect relationships. That is, until these connections are made, we should not expect the brain in question to be very good at identifying the consequences of actions. That explains a lot of young adult poor judgement, why it is a bad idea to marry young, why the Mormon missionary experience often has a profound conditioning effect, etc.

I was also relieved to learn that we continue to generate new neurons and connections between existing neurons until shortly before death. Thank goodness for that, because people like me who leave a social group like Mormonism at mid-life literally need to grow new brains (or large new brain parts, at least). This also explains why for most people who undergo a radical faith transition, a new perception of reality comes a bit at a time over a period of months or years. The formation of our brain literally constrains what we can see. I am reminded of the experiment that caused baby cats to be raised for the first few weeks of life in a room that had nothing in it on the vertical plane. When the cats were released into the real world, they would walk into table legs because they could not see anything in the vertical plane. Their brains had not developed the capacity for this. The brains of those of us who were raised to think magically (with the “eye of faith”) are similarly unable to “see” aspects of reality that are not only obvious but are empirically demonstrable, until their brains have been given the chance to develop for a period of time while being stimulated by direct contact with the “new” phenomena in question.

T: That said, I completely agree with Dennett that regardless of all of that, religious tribalism (which is mostly a monotheistic trait) is highly maladaptive now.

b: Again, I agree. I think it is best to speak of tribalism as the ill, and religious belief as one of its contributing causes. Monotheism supercharges this aspect of the religious impulse in obvious ways. However, anyone who thinks that the Chinese or Hindus (for example) are not tribal is not paying attention. And their religious beliefs are an important part of their tribal matrix. Think of the Hindu caste system. And in Chinese, the word “human” is the word for the Chinese people. There an ancient barriers all around us of various types that must be taken down. The focus of attention should be these barriers, whether they are religious or other. Dennett’s point is that in North America particularly, there is a serious problem related to tribal barriers that have been erected on religious premises. I agree with this, as do you.

T: Excuse me while I put on my sociologist hat: The issue of the need for group belonging and identification and the dissolution of our communities and the devastating effect that has had on human well being has been the center of sociology since the mid-19th century. Basically, the argument goes that modernity represented a vast and sudden rupture in the lifestyles of human beings living in it, such that humans in modern societies (fully industrialized, organized bureaucratically, pluralist, and mass-mediated) live with a constant anomie (Durkheim) or alienation (Marx). The more I study modern society(ies), the more convinced I am of this reality.

b: I would be interested to hear you take on the Quartz, Sejnowski et al research. The more I look at this, the better I feel about our ability to adjust to new ways of living and to make choices that will take the edges of what we cannot accommodate ourselves to.

T: I think that it is no coincidence that the rise of fundamentalism coincides nearly always with modernization. Most recently, the rise of fundamentalist Hinduism in India demonstrates how even a universalist, pacifist, humane religion can be turned tribal, irrational, and bloody.

b: Armstrong’s thesis in her recent book “The Great Transformation: The Origin of our Religious Traditions” is that information technologies are now in the course of effecting a transformation of our religions belief systems that is on the same order as what happened during the Axial Age. I think she may be on to something. Her earlier book “The Battle for God” described at length the crisis of modernity you describe and why it causes fundamentalism. We are in the midst of a social catharsis – a phase transition of the type described so well by Philip Ball in his recent award winning book “Critical Mass”. Again, I am encouraged by my view of how we have made it through tight passages of this kind before. The more quickly we can spread information related to how this process works, the less traumatic it will be. People like you need to start writing books, making movies, etc.

T: I think that a democracy fundamentally responsive to its constituents–instead of to capitalist interests–wherein people had the time and means and physical space to actual form communal bonds could go a long way to filling the hole left by modernization.

b: This is a big topic. So I had best stop here. I agree with the basic idea – that we need to facilitate the creation of healthy communities. I thought Surowiecki in “The Wisdom of Crowds” summarized some interesting aspects of the literature on how democracy may evolve.

The question here, as in so many other ways, is whether we will have enough small shocks to get us to change before a large shock devastates us. We tend not to change until we feel necessity. And the more I understand about how nature and social groups work (the “phase transition” concept again), the more my concern becomes that large scale forces will be set in motion before we become sufficiently aware of them to take corrective action. I think it will become increasingly important that we sensitize ourselves and others to the “signs of the times” that are not jarring enough to awaken us from slumber.

