My personal reflections on this blog take inspiration from the Bahá’í teachings.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

A creature adapted for wonder


"Religion functions at the boundary where the knowable faces the unknown and the unknowable," says Bruce Deverell, in this "guest" contribution. This post is written in response to Dan Rhoads' post on his Migrations blog, Religion and Ethnocentrism: Is Religion Adaptive?


Religion and Ethnocentrism
Is Religion Adaptive?

Mechanisms by which religion
may have positively impacted
adaptive fitness

How might they have occurred?

A response

Dan, I hope you don't mind me joining in the discussion. Our son John Bryden shared your blog site with me. I have been a bit slow to respond. My brain has not adapted to sending well thought out arguments in quick time on the internet which blogging seems to require.

I am conscious of dealing with someone from a different tribe!

My response is based on my experience of living and working in the Pacific Islands for most of our working lives (as a Protestantminister). Recently I have renewed my involvement in interfaith dialogue and have visited a Moslem Mosque and attended the combined annual meeting of the Council of Christians and Jews and the Council of Christians and Moslems in Auckland with a woman from each faith talking about preparing food for special celebrations. This involvement will keep me in touch with the religious side of the discussion.

I am also drawing on the five books that I have been reading in thepast year or two including my introduction to the book Pacific Rituals: Living or Dying (details below). I do not normally read widely on asubject but select a book which may reflect original thinking in aparticular area and stay with that over a period of time. These five books provide me with different perspectives that may be more or less pertinent to the issues you raise.

But first I try to identify clarify my understanding of religion and religious experience in a series of assertions about religion and religious experience that I have called 'thesis' statements. This is followed by some definitions of religion. (It is not clear to me from your first article what your understanding of religion is).

Religion and Religious Experience

WONDER

God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity,
but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance,
renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.
Dag Hammarskjold, former General Secretary of the United Nations, in Markings p64

Theses

Human beings have always lived in a known world surrounded by the unknown. “Scientific knowledge is like an island in an ocean of the unknown” (statement by a bioethicist in a BBC interview).

Religion functions at the boundary where the knowable faces the unknown and the unknowable. The boundary changes with the increase of knowledge but a boundary remains. The boundary can also be thought of as a horizon. (Rosenberg)

The response of awe, fear, wonder, dread in the face of events and experiences which transcend normal knowledge, explanation and understanding is at the very heart of human experience that may be called religious. This experience is not confined to 'religious' people.

Human communities have special places, people, times, events... which are believed to be sacred (tapu) and filled with a special kind of holy power (mana). These sacred places,objects, times, words...must not be lightly played around with as they seem to have a fundamental function of giving order and meaning to society over a period of time.

Rituals are the means by which these events and experiences are symbolised, remembered and relived from generation to generation and recognised as sacred. Rituals are a focal point for understanding religions. (Pacific Rituals)

Humans are conscious beings with the ability not only to know but to know that they know (the capacity for conscious reflection), and to know that they are known. This capacity gives humans knowledge of their world involving recognising, reflecting, remembering , imagining, naming, symbolising, ritualising...

From the beginning of history humans sought to name in a personal way these difficult to understand and explain events and experiences which impinge on their daily lives. Such events seem to reveal some kind of intervening living presence and intention. Human beings want to give names to these experiences that are personal, whether they be regarded as spirits, gods, some kind of supreme being or simply forces of nature.

When religious people or scientists lose the sense of wonder they begin to find it hard to adapt – they die (Hammarskjold above).

Some Definitions of Religion

Some definitions of religion from the The Oxford Shorter Dictionary in historical order:
  • religion (Latin): an obligation (as of an oath), a bond between man and the gods, reverence for the gods;
1. A state of life bound by monastic vows; the religious life
2. Action or conduct indicating a belief in, reverence for, and desire to please, a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice or rites or observances implying this.
3. A particular system of faith and worship.
4. Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, as being entitle to obedience, reverences, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this relief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feelings a standard of spiritual and practical life.

A tribe is a territorial social organisation of people descended from a common ancestor. Territorial boundaries protect the tribe but they are also places where interaction takes place with others. Since they are often places of uncertainty and dispute they are often regarded as taboo areas.

Perspectives from Books I have been Reading

In this my first response I list the five books I have been reading with a brief indication of their subject matter and a hint of potential relevance to your statement that “a more rigorous explanation of the mechanisms by which religion may have positively impacted adaptive fitness. How might that have occurred?”

