The Economist: Where angels no longer fear to tread

| 32 Comments

In the Economist, an article explores how scientists are trying to explain religion. In a project titled “explaining religion” that involves scholars from 14 universities, researchers from many different disciplines are attempting to unravel the biological explanation for religion. The project receives funding from the “New and Emerging Science and Technology” programme of the European Union. The same programme also organizes the Tackling complexity in Science project and I noticed the absence of any ID relevant proposals.

Well, back to real science:

The project has four principal scientific objectives:

1. To characterize precisely the main elements of the universal religious repertoire and the extent of its variation
2. To establish the principal causes of the universal religious repertoire
3. To account for variations in the degree of elaboration (and emphasis) of each element of the repertoire in different religious traditions, contemporaneously and historically
4. To develop models for simulating future courses of transformation in specified religious systems

These objectives involve ethnographic, historical and psychological research carried out by selected fellows, postgraduate students, and European project partners. Publication of major findings can be found on this website.

From a Christian perspective I find it thrilling that God set in motion a process which evolved in us a sense of religion, bringing His Creation closer to Him. Were Adam and Eve the first humanoids who achieved a religious consciousness? Seems to make a lot of sense and it would resolve the unnecessary conflict between the Bible and the age of the Universe and this earth. From a scientific perspective I find it fascinating how religion may have evolved, showing us a better understanding of our evolutionary history.

32 Comments

I would imagine PZed has a different take on this. :-)

Sure, we at PT range from atheists, via agnostics to Christians. While we hardly are representative of the full religious spectrum, we hold a variety of different religious and political opinions. What has brought us together is the topic of creationism versus evolutionary theory.

Bob O’H:

I would imagine PZed has a different take on this. :-)

Great! So, hopefully we’ll have a vaccine to prevent this debilitating pathology that has killed billions of us very soon.

Imagine there’s no heaven… and all that.

It’s like trying to find out what the origins of imagination are. (that would probably cover empathy, curiosity, jealousy, vanity,etc…)

Of course, from the perspective of memetics, religions evolve, sure, but not (necessarily) to anyone’s benefit but their own. Now, I’m well aware that this perspective can be overstated, but check it out:

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on early Christian traditions, and it’s just an amazing thing how a fringe cult of Judean peasants became a world religion and the official faith of the Roman Empire in just a few centuries. Scholars (esp. Bart Ehrman) have elucidated a couple of key “adaptations” (my term) to the socio-religious “ecology” (again) of the Greco-Roman world that allowed this fantastic success.

Basically, in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, there were a bewildering array of Christian sects, out of which, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, an orthodoxy emerged and began its path toward the religion we know today. That orthodoxy gained its wide acceptance by performing a curious balancing act.

In order to catch on among pagans in the Greco-Roman world, an association with the Hebrew Scriptures was crucial, because the novelty of Christianity severely hindered it. See, antiquity, to the ancients, was a key feature of any credible belief system. It was inconceiveable that the (supposed) towering intellects of Classical times were unaware of any deep truths about the world. By attaching Christianity to Hebrew scripture, which pre-dated Plato and Aristotle, the proto-orthodox gave a new idea the patina of age.

Conversely, however, sects that were too closely tied to Judaism (like the Ebionites of the 2nd century) had trouble gaining adherents among gentiles. Adult circumcision is a pretty tough sell, after all, and the dietary restrictions and various other aspects of Jewish law act essentially as barriers to conversion.

So, the “species” of Christianity that won the struggle for existence in Darwinian fashion was the one that claimed the antiquity of Scripture via interpretations of prophesy and the like, but eschewed the more exclusive aspects of Judaism.

So, the “species” of Christianity that won the struggle for existence in Darwinian fashion was the one that claimed the antiquity of Scripture via interpretations of prophesy and the like, but eschewed the more exclusive aspects of Judaism.

It helps to have a larger, better trained army as well.

Well, there’s that, in the larger, geopolitical arena. But an orthodoxy had to be forged before you had anything that people were willing to fight for on that scale.

“Were Adam and Eve the first humanoids who achieved a religious consciousness?”

Wouldn’t a better question be (although the answer is obvious), “Were Adam and Eve the first humanoids?”