Thanks for a stimulating start to me day here a beautiful, early Rocky Mountain spring.

Best,

bob

3. bob mccue - 13 April 2006

Todd,

I will toss this into your hopper re. the evolution of God. I wrote it a few days ago while working on an essay related to complexity theory.

best,

bob

The Evolution of God and Morality
The Role of Cheaters and Suckers in Social Groups

One of my favorite sayings comes from Goethe:

As Man is
So is his God
And thus is God
oft strangely odd

Since our Christian tradition (including its moral concepts) has its roots in Hebrew, that is an interesting place to look for an understanding of how god, and morality, have evolved. I was reminded of this when I received an email from a Jewish friend that included the following information:

“I am reminded of something I shared with my Rabbi a few weeks ago. It comes from a [somewhat uneven] book by Douglass Rushkoff titled Nothing Sacred. Quoting …

’Iconoclasm leads to the conclusion that any God must, ultimately, be a universal and nameless God. The natural result of settling for an abstract and unknowable deity is to then focus, instead, on human beings and life itself as the supremely sacred vessels of existence. There’s no one around to pray to, so one learns to enact sanctity through ethical behavior. Iconoclasm destroys all man-made symbols and leads to abstract monotheism, which in turn leads to an ethos of social justice. …

Jewish community became the new temple. The emerging Talmudic law stressed that God was experienced differently by everybody. Accordingly, the Israelites who witnessed him “directly” at Mount Sinai each saw a different image of God. Likewise, wherever Jews prayed together, the spirit of God was present even though each person experienced him personally and uniquely. There was no longer any official doctrine on what God was. His name could no longer be pronounced; his meaning could no longer be conceived.

From then on, most Jewish thinkers have understood God more by what he is not than by whatever he is. Medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides developed what is now called “negative theology.” God is not a creature. God has no hands, and neither does God have emotions. Since any positive attribute of God is “inadmissible,” he can be referred to only in the negative. If we are to appreciate God, we must do so by contemplating the underlying order of the natural universe. God is in the beauty of the logic, the details. Maimonides understood that any fixed conception of God must also be a form of idolatry. Negative theology prevents Jews from going backward and reducing their abstract God to a particular image, concept, or icon. But what happens when one moves forward from there?

Let’s push the envelope just a little further, along with the existentialist philosophers of the twentieth century: If God cannot be conceived in any way, if his existence is utterly out of reach of human systems of belief and intellect, then for all practical purposes he does not exist. The evolution of God — from Abraham’s fire-breathing warmonger through Moses’ righteous savior and Isaiah’s compassionate father to Philo’s allegorical character in the human drama — is from real, to the ethereal, to the inconceivable. This is why the spiritual crisis of the twentieth century, precipitated by the success of the scientific model and rationality that came with it, need not threaten one’s spiritual foundations. As long as faith finds its foothold in something other than the authority of God or the testaments of those who claim to have encountered him, logic and spirituality are not at odds. God is just not something Jews are suppose to worry about.

In this light, abstract monotheism is not the process by which a people find the one true God, but the path through which they get over the need for him. Whether he exists or not, he is beyond human’s perceptual reach or conceptual grasp. He is increasingly inaccessible and rendered effectively absent. This is no cause for sadness. Our continuing evolution beyond the need for a paternal character named God doesn’t mean we have to become atheists; we might just as likely become pantheists, learning to see God in everything and everyone. For at each step along the way, the Jews’ focus on an external master whose hunger they need to quell or whose edicts they need to obey is replaced by an emphasis on people’s duty to one another.”

This, and other communications over the past few days with friends who have a Jewish and scientific background, reminded me of another of the many insights I harvested from Philip Ball’s book “Critical Mass”. The bottom line I read between Ball’s analysis of one corner of the game theory research and the development of Jewish theology is this: Just as the notion of God within Jewish culture evolved in response to events such as the Babylonian captivity, the notion of morality everywhere has evolved in similar ways.

Ball summarized part of the game theory research dealing with the old Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The short version of this story is as follows. Various populations of agents that play different versions of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game are set up in a computer model, and then allowed to play against each other. They can also change the way they play the game if they run into a better strategy. You will recall that in this game the communal pie is maximized if people trust each other and hence cooperate with each other; the communal pie is minimized when everyone cheats on each other and no one cooperates; the piece of pie an individual takes is maximized if she cheats while everyone else cooperates (a cheater surrounded by co-operators – many religious cult leaders and other flim flam artists fit this description); and the individual piece is minimized if she is a habitual co-operator in a population of cheaters.

