Archive for December, 2011

Deeper in: Dan Dennett’s Scientific Study of Religion at CFI

This is an eclectic traipsing through the conference in several parts. 

Andrew Newburg, the first scheduled presenter on Saturday was ill and couldn’t make it.  Neurotheology is his specialized area of investigation.  He’s PET or SPECT scanned the brains of Buddhists in meditation and Carmelite nuns in prayer.   He was high on my list of want-to-sees.  I wanted to see what he thought of  how evolution might have put together the neurochemicals and their receptor cells with some propensity toward religiosity or religiousness or spirituality. 

Most of the presenters, I think, are opposed to anything like religion as a package deal being selected for as an evolutionary adaptation.   For others, it’s a matter of onion skin layers –and the thesis and proponents of what might have evolved that can be found at that layer.  Nobody thinks you could inherit, let’s say, Catholicism (or any fullblown religion).    Not many think you’d inherit the worship of a supernatural being, per se.  But as you keep peeling off layers, you’ll come to a level we might call a “religious impulse.”    That idea has followers.  See Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct.   I believe, also, that you can consider E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology, Consilience & David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral, in on that one (and me). 

Daniel Dennett & Pascal Boyer don’t think (and please correct me if I get this wrong: I’ve read both their books & took copious notes, but my memory is almost nonexistent) there’s continuity between the early religious behavior of hunter-gatherers and today’s religions.  Boyer says they have only Religious Thought and Belief and nothing like capital R Religions.   Richard Dawkins & Steven Pinker (not at the conference, but icons in the pantheon of the New Atheism)  whom I admire, as well, give reasons unworthy of their intellects as to why they reject the likelihood that natural selection could have put together anything supportive of religion.

I’m not saying that evolution created a whole new brain center, large neural structure, and maybe not even anything unique or specially dedicated to support something like a religious impulse.  Selection would have had the easiest time (and selection operates without any intent or purpose–results happen and they live or die –or thrive–or have a slight reproductive advantage) selecting, slowly accumulating, accreting, minor changes in what allowed the human brain to trigger neurochemicals or neurotransmitters and thereby reward itself for thinking lofty, especially pious, thoughts.    Some religious behaviors would accrete over time that would coax out, in a supportive way,   more of this mutually supportive neurochemical rewards and voila` you’ve got a mystical experience or, more likely, a subliminal perk when someone whispered in your ear that Jesus loves you.

That’s what I wanted to ask Andrew Newburg about.     J. Anderson Thompson, MD gave the first presentation instead, The Song of Serotonin and the Dance of Dopamine and may have come closer than Dr. Newburg  might have to affirming the likelihood of a heritable religious impulse–if it can largely be based in neurochemistry.   Along with selection stringing together some religious behavior be it chant, dance, and/or trance, I think it might just be.  When he acknowledged the contribution of Nicholas Wade to the field and work, I believe that might have been the affirmation.

December 5, 2011 at 9:06 pm Leave a comment

Randomly firing neurons inspired by the Dan Dennett conference

Just a few scattered thoughts on getting back from “Daniel Dennett and the Scientific Study of Religion.”   I intended to go deeper into some aspects of the conference later. 

Great conference.  I enjoyed a bagel with Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained).  Sat with Paul Kurtz at lunch (He started the Center for Inquiry 20 years ago and the publishing company, Prometheus Books, He wrote the  Humanist Manifesto II, and many important books of the humanist movement to the effect that he has been called the father of modern secular humanism).

Now, even more random:    Most of the presenters at the conference were scientists.    I hugged a Christian in the first session on Saturday (you had to be there).    That presenter of the same session acknowledge a reference to Nicholas Wade.  I found myself recommending Wade’s The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures.   Apologies if I didn’t remember the subtitle correctly.  I’ve listened to The Faith Instinct  as an audio book probably 10 to 20 times and told Mr. Wade it is the most important book of my life.   (I should disclaim for Mr. Wade that he remains neutral as far as I can tell with respect to his position on theism/atheism.  It is the evolution of religion along with the recent evolution of mankind which is of most interest to me.  Many of the rock stars at the Dan Dennett conference  and other icons of the New Atheism seem to reject the thesis that religion is an evolutionary adaptation.  This is in opposition to Nicholas Wade’s thesis which I support almost totally (with a minor insignificant point of difference).  More on this later. 

Thanks to the fellows who took me to Santano’s Pizza for supper.    More depth on the conference to follow.


December 5, 2011 at 10:55 am Leave a comment


I write for agnostics, freethinkers, atheists and humanists. In my nonfiction, the purpose is the celebration of our noble human spirit. The general pursuit may be Evolutionary Theology, though believers seem to populate that field (so maybe it's evolutionary Humanism). By looking at who we are and where we came from, we can derive much meaning, and perhaps more importantly, understanding, as well as some sense of where we could go.

Religion is God’s Way of Showing Us it’s Earlier in Human Evolution than We Thought

This title is an upcoming book at the publisher's now. I'd like feedback on this title. It's meant to make people think and feel something. And to hint at things for both believers and non- on multiple levels. The book is of a wider scope, though, one which is ultimately a way to grasp more meaning for ourselves. Believers are always telling us our lives don't have meaning without a god. We often counter that it's more meaningful to be looking for our own meaning than to be arbitrarily ascribed it by an imaginary supernatural being. Ultimately, and this is what I think is unique about this book, you'll see how we can be just as spiritual in our own way. Since we've inhertited a capacity for religion (some more than others) as an evolutionary adaptation, believers and non- are both potentially spritual in the same way--but it is an earthly, secular spirituality in which we all can share.