As long a scientist apparently accepts such a story as fact we have a looooong way to go.

CJO (#148583): “In order to catch on among pagans in the Greco-Roman world, an association with the Hebrew Scriptures was crucial, because the novelty of Christianity severely hindered it.…”

First phrase is true, second is false. A little actual history is helpful here. The novelty of Christianity actually attracted converts. Rome prohibited “new” religions, but accepted “ancient” ones. For that reason, Judaism was tolerated, but Christianity was not. The non-Jewish Christians of Greece, Asia Minor, and Rome were therefore forced into adopting a Jewish heritage to avoid being shut down by the Roman authorities as a prohibited “new” religion. (Later, of course, that ploy didn’t work.)

CJO again: “Adult circumcision is a pretty tough sell, after all.…”

The problem was not any fear of pain or reluctance to follow a Jewish law. Rather, the Greeks had a strong cultural aversion to any form of body modification—tattooing and piercing were right out.

The Adam and Eve scenario seems off the mark. I would suspect the development of religious awareness led to casting the origin in terms of a religious story.

It seems totally reasonable the religious awareness followed other awareness - the need to explain how nature worked would likely precede, yet the lack of understanding and lack of basic facts would lead to the reasonable conclusion that something/one else must be pulling the strings in an unseen way.

Then the stories need to be built up to cover the whole spectrum of things requiring explanation.

Tailspin (#148809) appears to deride the question: ““Were Adam and Eve the first humanoids who achieved a religious consciousness?”

How about looking at “creation” in the (earlier) Genesis account in chapter 2 this way. What would the first humans to achieve any kind of consciousness have thought? For example, one thing that separates us from other animals is that, in the words of Genesis, we “know death.” While other animals may see all kinds of dead bodies, only humans know that they themselves will someday be dead bodies. Also, non-conscious humanoids followed their natures instinctively; but consciousness of our own thought processes allowed us to understand that we could act otherwise. That is, “evil” came into existence from consciousness, the first recursive knowledge of ourselves. Finally, if the first conscious humans were to repel temptations to act against their (unconscious) natures, what better mechanism than to posit a separate being to represent that primeval nature—the birth of religious consciousness in Adam and Eve, the first “real” humans.

Something to think about, perhaps. Or not.

First phrase is true, second is false. A little actual history is helpful here. The novelty of Christianity actually attracted converts. Rome prohibited “new” religions, but accepted “ancient” ones. For that reason, Judaism was tolerated, but Christianity was not. The non-Jewish Christians of Greece, Asia Minor, and Rome were therefore forced into adopting a Jewish heritage to avoid being shut down by the Roman authorities as a prohibited “new” religion. (Later, of course, that ploy didn’t work.)

And what I’ve been reading (Ehrman, Mack, Crossan et al) isn’t “actual history”? Thanks for the notice and all, but do you have to condescend?

Certainly, “novelty…attracted converts,” but that novelty was a shared feature of all the varied forms of early Christianity. What I’m interested in is the features of certain proto-orthodox systems that facilitated their adoption as an accepted belief system among literate, elite pagans of the 3rd and 4th century Mediterranean world.

You may be right about attitudes toward cicumcision, but whatever the cultural underpinnings of the aversion, it existed, and perforce made Judaistic forms of Christianity less attractive than they might have been.

I find it thrilling that God set in motion a process which evolved in us a sense of religion, bringing His Creation closer to Him.

So what would you say, then, is the plausible synthetic explanation for people who have no religious sense whatsoever? At base, if you strip the intellectualising away, I’m an atheist because I have no…call it “religious impulse,” call it “sense of spirituality,” whatever you want to call it, I don’t have it. I don’t even particularly have much use for secular cultural ritual (like, say, civil weddings or convocations). I don’t win many friends there, either.

Does that, then, by extension, make me non-humanoid?

BTW FWIW - Eve was Adams 2nd wife. Lillith was 1st

The related EU science collaborations were interesting, but Stephen Jeffreys’ article was rather dreadful.