In the cases that are of the most relevance to the current discussion, the starting point is chaos – almost everyone cheats on everyone else at every opportunity. There are only a few non-cheaters in the system. Occasionally they start to interact with each other and quickly become richer. They then take over the game – their behaviour spreads.

And once cooperation dominates, a few cheaters almost always remain and prosper, as long as they don’t become too numerous or congregate. Cheaters need to be spread throughout the population and remain in the minority to do well. They are analogous to parasites. Again, the leaders of some religious groups exhibit this behaviour.

It is interesting to note that the only way that the initial cycle of pervasive cheating can be broken is through the adoption of a rigid “tit for tat” system that closely resembles “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth”. “…’Tit for tat is the pivot, rather than the aim, of an evolution toward cooperation’. In other words, it is needed to establish cooperation in a diverse population; but once that has been achieved, “softer” cooperative strategies will take over”. (Ball, p. 435)

It is also notable that many biological systems operate on a tit for tat basis (Ball, p. 423) “including vampire bats, stickleback fish, money and even viruses”. … Edward O. Wilson argues that as civilization revolved, such modes of human behaviour will have become converted from instinctive impulses to social norms, then to legal imperatives, and ultimately to moral principles.”

As noted, tit for tat produces a communal pie that is still far below optimal. The optimal systems for most circumstances are forgiving or “generous” versions of tit for tat, like for example that I will start by trusting you, and then give you two or three strikes before I reciprocate your cheating behaviour. For obvious reasons, however, this would not work in a group of consistent cheaters. They would never reciprocate my trust, and after two to three cheats I would start cheating too. However, in a population of primarily tit for tat people, generous tit for tat makes it so that good behaviour can spread more quickly and the odd mistake does not automatically crash us back to consistent cheating.

In the most realistic models that have been developed, it takes a long time for populations to evolve from chaos to tit for tat, and from there toward more compassionate models that gets us close to maximum communal benefit, and when this happens it looks like a phase transition – critical mass is achieved and a radical behavioural change spreads through the population, much as what seems to have occurred with the simultaneous blossoming of the Golden Rule during the Axial Age (BCE 800 to 200) in Hebrew, Greek, Indian and Chinese cultures.

And these phase transitions can operate in reverse as well. That is, the models also indicate that at times groups do crash back toward chaos. This is often caused by the population becoming too soft – too unconditionally forgiving; too generous and not enough tit for tat – which makes such an inviting target for cheaters that they emerge in large number. And when they thrive sufficiently the entire population is driven into chaotic poverty. There appears to be something to be said for maintaining a relatively firm stance against cheaters.

Another model that does better than all others in many cases is generous but opportunistic tit for tat (I will play generous tit for tat unless I run into a real sucker whom I will happily swindle). This keeps the unconditionally forgiving (“sucker”) population under control and it is an overstrong sucker population that opens the door to hardcore cheaters. Though we are loath to admit it, there are many among us who are opportunistic in this way. The idea that these people are doing us all a service is a slippery slope that I don’t want to think too much about.

However, what is clear is that anyone who counsels unconditional forgiveness is either not thinking clearly, or perhaps is one of those people who wishes to be surrounded by suckers.

How many times did Joseph Smith say we should forgive those who take advantage of us?

Best,

bob

ps. These models are just that – models. Hence, while we can learn about our social reality from them, they are so much simpler than we are that it would be unwise to simply assume that what the model indicates is “true” or “justified”. Models of this type provide what is likely the best information we have as to how social groups will behave in the long term. Armed with that information, we should be better able to decide what we value and how to behave in light of what we wish to being into existence.

4. Shannon - 13 April 2006

I’m sorry if I’ve forgotten something from our earlier conversations, but have you been to Friends meetings? I remember you saying you participate in some Unitarian groups — my experience with the Friends is that they are like the Unitarians in their respect for individual truth-seeking, but more cohesive as a community. Also, I give them props for consistently not being assholes.

5. J. Todd Ormsbee - 13 April 2006

I attended the Friends meetings in Lawrence, which I really liked. The only thing I missed was ritual. I’m just gay enough that I crave dressing up, drama, and incense (mormons do the dress up drama, but no incense!). lol I also really like their “Light” metaphor for the ineffable experience of the divine/God/Christ/Whatever.

