Nick Spencer returns to defend religion in Prospect magazine

December 5, 2019 • 9:00 am

Does the ubiquity and supposed beneficial effect of religion constitute evidence for God? Well, at least one intellectual (and I use the term loosely) thinks so.

Reader Michael sent me a link to Nick Spencer’s favorable review in Prospect of Stephen Asma’s 2018 book Why We Need Religion (click on screenshot below). Michael added this: “Maybe you’ll find this reviewer’s uncritical nonsense of interest. The reviewer, Nick Spencer, is a beneficiary of Templeton’s pieces of silver and you’ve written about him before.”

Actually, I didn’t write much about Spencer; I asked a reader, Mark Jones, if he’d say a few words about Spencer’s BBC program,  The Secret History of Science and Religion. Jones’s words about Spencer were not favorable, nor were mine after I watched one episode of the show. I did say this about Spencer:

Nick Spencer is a Senior Fellow at the Christian think tank Theos, and is responsible for the 2009 Templeton funded project “Rescuing Darwin” (to the tune of $600,000!!, according to page 214 of this book).

It also turns out that I’ve already discussed a New York Times article by Asma written before his book came out, and summarizing the thesis of that book, which is that regardless of its truth claims, religion is good for humans.  In his Prospect review, Spencer simply reiterates that thesis, adding that he, Spencer, thinks that the prevalence and value of religion is evidence that there is indeed a God.  (Prospect is a general magazine “of ideas,” and doesn’t seem to be particularly religious in its orientation.)

Click on the screenshot below, but be prepared for a new and mushy argument for God:

According to Spencer’s review, Asma (a professor of philosophy at  Columbia College Chicago) once disdained religion, and still sees it as “irrational”, but now thinks that its irrationality doesn’t override its value as a mechanism for coping with life:

Most of [Asma’s] early publications were “strenuously” critical of religion. He wrote enthusiastically for various sceptical and secularist publications, and even found himself listed in “Who’s who in hell,” a publication of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware.

However, some challenging encounters, wider reading and deeper reflection began to change his mind. “I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation,” he confesses towards the end of his provocatively-entitled 2018 Why We Need Religion, “but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously.” “I’m not naïve,” he goes on to say. “I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But it is a response that will not go and that should not go away if it provides genuine relief for anxiety and anguish.”

. . . [Asma] now views religion—his focus is primarily on Christianity and Buddhism, but much of what he says applies more widely—as natural, beneficial, humanising, and, indeed, indispensable.

The key is the body. Why We Need Religion takes our embodied and affective nature very seriously and shows, in detail and with impressive supporting evidence, that religious commitment—beliefs, practices, rituals, etc.—help protect and manage our emotional life with unparalleled and probably irreplaceable success. Religion is, in effect, a management system for our emotional lives that helps the human organism stay healthy and well.

Yes, there are studies that show that religious commitment can have salubrious effects on your personality or emotions. But that has no more bearing on whether it’s true than does the placebo effect of sugar pills on the hypothesis that sugar has a physiological effect on arthritis (Spencer disagrees; see below). Indeed, one can envision religion as a placebo effect on your brain: it can make you feel better regardless of whether the content of religious claims is true.

But to Asma, the truth of religion doesn’t matter: it’s still good because it makes people feel better. You’ll recognize that as the “Little People’s Argument”—the claim that religion is good for the masses because it soothes and placates them (a thesis advanced by Karl Marx), even though Asma himself doesn’t believe in God. This is an enormously patronizing argument, and also fails for reasons I discussed in my critique of Asma’s NYT article:

. . . here Asma lumps himself with “the secular world”, implying he’s an atheist too. In that case, he’s making the Little People Argument: “I don’t buy religion, but it’s good for the Little Folk.” And, in fact, you cannot fully embrace a religion, or reap its supposed consolations, if you don’t believe it’s true—really believe it’s true. If you don’t buy the Jesus story of Christianity, then you’re not going to be consoled about meeting your son in Heaven. Asma doesn’t take up this issue: if religion is irrational, and impossible to believe for many, then such people can never force themselves to believe, no matter how much they’d be consoled if they did.