Then I provide a summary of Barbour's understanding of where the theory of evolution is at now. I have also included the part of my introductory essay in Pacific Rituals which focusses on continuity and change.

In each of these books I am struggling with material that is beyond me. I am like a blind man touching different parts of the elephant and trying to make sense of it all with my limited faculties!

Pacific Rituals:Living or Dying is an edited collection of essays written by undergraduate theological students at the Pacific Theological College, Suva, Fiji. The students attempted to describe traditional rituals, most still being practised, from different their island cultures. My introductory essay raises the question implied in the title as to how rituals can and do adapt to the modern world and how they can contribute to that adaptation or stifle it. (see below for an extract)

Barbour's Nature, Human Nature, and God has provided me with the opportunity to catch a glimpse of how Darwin's theory of biological evolution is itself evolving. This raises questions about how the present thinking about the theory of evolution in biology affects our thinking about how religions evolve and how they change and adapt.

Rosenberg's Abraham: the First Biographical History has given me a whole new perspective on understanding the roots of Abram's story in the Sumerian culture. Rosenberg argues that the Sumerians were clear about the boundary between the known and the unknown and as they “pushed back the boundary of the unknowable” they “allowed religion its own realm”.

Rosenberg's careful study gives an imaginative account of how Abram's family migrated from the declining civilisation of Sumer towards a more or less unknown land and future. What were the essential elements of the Sumerian culture that they took with them? How did they respond to the gods of the new land? How did they adapt the world view of the Sumerians as they arrived in the land of promise?

Rosenberg's careful and imaginative study of the changing contexts of the writing of the different strands of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Torah, show a process of adaptation to changing events and circumstances. In particular his study of how the name of Yahweh evolved in the story portrayed in the first written strand of the Torah (The “J” or Yahwist document) provides a fascinating picture of how the naming of this somewhat elusive and unpredictable presence named Yahweh evolved in the story of Abram/Abraham. This continued in the long process of writing the Hebrew Scriptures through critical events over many centuries.

This, as well as other recent Old Testament scholarship, makes the study of the Hebrew Scriptures an important case study of the question “do religions adapt and if so how?” What about other world religions?

The French atheistic antiphilosopher Bardiou in his book Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism sees St Paul as a the “militant figure” who “is a poet-thinker of the event”. The book provides an extremely important way of thinking in terms of the universal. Perhaps the focus on events and the crucial role of how the original thinker with poetic imagination can be a deciding factor as to whether the religious response may positively impact adaptive fitness.

Paul Davies' The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? puts everything in the big picture of the evolving universe. He writes: “For life to evolve, and then to evolve into conscious beings like ourselves, certain conditions have to be satisfied”. These include: a good supply of the various elements needed to make biomass, this life encouraging setting has to remain benign for a long time, the universe must be sufficiently old and cool to permit complex chemistry, it has to be orderly enough to permit untrammelled formation of galaxies and stars, there has to be the right sorts of forces acting between particles of matter to make stable atoms, complex molecules, planets and stars. If almost any of the basic features of the universe , from the properties of atoms to the distribution of galaxies, were different, life would probably be impossible....The universe seems just right for life in many intriguing ways....”. Religions too have long periods of equilibrium which may make it difficult to adapt to change when relative equilibrium is punctuated by unexpected events.

Evolution

The theory of evolution has been evolving. Barbour has written many important books on the relation of science and religion. I have been trying to grasp hold of what this means by wrestling with Ian Barbour's book Nature, Human Nature, and God. In chapter 2 he gives an account of where the theory of evolution is at now.

The following is my summary of the key points.See Barbour pp12-14

Darwin's theory

In Darwin's day, Newtonian mechanics was looked on as the form of science that other sciences should emulate. The Newtonian viewpoint was atomistic, deterministic, and reductionist. It was believed that the behaviour of all systems is determined by a few simple laws governing the behaviour of their smallest components. Change was thought to be the result of external forces, such as gravity acting on bodies that are themselves essentially passive. Darwin agreed with the philosophers of science who held that Newtonian physics represented the ideal for all sciences, and his theory of evolution shared many of its assumptions (Barbour p11).

Expansion of Darwinism
Some biologists postulate that:
  • selection occurs at many levels:
  • evolution has long periods of relatively little change indispersed with bursts of rapid speciation (punctuated equilibrium);
  • natural selection has many different causes;
  • internal drives drives and novel actions of organisms can initiate evolutionary changes;the autonomy of biology from physics.
Beyond Darwinism

Future understanding of evolution may be enhanced by recent work on chaos and complexity, evolution as a product of self-organisation as well as chance, new advances in embryology and developmental biology, how developmental patterns are constrained by hierarchical organisation and the possibility of a paradigm shift from Darwinism to something beyond Darwin's theory.

