Posts tagged ‘richard dawkins’

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

A god to die for

I commented on the Freethought Blog.

The general question by their reader  was this:

“Hey Martin, I have a dilemma and was hoping for some quick advice on how to handle a situation. I am a part of a theology group here on FB and during one of these exchanges a Christian (fairly fundy) said he would die for his god and asked what I would die for.

My response was that it sounded like jihad. Was this a good approach I guess is my question? I’m pretty sure (with the fundy part) he’s just not going to get where the similarities are between jihad and fundamental christianity but I can try right? lol

Any advice is appreciated.”


[To set this up: I first default to understanding.  Maybe it’s not as straight forward as just dealing with the issue, but understanding can be a lot and I’ve often found myself left with nothing here in the Bible Belt and it took years to gain the only thing possible: understanding.]

I think Richard Dawkins disputes the thesis that religion was an evolutionary adaptation, but it was the missing piece of the puzzle for me. I’ve been scratching my head for many years as to how religion could have such a universal grip on humanity when it seems so counter-intuitive given religion as we know it.

Whenever I hear a question about an aspect of religion, I’m taken back about a hundred thousand years to consider the underlying source.

Dying for their religion? Sounds like a strange concept to us.
Take that back 100,000 years in human evolution, though, and it was a pact, a pledge, to the tribe. It was a brotherhood, with serious initiation rites, blood rites, and it was solemn and binding. A binding stronger than kin and marriage.

This is one reason why the “God & country” linkages seems to continually resurface. It was reflective of an underlying super-reality, a reality that hunter-gather clans could (or tried desperately to) relate to. It was the realm of the supernatural. The natural world was beyond their understanding.

The projected a power or great father behind the world and worked hard on their identity as his subjects.

Would they die for God & clan and the culture they created around this identity? Oh, yeah. And the clans that did have members who’d make that sacrifice produced more offspring–and here we are.

October 15, 2011 at 1:08 pm Leave a comment

Houston AAA/Freethought Convention

It was good to be there.   I enjoyed seeing Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Sad to see Christopher looking frail, but very glad he made it out.  He hasn’t made a personal appearance in a while due to his pancreatic cancer.

The banquet was packed and the crowd was attuned to the night’s business:   Richard Dawkin’s presentation, on behalf of his foundation, of the Humanist of the Year award to Hitch.   There were at least a half dozen standing ovations in recognition of Hitchens’ contributions and his effort to persevere in the cause as well as his shear pluck to go on.

The presenters were all top notch.  I would highly recommend the convention, though I can’t imagine how they could top this year’s event.  I was torn more than once as to which lecture to attend when there was more than one.

It’s surprising at first that these lectures and presentations are directed at issues we all have.   Here in the wilderness, we’re accustomed to there being nothing that’s on topic, no consideration of our issues or wishes, no acknowledgement that we exist.  (Granted that’s better than being pointed out and dragged off to be burnt at the stake.)   So a whole lecture, germain & to the point, it’s heaven if you don’t push the analogy too far.

The presenters had multiple purposes for being there.  Most have published books, the newest being on display in the convention’s bookstore (The bookstore graciously afforded me equal display space to start advanced publicity for Post Script to a Christian Nation.).  Though we all had issues in common, some led the way for their special issue.  For instance, Barbara Taylor is battling creationism in the public schools in her state, Louisiana.

I connected with the convention’s book store for half a dozen items, books, DVDs.   We are a community by our issues; we have similar, but different interests.  Some of the ones I like to pursue I’ve mentioned in this blog. I’m interested in the philosophical implications of all sciences for humankind.  I’m especially interested in paleo-anthropology, evolutionary psychology and the study of how we evolved religion.  Beyond that starting point, is that somewhat difficult to define “spirituality” that we all seem to have is not only a nurturable aspect of the human spirit, but is better for each and everyone of us to nurture it with our highest aspirations.

I reserve a special place, also, on this blog, for any who want to share how they came to freethought, humanism or atheism.    So, again, you are welcome to share, to bear witness to your journey, the journey of the Doubtful Sojourner.

October 10, 2011 at 8:28 pm Leave a comment

The Anthropological Origins of Religion

(There is some conjecture in this thesis or groups of theses. I can’t take credit for all these ideas. They’ve been garnered from many sources. I’m stringing them together which has probably been done by others before. I would especially like to cite The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade. He is opposed on one point by Richard Dawkins: group level selection. Wade believes that the ubiquity of religion points to group level selection. That is, group, clan, troupe, tribe being “naturally” selected as an evolution adaptation.)

For the sake of argument I’d like to transport you to the Aurignation culture, one of the early European cultures of Cro-Magnon man. The culture of that troupe or tribe was their way of knowing the world and who they were. The need for identity, for the self and the group is very strong. It is inextricably intertwined, this group identity, with the group’s origin and leadership. Natural questions about self and group put to the test the alpha male (leadership), the group, and the self. Such questions as: Is the leader’s authority legitimate? Is the group fair and just? Am I in the right group?”

Cro-Magnon is a term that has been largely dropped. Anatomically modern humans is the more correct term. Consider them synonymous.

Religion was that interlocking puzzle piece that meshed with so many of the unknowns, the unanswerable questions of life, into one little black box. Religion said ‘this is who we are because this is how we answer these questions.’ Another way to put it, religion was a tool of man’s among very few tools because his mind was way ahead of his culture. At the Cro-Magnon point, those individuals had the rough equivalent of our minds… but their culture was just budding, wholly inadequate to their fears and concerns.

Cro-Magnon’s mind demanded answers, but he was the only one around who cared about his questions. So he could only reason from what he could see–with his limited understanding. He saw things that had visible effects in his world, sun, water, weather, animals, and so he reasoned backward via an anthropocentric apotheosis of those effects to some personified cause that must have intended them. ‘The great spirit was angry with us and flooded our camp.”