Further, if religion is good because it provides this consolation, then what about those religions, like Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, in which you don’t get to meet your relatives and friends in the hereafter? Are those religions also good because they have other benefits?

Asma, and apparently Spencer, seem to want us to suspend our disbelief in religion—or at least stop criticizing it—because some studies show that it’s helpful. And yet other studies support Marx by showing that the religiosity of countries is negatively correlated with the happiness of their inhabitants. That negative correlation also holds among the 50 US states. Here’s a graph for countries produced for this site by reader Michael Coon; it shows a strongly negative relationship between how religious a country is and the United Nation’s assessment of its “Happiness Index” (higher values mean happier countries):

Now this doesn’t disprove that religion makes you happier and better able to cope with life. It is, after all, a correlation. But it surely doesn’t support that thesis, either. My own theory, which isn’t mine but one advanced by many sociologists, is that countries tend to become more religious when their inhabitants are not doing that well. When the government or your fellow humans can’t help you much, you turn to God, thinking that, even if things are crappy in your life, it will all be rectified in the next life.

Look at the happiest countries on that plot. They’re countries like Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands—countries that have a large number of atheists. The unhappiest countries are ones from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, where people are religious but not particularly well off.  As I wrote in my earlier critique of Asma:

Never does [Asma] mention that countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and France—countries in which people who really believe in Heaven and other such nonsense are in the minority—manage to sustain themselves quite well, with people finding meaning in nonreligious activities and philosophies. And those countries, as we well know, tend to be better off than religious countries in most ways, including having a populace with greater material and psychological well being, and, importantly, being happier.  If religion brings us so much consolation and happiness, and so much emotional well being, how come studies repeatedly show that a populace’s perception of their well being, and their assessment of their own happiness, are negatively correlated with the religiosity of their country? Why are the countries with the happiest and most secure people the most atheistic, while those with the least secure and unhappiest populations are the most religious? Why does religiosity go up after indices of social success go down? Shouldn’t it be the opposite, Dr. Asma?

Two more points. First, while I’ve suggested that secular humanism is a good replacement for religion, and has the advantage of not forcing you to believe silly things, Spencer—and perhaps Asma—sees secular humanism as a “substitute religion.” This is a common but ultimately ridiculous way to defend religion in general (my emphasis in the passage below):

 Human grief has both elaborate cognitive and neurochemical dimensions. . . Mammalian brains are hardwired for the calming comfort of a caregiver’s touch, and when that is denied us, especially permanently, the brain experiences a “major reduction in opioids, oxytocin and prolactin.” Religious belief attenuates the severity of that separation, and religious practices develop, codify, and authenticate grieving customs that serve to offer a kind of emotional surrogate for loss. Both cognitively and affectively, religion helps us cope with grief. That, of course, is one of the reasons why non-religious religions like Secular Humanism so often get into the funeral business. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

In what way is secular humanism a religion? Spencer doesn’t tell us.

Although Spencer casts doubt on some of Asma’s claims about the psychological values of religion, Spencer ultimately buys the thesis that religion is salubrious. But again, just because something is salubrious, does that mean it’s true? And what about the negative effects of religion? Spencer doesn’t discuss the second point but he does take up the first. And, in a stunning move, Spencer argues that the ubiquity and salubrious effects of religion are indeed evidence for a god, using arguments about our senses that have been advanced by, among others, Steve Pinker (my emphasis in Spencer’s passage below):

. . . it seems to me to be a natural step to move (or at least to edge) from religion’s affective importance to its cognitive reliability; i.e. from the kind of goodness (or at least usefulness) of which Asma writes, to its truth. Now, to be clear, this move need not be made. Just because something is (or can be) good, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. However, we should, at least, pause here. You can make a very strong argument that religion has played a positive role in human evolution, enabling individual and group survival, strength and cohesion, thereby being selected for in the evolutionary process. True, evolution selects for survival, not truth… but the two are hardly independent.

