October 26, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Evolutionizing Religion: Who’s Assuming What?

“Findings from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology and archaeology promise to change our view of religion,” said Pascal Boyer in Nature.1  His essay summarized studies that offer an evolutionary explanation for mankind’s propensity to embrace religion.  “We can probe the shared assumptions that religions are built on, however disparate, and examine the connection between religion and ethnic conflict,” he said.  “Lastly, we can hazard a guess at what the realistic prospects are for atheism.”
    Boyer weaved together evolutionary explanations for several features seemingly common to all religions: belief in things for which there is no evidence, ritual, morality, metaphysics, and social identity.  There is no one place in the brain, a “religious center,” he said.  Rather, “religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities.”  Just as the brain was not made specifically for music, politics, ethnic groups and family relations, religion is just an emergent response to “super stimuli,” he said.  “Religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources, as do music, visual art, cuisine, politics, economic institutions and fashion.”  In evolutionary terms, the brain evolved for skills to aid survival, but religion simply takes advantage of those cognitive faculties and meshes them in an unexpected way.  “The mind has myriad distinct belief networks that contribute to making religious claims quite natural to many people,” he said.
    Central to Boyer’s case are that religious people make tacit assumptions they never notice.  They may be able to describe their core beliefs, “But cognitive psychology shows that explicitly accessible beliefs of this sort are always accompanied by a host of tacit assumptions that are generally not available to conscious inspection.”  The details of religious beliefs may differ, he said, but the tacit beliefs underlying all religious are remarkably similar.  To him, this can only mean that we have similarly evolved brains that exercise the tacit assumptions in diverse ways.
    He began his essay with a listing of various reactions to the scientific study of religion:

Is religion a product of our evolution?  The very question makes many people, religious or otherwise, cringe, although for different reasons.  Some people of faith fear that an understanding of the processes underlying belief could undermine it.  Others worry that what is shown to be part of our evolutionary heritage will be interpreted as good, true, necessary or inevitable.  Still others, many scientists included, simply dismiss the whole issue, seeing religion as childish, dangerous nonsense.
    Such responses make it difficult to establish why and how religious thought is so pervasive in human societies – an understanding that is especially relevant in the current climate of religious fundamentalism.  In asking whether religion is one of the many consequences of having the type of brains we come equipped with, we can shed light on what kinds of religion ‘come naturally’ to human minds’

Those human minds, we can safely assume he believes, are also products of evolution.  Throughout the article, Boyer promotes the idea that gods and beliefs are not real, but rather manufactured by the cognitive and social psychology of humans and their evolved brains.  Imagining supernatural beings may be a “natural way,” he said, for human products of evolution to process information:

The findings emerging from this cognitive-evolutionary approach challenge two central tenets of most established religions.  First, the notion that their particular creed differs from all other (supposedly misguided) faiths; second, that it is only because of extraordinary events or the actual presence of supernatural agents that religious ideas have taken shape.  On the contrary, we now know that all versions of religion are based on very similar tacit assumptions, and that all it takes to imagine supernatural agents are normal human minds processing information in the most natural way.

Implicit in this idea is the position that atheism is a more scientific world view.  His last paragraph, though, gives little hope for his fellow atheists to gain a foothold in the culture: the evolutionary deck is stacked against them. 

Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems.  By contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions – hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.

For previous entries on the evolution of religion, see 03/16/2005, 02/02/2006, 09/25/2006 and 05/27/2008.

1.  Pascal Boyer, “Being human: Religion: Bound to believe?,” Nature 455, 1038-1039 (23 October 2008) | doi:10.1038/4551038a.

