Friday, May 7, 2010

Why I am No Longer a Christian Part 3: Religion Explained via Anthropology, Psychology, and Neuroscience as a Human Invention

Why I am No Longer a Christian Part 3
Religion Explained via Anthropology, Psychology, and Neuroscience as a Human Invention

Humankind has emerged out of the darkness into a bright, technological, scientific age. By now, we should have abandoned the mind in the cave…. Over the last four hundred years, we have witnessed an astonishing explosion in our understanding of the universe, something almost like a “big bang” of scientific understanding. I no other period in human history has humankind made such breathtaking advances in explaining so many facets of the natural world… Science should be the bedrock of our knowledge and wisdom. And yet beliefs in the supernatural—beliefs that are unnatural and unscientific—are still very common. –Bruce M. Hood (Evolutionary Psychologist)

What follows is the third part of the main three reasons (among many others) for why I am no longer a believing Christian. The first part dealt with what we can know historically about the Gospel account, namely, I revealed that via Higher Criticism, such as Source, Form, and Redaction criticism, we discover that the New Testament stories are mainly myth and legend and retellings of old Jewish fables, legend, and lore. In my second installment I discussed biblical errancy the plethora of Bible contradictions which confuse and confound virtually every concept of Biblical authority, and moreover, show the indelible stamp of imperfect man as its author, not some divine or supernatural influence. My discussion of Bible canonization put the icing on the cake and showed the undeniable tampering, editorship, translation, emendation and alteration which went on during the formulation and formation of scripture and further depicts, not only an overtly orchestrated man-made agenda, but reveals that religious doctrine was manipulated from the ground up to align with Christian orthodoxy and molded to fit the various changing convictions of an endless variety of Christian sects’ beliefs at every step of the way.

Now I shall put the nail in the coffin and show conclusively how anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience reveal the irrefutable man-made origins of religious belief and how the implications of this shatter any possibility for belief in the supernatural, and/or belief in God, once and for all. More than this, however, since we are discussing indisputable scientific facts, they do more than just confound belief in God, they also thwart even the slightest attempt or leeway for an educated person to entertain grandiose notions as tenuous as religious belief in the first place.

The Beginning of the End: Reasons for Religious Belief
Anthropologist Jack David Eller, author of a college textbook called Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate (Routledge, 2007), lists six functions of religion in society:

1. Filling individual needs, especially psychological or emotional needs. Religion provides comfort, hope, perhaps love, definitely a sense of control, and relief from fear and despair.

2. Explanation, especially of origins or causes. Humans wonder why things are as they are. How did the world start? How did humans start? . . .

3. Source of rules and norms. . . . religion can provide the answer to where the traditions and laws of the society came from. . . . This is the charter function of religion: It acts as the "charter" or guideline or authority by which we organize ourselves in particular ways and follow particular standards. Why do we practice monogamy? Because a religious being or precedent says to, or because the first humans did, etc. Why do other societies practice polygamy? Perhaps because their religious being or precedent (say, the ancestor or founder) said it or did it.

4. Source of "ultimate sanctions." Religion is, among other things, a means of social control. . . . a large part of religion is about what we should do, how we should live. . . . Human agents of social control cannot be everywhere and cannot see everything, and the rewards and punishments they can mete out are finite. . . .

5. Solution of immediate problems. . . . If we are sick or distressed, are the beings or forces angry with us? What should we do about it? If there is an important social or political decision to make (say, going to war), is there a way to discover the preferences or plans of the beings and forces--to "read their mind"? Can we ask them for favors, give them gifts, or do anything at all to influence their actions and intentions?

6. Fill "needs of society" . . . Certainly, not everything that a religion teaches or practices is good for every individual: Human sacrifice is not about fulfilling the needs of sacrificial victims. Nor does religion always soothe individual fears and anxieties; for instance, the belief in a punitive afterlife may cause people to fear more, and concerns about proper conduct of rituals can cause anxiety. However, belief in a punitive afterlife can cause people to obey norms, which is good for society. The primary need of society, beyond the needs of individuals, is integration, cohesion, and perpetuation, and religion can provide an important "glue" toward that end.