Broadly speaking, an organism whose cognitive functions are capable of tracking “that which is the case” is likely to do better than one that doesn’t. Whether you are finding prey, sensing a predator, or responding otherwise to your environment, it helps if your evolved senses are trained on the truth. It strikes me that the same point can be made of the apparently ubiquitous human need for religion (or in some places now, religion-like substitutes). As Steven Pinker (of all people!) once remarked “we have colour vision because there are differences in wavelength in the world.  We have depth perception because the world actually does exist in three dimensions. By the same logic someone might be tempted to say that if we have a ‘God module’ there must be a God it’s an adaptation to.” Pinker of course is not tempted to say that. Nor, it seems, is Asma. I am.

“I am!”  LOL!

While there’s no strong evidence that religious belief has a genetic component, much less was installed in our species by natural selection, let’s go ahead and accept that claim. Does it then show that God exists? Not at all! For if religious belief evolved, it was likely during the period of our species’ infancy when had little understanding of how the world worked. Baffled and saddened by disease, death, natural disasters, and other enigmatic phenomena, perhaps our ancestors—as Pascal Boyer suggests—invoked a supernatural agency as an explanation. Such an “agency detection module” may well be the ultimate cause of religion, and itself might have been adaptive. After all, if you think a rustle in the brush indicates the presence of a predator, you’re more likely to survive than if you just fob it off as wind.

But if religion is a byproduct of something like that, or simply an evolved tendency to believe your elders (something that’s also adaptive), then superstitious beliefs can become embedded in our culture regardless of whether they are true. Is our “afterlife module”—part of many but not all religions—evidence that there really is an afterlife? Or is it simply a way of coping with the fact that our species is unique in apprehending our earthly mortality?

As I noted previously, there are all sorts of religions, ranging from theism to deism to panpsychism, and even the theistic ones ranging from Scientology to Hinduism to Mormonism to Catholicism. Are these simply different manifestations of the same God module? Spencer doesn’t answer, nor did Asma in his NYT piece (the book may, but I don’t know). I think a more parsimonious hypothesis is that the existents of tens of thousands of diverse faiths doesn’t attest to the truth of a single god, but to the various ways in which humans can find solace in superstition, and in which they can exert power over others by making them adhere to those superstitions.

Neither the ubiquity of a belief nor its positive effects on human psychological well being say anything about the truth of that belief. Religion is not like vision or smell; it’s a psychological rather than aphysiological trait, and many people get on perfectly well without faith. If Spencer thinks that there’s a god because belief in one brings well-being, and because religion is ubiquitous (but disappearing in the West!), then he is pretty ignorant of the way we use empirical observations to establish truth.

Curiously, the well-regarded site 3 Quarks Daily, a site that for some reason I don’t often read, has linked to Spencer’s review of Asma, not mentioning that that review takes the claim that religion is “natural and beneficial” as evidence for God. 3 Quarks is largely an aggregator of other sites, and in this case doesn’t seem to have vetted the Prospect piece very carefully. Clicking on the 3 Quarks screenshot below will just take you to a link back to the Prospect piece; I put it here just to show you how uncritical people can be, and how far the rot has spread:

h/t: Michael

49 thoughts on “Nick Spencer returns to defend religion in Prospect magazine

    1. If religion was that valuable preachers wouldn’t be giving it away for free on sidewalks. The Anglican church wouldn’t be closing three of the four chapels in my area, and converting one of them into a kids’ adventure playground. Tickets for confession would sell out quicker than Hamilton.

      Religion used to make shitloads I know. And in some countries it’s still raking it in due to public demand. But it’s been left behind in the west long ago and people don’t need it. Not really. Not as a service.

      Who needs a church group when you’ve got Facebook? Who needs a pastor when you can hire a therapist? Who needs God when you have Alexa?

    2. Yes. And the flip side is that the existence of articles like “Why we need religion” is a tacit acknowledgement that many out there don’t think they need it. I certainly don’t.

  1. As Steven Pinker (of all people!) once remarked “we have colour vision because there are differences in wavelength in the world. We have depth perception because the world actually does exist in three dimensions. By the same logic someone might be tempted to say that if we have a ‘God module’ there must be a God it’s an adaptation to.” Pinker of course is not tempted to say that. Nor, it seems, is Asma. I am.