I’m not sure exactly what social darwinism is, but I can imagine that it would look rather like that. perhaps Larry Moran would have something to say about this. Say, asking for testable predictions to see if these behaviors at all are coupled to underlying biological traits and whether they in such case were initially established by selective advantage or just random drift.

Speaking of assumptions restricting research, there is also that part where Jeffreys argue that religion and language are species markers for humans. Again, not being a biologist, I’m not sure if that are specific or inclusive markers, but in any case it sounds to me like something that also must be established sooner rather than later.

For instance, some behaviors connected to religion is observed in other species, such as ‘ceremonies’ for the dead (perhaps apes and AFAIU established in elephants and Neanderthals). And to nitpick, IIRC some paleoanthropologists observes that techniques among both sapiens and neanderthalensis were so varied and rather equally (?) rapidly dispersed so language were a probable facilitator in both.

From a Christian perspective I find it thrilling that God set in motion a process which evolved in us a sense of religion, bringing His Creation closer to Him.

While the article was published as “Religion” I think it is very much a review of science. Therefore I find it odd that an individual among the studied group makes a claim that isn’t substantiated by the article, it in effect instead points out that the question is under study.

To make an analogy, it is if a house owner [I’m sure we are all tired of fairyologists and astrologists. OTOH I must point out that the analogy now is slightly off target] posts a review on research on the benefits of different life styles and claims: “As a owner of a red brick house I find it thrilling that red brick houses makes the best living condition”.

Now, that in itself would probably be seen as an inappropriate and erroneous claim on the content of the review, raising all sorts of questions. But IMO it is offensive as it is implicitly based on religious special pleading that this is “normal and right”.

Incidentally, Jefferys makes the same type of offensive claims in the end, painting it over with a suggestion. I guess we can add “propensity for special pleading” to the lists of traits to research.

–Does that, then, by extension, make me non-humanoid?

For people who don’t like you, yes. For others, it is just normal human variation. I hope so anyway, because I am like that too.

Sure, we at PT range from atheists, via agnostics to Christians.

And at least one Pagan.

The complexity paper is AFAIU a rather up to date review of complexity research.

The same programme also organizes the Tackling complexity in Science project and I noticed the absence of any ID relevant proposals.

Not only that, but it details how evolutionary research is essential to complexity research (evolutionary strategies among bio-inspired strategies, such as genotype-phenotype mapping and evolving complexity from less complex systems).

And reversely how complexity research is essential to understand evolutionary processes (spread and evolution of resistance in pathogens). This shows an important synergy IMHO.

Seems to be recent developments too, and underlines the empirical and intellectual poverty of ‘design’ speculations, as for example IDC movement couldn’t capitalize on it. Dembski and The Evolutionary Informatics Lab blew it.

[Though I note that finally Dembski and Marks have a paper in review, “Unacknowledged Information Costs in Evolutionary Computing: A Case Study on the Evolution of Nucleotide Binding Sites”. This is none of the papers that the EILab claims, which now numbers 4 “in review” but instead have the pdf copies withdrawn.

At a guess, it is still their demolished ev research, roughly as the abstract to “The Information Cost of No Free Lunch”:

The evolutionary simulations Avida and ev are shown to contain large amounts of active information.

but instead on more familiar CS basis with oracles as in the latest abstract, “Judicious Use of Computational Resources in Evolutionary Search”:

The Avida and ev algorithms are evaluated and shown to use oracles rich in information.

Suffice to say, we expect the genome to be rich in information, as a result of evolution.

[I also note that Marks may not yet show the drop in publications that correlates with IDC ‘research’.]]

Tackling complexity in science Wrote:

In a few words, Kauffman model (dynamics of random Boolean nets) suggests that organization phenomena observed in biology (in his case cell differentiation) are common to large majority of random systems built on some simple prescription. In other words, biological organization might not be the result of a strong selection principle, a radical departure from conventional biological wisdom in the 60’s.

I don’t get it. How do we go from emergence to supporting “not … selection” as there are already candidates for what I believe is “hopeful monsters”? An emergent system can, as the report itself mentions, build on simpler motifs - a target for selection, I believe. And the “emergence of emergence” can be gradual as well.