The Friends here in SF are a bit of an odd bunch. I went a few times but didn’t really connect with the group, but I still loved the individual truth and the community stuff.

6. J. Todd Ormsbee - 13 April 2006

I love you Bob! You make me seem down-right taciturn. hehe. I have much to think on before I reply. Stay tuned.

7. J. Todd Ormsbee - 13 April 2006

I like your explanation of the evolution of the zigurats in Mesopotamia, Mysticusque (I keep trying to imagine how to pronounce that). And I agree with your assessment of fundamentalist Islam, although I would argue that there are many other factors at play in the development of Wahhabism in addition to those you cite. And I further agree that the mystical experience, even if it’s all just “in our heads” is fuckin’ cool!

8. Mysticusque - 13 April 2006

Ha ha! 🙂 Yes–I’ve been listening to some Sufi music (the Sufis in Ottoman Turkey used to listen to music to help them attain a trance state), and it really puts me there. Clannad does too (listen to Caislean Oir from the Macalla album, or Crio Croiga from the Lore album, if you can find a sample on Amazon).

The Mesopotamian ziggurats: the neat thing about it was that the professor introduced the temple design topic by mentioning, “did you guys notice how when you enter the classroom, you don’t see me from the hall? They design it so that you have to turn right or left after entering, before you see the teacher, so that your mind has to change its orientation. That way, you settle a bit, without even realizing it, to prepare for class.”

>Mysticusque

It’s a Latin thing 🙂

I agree about Wahhabism, that wasn’t the only factor. The main factor has to be the weakening of the main Islamic powers, especially the Ottoman Empire, beginning in the 1700s. I believe we’re still dealing with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire today. They keep trying to have rallying points in the Middle East: Nasser, pan-Arabism/Ba’athism, pan-Islamism. But nothing has replaced the previous success story. It’s like the 9-ers after Joe Montana.

Anything you can tell me about Wahhabism, though, I’m eager to hear. I need to learn more.

9. Mysticusque - 13 April 2006

Excuse me, meant to say “1600s.”

10. Shannon - 14 April 2006

yeah, I feel the same way about the ritual. Too bad there seems to be a high correlation between rich pageantry and strict hierarchical systems of belief…

11. Mysticusque - 15 April 2006

True… I like the pageantry in that it seems to facilitate the mystic’s change of mind, in the way that the music does. As more propaganda for mysticism, though, the personal, subjective experience of mysticism, when the state religion allows it, helps to keep a hierarchy from dictating the religion.

12. Meg Slate - 16 April 2006

Todd,

Are you familiar with Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics? He takes the idea of memes and has written about what he calles v-memes, the v denoting values development. I think it gives a fascinating look at how people and societies develop that is right in line with everything you have been talking about. If you haven’t already looked at it, it might round out some of these things you are thinking.

The book is marketed toward business leaders, but don’t be fooled by that. I very briefly outlined the idea over at the NOM board under recommended reading, if you want to take a gander.

13. J. Todd Ormsbee - 17 April 2006

Thanks Meg, I’ll look up the book!

14. J. Todd Ormsbee - 17 April 2006

Bob and readers,

Are you familiar with Dan Sperber’s research?

No, I’m not. Thanks for the reference! I’ve put this in my summer reading bin. lol (things during the school year are pretty programmed)

I should probably have said “proto-religion” as well as religion. The earliest religious rituals seemed to have been coping mechanisms that were built on the kind of psychological/neural mechanisms you described. I thought Pascal Boyer’s description in “Religion Explained” was good, though many disagree with his “modular” approach to how our brains came together. Quartz and Sejnowski in “Liars, Lovers and Heroes …” outline the other main approach – a more “generic” or plastic developmental model of the brain. But for present purposes, they end up on the same place.

I’ve not read Boyer, but I have read Q&J. In general, I definitely agree with the mental development model of how we gained religious “experiences.” Is Boyer of the school of thought that argues there are overlapping systems in our brains that produce the feeling or experience of the mind being separate from our outside the body and then allow us to impute the same experience on others and even on inanimate objects?

The features of our perceptive and psychological capacities these scientists provide drive the formation of all of our individual and social behaviours. Religious behaviour is just one of many in this regard.

agreed.

