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We Are the Apes Who Pray

To explore the evolution and purpose of the supernatural worldview (in all its forms) as purely a matter of human invention. As an atheist, it is often challenging to foster an uncompromised discussion of religion and spirituality without bowing to the social pressure to 'respect' or treat 'seriously' beliefs and opinions which, ultimately, have no basis in scientific fact. Beginning with the acknowledgement that human beings are, without exception, products of biological evolution, how do we move forward to discuss religion and belief for what they are: neurological, anthropological, psychological and sociological aspects of the human condition whose true value rests in what they reveal about us as apes who pray?

Panelists: Erin Cashier, Catherine Anne Crowe, Janet M. Lafler, Keith R. Watson
Moderator: Richard F. Dutcher

Everyone on the panel was an atheist or agnostic.

Some useful/important things that were said:

There are many kinds of atheism.

Changes in government in the 19th-20th centuries -- moving away from the "parish" as a government entity -- made it possible to be "out" as an atheist. (I'm not sure which countries this applies to.)

Sociology has the concept of habitus, which is your perceptions/beliefs/behaviors or your cultural comfort zone. This is largely made up of things you were taught or things you derived from your existing beliefs. There's considerable inertia in what makes up the habitus. Most of this knowledge is based on...my notes say the panelist called it "experience," but I might describe it more as "assumptions based on past experience and a body of knowledge." The example she gave was, "Even though I haven't seen my living room for a day or so, I know there is no bear in my living room."

Our current experience of living in a world with "competing" philosophies/spheres/ways of life is not the way humans lived for most of human history.

The question arose whether religious belief has a direct evolutionary advantage. I thought this was an interesting question, but the panelists and audience didn't address the point that human behaviors/traits/tendencies can be influenced by evolution without having a direct evolutionary advantage.

There is a physiological component to religious experience and many cultures/religions know this and have ways of creating the religious experience. For example, one of the panelists is a diabetic and said that when she has low blood sugar she can get into a state where she "understands everything." She drew a possible connection between this and the fact that many people fast to achieve a religious experience.

Being part of a group can also affect what a religious experience is like.

Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) are different from other religions because they focus on orthodoxy (you must believe certain things) whereas religions such as Confucianism and Buddhism focus on orthopraxy (you must do certain things). I think this is a good point but I don't think it was described very well. First of all, it's not true of Judaism. Second, insofar as there's a difference between Christianity and Buddhism, say (I'm picking on them because I know something about them) I think it's more of a difference of degree than a difference in kind; there's plenty of orthodoxy in Buddhism and there's plenty of orthopraxy in Christianity. I spoke up with a different quibble, though -- I said that the focus in Buddhism is "your behavior will create the correct states of mind" rather than simply on behavior itself.

There was discussion about how to create community in the absence of religious organizations. Someone jokingly said "science fiction fandom," but I think that's a real answer, not a joke answer. In general groups of people who gather around a particular interest, whether it be science fiction fandom or the Chicago Cubs, can sometimes develop qualities of community similar to those I have seen in religious organizations. (Not that I have ever experienced the greatest models of religious community, so I might be talking out of my butt here.)

There was discussion of why people in the US are more religious than people in Europe, and one theory was that a social democratic government, that makes efforts to meet everyone's survival needs, takes over some of the functions of religion. "Nordic" societies were brought up a few times and an historical argument was made that because they were small, poor, and neutral, no "extreme income pyramid" developed and in this kind of society people tend to take care of each other.

However, no one made the point, which occurred to me just now and I'm not sure it's true but I've heard it, that Nordic societies are fairly homogenous ethically. Maybe homogenous societies don't need religion? (But I know of fairly homogenous societies that do have religion, so maybe not.)

This led into a discussion of how religion has been coopted by ruling classes, and about cyclical changes in the role of women in religion. In the West, there have been "waves" of religious "enthusiasm," and in early stages of such a wave, women are welcomed as preachers, but in the middle stages, women are not allowed to be preachers. The panelist claimed that such a wave is occurring right now in the US/UK.

People can view political philosophies, even atheist ones, as if they were religious beliefs. Some early communists were very fervent (espionage novels of Alan Furst, before World War II) and this explains why so many people "walked into Stalin prisons." (E.g., I guess, believed in communism blindly and didn't see the corruption.) Someone suggested that the longer you are devoted to something, the more rigid you can get about it.

There was some discussion about a theory by a guy named Randy Thornhill who says that religion creates a "protective ingroup." And by "protective" he seemed to mean "protective of the immune system." E.g., he claims that some US states are more religious because they have more disease. Personally I might agree there is a protective value to religion but I'm not sure that the theory gets cause and effect quite right about the correlation of states that have more actively religious people and disease. Especially if poverty isn't factored in.

I know that studies have been done where they wire up humans with electrodes and the humans report "seeing god" or having some kind of spiritual experience. I asked whether any such studies have been done on animals. The panel argued that it wouldn't be possible because we wouldn't know what the animals were experiencing and wouldn't know which part of the brain to stimulate--it's easier to find the pleasure center than the god center. And that's a point, but I still think it could be tried. I haven't studied the studies so I don't know where this religious center is in the brain, but I wonder whether maybe it's in a part of the brain that other animals have. I believe that what humans experience as god, other animals experience too, although of course I don't know what they make of the experience. (I made people laugh by saying that when I rub my cat's belly I know she sees god. Of course I don't mean that literally. And besides, I should have said my dog's belly because I know the cat actually thinks that she IS god.)

There was discussion about whether we could "get rid" of religion and get to an "atheist society." Some people took exception to that and said it was anti-freedom, or that we'll never get everyone to agree on a single view of reality. Other people pointed back at the discussion about how the least religious societies are the Northern Europe social democracies.