Additionally the emergence may disconnect to the underlying system, say when Earth got its molten core irrespective of the specific chemistry of the molten material.

Sounds like a bunch of rationalizing nonsense - which you are welcome to as long as you don’t bring it into classrooms or allow it to dominate your polotics. Don’t get me wrong, if this is in the spirit of something like a RPG, I’m all for it. Just don’t tell me it’s history, much less spiritual truth, the Exclusive Brand.

Be warned, though, and expept the ideas of these obviously usually extremely intelligent people to be greeted by, at best, patient smiles, nodding, a polite “Hmm!” and a change of subject by people with more engrossing, realistic and useful hobbies, like baseball, knitting and movie trivia.

I’d like it noted that the very history of religion illustrates a form of evolution in action. Christianity evolved from ancient Judaism, diversifying into Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Islam evolved from Judaism too, later diversifying into Sunni and Shiite branches. Then the Baha’i Faith evolved from Shiite Islam. Buddhism evolved from Hinduism. Paganism has diversified so much that it is hardly a single religion at all, but has elements in Hinduism and even Christianity. There was even a mass extinction of religions as a result of the spread of Christianity and Islam around the world.

Languages also evolved, with French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish, and Portuguese evolving from Latin, as the most obvious example. Languages have also died out massively as others have spread around the world.

Why deny biological evolution when our own history is full of similar examples?

David Fickett-Wilbar:

Sure, we at PT range from atheists, via agnostics to Christians.

And at least one Pagan.

Wow, a genuine Pagan?

To top that, also a Gnostic – maybe not quite the real thing, but more Gnostic than you could guess.

CJO:

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on early Christian traditions, and it’s just an amazing thing how a fringe cult of Judean peasants became a world religion and the official faith of the Roman Empire in just a few centuries.

I may be wrong, but I seem to find that the opinion about that that we find in “The Jesus Mysteries” and “Jesus and the Lost Goddess” sheds quite some light on that. Four that’s in one sentence, that’s me…

I haven’t had time to study this closely, but I believe it have much to do with evolution, psychology and religions:

http://www.edge.org/Xrd_culture/hai[…]7_index.html

(The link is being corrupted by the software, it doesn’t handle the characters 3rd correctly in this context, so you’ll have to replace the X in the URL with a 3 in your browser)

I certainly am going back to study the work of Haidt as soon as I get time. Another useful reference is http://www.psychology.lu.se/persona[…]/fredrik.htm

I’ve been less than impressed with the Economist lately for its cheerleading for the most uninspired evolutionary psychology papers. It even championed that recent study that tried to intimate that females preferred pink for evolutionary reasons (which may actually be so, but the study in question was one of the most dubious bits of research I’ve seen in a while).

And here’s more of from the article in question:

“Evolutionary biologists tend to be atheists, and most would be surprised if the scientific investigation of religion did not end up supporting their point of view. But if a propensity to religious behaviour really is an evolved trait, then they have talked themselves into a position where they cannot benefit from it, much as a sceptic cannot benefit from the placebo effect of homeopathy. Maybe, therefore, it is God who will have the last laugh after all—whether He actually exists or not.”

To which I say: bollocks. Even if religion has been the result of evolution, it does not mean that it is adaptive*. Even if religion turns out to be adaptive, it does not mean it is adaptive under all conditions**. Even if religion is adaptive in modern human conditions, it does not follow that it is the only or even the best adaptive behavioural strategy. Even if religion turns out to be the best reproductive strategy in modern conditions, it does not follow that it should be promoted or even accepted***. I realise that the author is just trying to end with a pithy line, but this is the sort of poor-quality thinking that has dogged the recent Economist articles on evolutionary psychology (that I’ve read – there may have been perfectly good articles that I missed). And you know, the author seems to believe medical researchers think to themselves, “I wish I knew nothing about physiology and chemistry so I could enjoy the benefits of homeopathy.”

* Sickle cell anaemia is the maladaptive result of an adaptive heterozygosity.

** Pale skin is adapative in Northern Europe but it can lead to skin cancer in the tropics; dark skin is adaptive in the tropics but it can lead to vitamin D deficiency in Scandinavia.