Self organisation, indeterminacy, top-down causality and communication of information need to be taken into account in evolutionary theory.

How does the present thinking about the theory of evolution in biology affect your thinking about how religions evolve and how they change and adapt?


Rituals: Continuity and Change

This excerpt from my introduction to Pacific Rituals: Living or Dying focusses on the issues of continuity and change. It puts the issue of religious change into a community rather than an individualist context.

In oral societies particularly, continuity is preserved by a special emphasis on conservation of forms, symbols, formulaic expressions and ritual structures, and a resistance to change. "All sacred things must be kept in their place" (Levi-Strauss 1970:10). Rituals keep sacred things in place. Nevertheless living rituals are changeable. They can adapt to situation, circumstance, people and a changing world. So while rituals conserve the traditions, the values, the central symbols of a people, they can also be sources of creativity and change. They are not unthinking human activities — or need not be so.

Susanne Langer (1976) puts forward the thesis that all human symbolising activity may rightly be called thinking. In this light the complex symbolical activity of rituals reflects intelligent corporate human behaviour. And intelligence can be seen as the adaptation of the inward sense of meaning, identity and understanding to the realities of the external world. Since rituals are human activities they contain within them the possibility and promise of adaptation and change. They can be changed, and they can also be sources of change.

Devilish or Divine

Rituals have a special way of making possible and nurturing creativity in human culture and society, and facilitating its expression. This is perhaps because on the one hand the ritual puts people in touch with hidden and unconscious sources of their being both as individuals and as a community,and on the other because they provide a symbol system with which to explore and express the unspeakable. So words, music and movements of a Fijian meke, or ritual dance can be dreamed up for a special occasion or event and enable people to make sense of the new by using the forms of the old. Or a Samoan orator working with the traditional structure and language forms of the formal orator's speech can creatively transcend the formal structure, and express what has not been expressed before in a way that leads people to a new level of perception and understanding that enables them to embrace the new in a memorable way. A living ritual conserves what is potentially creative.

Not all change, however, is creatively good. There is something very ambiguous about human ritual behaviour. It is difficult to talk about this dimension without using religious terminology. Rituals can be devilish or divine. They can be seen as human creations which are the gifts of the gods. But they can also be recognised as being captured by diabolical forces which distort, confuse, destroy. The word symbol comes from the Greek word symbolos meaning to throw or cast together. Symbols bring many things together in a single complex whole. They create a sense of wholeness. The word diabolical however comes from the Greek word diabolos, meaning to throw apart, to scatter. The diabolical scatters, causing fragmentation, disorder, chaos. It is a strange contradiction that symbols can become diabolical. And what is true of symbols is also true of rituals.

Susanne Langer uses the words (1953:46) "semblance" and "illusion" to indicate the transparent nature of humanly created art forms. The symbolic forms used in different kinds of art are humanly created semblances or illusions which enable the unspeakable inner experience of different kinds of reality to be known, expressed, talked about, and analysed. So rituals too are humanly created illusions which are at the same time the gifts of the gods. Their reality is not in what they are, but in what they point to, what they represent, what they convey to us, what they put us in touch with. And what they put us in touch with is not the tangible but the intangible, not the seeable but the unseeable, not the experience of the ordinary but the experience of transcendence in and through the ordinary and the physical. For example through the illusions of gesture and dance the sense of power and presence is conveyed and through music, time takes on the dimension of the eternal. Architecture creates an illusion of cultic or cultured space and drama gives an illusion of action directed towards the future out of the past (Langer 1953, Collins 1983:98ff). Through the combination of these created illusions in ritual the transcendent is experienced in indefinable but real ways, and life itself takes on a new dimension.

Since they have this character of humanly created illusions however, rituals may also delude. When the illusion is treated as the reality there is idolatry. So rituals may lead to a deeper and truer perception of reality, but they may also lead people to live in an imaginary world out of touch with reality. They may hold people in a past which can no longer exist and prevent them from facing the realities of the present. They may make a certain kind of order possible that contains the seeds of chaos and destruction; They may project an illusory hope for the future which cannot be fulfilled. They may give an illusion of power that may lead to delusions of grandeur and to paranoia. They may let loose hidden powers which can disrupt, distort and destroy. To play around with rituals and misuse them can be dangerous. But to find in them the sacred source of that which is creative of life, wholeness, healing, is to discover a transformative power in society which enables people to live into the future out of the present through the presence of the remembered past.