Our last topic was the relationship between religion and ethics/moral codes. For some reason it got sidetracked onto sociopaths.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 27th, 2009 10:04 am (UTC)
Excellent post.

Living in a social democracy in a Nordic country (and being a godless treehugging liberal commie queer), I must say I agree.
The population here is quite homogenous, and many of us have little practical everyday use for organised religion. That is not to say no people have beliefs of religious dimensions, concepts of an immortal soul, ideas of 'karma', hubris/nemesis and such, though.

We have a Christian Democratic party, which was founded as an anti-abortion party in the 1970's. It didn't get in two elections ago, and has declined to 0,2% of the voters in polls. You almost never hear religious arguments by politicians - I can think of only one who has done so in the past many years, and he's on his way out.
The socialists, the social democrats, the social liberals, the fiscally liberal, the libertarians, the conservatives, the nationalists....they refrain from using religious arguments - although some of them express concern about religious extremism, which I think is fair enough.

Around 80% are members of the state-supported Evangelican-Lutheran church, but less than 5% attend church outside events such as funerals or weddings. Some say it's because it doesn't matter if they pay directly to the church for maintaining historical buildings or if it's done through tax, which would be the case if state and church were separated. Note that I definitely hold that we should separate them.

Religion has been confined somewhat into the personal sphere, and bringing up how you met Jesus and he saved your life during a party conversation is regarded as odd. We may have beliefs that are of religious character, but we seldomly bring them up in public. People coil in horror when I tell them of my teaching experiences in a Catholic primary school - a girl asked why I'm shorter than my brother and another answered "It's because God decided so".

Perhaps as humanity advances in technology and communication, we find out that the things old time religion provides are not satisfactory. If we find biotechnological means to halt and even reverse aging (I'm supporting the Methuselah Foundation), then the death-cult views of Abrahamic religion will be surpassed. If we manage to spread language education so that all people speak at least one world language, then we might slowly come to the conclusion that the basis for most old world religions - the distinction between the chosen ones and the others, the heretics, the dhimmi, the gentiles, the shikshas - is moot and destructive.
We might find out what Carl Sagan hinted at:
"An extraterrestrial visitor examining the differences among human societies would find those differences trivial compared to the similarities. We are one species. We are star stuff harvesting star light. Our lives, our past and our future are tied to the sun, the moon and the stars."

A local priest said recently, without any notion of sadness or remorse, that the reason why organised religion is slowly declining is that more and more people are perhaps feeling we are in the process of....creating Heaven on Earth.
May. 27th, 2009 03:57 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your take on it, that's really interesting!

Around 80% are members of the state-supported Evangelican-Lutheran church

This is the part that as a USian I find really fascinating. The US was founded on a separation of church and state philosophy but there's a lot more active religion here. On the other hand...is it a "but"? Could it be a "because"? Or are there other factors?
May. 27th, 2009 07:52 pm (UTC)
The US was also founded partly by a lot of religious movements that were shunned from contemporary Europe. Note that we mainly have Catholics and Protestants here - you have Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and so on.... :-)

There is complete religious freedom as such, and it is written in the constitution that religous belief cannot disqualify you from equal protection, but nor can it be used to evade civic duties. (In practice this does not include conscientious objectors to the military)
Also, you don't need to be registered to gather and worship. We have full right of assembly, with the specific mention that the police has the right to be present if you gather in public (which makes sense as you can't gather on main street and claim the police should scram).
But if you want tax exemption and the right to perform weddings and funerals with legal implications, you must get an approvement. This means registering your faith with some sort of written creed, dogma or philosophy and justifying that your belief indicates that "mankind is dependent on some transcendent force". This, for example has led to the amusing situation that Scientology is NOT recognized as a religion although they've tried for decades, but that hasn't stopped them from establishing the largest center in Northern Europe in the middle of Copenhagen.

Note that in the case of Denmark, the church isn't at all controlling state affairs - it's rather the other way round. We have oodles of century-old laws and rules concerning the number of witnesses for a baptizing and how long sermons may last and no-one dares to stir the pot and do what our constitutional fathers wrote in 1849 - make one modern set of regulations for religious communities. Some say that by having state control, we avoid the extremist factions easier because...religious people are too dangerous to leave by themselves.

The state-supported church is also under heavy attack these days, I should probably mention. Partially because of the fact that the state pays the priests's wages, this is in return for some services for the state which could of course be handled by a secular body - although probably not cheaper. Also, it is under attack as part of the current general anti-religious sentiment that's been heating up since the whole Islam in Europe discussion. You know, following some now rather famous cartoons...

In Norway and Iceland, they have exactly the same configuration with a state church. In Sweden, they separated them in 2000. This has probably not changed things much, but you'd have to ask a Swede about that, I guess :-)

If we are to separate church and state, it will take two consecutive Parliaments to ratify it, followed by a public referendum, where in addition to ordinary majority 40% of the voting body must vote in favour. Effectively meaning that a blank means a no. Yup, we have one of the constitutions in Europe that's most resistant to change.
May. 31st, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the write-up. I had zero interest in attending the panel because of how actively hostile to religion, and by extension religious people, the panel description was, but I do find the summary of what was discussed interesting.
May. 31st, 2009 06:13 pm (UTC)
Thanks. There was one panelist who was openly hostile to religion, and a few audience members whose view seemed to be "How do we get rid of this plague?"

I am currently calling myself a nontheist Buddhist. I think religion and spirituality have a lot to contribute to society if we can figure out how to prevent them from contributing violence and othering.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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