Religion can go to the root man’s sociopolitical nature because it offers God or his nominee as an overarching ‘alpha male.’ For the human troupe this is the ultimate or extreme legitimate leader. Maybe this is one reason that religion offers so much, as it evidently does, around the world to its followers—it locks into eons old primate evolutionary realities. If you’re unable to visualize the hierarchy in, say, a chimpanzee troupe, consider the feudal system—it shares a variation of the organizational structure of a primate (subsuming human as well) troupe: serfs, their lords, then kings with their divine right—authority validated by God. Just ask them, eh?

Certainly, today every person is a social critic and may be ‘hardwired’ to be one. Every primate troupe has a leader who is potentially subject to continual challenge, in a real way this is an ongoing quest for an authority that is beyond question. In reality, society is typically flawed, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Religion offers something of a utopia, a society perfected. To the extent that societies are less than perfect, religion, typically with a deity, offers the answers to the mysteries of the world by a personal embodiment of those mysteries in a caring entity who’s involved in the world and its being.

Believers may have gone for this package deal. That is, rather than accepting the idea that ‘there is a god’ as a first premise, they simply wanted the entire operational frame work of belief, reverence for the sacred, the favor of the satiated god, avoiding the wrath of unplacated gods, etc. In reality the individual’s culture presupposed a god’s existence before the individual was on the scene. Thus there was a tradition, and as far as the culture was concerned: ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, i.e., if you are going to partake in the culture, you accept it in its entirety, religious beliefs and all. Early on, the culture projected a god or gods; this Great Spirit was the apotheosis of nature. It was the existential equivalent of the question, ‘All right! Who’s in charge here?’ that mankind seems to have the burning need to know. Religion, then, was yet another aspect of how the banding together of the social tribe met the needs of the individual as well as the group: the culture had religious answers for the unfathomable mysteries of the world.

Later in prehistory, as cultures met, the possibility of abandoning one god and accepting another became feasible—though still not easy. If people liked the god-ideas of another culture, they may have imagined a god-message something like this: ‘Since you know there must be a god you should believe in me for I am He.’

The original dialogue between man and god carried over from pre-history into historical times. There had to be some feedback from the divine or else questions would arise: Weren’t the priests any good or was the religion false? And, lo, the word of god was invented. The priests learned to write in order to take divine dictation. After all it was their caste who would receive THE WORD.

Various tools were employed to facilitate communing with the divine. Fasting was cheap. Drugs were somewhat effective. Dreams were a source, and dreams under the influence of fasting or drugs also yielded some results. Really, anything that would produce altered states or hallucinations was viable. Great suffering was a theme in Christianity that nominated the sufferer for worthiness to receive the divine communication.

So the Written Words accumulated in sacred scrolls and texts and this body of work became revered. It was necessary for the viability of a god and his religion that this was a knowledge that subsumed all knowledge, all culture, that was eternal and transcendent. With a religion’s tradition, rituals, and integral place in the culture, it’s a wonder a believer would ever stray. Though I suppose if one’s own god seemed ineffective, as I expect occasionally they must, the believer might well see greener grass in another tribe’s beliefs, ‘Yeah, there must be a god. This guy’s myth from his culture says that God is Their Grand-High Mucky-Muck. He’s got a tradition and a lot of followers. He must know who he is. Therefore, he is GOD.’ ”

I prefaced these thoughts with Richard Dawkin’s opposition to group level natural selection. He has also said that religion is a group activity so natural selection at the individual level would have no effect. In other words, religion isn’t an evolutionary adaptation at the individual level either.

Dawkins is an authority, of course, but in logical arguments, an appeal to authority is a fallacy. Dawkins lock on his position is his statement that groups don’t have genes only individuals do. Meaning tht the natural selection of nonexistent genes mean no natural selection at all.

We all to often consider evolution as a driving force. With all that has been accomplished in the world around us, it certainly seems so. But the mechanism of evolution is as much a deletion of genes that have the less successful “survival strategy.”

Religion confers benefit on individual and the group of which they are a part. Some of those benefits have implication for survival. Sincere caring for each other, ministering to mind and body, a social network, food and other emergency aid, support for the family. The holier thou art, the more likely thou art to find a bride and ‘be fruitful and multiply.’

Group membership vs. group ostracism meant life and death up into the 1900’s. Is there any doubt about how effective being cast our of the group would have been a hundred thousand years ago?

These are first individual benefits, though. Religion’s presence in every human culture speaks for itself. Is there any doubt how much more strength and resolve a human tribe would have when bolstered by religion–bring that identity, that solidarity, that resolve into battle against a tribe that didn’t and, all other things being equal, the outcome can be anticipated.

Victorious in battle leads to increasing population. Tribes split when they get too large. But who will be able to call for help when attacked. Those godless heathens on the attack or all the children of the Grand-High Mucky-Muck?

It is too easy to underestimate religion’s place in a lot of lives. True, that place has eroded some in modern society. The responsive cultures and social safety nets offer alternatives to being a member of a religion. The humanistic caring within a culture and even by one culture for another has been a source that has reached out to those in need.

Where will it go from here? The wish, the aspiration, the caring and the outreach of modern society is in flux. Humanity has made a tremenous upward climb. There have been some horrendous backslides, too. But the social and ethical progress of even that last few hundred years is impressive. Humankind is toying with the ability to direct its own future. The liberal believers and the nearly-believers and the humanists will be seen as a cooperative force for good. We should offer that level of cooperation openly. If we embrace it, it will embrace us. We can help believers keep the best their religions have to offer. We might all find happiness in that quasi-utopia.

August 13, 2011 at 8:00 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.