For example, some of the most important early religious rituals and related beliefs dealt with the necessity of killing animals by setting this brutal act in a grand narrative that both rationalized and justified it.

I minor quibble: I’m reading a book called After the Ice by Stephen Mithen, which traces human history from the last ice age to the dawn of “civilization”, and I would have a hard time reconciling your above statement with what I’m reading there.

I don’t distinguish religion from other branches of social behavior. I suspect we are similar in this regard.

For the most part, but I would argue that religious thinking tends to be of a particular order and can be (depending on the society) qualitatively quite different from economic or political thinking, for example.

So, religion is part of the social fabric that held small human groups together throughout most of human history, and then during the past several thousand years, as complex civilization arose, religion and other aspects of human social life became exponentially more complex. Religion, as well as political and economic institutions, became widely used as power or control tools.

Well, I’m a social scientist so I just see these things a bit differently. 1st, I think you would be hard pressed to justify your statement that religion became more complex. Because they are imbricated in adherents’ worldviews and behavior and perceptions, they are intricate whether they are Catholicism or the local religion of a small band in the rain forest of New Guinea. I would say that as societies increased in size, their organizations became necessarily more complex, but religious beliefs don’t seem to have–they served the same function of explaining the existential questions of the people, who am I and why am I and who are you and why are you. So religions, alongside other aspects of a culture, explained the individual to the group and the group to the individual, including its social structures (which can be immanently complex, even in small groups). More important, a particular cultural system is rarely wielded consciously as a tool of social control. (This is more likely to happen in fully modern societies where people have the pluralist context to see their religions instrumentally.) Rather, religion, like all cultural systems, controls through consent: Adherents *believe* and therefore *behave*, and it is almost always assumed on the part of those in power and almost always done unconsciously by the followers, religious or otherwise.

Throughout the period prior to the formation of complex civilization, and well into it, the connection of the individual to a particular, and usually relatively small, group was often essential for survival, and so we became hardwired to tend to perceive reality in a way that would keep our group together and keep us connected to our group. Religion is simply part of the matrix that does that for us.

Agreed. In fact, there’s some stunning evidence that our frontal lobes developed (in part) to identify enemies, and the evidence is pretty overwhelming that by age 5, children have learned from their parents whom to fear and distrust, to whom they owe ethical behavior and to whom they don’t. The brain is hardwired to receive this information, which is transmitted (obviously) socially.

As an aside, Quartz, Sejnowski and others posit that the relatively lengthy period of neural development after birth is a key human evolutionary innovation that has allowed human kind to adapt to a huge range of habitats during our existence, and that this has equipped us to adjust to a wide array of complex societies as we have. *snip*

Yes, I enjoyed Q&S immensely. I am not a neurologist by any stretch of the imagination and study these things in relationship to my cultural sociological work and to the development of social theories that are responsive to scientific knowledge in these fields. Q&S are from what some call the “west coast” school of Cognitive Science, which is far more plastic in its outlook. There were moments in reading their book that I found myself thinking, “yeah, but study X has shown Y.” In other words, I don’t particularly disagree with anything (and don’t have the background to do so intelligently or with authority), but I do think there are aspects of our cognition that are more hardwired than they allow, such as the system I mentioned above about identifying enemies. I think what is missing in Q&S is a solid understanding of how culture works in relationship to the body, how it transforms, etc. They are smart, but like many cognitive scientists, make problematic assumptions about culture.

Again, I agree. I think it is best to speak of tribalism as the ill, and religious belief as one of its contributing causes. Monotheism supercharges this aspect of the religious impulse in obvious ways. However, anyone who thinks that the Chinese or Hindus (for example) are not tribal is not paying attention. And their religious beliefs are an important part of their tribal matrix. Think of the Hindu caste system. And in Chinese, the word “human” is the word for the Chinese people. There an ancient barriers all around us of various types that must be taken down. The focus of attention should be these barriers, whether they are religious or other. Dennett’s point is that in North America particularly, there is a serious problem related to tribal barriers that have been erected on religious premises. I agree with this, as do you.

Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that Indians and/or Chinese weren’t tribal, just that their ethnocentrism is constructed in other terms than religion. Also, do not conflate caste system (internal social structures) with tribalism. They are different phenomena. Indian culture is relatively syncretic and universalist, so much so, that Indian Islam was dramatically transformed after the Mogul invasion. However, in the past 25 years or so, a Hindu fundamentalism has arisen and it is intensely tribal and is overpowering the universalist tradition to the point that they have a political party unto themselves. In other words, Hinduism has become tribal.