*** A new male partner should not be encouraged to murder his stepchildren to increase his reproductive chances. I’m not comparing religion to murder, just pointing out that it is quite possible to be morally or intellectually opposed to a behavioural trait that is evolutionarily adaptive.

I always have a secret giggle to myself when someone says that they’re agnostic. It’s a guilty, geek-type giggle, and really quite unjustified, because it’s perfectly respectable to say that the existence of God (or a god) is a moot question, unanswerable without the certainty of faith - which opens the entire can of ontological worms - how do I know what I know? - and so on.

The giggle, however, is because of what “agnosticism”, strictly speaking, actually means. It doesn’t mean “I don’t know whether God exists or not”. It means, “I am not a gnostic”.

“So what’s a gnostic, Dave?” I hear you arsk, and chillun, settle down, because I am about to reveal the extent of my useless knowledge. A gnostic, gulls and buoys, is someone who believes that the nature of God can be glimpsed - indeed, known - through revelation. That is, that there is certain knowledge (gnosis) about God that is available to humans. How? I hear you ask. (Actually, I don’t, but I’m about to answer anyway, careless of the extent to which it reveals my own desperation.) God reveals himself through… wait for it… divine revelation!

“Ah. And how do I get some of this divine revelation you’re smoking, Dave?”, you arsk. Ah hah, say I, and put my finger beside my nose. Actually, if it’s as late as this, and I’ve been drinking scotch like I have been, I probably put my finger up my nose, but that to one side. So to speak.

One gains such insights into the nature of God in the way that mystics have always gained it. That is, by prayer, which means talking to yourself until you hear the echoes; by vigil, which means sleep deprivation until the walls melt and really weird shit starts to happen; by meditation, which means introspection carried to the point of solipsism; by study, which in this case means fatigue-driven repetition of text until its meaning actually implodes; by ecstatic communion, which means stroking it until you, rather than it, hits the ceiling, and in desperate cases by ingestion of heroic quantities of certain interesting pharmaceuticals.

Thus the gnostics.

The medieval church, for reasons not entirely unconnected with the fact that most of it wasn’t actually barking mad, rather looked down on these methods of finding out what God was like, and required its clergy to abjure them. Thus, Christians thoughout most of their history were actually required to be agnostic - that is, to subscribe to the idea that God was ineffable - unknowable, inscrutable, beyond human wit and understanding. Which is where we are now, with the domain of science and the domain of faith permanently and irretrievably sundered.

Me, I’m afraid of dying, and find the insights of science (Dave, you’re going to die, and that’s the end) less than reassuring. The problem is, I don’t have any better ones. On nights like this, I stare into the void.

Staring into the void sucks.

Dave Luckett said:

“Me, I’m afraid of dying, and find the insights of science (Dave, you’re going to die, and that’s the end) less than reassuring. The problem is, I don’t have any better ones. On nights like this, I stare into the void.

Staring into the void sucks.”

Funny that. Me too. The problem is, it seems to me, although I am not a biologist, just a lowly chemist (please correct me if this is a mistake), that fear of death seems like the most overlooked selective trait imposed on us fragile humans and other animals by Nature. It follows therefore that we have two main ways to confront that fear, one being, of course, to deny the fact and assume you are actually here in a transient form between other lives, and that so being, you will necessarily be looked after on that voyage by a supernatural parental figure. The alternative is of course terrifying: you assume you are just worm food and while in a cognitive state, you try to obtain the greater quantity possible of information (reproducible) on your surroundings. The worm food part is what gets me into scotch as well. The revelation comes when an experiment reveals something new to me or my colleagues. The scary part is not having money for scotch in between grants, that will assure a tad more of beautiful moments of revelation. And so on into serious oblivion. At least, my bunch of atoms will be useful somewhere, to someone or something until the universe gets cold and lifeless…much like void.

David Luckett The giggle, however, is because of what “agnosticism”, strictly speaking, actually means. It doesn’t mean “I don’t know whether God exists or not”. It means, “I am not a gnostic”.

No it doesn’t. Agnosticism derives linguistically from the same Greek root as Gnosticism, i.e. ‘gnosis’, which means ‘knowledge’. Agnostic literally means ‘[someone] without knowledge’, and I believe that was Huxley’s intention when he coined the phrase.

