This topic forces us to assess the relationship between science and spirituality: is the invisible spiritual realm generated from the material or should it be considered as having a separate existence? Is religion a phenomenon that can ultimately be explained by science in naturalistic ways, or does religion represent a dimension of reality that cannot be directly probed by the methodologies of science? In an essay in Science, Elizabeth Culotta writes:
"[I]n the past 15 years, a growing number of researchers have followed Darwin's lead and explored the hypothesis that religion springs naturally from the normal workings of the human mind. This new field, the cognitive science of religion, draws on psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to understand the mental building blocks of religious thought."
Neanderthal burial, considered to be 60,000 years old (Kabara, Israel). Material culture analysis can stimulate hypotheses but the interpretations can easily be dominated by researcher presuppositions. (Source here)
Darwin approached the topic from the perspective of his thesis on the origin of species. He looked for evidence that religion itself could be explained by small incremental steps in human cognition and social structure. He started his "story" with the idea that primitive people had no belief system in an all-powerful God. He wrote: "There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea." But if the enquiry starts at a much more rudimentary level of spirituality, the emerging picture is different:
"If, however, we include under the term "religion" the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different; for this belief seems to be almost universal with the less civilised races. Nor is it difficult to comprehend how it arose. As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally have craved to understand what was passing around him, and have vaguely speculated on his own existence." (Source here)
Culotta quotes the above passage to illustrate the thought that "to Charles Darwin, the origin of religious belief was no mystery". Yet those following in Darwin's footsteps have been puzzled, because humans put extraordinary resources into "elaborate religious buildings and rituals, with no obvious boost to survival and reproduction". Her article suggests that while there is no consensus yet among scientists, "potential answers are emerging from both the archaeological record and studies of the mind itself".
Archaeology certainly offers some data that is potentially relevant: geometric designs interpreted as an indication of symbolic behaviour; deliberate burials of the dead pointing to "the birth of metaphysical anguish", and carved figurines suggestive of shamanism. The problem with all these is that the metaphysical messages are read in different ways by scholars: these artefacts may stimulate thoughts about belief systems, but they are not hard evidence that reveals the minds of our ancestors.
Cognitive psychologists often start with children, who are said to reflect innate, rather than cultural, biases. It is not difficult to show that "young children prefer "teleological" or purpose-driven, explanations rather than mechanical ones for natural phenomenon". This leads them to perceive nature as purposefully designed by a designer. For children older than age 5, the researchers refer to the "theory of mind" which is our understanding that other humans have intentions, desires and beliefs like us.
"If you suspect that an agent was responsible for some mysterious event, it's a short step to thinking that the agent has a mind like your own. "Higher order theory of mind enables you to represent mental states of beings not immediately or visibly present, and who could have a very different perspective than your own," says Barrett. "That's what you need to have a rich representation of what it might be like to be a god." (It's also what is needed to have a functional religion, because people need to know that others share their beliefs.) As Darwin put it, humans developing religion "would naturally attribute to spirits the same passions, the same love of vengeance, or simplest form of justice, and the same affections which they themselves feel.""
Although these cognitive models are regarded as building on Darwinian foundations, there is a recognition that they have not provided satisfactory answers. One researcher is quoted as saying: "Deriving belief from the architecture of the mind is necessary but not sufficient". What drives all this? What gives religion the fitness to survive? The adaptationist approach of Darwinism comes to the rescue:
[Religion] "promotes cooperative behavior among strangers and so creates stable groups. Other researchers hypothesize that religion is actually adaptive: By encouraging helpful behavior, religious groups boost the biological survival and reproduction of their members. Adhering to strict behavioral rules may signal that a religion's members are strongly committed to the group and so will not seek a free ride, a perennial problem in cooperative groups."
[. . .]
But others [. . .] counter that this adaptationist explanation is itself light on data. "It is often said that religion encourages or prescribes solidarity within the group, but we need evidence that people actually follow [their religion's] recommendations," says Boyer. "The case is still open."
So the "potential answers" Culotta mentions at the outset have the word potential in bold and the rest is in the imagination. What is strikingly lacking in these studies is any questioning of the materialist mindset of the researchers. The most significant way they follow Darwin is in excluding any thought that intelligent design issues need to be addressed before we can properly understand humanity. Indeed, the researchers set up a culture that portrays teleology as anti-science. Culotta reports on the findings of cognitive psychologists working with some undergraduate students:
"When the undergrads had to respond under time pressure, they were likely to agree with nonscientific statements such as "The sun radiates heat because warmth nurtures life." "It's hard work to overcome these teleological explanations," says Kelemen, who adds that the data also suggest an uphill battle for scientific literacy. "When you speed people up, their hard work goes by the wayside." She's now investigating how professional scientists perform on her tests. Such purpose-driven beliefs are a step on the way to religion, she says. "Things exist for purposes, things are intentionally caused, things are intentionally caused for a purpose by some agent. ... You begin to see that a god is a likely thing for a human mind to construct.""
These attitudes are deeply worrying, because the researchers have started with the premise of philosophical naturalism. If a teleological perspective is correct, these researchers have no way of discovering the truth. When we look at the radiation that life needs to be sustained, and then look at the radiation emitted by the sun, the match is superb. It is perfectly reasonable to make design inferences and to test teleological hypotheses.
The real problems are with researchers who say that the material processes that create the physical bodies of animals and plants are no different in essence from the material processes that create religion and morality. We can make a prediction that these researchers will continue to grope around in the dark, looking for a answers but never finding them. In the end, they will conclude that religion, morality and consciousness are spandrels.
On the Origin of Religion
Science, 6 November 2009, 326, 784 - 787 | DOI: 10.1126/science.326_784
How and when did religion arise? In the 11th essay in Science's series in honor of the Year of Darwin, Elizabeth Culotta explores the human propensity to believe in unseen deities. No consensus yet exists among scientists, but potential answers are emerging from both the archaeological record and studies of the mind itself. Some researchers, exploring religion's effects in society, suggest that it may boost fitness by promoting cooperative behavior. And in the past 15 years, a growing number of researchers have followed Darwin's lead and explored the hypothesis that religion springs naturally from the normal workings of the human mind. This new field, the cognitive science of religion, draws on psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to understand the mental building blocks of religious thought.
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