    Most people would say that the bottom light of a traffic light is the same colour as grass and that Kermit is also that colour. However there are thousands of different versions of God (or the gods). Religions that arise in different places are always different except in very broad brush ways. This, to me, is strong evidence that God is not an objective phenomenon.

    1. Exactly. If you can swap “God” for Yaweh/Zeus/Quetzalcóatl/Chtulhu/Santa/… without changing notably the module’s output, the best is to change your premises.

  2. “And, in a stunning move, Spencer argues that the ubiquity and salubrious effects of religion are indeed evidence for a god…”

    Following that line of reasoning, the earth is probably flat, seeing as how it looks flat (as long as you don’t look too carefully). And you make a good point — if the ubiquity of religious belief among us trumped-up chimps indicated there there was some “truth” at the heart of it, then there should be some kind of commonality among the beliefs! But as we see, people will believe pretty much anything.

    Meanwhile, Alvin Platinga (chair of Philosophy at Calvin College, formerly professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, called “the greatest Christian philosopher alive” by none less than William Lane Craig) has built his career around the premise that human perception and cognition are not optimized for discerning the facts of the universe, which is why we have to depend, not on observation and reason, but on sensus divinitatis, “an ability to discover God that precedes our reason”.

    If only these Christians could get their story straight, we’d know which one to argue against.

  3. Religion is “natural”? It is also more natural to let your children die of polio.

    Religion is “beneficial”> I have come to realize that one of the huge limitations of religion is its adherents’ nearly complete inability to deal with ambiguity and complexity. You will NEVER hear a religious person admit that their belief system produces bad outcomes. The Christian version of this is, when you point out bad outcomes, “Oh,that’s not God, that’s people”, as though there is no relationship at all between the philosophy and the outcome if the outcome is bad. Positive outcomes are credited to the religion; negative outcomes are the fault of the execution, not of the philosophy itself.

    The reality is that almost all coping strategies involve tradeoffs, and outcomes are rarely perfect. I don’t agree that religion is soothing for anyone who lives in the real world. I think that you can be soothed by isolating yourself in a philosophical bubble, but if you want to live outside such a bubble, you will find more peace in being able to cope with ambiguity and complexity than you will in religious rigidity.


    1. Agreed, except that some religious people do contend that some outcomes, like tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes are mysterious but still part of the plan even if ostensibly bad.

      And others still will contend that their belief system justifies them doing bad things to others (e.g., jihad, cleansing, genocide).

      1. I wasn’t referring to natural disaster type outcomes, I was referring to behavioral outcomes.

        And, the justifications you cite, although really bad, I think pale in comparison to the little stuff, just because there is so much more of the little stuff. Yes, some people will try to justify jihad and genocide, but a lot more will justify beating their kids, treating women as livestock, spreading lies (lying for the Lord), etc. Even worse, while the less violent among them wouldn’t even try to justify mass murder, they will go to great lengths to make excuses for the small violences that are perpetrated daily.


  4. There’s another problem with the kind of argument that since religion is ubiquitous then it’s always good: whatever cognitive modules were selected for that give raise to religion, they were selected in an environment that isn’t exactly the same as the environment of the modern world.

    Let’s take tribalism as a counter-example: it’s pretty hard to deny that tribalism, especially in its “in-group morality/out-group hostility” form, is a human universal. And there were probably some cognitive modules that were selected for that gave raise to tribalism. Tribalism is probably a very beneficial trait to one’s genes if you assume it evolved in a context where tribes were made up of closely related individuals.

    But it’s easy to see how tribalism in a world of nation-states, global issues, complex authoritarian regimes. and nuclear weapons might be very bad for the well-being of many human beings.

    Does religion work in the same way? Was it a beneficial trait in a world without healthcare and technology, and is it still beneficial now? Those are interesting questions that the “religion is everywhere so it must be good” position sweeps under the carpet.

  5. Blimey ‘non-religious religions’! There’s an oxymoron to grapple with.

    Surely the correlation of religion with the unhappiest societies should point to religion as a coping mechanism for a species in a stressful situation, just as we see addictive behaviour amongst the poorest and least happy in society (eg – “Addictive behaviors are associated with high economic costs, personal unhappiness, and co-morbidities with depressive disorders (MDD) and other mood and anxiety disorders.”).