I think much of the reason people go to church is summed up in numbers 1 and 6, but has aspects in all of them. I think the religious psychology is more complex than simple brainwashing. Although there is a lot of that going on too (See HERE and HERE). Anthropology reveals quite well that the existence of religion is closely tied to human existence, yet what’s more is it can show how we as a species utilize religion in society as a cultural means to various ends.

Meanwhile, in his book Religion Explained anthropologist Pascal Boyer gives a similar scenarios, albeit somewhat extended, and lists further possibilities for the rise of religious practice and belief. They include the following:

Religion Provides Explanations
1] People created religion to explain puzzling natural phenomena.
2] Religion explains puzzling experience: dreams, prescience, etc.
3] Religion explains the origin of things.
4] Religion explains why there is evil and suffering.

Religion Provides Comfort
5] Religious explanations make mortality less unbearable.
6] Religion allays anxiety and makes for a comfortable world.

Religion Provides Social Order
7] Religion holds society together.
8]Religion perpetuates a particular social order
9] Religion supports morality.

Religion is a Cognitive Illusion
10] People are superstitious, they will believe anything
11] Religious concepts are irrefutable.
12] Refutation is more difficult than belief.

These scenarios offer plausible explanations for religion’s cultural development, however, after proposing his list Boyer goes one further than Eller by suggesting that although the list is fairly representative, all of these explanations ultimately fail to explain why we have religion and why it is the way it is (eBook; loc. 145-52). In other words, even though these observations can yield insights into the cultural function of religion they still don’t explain the origin of religious belief or why religious belief is seemingly ubiquitous among humans to begin with.

Digging Deeper: Looking Inside the Mind
In his excellent book Supersense the evolutionary psychologist Bruce M. Hood lays out the groundwork for why we develop supernatural beliefs in the first place. Much of it has to do with child psychology and how inference works when our brains begin to try and make sense of the world around us. In psychological terms this inference mechanism is explained in terms of mind design. Hood describes mind design as: the organized way in which our brains are configured to understand and interpret the world.

Religion then, comes in two parts, or we can think of it as having two main components: a psychological component and a cultural component. About the psychological aspects Hood states:

…we may never truly abandon our childhood misconceptions when we become adults and learn new facts about the world. Some of us are more vulnerable to these misconceptions than others. Now imagine how difficult it is for us to abandon beliefs that include the supernatural. Here there is precious little evidence to dissuade us of our beliefs. If we hold childish notions about the unseen mechanisms of reality, then the difference between believers and nonbelievers may have less to do with what we have been told and more to do with our susceptibility to our own childish misconceptions. (loc. 538-44)

Hood goes on to demonstrate several examples of how our minds dupe us into thinking supernaturally, and how such inferences are unavoidable as it is all a part of our brain infrastructure, that our mind design has a natural tendency to generate superstitious thoughts as a way of understanding the hidden or unseen forces in nature. He goes on to add to the previous comment that, “If you are someone who is inclined to believe that there are supernatural forces operating in the world, then you will interpret all manner of events in light of this way of thinking.”

No Place to Hide: Neuroscience is Closing all of the Gaps
Modern neuroscience delves even deeper into the mysteries of the human mind and how it churns out superstitious and supernatural thoughts. It gives us the explanations we are seeking. Likewise, other neuroscientists have been studying brain activity with regards to belief and non-belief in order to see if there is any discernable change in brain patterns amongst believers and non-believers. Apparently there is.

Psychology Professor Michael Inzlicht has discovered there is a difference in those who believe in God and have religion and those who do not. According to Inzlicht belief can reduce anxiety, making a religious sphere of existence relatively peaceful and stress free. This in turn explains why suicide rates are often less in religious societies (see HERE).

"Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you're paralyzed with fear," Inzlicht informs, yet goes on to warn, "However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we're making mistakes. If you don't experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behavior so you don't make the same mistakes again and again?" Basically, religious belief also impedes our ability to question our acts and may ultimately affect our judgment. This goes to show why religious believers are less skeptical on average and frequently lack critical thinking—basically because they don’t need to question anything—which is a polite way of saying that ignorance is bliss.

A recent study conducted by Sam Harris and colleagues at UCLA and the University of Southern California found that comparing religious with nonreligious statements reveals that religious thinking is more associated with brain regions that govern emotion, self-representation and cognitive conflict in both believers and nonbelievers, while thinking about ordinary facts is more reliant upon memory retrieval networks. Activity in the brain's anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with cognitive conflict and uncertainty, suggested that both believers and nonbelievers experienced greater uncertainty when evaluating religious statements. The study goes on to explain the case for belief being content-independent (see HERE).

But although we might one day have a fully fleshed out theory as to the natural origins of religion, we may never be able to recognize if God or something like it might exist even if it should. Neuroscientist Georg Northoff, research director of Mind, Brain Imaging, and Neuroethics at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research is certain that our brains place a limit on our ability to comprehend things, and that this limit is consciousness (see HERE). Ironic if true, since the whole premise behind the last several hundred years of natural theology has been to posit God’s existence via assuming consciousness denotes intelligence and that one consciousness can detect another—even a divine one—not so says Northoff.

An Example of Why Supernatural Inferences will Always be Misleading
With the work of anthropologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists alike, it appears that a natural framework for an all encompassing explanation for religion and religious belief is slowly, but surely, revealing itself. Yet even should there be such a devastating revelation made, basically that ALL religion is man-made, and it seems that it is, this won’t necessarily mean an end to religion or religious belief, or for that matter, supernatural beliefs in general. Bruce M. Hood puts it into perspective by explaining:

Religious beliefs may be indoctrinated by associative learning in the same way phobias are, but like irrational fears, they may also build on our natural inclinations. This is because they fit well with our natural ways of thinking about the world—the mind design we have inherited through our genes. This may partly explain why supernatural beliefs are so easily accepted. They seem to fit with what we think is possible.

But I should caution, simply accepting something which we feel is possible doesn’t mean it is true. And how can we tell if something is true? We must look to the evidence and apply the scientific method to see if what we find is reliable, fits with observation, and is quantifiably true. If it’s unverifiable, it doesn’t mean it isn’t true, so God may exist, but as Northoff has shown even this knowledge may forever continue to elude us.

As such, supernatural explanations can’t just automatically be assumed. To do so would be akin to a God of the gaps argument whereby we just plug in an unknown explanation with the familiar “God did it” excuse popular among theists. This is not only insufficient, it’s highly irrational. When we see a cat leap into the air with a hiss and a fit we don’t just assume a gust of wind blew it up. We can infer better natural explanations, such as, it sensed a threat such as the neighbor prowling dog and was startled. Wind blowing your cat up into the air is just a bad inference, and a stupid explanation, but what would make it downright irrational is to suppose that instead of invisible wind throwing your feline up into the air was that it was the devious work of supernatural agents, such as prankster angels who had nothing better to do. So although, as with the example of the wind, there can be bad naturalistic inferences, what we can be certain of is that a supernatural inference is almost always completely naïve and almost always certainly wrong. 

Daniel C. Dennett makes clear the distinction between both trains of thought, the natural and the supernatural, in his book Breaking the Spell in which he looks at religious conception from the standpoint of a philosopher but with the naturalistic understanding which modern neuroscience has revealed. Dennett lampoons religious penchant to try and offer extraordinary explanations all the while never actually being able to explain anything at all, such as the human soul (i.e. consciousness), when he quips:

It’s this expandable capacity to represent reasons that we have that gives us a soul. But what’s it made of? It’s made of neurons. It’s made of lots of tiny robots. And we can actually explain the structure and operation of that kind of soul, whereas an eternal, immortal, immaterial soul is just a metaphysical rug under which you sweep your embarrassment for not having any explanation.