Armstrong’s thesis in her recent book “The Great Transformation: The Origin of our Religious Traditions”.

I’m a big fan and am about 1/3 of the way through this book. I’ll let you know what I think when I’m done.

The question here, as in so many other ways, is whether we will have enough small shocks to get us to change before a large shock devastates us. We tend not to change until we feel necessity. And the more I understand about how nature and social groups work (the “phase transition” concept again), the more my concern becomes that large scale forces will be set in motion before we become sufficiently aware of them to take corrective action. I think it will become increasingly important that we sensitize ourselves and others to the “signs of the times” that are not jarring enough to awaken us from slumber.

With the exception of the process of modernization, I don’t really see us as being in a big period of transition, but I do agree with you that there is a process of adaptation. There is a critical point that must be met that dislodges the conservative thinkers (in a non-political sense) from their position of power and allows the innovators to enter the scene and reconstruct things. I do fear that the process of modernization is so disruptive that the powers of globalization are forcing modernization on groups of people at a rate far in excess of the rate that Western cultures modernized, which could lead to disaster (i.e., muslim fundamentalism in its late 20th century form).

What are the things that you see as being those we need to look out for? I guess for me, at the moment, I just see an age old process of adaptation to new environments, but on a much larger scale because it is literally global now, rather than local, isolated cultures/societies.

15. bob mccue - 18 April 2006

Thanks Todd. In case it is not clear, I am here to learn. There is no question your reading in this area is broader than mine.

Let me sharpen a few of the points below and ask for clarification.

Best,

bob

Todd: Is Boyer of the school of thought that argues there are overlapping systems in our brains that produce the feeling or experience of the mind being separate from our outside the body and then allow us to impute the same experience on others and even on inanimate objects?

bob: More or less. He sounds a bit like Pinker. That school of thought was soundly thrashed at a brain and consciousness conference I attended at Cal Tech about a year ago. But for purposes of what we are discussing, I don’t think this difference is important.

Todd: I minor quibble: I’m reading a book called After the Ice by Stephen Mithen, which traces human history from the last ice age to the dawn of “civilization”, and I would have a hard time reconciling your above statement with what I’m reading there.

bob: I would be interested to hear more about this. Send me some links if you can.

Todd: For the most part, but I would argue that religious thinking tends to be of a particular order and can be (depending on the society) qualitatively quite different from economic or political thinking, for example.

bob: I am sure that there are differences. However, people like Iannaccone (see http://www.religionomics.com/cesr_web/papers/cesr_research/Iannaccone%20-%20JEL%20Intro.pdf) and Berman have shown that economic processes shed a lot of light on religious behaviour. There is a lot of overlap between politics and religious behaviour as well. Especially now. As usual, what is presented to us as discrete categories tends to run together.

Todd: I think you would be hard pressed to justify your statement that religion became more complex. Because they are imbricated in adherents’ worldviews and behavior and perceptions, they are intricate whether they are Catholicism or the local religion of a small band in the rain forest of New Guinea. I would say that as societies increased in size, their organizations became necessarily more complex, but religious beliefs don’t seem to have–they served the same function of explaining the existential questions of the people, who am I and why am I and who are you and why are you. So religions, alongside other aspects of a culture, explained the individual to the group and the group to the individual, including its social structures (which can be immanently complex, even in small groups).

bob: Boyer and others make the point that we sell the “natives” short when we think their beliefs are simple and ours are complex. That was not my point. Rather, I was speaking of religion as the complex of rules, rituals, institutions, authority structures, etc. This undoubtedly become more complex as a reflection of their host civilization.

Todd: More important, a particular cultural system is rarely wielded consciously as a tool of social control. (This is more likely to happen in fully modern societies where people have the pluralist context to see their religions instrumentally.) Rather, religion, like all cultural systems, controls through consent: Adherents *believe* and therefore *behave*, and it is almost always assumed on the part of those in power and almost always done unconsciously by the followers, religious or otherwise.

bob: I agree, and did not imply consciousness. Pierre Bourdieu (see for example David Swartz, “Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu”) is one of the scholars I have found helpful. See http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.denial.pdf at page 46.

