Saturday, September 12, 2009

Homo Religousosity

Homo Religious. It’s a short post by Dr. Michael Shermer on the reasons why man is inclined to believe in God and/or practice religion. The essay begins by asking, “Did humans evolve to be religious and believe in God?” Then it answers: “In the most general sense, yes we did.” Then Shermer informs us that he’s gonna let us know how it all went down- “Here’s what happened.” (Homo Religious)
He continues on, summarizing the basic ideas he will present. Shermer says, “Humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods”. Then he says that because we’re a social species of primate, we evolved social organizations to ‘promote group cohesiveness’ and, of course, ‘to enforce social rules’.
Now this, my dearies, is the problem with pop science. It utilizes enough facts to make it true, but these facts are inevitably rearranged into a kind of propaganda. In Shermer’s theory, it’s true that animistic beliefs and religions have their root in the same human inclination. But his theory makes a leap of logic; a non-sequitor (does not follow). IF we accept that seeking to make sense of the natural world was the reason for inventing animistic spirits, it STILL doesn’t explain why those spirits have anything to do with morality. What prompted early man to connect the two? Why choose this way to promote group cohesiveness? Aren’t there many groups that promote group cohesiveness? Unions. Political parties. Clubs. Special interest group. Clans. Families. Countries. Counties.
Every individual, at any given time, will most likely identify with several groups. What unique need does religion fill that has caused it to persist so universally? Well, Shermer says, to explain the natural world! But if religion were merely a mechanism to explain connections between point A and point B, then wouldn’t religion have gone the way of the dinosaurs when science came along? After all, there are much better explanations for the connections from point A to point B.
Then, Shermer states his thesis: “People believe in God because we are pattern-seeking primates.” If people believe in God because they see patterns that only the existence of a ‘God’ would explain, then what do atheists see? I think it could be assumed with reasonable certainty that atheists see patterns as well. If atheists attribute the patterns they observe to ‘logical causes;, does that make everyone who believes in God some sort of twit? That would be a drastic, statistically improbable statement. What of agnostics? Maybe they saw a pattern, but weren’t sure.
The best is yet to come. According to Shermer, sometimes the human species has errors in it’s thinking (like religion?) and creates a false pattern. He gives a rather ingenuous example. If our primitive ancestors heard as rustle in the grass, they would have to decide whether it was the wind or a dangerous predator. If one of our ancestors decided it was the wind, and it wasn’t, then he or she would be in for a world of hurt and most likely removed from the gene pool. Hence, natural selection would favor those primitive alarmists who assumed everything was a predator. (Can somebody get one of those primitive alarmists? I need one to explain to me how assuming a breeze on the African plain is a lion and assuming that it’s raining because it’s god are equally valuable survival tools. I need a monkey… STAT!) He called this phenomenon patternicity. (No, I’m not kidding. “Patternicity“, tell your friends. It’s the other, other, other white meat…)
The ‘patternicity’ explanation (a word which, when employed in a written from yields many red squiggly lines) would be completely brilliant IF…and this is a big if… if it didn’t absolutely every other animal on the planet. Every animal on this planet would, at some point in its life, have to decide if a given stimuli constituted a threat or a more innocuous occurrence. A rabbit who heard a rustle in the grass would have to decide if that rustle was a dog or a refreshing summers’ breeze. Hence, the same selective pressures would favor rabbits who responded the same way as our primitive ancestors. That same principle applies across the board.
A more likely explanation for the origins of a belief in God stem not from the observance of natural patterns, but from the understanding that all effects need a cause. It’s far more reasonable to picture our ancestors accidentally overturning a water jug and realizing that his action (cause) led to the jug turning over (effect). It is a possibility that the logic would extend to natural phenomenon. If it’s raining then something had to cause it. If a volcano erupts, there must be a reason. There weren’t any seismologists or vulcanologists in Africa at the dawn of man, so one could assume that they worked with what they had.
Even this alone cannot account for the existence of religion, nor explain why people believe in God. Why did our ancestors choose the explanations that they did? There had to have been more than one idea.
And beliefs in animistic spirits and more impersonal supernatural forces, all though they precede religion, are not the same as a religion. It’s the equivalent of saying that rocks and heat-seeking missiles are the same thing (they’re both weapons, right?). It would be a true statement, but not necessarily accurate. A religion is a vastly more complicated belief system.
Shermer was right about two things. Religions do promote cohesiveness and reinforce societal rules, but that’s not all religions do. In fact, as I pointed out, there are numerous groups that ‘promote cohesiveness’ or enforce ‘rules’. Religion is the only one that provides comfort. People are afraid to die. Believing that there’s some deity that waits for you one the other side relieves some of that anxiety. Shermer’s theory discounts how desperate people are to avoid coping with their own mortality. So desperate in fact, that many times, they’ll believe in ideas that contradict common sense and well-established cause-and-effect relationships.
This explains much of how religions actually are. In order to really, truly believe in a religion nowadays you to discount most of what science teaches. There are those who would argue, but ultimately the core of science is that the only thing that’s real is the thing, which can be proven. Nothing else counts in science, except what you can prove. Since a religion can’t be proven, you would have to throw out the principle of believing only in proven things in order to believe in something beyond proof. If you really believed Jesus died, and then got better, you would have to believe that in the face of well-known facts. The same can be said of parting the Red Sea (which science, history, and common sense tell us didn’t happen). Noah’s Ark. Riding on a comet. None of these fit neatly into the idea of ‘patternicity’. (Precisely what kind of natural phenomenon led the Hebrews to create a story about Moses parting the Red Sea?)
This kind of thinking creates problems. It reduces an entire segment of the population to mindless dupes who are indoctrinated into a system they haven’t bothered to evaluate. In the eyes of Shermer and his ilk, people who believe in religion are befuddled morons stumbling blindly through life, with a nary a care in the world, never bothering to ask themselves if their beliefs make sense.
In my experience, people aren’t that simple. Some religious individuals I’ve met are blind followers, but not because of religion. These individuals tend to be conformists in general, and it would be unreasonable to religion made them that. I’ve met many people who have evaluated their religious beliefs and arrived a tenuous peace between what their religion teaches and what science can prove. Reducing them to the rank of muddled-monkey is a disservice.
I myself detest religion personally, but I accept that there are other valid viewpoints. Accepting Shermer’s views would mean discounting personal experience as a factor in developing one’s personal beliefs.
There are many factors that contribute to a human beings predilection for religious conviction. And sorry, but Shermer didn’t crack the code in his blog. Some pieces of information are correct, but as a whole, the theory is so grossly oversimplified that it ceases to have value. And, none of these ideas are new. Shermer didn’t invent or discover these concepts. These basic ideas have been known academically for quite some time. In fact, an introductory anthropology textbook cites the need to understand the natural world, reversion to childhood feelings, anxiety and uncertainty, and need for community as the most likely factors that led to a belief in God. (Anthropology) None of those are simply “People believe in God because we are pattern-seeking primates.”

Works Cited
Homo Religious. Michael Shermer. 18 Aug. 2009.

Ember, Carol R. Ember, Melvin. Peregrine, Peter. Anthropology. “Religion and Magic”. Prentice Hall. Jan. 2007. Pg. 462, 463


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