As a philosopher and cognitive scientist Dennett knows the distinction between a philosophical explanation which offers little more than an illusion of explanatory depth and an actual qualified explanation with authentic support. Angels tossing your cat around is less likely an explanation for the animal’s behavior than, say, it was startled by the neighbor’s dog. We know the supernatural explanation is incorrect for the very same reasons of deduction—the angel explanation lacks all credible support and so is baseless. But it’s actually more complicated than this, because before we could infer a supernatural agency, such as angels, we’d need to prove they exist—which is difficult if not outright impossible. What’s more still, before you could assume angels were behind it all you’d have to rule out all the other natural possibilities! We can therefore know the inference of supernatural entities is erroneous because we know the neighborhood is filled with rambunctious and rowdy canines which like to terrorize the occasional feline, therefore based off of this deduction we don’t even need to have any proof of invisible angel activity to know it’s not really an explanation but simply faulty reasoning.

Such supernatural assumptions inevitably suffer from, not only their unlikelihood, but also from being horribly strained. Such a scenario as supernatural (invisible) beings tossing your poor cat around seems so far from the truth that it’s outright laughable. Which is how much of religious belief appears to non-religious non-believers—it ALL sounds silly because, although the explanation might be plausible, the reasoning is defunct just as sure as it is unverifiable. Yet as I showed above, we need not even have to verify it to know it’s completely faulty reasoning and, in so realizing, makes the believer’s beliefs mistaken.

Neuroscience has, in the case with the example of the soul, offers a real believable explanation while the metaphysical claims of religious faith only offer a nice sounding, yet completely unfounded, unbelievable supposition. This just goes to show that if you’re looking for genuine answers then science can provide these real answers, whereas, it would seem, the religious person who looks toward faith for supernatural explanations must, in this age of scientific reason, immediately feel stricken with the weight of immense embarrassment. For how couldn’t they?  In light of the current bulwark of scientific knowledge, consider that even they cannot fail to see the inadequacy and paltry nature of religious explanation. It’s inadequate precisely because it fails to describe the natural world accurately, and even if it did it still doesn’t explain enough to pass muster, especially when compared to the awesome explanatory power of science.

So for me it’s apparent that science is the way to the future, as it can answer our questions, and religion is the way to the past as it continues to fail to answer our most pressing concerns—yet does a good job of finding supernatural excuses to excuse away the worries and anxieties of not knowing. If you’d ask me, though, I’d rather put my faith in science to discover the hitherto unanswered answers than trust religion to do so. Religion will simply infer some supernatural agency, such as God, did it—and in so doing infer wrongly.

Conclusion: Even Though it is Untenable Religion is Here to Stay
Religion isn’t going anywhere. That’s a fact. But what we know now is that religious precepts, suppositions, and beliefs are largely untenable. That they fly in the face of reason, and all of it is man made, what’s more there is scientific empirical evidence to back all this up. What does this mean for the future of religion? I’m not entirely sure. I personally feel it means that only those who need religion in their lives will seek it out, meanwhile the rest of the world will continue its gradual process of secularization, creating a bigger divide between the world of metaphysical naturalism rooted in scientific understanding and the world of metaphysical mysticism rooted deep within religious modes of supernatural thinking.

Needless to say, this gap in basic understanding could be both good and bad for both sides. Good in the sense that it will mean there is a discernable victor in the God debate, and it’s not the religious. Yet simultaneous it could spell disaster by creating further tension between those with unfailing dogmatic convictions and cause larger rifts between believers and non-believers. In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Dan Dennett has mentioned as an aside that:

If you insist on teaching your children false-hoods—that the Earth is flat, that "Man" is not a product of evolution by natural selection—then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity. Our future well-being—the well-being of all of us on the planet—depends on the education of our descendants.

Education always helps, as the more educated one is the less likely they are to be religious (likewise those with higher intellects have proven to be atheist more often than those with lower I.Q.s see HERE),but it seems there is another obstacle to be aware of: the gap in knowledge is a growing concern. As the philosopher A.C. Grayling laments:

As science has become increasingly more specialized and complex, so the public mind in general has become increasingly less acquainted with it, and therefore correspondingly less able to participate in informed conversations about the implications, applications, promises, possibilities—and periodic risks—of science.