Todd: Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that Indians and/or Chinese weren’t tribal, just that their ethnocentrism is constructed in other terms than religion. Also, do not conflate caste system (internal social structures) with tribalism. They are different phenomena. Indian culture is relatively syncretic and universalist, so much so, that Indian Islam was dramatically transformed after the Mogul invasion. However, in the past 25 years or so, a Hindu fundamentalism has arisen and it is intensely tribal and is overpowering the universalist tradition to the point that they have a political party unto themselves. In other words, Hinduism has become tribal.

bob: I would like to read something about the Hindu issue. I have been thinking of social lines like those drawn by the caste system as functioning in a fashion that is similar to tribal lines in many respects. Both define “in” and “out” groups. Both define acceptable behaviours of many kinds along those lines. Both are used to determine access to various resources. Etc. I can think of differences as well, but if this is something that has been studied I should have a look. I can see how this research might be relevant to what I have been thinking of as tribal distinctions within our society, such as between Mormons and non-Mormons. What do you think? Is tribal or caste-system research more relevant to this kind of distinction?

Todd: With the exception of the process of modernization, I don’t really see us as being in a big period of transition, but I do agree with you that there is a process of adaptation. There is a critical point that must be met that dislodges the conservative thinkers (in a non-political sense) from their position of power and allows the innovators to enter the scene and reconstruct things. I do fear that the process of modernization is so disruptive that the powers of globalization are forcing modernization on groups of people at a rate far in excess of the rate that Western cultures modernized, which could lead to disaster (i.e., muslim fundamentalism in its late 20th century form).

What are the things that you see as being those we need to look out for? I guess for me, at the moment, I just see an age old process of adaptation to new environments, but on a much larger scale because it is literally global now, rather than local, isolated cultures/societies.

bob: Modernization and ecological issues.

Best,

bob

16. J. Todd Ormsbee - 25 April 2006

Hi Bob (and faithful denizens),

Sorry for the delay in responding. This past week has been particularly stressful.

Thanks Todd. In case it is not clear, I am here to learn. There is no question your reading in this area is broader than mine.

Of course! I’m just engaged in the conversation and do much appreciate it. I tend to assume people are up to having a rigorous conversation (and my experience with you is that you are more than capable), and so approach our conversations in that way. Because I’m actually new to the field of cognitive sciences, only having been reading in the area for about a year now, I have as much if not more to learn from you and this conversation than the inverse.

I find my new interest in cognitive science to be adding depth and understanding to my cultural sociological analysis, and I find myself perhaps drawn more and more to “social psychology” as a result. Actually, I’ve been communicating with a new group in the ASA that is just forming in evolutionary sociology which I’m equally excited about. That all may be detrimental given that my job is in an interdisciplinary department studying American culture. LOL.

[Boyer] sounds a bit like Pinker. That school of thought was soundly thrashed at a brain and consciousness conference I attended at Cal Tech about a year ago.

That doesn’t surprise me. The cognitive scientists are divided roughly in half on the degree of plasticity in our brains, but as someone coming in from the outside (from a discipline where human minds are assumed to be incredibly plastic), I find the arguments to be somewhat irritating because it seems given the evidence at hand the brain is neither as immanently plastic as the “west coast school” or as “hard wired” as the east coast school, the truth lying in some combination or nexus of the positions, depending on what particular brain function you’re addressing.

I would be interested to hear more about this [post ice-age archeaology]. Send me some links if you can.

I don’t know of any web sites about this, and it’s really my first read in this area. But the full citation is:

Steven Mithen, After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006).

Mithen also wrote a book (next on my list) called The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion, and Science, which I’m very excited to read (1999).

I am sure that there are differences. However, people like Iannaccone and Berman have shown that economic processes shed a lot of light on religious behaviour. There is a lot of overlap between politics and religious behaviour as well. Especially now. As usual, what is presented to us as discrete categories tends to run together.

For many reasons that would take far too long to explain, I’m actually (at the moment) of a radically different take on these issues. I have yet to read a paper from the “rational choice theory” of religion that I find compelling (for the record, I find economic explanations of the same ilk to be equally unconvincing). This is basically because cultural research, both in sociology and anthropology, has shown that human behavior flows in predictable ways, but not in those aligned here. For me, it doesn’t even work in economic behavior, let alone religious behavior.