How otherwise intelligent people can continue to be so blind to their own biases after decades, nay centuries, of philosophers and theologians and logicians pointing them out, is stunning.  Nature has just published another in a long series of self-refuting essays.  A freshman CEH reader can probably refute this article in a sentence or two.  If not, you need to apply yourself to stopping by here more often.
    What is it about their brains that predisposes evolutionists to think this way?  You notice that we put the shoe on the other foot.  That’s fair, because to him, we are all equally evolved.  By what standard of measure can he insist that his tacit assumptions are better than anyone else’s?  By the standards of science?  Ha!  Only if he is a logical positivist – another self-refuting belief system.  If this is not obvious, go back and read Wolpert’s ideas from the 10/16/2008 entry and the commentary on logical positivism from 05/10/2007 before continuing.  If Boyer assumes that “testable predictions” render evolutionary psychology scientific, he has not learned about the dubious logic of predictive success in science.  It’s the main reason Karl Popper rejected predictive success as a criterion of science, and promoted falsification instead.  (Falsification, alas, was also later rejected as a foolproof criterion.)
    Boyer came close to recognizing the self-refuting nature of his beliefs by mentioning people who “worry that what is shown to be part of our evolutionary heritage will be interpreted as good, true, necessary or inevitable.”  (For elaboration on that point, see the 05/09/2006 commentary, bullet 5.)  He should be worried.  To what universal standard could he appeal to decide that religion is an emergent property of the brain, but science is not?  And why would he lament that atheism is hardly the easiest ideology to propagate?  At least he admitted it is an ideology.  But to what universal moral standard would he appeal to say that propagating his atheistic world view would be a good thing?  He said that science may one day find that religion contributed to fitness in ancestral times.  On what grounds, then, can he say it hijacked man’s cognitive abilities?  If it produced fitness, it is just as much an intrinsic benefit to human evolution as the brain itself.
    Boyer’s essay is plagued with other fallacies.  For one, he generalizes all religions, no matter how opposite, in a highly simplistic manner: he puts the witch doctor and the Oxford Scholar into the same “fundamentalist” bucket, also a form of ridicule.  By excepting his own reasoning from those of religious nuts, of course, he has also divided the world into us-vs-them, the either-or fallacy: i.e., you either belong to the People of Science or to the “People of Faith” (whatever that broad-brush category means).  Students want extra credit can hunt for begging the question fallacies, non-sequiturs, the post-hoc fallacy, misuse of circumstantial evidence, reductionism, subjectivity and other fallacies.
    The card-stacking fallacy is notable in this article.  He only offered three responses to the idea that religion evolved: (1) Worry by religionists that it will undermine their beliefs.  (2) Worry by evolutionists that religion, if part of our evolutionary heritage, will be seen as “good, true, necessary or inevitable.” (3) Disgust by scientists that religion is “childish, dangerous nonsense.”  Why did he not consider the possibility that theologians and knowledgeable scholars will consider his evolutionary theory or religion to be regarded as childish, dangerous nonsense?  Is that not what we have just illustrated?
    Another example of his card stacking was to list only things like ritual, metaphysical beliefs, social identity and moral codes as the characteristics of religion.  Why didn’t he mention evidence – and apologetics?  Those things may be lacking in the cultic or ritualistic religions, but the Bible is filled with historical references that can be cross-checked, and appeals to remember what the people knew to be true from evidence, reason and eyewitness testimony.  Paul and Peter claimed to be eyewitnesses of the risen and glorified Christ and emphatically denied that they were following cleverly devised fables.  They also warned people against falling for fables.  If Boyer likes prediction so much, he should consider the prediction Paul made in II Timothy 4:4 that in the last days people will “turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths,” of which evolution is a prime example, because the evidence for God is clear from creation (Romans 1:18-20).  Peter, similarly, predicted the coming of belief in uniformitarianism.  He predicted that mockers would deny the evidence for creation and the flood (II Peter 3:3-9).  Do those predictions count?  Must be consistent.
    Boyer and his fellow atheistic evolutionists arrogate to themselves the chair of science, but have no floor to put it on: not a scientific floor, or a philosophical floor, or an evidence floor.  He needs the Judeo-Christian floor to be able to reason about truth, morals, and evidence at all.  Like Yoda, he speaks ex cathedra from some exalted plane above the rest of humanity, telling us about our tacit assumptions while ignoring his own (08/13/2007).  He tells others what makes them tick without understanding that what makes him tick is rebellion against his Creator.  He couldn’t slap his Father’s face without first sitting in His lap.  Pascal Boyer should sit quietly like a good boy and read Pascal.

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Categories: Human Body

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