    Just because a species behaves in a certain way in response to these stresses points to no truth other than the presence of the stresses. We also imagine bogeymen in the dark, but that doesn’t make them true.

  6. Everyone misses the boat about the “benefits” of “organized religion”.

    Fundamentalists have high relative tfr’s. Ultrafundamentalists have even higher tfr’s. [Even in populations with sub-replacement tfr’s, the higher the religiosity, the higher the relative tfr, which is all that matters to the future gene pool in the absence of immigration.] Lots and lots of data on this, its a pattern that can be found world-wide.

    Urbanization makes child rearing an economic burden, so non-religious people eschew reproduction in favor of more $$$. [Money is the root of all evil it is said.]

    Fundamentalists obey God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply. Because God said so, and you don’t question God.

    What do you call it in evolution when one group is able to pass a higher proportion of its genes into the gene pool of the next generation? Could it be the “F” word? [And since religion is a cultural phenomenon, and religious conversion is possible, and because religions are basically forms of social cooperation that result in higher group relative fertility, wouldn’t that be a form of group selection that is not reducible to kinship selection due to population flows from conversion and de-conversion.]

    Presuming religiosity (and fertility) is partially genetic, in an age of secularism where sex is disconnected from reproduction and there is widespread contraception and legal abortion, family size reflects underlying values. There is every reason to believe that the religious will swamp the gene pool (and ultimately the cultural framework) while the secular portion shrinks due to sub-replacement tfr’s (even if they are disproportionately influential due to higher wealth and education). It is already happening in Israel as I write, and the demographic transition is publicly available for skeptics.

    1. The trade-off of religion in this context is pretty clear as well. You severely limit your ability to accumulate wealth due to the financial burdens of supporting a large family, you put yourself under a lot of financial stress, and you mostly swear off recreational sex, all so your group can gain a big share of the gene pool.

      How do you get someone to adopt a behavior that sucks for them as an individual but that helps the group? Probably something along the lines of the irrational or mythological, I would imagine.

      1. I don’t mean from these comments to be “defending” religion, rather illustrating why religion exists and how it perpetuates itself.

    2. You wrote what I’ve been thinking for a while. Sure, the proportion of atheists plus agnostics is rising in most places right now, but that could be temporary. As those religions which are less efficient at trans-generational maintenance get weeded out, maybe the de-conversion rate will die down.

      Religions which used to spread primarily by proselytizing onto a gullible pre-scientific public could wane, while those didn’t proselytize much but which used to suffer massive childhood mortality rates, now wax. That could shift the advantage from atheists (good at persuading) to religionists (good at reproducing and enforcing dogma on the kiddies).

      1. Given the heat death of the universe, all things area temporary. As for the more near-term future of religiosity, who knows? I like to think that it will wither more over time in the face of ever increasing information exchange. It is harder for the enforcers-of-dogma-on-the-kiddies to be successful. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

  7. “Neither the ubiquity of a belief nor its positive effects on human psychological well being say anything about the truth of that belief.”

    The question seems to boil down to: If a belief works, does it matter if it’s a placebo? For exampe, I believe that humanity is capable of morality and self-fulfillment without belief in God, which by definition makes me a secular humanist. But I also happen to believe in God. Both beliefs “work”—i.e., have positive effects on my psychological well-being. But, as our host points out, that doesn’t say anything about the truth of either belief. For all I know, they both may be placebos.

    In the immortal words of Homer Simpson: “Where can I get me one of those placebos?”

    1. For crying out loud, the first belief is true because we can see many atheists, and many atheistic countries, behaving morally and having self-fulfillment. The second belief, that there is a God, has no evidence behind them.
      Are you totally incapable of seeing that one can adduce evidence for your first belief and none for the second?

      1. “. . .one can adduce evidence for your first belief and none for the second.”

        This is certainly true—you can adduce empirical evidence for the first belief but not for the second. And if you’re tying to convince others or arrive at public knowledge via consensus, this is an important distinction. If you’re trying to determine whether a personal, subjective belief is a placebo, not so much.