Only time will tell if a more universalized knowledge base can act as an antidote to deter the harmful and credulous aspects of religious beliefs, but in the meantime, I suggest we find ways to continue to communicate with one another to ensure the worst doesn’t happen. Through discourse we will have the ability to inform others and point them in the direction of the proper information, while the religious will continue to deny all the scientific findings which contradict their beliefs, we all must learn to live in a world where science has demolished the validity of religious belief once and for all—where religious belief is proved supernatural bunk—yet, paradoxically enough, where the religious belief continues to persist none-the-less.

As an ex-believer, each new discovery led me to a newfound understanding, one which competed vehemently to establish a worldview completely contrary to my faith. Eventually, after wrestling with the relevant information, I was forced to change my mind about what I thought I knew. My faith based assumptions just didn’t hold up to scrutiny. And changing my mind was a long arduous process, not some overnight revelation, but rather it took five years of diligent study and contemplation.

Once I had the knowledge at my fingertips, like magic keys, it unlocked my mind and opened it a little bit wider, until all the religious chains which shackled my intellect lay at my feet and my mind was wide open and free. This enlightenment came after several long years of holding my faith up to scrutiny and finding, to my faith-shattering-bewilderment, that it wasn’t even defensible. Whether or not this information will do the same for you is unknown, just know that if you are a believer this may be a bit challenging. At least, I hope it will challenge you to think about your faith more critically, as it did for me.

Supersense by Bruce M. Hood; PhD Evolutionary Psychology
Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer; PhD Anthropology
Anthropology of Religion by Jack David Eller; PhD Anthropology
Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett; PhD Philosophy

Referenced in Supplementary Articles
Sam Harris; PhD Neuroscience
Georg Northoff; PhD Neuroscience, PhD Philosophy
Michael Inzlicht; PhD Psychology

Science Daily
“Where Religious Belief And Disbelief Meet”
“Brain Differences Found Between Believers In God And Non-Believers”

The Vancouver Sun
“Brain unable to understand existence of God: Expert” by Jennifer Green

The Globe and Mail
"Scientists investigate if Atheists' are missing a 'God spot'" by Erin Anderssen


  1. "No place to hide: Neuroscience is Closing all of the Gaps "

    Hi Tristan,maybe someday they will soon be able to measure stuff thats causing harm?.This could then become helpful in holding to account those that use and promote abusive faiths.That would be good, i really have no problem with faith as such,its any harm it causes im not so keen on.

    Maybe Neuroscience and use of court systems could help bring about a end to the abuse.That would be handy,at present faith is one way bullys can still basically do as they please and simply get away with it.

    "Religion Provides Comfort"

    Maybe not always?,some folks feel they cant meet the grade and then stress over stuff like suggestions of hell

    "Religion Provides Social Order"

    Maybe also not always?,what about divisions and dislikes and rifts caused through differences of belief.Christian/Islam or even Westbro baptist/mormon/JW etc

  2. I think the lists adequately summarize aspects of all religion in general.

    I agree with you though, that if you talk about specific religions, then some of the time these general observations may not apply all the time.

    But historically speaking, I agree with the anthropologists that throughout most of history religion has provided, as one time or another, many of these functions.

    Your idea about using brain scans to detect potential criminal behavior reminds me of the movie "Minority Report."

    It would be neat to have a screening process where they could weed out those with tendencies for psychosis, aggression, and violence thereby limiting those who could have access to such positions. But I think this would make religion more respectable than it ought to be, because then you might actually be able to trust the holy men & women as actual decent human beings.

    There is something I like about the irony of not being able to trust half of the religious acolytes half of the time simply because it forces people to question whether or not their faith is good for them.


  3. Hey Tristan, you interested in a discussion of whether atheism equals nihilism


Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist