Can Religion Be Modeled on Computers?
Attempts to model human religious feelings on computers make dubious assumptions, ask incomplete questions, and produce untrustworthy conclusions.
Biologists joke about the Harvard Law, “Under the most rigorously controlled conditions of pressure, temperature, volume, humidity, and other variables, any experimental organism will do as it darn well pleases.” How much more so does the Harvard Law apply when the organism is a human being! A semi-humorous example of this was reported on The Conversation by two Australian experts in “marketing science,” who were trying to figure out why shoppers move through aisles in a grocery store the way they do. They speculated that “Shoppers’ movements might come down to fears of caves and the ‘butt brush’,” the latter term referring to people’s dislike at being touched from behind. But after a column full of models, studies and theories, the Harvard Law won. In the end, there is only so much a marketer can do. “So, do mall and store environments influence shopper behaviour? Yes, to an extent,” conclude Svetlana Bogomolova and Bill Page. “But, in most cases the best thing a retailer or a marketer can do is just get out of the way and let the shoppers do their thing.”
Now, another specialist purports to model human religious behavior. Wesley Wildman, a professor of philosophy at Boston University and a self-proclaimed “scholar of religion,” wrote an article on The Conversation stating, “Religion is uniquely human, but computer simulations may help us understand religious behavior.” Well, they may or they may not. We know his doesn’t, because his thinking goes awry in the very first paragraph.
When disaster strikes, people often turn to religion for comfort and support. A powerful recent example of this comes from a study called “Faith after an Earthquake,” by prominent New Zealand religion and society researchers Chris Sibley and Joseph Bulbulia. They document an uptick in religious service attendance in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, after a large and deadly earthquake in early 2011 – even as New Zealanders as a whole went to church less. Eventually, though, things reverted to the way they had been, with religion in decline even in Christchurch.
A good scientist (or scholar) should know not to launch a theory based on one isolated incident. There are so many problems with extrapolating this incident to the whole of mankind. The behavior of one population of individuals in one city in the year 2011 may be interesting, but does it shed light on barbarians and emperors in 150 AD? Does it explain Egyptians (ancient and modern), Jews, Turks, Hindus, American atheists, southern Baptists, and a thousand other groups over a span of millennia? The variables are extreme. Any theory that presumes to confine a “turn to religion for comfort and support” is doomed to failure. A multitude of counter-examples could be amassed: individuals who became extremely uncomfortable, and lost support, when they turned to religion. Natural disasters turn some people away from religion. And what is meant by religion, anyway? The differences between world religions can be argued to be much greater than their similarities. Some are rational, some are irrational. Some are ritualistic, others are libertine. Some are polytheistic, some are monotheistic, and others are atheistic or pantheistic. Wildman’s speculations are no more valid than those of a wild man in a cave. But he goes on, trusting in his computers for fake support.
I’m hardly alone in wondering what in human nature causes this to happen. One of my research teams uses computers to study how religion interacts with complex human minds, including in processes such as managing reactions to terrifying events. It’s quite common for engineers to use computational models to run virtual experiments – say, to make sure a bridge will stand up to a major hurricane – because it’s a lot cheaper and safer. We’re working to build a computational model whose virtual humans behave the way living humans do when they’re under threat.
It’s hard to be charitable to this ‘scholar of religion.’ The study of ‘human nature’ may be valid to a point (e.g., finding commonalities in human responses among disparate populations, like whether smiling indicates friendship across cultures). But he errs by saying that human nature causes specific reactions. That’s a mechanistic assumption. He thinks the brain, as a mechanism, generates predictable behaviors. This completely ignores the power of choice that a self-controlled individual has over what he or she chooses to believe. And did it escape Wildman’s notice that bridges are intelligently designed by engineers? and that computational models are made by human free will? Watch his thinking go off the rails:
We found that both individual characteristics and environmental events affected the strength of an agent’s religious conviction. For instance, some agents got bored with religious rituals more quickly than others. Other factors included the severity and frequency of hazards such as dangerous earthquakes or disease outbreaks.
Any model that produces opposite results will be useless for understanding humans or for making predictions.
In the model’s virtual world, we also saw patterns in how different types of groups use religious rituals to manage their terror. Culturally diverse groups whose members dealt with hazards fairly well preferred coping through rituals with small groups of friends, which were unlikely to explode in violence. But culturally homogeneous populations whose members had low tolerance for hazards preferred rituals on a very large scale, and those kinds of rituals had the potential to be quite dangerous. Obviously there were real-world factors we didn’t simulate, but that sounds like what has been happening in the Kashmir region of India, in which massive funerals lead to demonstrations and feed a militant uprising. And it’s like the periodic explosions of violence against Jews when medieval Christians celebrated Easter in vast processions. It’s not difficult to think of other examples: They occur on a tragically frequent basis.
Wildman needs to give up this doomed enterprise. He claims that “Computers can represent real-world complex social systems.” Maybe. But his model will never be able to include all of the factors required to explain religious behavior, or the behavior of certain people at a certain event in history, much less the behavior of an individual (remember the Harvard Law). The model would have to have an infinite number of factors. He can never be sure he has the right set of factors, or has weighted them properly. Any time he runs his simulation and makes a prediction, numerous counter-examples will falsify the model.
In the above quote, he has cherry-picked evidence to support a presupposition: that religion is a form of comfort-seeking. Rational theologians with PhDs, and Christian apologists, would be outraged at such a simplistic idea.
Our approach can’t predict all of human behavior – nor even all religious behavior by people in the face of natural disasters. But it does generate important insights and predictions that future research can test – such as how group diversity and different coping strategies might yield different results. Human simulation in action is messier than modeling bridges, but it can be a useful way for researchers to understand just why people behave the way they do.
If Wildman were consistent, his worldview requires him to believe that his brain’s mechanical systems—not his free will—cause him to speculate about religious behavior. And in that realization, all his scholarship implodes. His ideas are not about seeking truth. They are natural responses to mechanical forces acting on him.
Note to readers: everybody is ‘religious’ (in terms of needing understanding on ultimate questions), and everyone believes in the supernatural (in terms of believing that truth exists, and that morals matter). We’ve explained this many times. The set ‘People of Faith’ is congruent with U, ‘All Human Beings.’ No ‘scholar’ can exclude himself from ‘religious’ people. But which religion? The Creator God, whose existence and attributes are obvious to everyone (Romans 1:20-22), does not want your ‘religion.’ He wants you. He doesn’t want your rituals. He wants your heart. Stop following the crowd through the wide gate that leads to destruction. Search for the narrow gate that leads to life. You need a kind of faith that doesn’t depend on natural disasters, or revert back when times are good. You need a faith that connects to the true God, who is really there, who is not silent. He calls to every man, woman and child, saying “repent and believe the good news.” Our Site Map points to some guideposts the He himself has provided, appealing to your God-given rational mind and conscience.