        I say this because my belief that secular humanists are capable of happiness/self-fulfillment is not based on objective empirical evidence; it’s based on subjective experiential evidence, just as my belief in God is. When you say that we can “see” many atheists being happy/self-fulfilled, I’m assuming you don’t mean that we can see survey results or read statistical charts. Think of someone whom you perceive (“see”) to be happy and self-fulfilled, then reflect on how you arrived at this conclusion. Granted, you may have deduced their happiness partly by observing their behavior and measuring it against certain objective indicators. But chances are you also relied in large part on a subjective perception that you would be hard-put to reduce to a persuasive argument. Where we differ—always respectfully, I hope—is that I would consider that subjective perception to constitute “evidence” and you would not.

        In short, my belief that secular humanists can be happy without a belief in God is every bit as subjective as my belief that there is a God. Hence, one is as likely as the other to be a placebo. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear in my original post.

        1. Your belief that secular humanists are capable of happiness may be based on “subjective experimental evidence”, whatever that is, but the data show that the happiness of countries comprising mostly atheists is objective. And they use a standard index of happiness. Those are the data I used.

          It seems to me you are completely ignorant of the meaning of “evidence”, since you adduced absolutely no evidence for the existence of God. Don’t bother to try to “explain” your stance further; I’m tired of this nonsense.

  8. I cam across a quotation recently:

    All models are wrong, some models are useful

    You could argue that religion was once a model used to explain the workings of the world and had some utility. The model was still wrong though.

    Nowadays the religion model is more obviously wrong and so of diminishing utility. How much does a model have to be broken before it is discarded?

  9. My personal opinion is that yes, religion probably helps people deal with horrible things that happen to them*. At the same time, any need for this crutch simple disappears once a society is sufficiently happy.

    Once you accept both these things the data laid out by Spencer on one side and PCC on the other are no longer in conflict.

    Happy citizens of progressive countries tend not to rely on religion as a crutch anymore.

    *Spencer’s data about the short-term, psychological benefits of religion say nothing about the profound violence and misery brought about by religious tribalism and theocratic diktats. That’s another story.

  10. The Stockholm syndrome comes to mind and Hitchens’ words that it is a desire to be a slave. It is the madness of defending their own madness for nothing is beyond the imagination of the deluded. GROG
    PS: Jerry, thanks for all the stories and photos from your trek to Antarctica.

  11. Evidence or the lack thereof, has little or no affect on the religious. Even when religion does bad things, such as the Catholic church has done all over the world, still they march on. If you can continue the faith while your Priest molest children or covers up for other Priest, I’m not sure it is faith. It is more closely described as brainwashed. It looks very much like the Trump followers with their brains cemented in for the ride.

  12. I check 3 Quarks Daily once a week and have to say that it’s gone a wee bit downhill: lots of atheist-bashing articles and second rate columnists. And many of the linked articles are leftist boilerplate (I say that as someone on the left).

  13. I just watched the award winning film, Hotel Rwanda. As you will recall, it’s about the genocide in 1994 which you can blame on pure tribalism – Hutus against Tutsis. On seeing the scatter graph of happiness vs religiosity I hurried to find out where Rwanda currently resides. Sadly, it’s right at the intersection of wild superstition and crushing depression – after nearly 30 years.

    1. There are many times more freeloading Catholic priests than qualified doctors in the Republic of Rwanda. The quality Catholic education is [I think] fee paying whereas the free schools are lower quality & the students fall away. It’s almost as if the RCC wants to hold back the progress of education, wealth & well being in that sorry country, but of course that can’t be true…

      1. that can’t be true…

        No. They have God with them. As Mighty Hitch would say, one of religion’s many evils includes religions fight against women’s rights. The Church wants them to stay barefoot and pregnant, not on an equal economic footing with men. All these 3rd world countries would progress, I do believe, if the Church (and other centers of power) had humane priorities. Unfortunately, it’s priorities are spiritual (whatever that means).

  14. I think the “argument from equipment” (we would not have evolved internal equipment to deal with something that didn’t exist externally) is actually kind of interesting, although I don’t know if some sort of “religion center” in the brain is sufficiently established to really make this argument. It wouldn’t prove that religion is true, but it would make it very unique neurologically (in that even if our brains are programmed for a delusion, I can’t think of any other example where this is the case, where our brains are programmed for a specific type of delusion – I think this would be quite philosophically interesting if nothing else, but again, I don’t know if there’s really a basis to say that we are ‘programmed’ for religion.)

    1. The “argument from equipment” is feeble, at best.

      It’s easy to come up with examples of where our brains (and the rest of our bodies) are “programmed” fallaciously. For example, we all perceive a world of solid objects when, in fact, the things we experience is comprised mostly of voids around atomic nuclei.

      Without special equipment we don’t perceive the intricacies of much at all…. mouthparts of small insects… microorganisms… galaxies.

      If we’re “programmed” for religion, it is not because there is anything “out there”. It is simply because the “programming” would have been advantageous in some way in our evolutionary past.

      1. Ooops GBJ – I should have refreshed the tab before writing a comment so similar to what you already put up!

        1. I’d say “great minds….” but fact is that this is such a tired subject that we both have seen the argument time and time again. 😉

    2. But our sensory kit & the perceptions built from those inputs are a stripped down, lowest useful bitrate delusion. All of it.

      It is highly unlikely that there’s a “religion centre” or religion module in the human brain, especially as very little that’s organically evolved has just one task in the survival battle. Like all animals we are wired to notice anomalies [the rustle in the long grass] & connections [often coincidence] in the natural environment that may be useful for survival – thus the world becomes animated by invisible spirits to explain our fortunes & misfortunes. Before you know it we have rituals around gathering, hunting, planting, mating – everything really. And being social beings, helpless without our comrades, rituals are there anyway from the get go to reinforce co-operation, obedience, learning etc.

      Combine all that that with our vivid dream life & to a first lazy approximation we will believe that our ancestors & recently deceased loved ones are speaking to us, therefore an afterlife & therefore maybe God[s] & spirit worlds. A religion module is superfluous as an explanation when our instincts/perceptions are so busy fooling a big-brained & social ape at every turn.

      1. A religion module is superfluous as an explanation – That’s been my understanding as well. You don’t need to postulate an unlikely facility to explain something with so many evident causes. Evolution is too conservative to add icing to the cake.

    3. Pretty much everything we perceive has an element of illusion (or delusion). The blue/white dress illusion to name just one for the visual system. It should not be surprising that we perceive things we don’t understand as mystical and miraculous. This is surely a coping mechanism evolved to deal with fear of the unknown, as well as known concepts such as one’s eventual death. Add in culture and it is short hop from mysticism to religion. In short, religion comes for free with the evolution of our ability to ponder things.

      1. In the context of this article, I’m not sure what the author meant by “God module”. I assume he meant specific wiring for religion, although he didn’t elaborate.

    4. One has to make sure, very carefully indeed, that the putative organ is not for something else, too! This is where the Pascal Boyer hypothesis – that religion is a “social exaptation” of the “theory of mind” module comes to play. It predicts, apparently successfully and forward-lookingly, that those who are weak on theory of mind (autistics, for example) are also less religious.

      1. I think here one likely runs into the problem of ‘God’ and ‘religion’ being so ill defined. Theory of Mind run amok would logically result, I think, in animism (something I admit I suffer from, as I cannot help but apologize to furniture when I bump into it and feel kind of terrible when I throw away a container of something that has been in the house a long time and finally run out, ha ha. It feels so disloyal.) Shamanism, on the other hand, is an aspect of spirituality that also appears in many places across the globe and history but seems, intuitively, as if it must involve very different processes. Then there are laws and decrees in religion that seem as if they involve thinking about fairness and how members of a society ought to behave, which I think is likely yet another entirely different set of thought processes.

        I’m not sure what the author was referencing when he said ‘God module’, although I suspect he was thinking of the ‘God helmet’.

        1. Right, but as Boyer points out, most religions are *not* much like the literate ones – which is not surprising since most humans have been nonliterate.

          He points out that shamanic traditions etc. are, in fact, continuous with the literate in some ways. (Not altogether – the literate ones are more dogmatic, which is an interesting corrolation – one to be explored.)

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