I do, however, completely agree with you that these categories are merely analytical and that in the way people actually lead their lives, there is a continuity and connection between all forms of social behavior, even those which are considered distinct for analytic purposes.

I agree, and did not imply consciousness. Pierre Bourdieu (see for example David Swartz, “Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu”) is one of the scholars I have found helpful.

Yes, Bourdieu is among my favorite 20th century sociologists and I’ve read much of his work.

I would like to read something about the Hindu issue. I have been thinking of social lines like those drawn by the caste system as functioning in a fashion that is similar to tribal lines in many respects. Both define “in” and “out” groups. Both define acceptable behaviours of many kinds along those lines. Both are used to determine access to various resources. Etc.

Yes, all social groups draw in/out boundaries; and the primary mode of doing so is through defining meanings and behaviors common to the in-group. Because all social groups do this, it becomes a matter of distinguishing among groups in terms of their function and status and relationship to other groups. In India, the entire society was (is?) divided by the caste system; in other words, the caste system organizes a society; people of different castes are of the same tribe. This is just my academic brain coming through here, where the precision of terms is necessary for clear analysis. I understand why you compare the two (tribalism and caste), but would insist that they are analytically quite different, serve different social functions and have different social effects.

I can think of differences as well, but if this is something that has been studied I should have a look. I can see how this research might be relevant to what I have been thinking of as tribal distinctions within our society, such as between Mormons and non-Mormons. What do you think? Is tribal or caste-system research more relevant to this kind of distinction?

Yes, Mormonism functions much closer to a tribal mode and almost not at all like a caste. In sociology of religion, you may have an easier time arguing that In North American society (i.e., U.S. and Canadian), I would argue that mormonism actually functions more like an ethnicity (in the way that north american judaism is also more ethnic), because members move in and out of the dominant culture even while maintaining an intense in-group boundary and rigid markers of belonging. The fundamentalist mormons or hasidic Jews might be closer to a “tribe” in their function as they seek to almost completely shut out the dominant culture. Again, these terms are always relative, but I do think precision lends them their analytical power.

Seeing similarities is important and vital to understanding things, but so is being able to make distinctions. This is not only intellectually important, but practically as well, because you would tackle social problems arising from a caste system in very different ways from mormon ethnicity or fundamentalism mormon tribalism, in my opinion.

Thanks Bob for your patience and for engaging me in this conversation. It is stimulating and forcing me to think through things that I often take for granted at this point in my personal intellectual development.

17. J. Todd Ormsbee - 25 April 2006

Bob,

Per your inquiry about social stratification (comparing caste to tribe, for example), I was thinking that you might enjoy reading one of the classic articles on the subject. It’s 35 years old and focuses on racial identities, but is broad in its interpretation and treats caste explicitly. I still make my students read it. It doesn’t address your connections to mormonism per se, but it may give you some things to think about as you try to understand how mormonism creates group cohesion and adherence. Here’s the cite:

Gerrald D. Berreman, “Race, Caste and Other Invidious Distinctions in Social Stratification” in Race 13.4 (April 1972), 385-413.

Then for an analysis of how ethnic boundaries work (which I think mainstream mormonism is closer to), see:

Joane Nagel, “Constructing Ethnicity: Creating and Recreating Ethnic Identity and Culture” in Social Problems 41.1 (Feb 1994), 152-176.

If you have access to a research library, you should be able to locate it pretty easily. If not, let me know and I’ll try to mail you a photocopy.

Cheers.

18. Todd’s Hammer » Blog Archive » The Root of All Evil?: Part 2—The Virus of Faith (Review) - 5 July 2006

[…] Whereas when I watched the first one, I found myself wishing Dawkins could be more social scientific in his analysis of religion, watching the second installment I just found myself wishing he would slap some of these people, which is evidence of my own growing impatience with the power of religion in American society and of Dawkins’ equanimity (at least on film). Overall, I would say that Part 2 is far superior to Part 1, and would highly recommend it, even for showing to religious believers. My online acquaintance Bob McCue (who has posted thoughtful and detailed responses on this blog on the evolution of religion, here and here), has argued recently that the problem with the documentary as a whole is that it is basically preaching to the choir, that believers would not be swayed or moved to consider critically their beliefs by watching the film, and in fact might probably be turned away from the film by Dawkins’ apparent strident atheism. I find that to be especially true of Part 1, but perhaps less so of Part 2 for a couple of reasons. […]


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