Hasn’t this ground been covered already?

I hope I am not contributing to derailing of this thread - at least I am not posting pure BS. I believe the study of depth psychology has given me some insight into the subject, the connection between the human psyche and religion. Maybe not quite right but for the purpose of this discussion, let’s consider the religions themselves simply as spurious products of our psyche. I offer this little snippet from “The Jesus Mysteries”:

As we explored the beliefs and practices of the Gnostics we became convinced that the Literalists had at least been right about one thing: the Gnostics were little different from Pagans. Like the philosophers of the Pagan Mysteries, they believed in reincarnation, honored the goddess Sophia, and were immersed in the mystical Greek philosophy of Plato. Gnostics means “Knowers,” a name they acquired because, like the initiates of the Pagan Mysteries, they believed that their secret teachings had the power to impart Gnosis-direct experiential “Knowledge of God.” Just as the goal of a Pagan initiate was to become a god, so for the Gnostics the goal of the Christian initiate was to become a Christ. What particularly struck us was that the Gnostics were not concerned with the historical Jesus. They viewed the Jesus story in the same way that the Pagan philosophers viewed the myths of Osiris-Dionysus - as an allegory that encoded secret mystical teachings. This insight crystallized for us a remarkable possibility. Perhaps the explanation for the similarities between Pagan myths and the biography of Jesus had been staring us in the face the whole time, but we had been so caught up with traditional ways of thinking that we had been unable to see it.

I find it very regrettable that much of what has been available knowledge for a hundred years still is entirely absent from the public debate - both over there as over here. I have books that spells it out - but I can’t start a one man crusade.

I do not mind religion - but I am very much against all kinds of fundamentalism.

That’s all, I withdraw from this thread. Thanks for ‘listening’.

I am aware of the linguistic roots of the word. I regret not being privy to Huxley’s intentions, but for my part I regard him as someone for whom a simple declaration of ignorance would not have sufficed.

Words are defined not only by their roots. Meanings drift. They (heh!) evolve. “Agnostic” literally means, as you say, the converse of “gnostic”; but literal readings have their problems, as we are all aware.

Thus, “gnostic” does not simply mean “one who knows”, because the word has more baggage than that. “Gnosticism” refers to an entire body of early Christian thought characterised by its common assumption that there is a way to come to knowledge of God. Hence, “gnostic” doesn’t simply mean “one who knows”, and therefore “agnostic” doesn’t simply mean “one who doesn’t know.” There is more meaning to it than that. I like to think Huxley knew that, too.

Why deny biological evolution when our own history is full of similar examples?

For some reason I just realized that these examples also support abiogenesis. The questionable but distributed nature of “hereditary material” for languages, memes et cetera ties into the same dissolution on the lineages back. So if those weak analogies are seen to work someone questioning evolution (and abiogenesis creationist fashion) will indeed have a huge problem.

Btw, the absence of universal common descent (spontaneous cults and churches respectively sung [IIRC, long distance communication on some islands] and sign languages) works in the same supportive fashion - it is a strength that these type of processes works without it.

@ Chris:

Thanks for pounding (and clearly and effectively so) on these points. Especially the sickle cell disease example is memorable.

Anyone else notice this spectacular piece of nonsense:

But it might be explained by an idea that most Darwinians dropped in the 1960s—group selection.

The idea that evolution can work by the differential survival of entire groups of organisms, rather than just of individuals, was rejected because it is mathematically implausible. But it has been revived recently, in particular by David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University, in New York, as a way of explaining the evolution of human morality in the context of inter-tribal warfare.

Any analysis that depends on the resurrection of ‘group selection’ to work, is rather desperate and doomed to failure. It’s not only PZ who will be offended by that article - Dawkins certainly isn’t amused by Sloan Wilson.

http://www.newscientist.com/article[…]central.html

“Decidedly,whether jesus was god or not,he was a first-rate political economist”. This is as said by G.B Shaw in the preface of his book Androcles and the Lion.

Can somebody please explain the significance of this?

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on March 26, 2008 11:43 AM.

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