Some Final Comments

My background and reading has put the issues you raise into a different and broader context. I realise that I have not responded directly to many of the issues you have raised in your first article – particularly the issue of ethnocentrism in religion. That will have to wait!

But in the light of your comment that 'the capacity for religion can be described as arising from a “loose confederacy of separate modules in the human brain”' I would like to know more about what that means. What kinds of changes take place in the brains for example of birds and humans as they adapt or fail to adapt to new situations?

Bruce

References
  • Barbour, Ian. 2002. Nature, Human Nature and God. Augsburg: Fortress Press
  • Bardiou, Alain. 2003. Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism. Translated by Ray Brassier. Stanford: Stanford University Press
  • Davies, Paul. 2006. The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? London: Allen Lane
  • Deverell, Gweneth & Bruce John (eds). 1986: Pacific Rituals: Living or Dying. Suva. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.
  • Rosenberg, David. 2006. Abraham: The First Historical Biography. New York: Basic Books.

8 comments:

Dan said...

Bruce,
Thanks very much for the commentary! I certainly realize that my thoughts in the Religion and Ethnocentrism essay bear some shortcomings, and welcome the chance to receive criticism and improve my thoughts on the subject.

I'll try and do your comments justice, but I'm afraid that the thoroughness of your essay and my lack of familiarity with your references will force me to take my time in getting back to you - which I promise to do!

Thanks in advance for the patience.

Dan said...

First off, a response to my background in religion: to be sure, I’m not a scholar of theology, and although I have a pretty fair memory for mythologies and stories of many of the so-called historical religions, there’s a lot that I don’t know.

For the sake of these discussions, I’m purposefully avoiding the question of whether there is or is not a God. Instead, I’m keeping it strictly to questions of how we are influenced by whether we think that there is a God, and more importantly, how different religions fare against each other in the changing landscape of world religions.

Much of my argument comes from Scott Atran’s book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, representing the views of an evolutionary psychologist and a cultural anthropologist, respectively. Reviews of both can be found on Amazon.com, but my opinion is that both are nearly encyclopedic in scope – and yet both seem incomplete in describing the evolutionary origins of religion in the genus Homo, in my opinion. They come so close, but appear to be missing something, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what.

Other books that have profoundly influenced me, and may bear on the topic:
Bronowski, Jacob (1976) The Ascent of Man.
Diamond, Jared (1997) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
Mayr, Ernst (1982) The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance.

Much more to come soon!

Dan said...

More in reply to Bruce:

An addition to my reading list that, while I haven't read it myself, it is highly recommended by all of the books that I have mentioned: William James' Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (first published in 1903). It sounds interesting.

And now on to your comments about the capacity for wonder and religion - I confess to being dubious about this part. Oh, it's not because we don't have a capacity for wonder, or a desire to transcend the boundaries of self and non-self. But I don't think that that is the role that religion serves in human society. I think that instead, you were more correct in associating religion with God(s), which religions are structured around. Perhaps I'm a bit naive, but I think that the desire for wonder and transcendence fuels an atheist's love of wonder for nature just as readily as it fuels such similar desires in the theist, making it a separate issue from the nature or evolution of religious experience itself.

Moreover, I am rather skeptical on the idea that religions are significantly influenced by individuals or their own ideas. Instead, I am under the impression that, for the most part, it is the spiritual environment that more greatly influences the beliefs of the individual. To be sure, there is significant variation in theology among members of each religion, and that there are periodically those who conceive of some new idea that is received well by the group, and procedes to effect the group's theology. As such, I am working under the opinion that any theory on the origins of religion must account for both the success of the religion in question, and for the success of a majority of individuals within that religion. (adaptiveness = success or fitness in the environment which is our society, in my model of current evolutionary thinking)

This gets at what I mean by 'the capacity for religion can be described as arising from a "loose confederacy of separate modules in the human brain"' - which I take from Boyer specifically (p50):

"All scenarios for the origin of religion assume that there must be a single factor that will explain why there is religion in all human groups and why it triggers such important social, cognitive, emotional effects. This belief in a "magic bullet" is, unfortunately, exceedingly stubborn. It has hampered our understanding of the phenomenon for a long time. Progress in anthropology and psychology tells us why the belief was naive. Some concepts happen to connect with inference systems in the brain in a way that makes recall and communication very easy. Some concepts happen to trigger our emotional programs in particular ways. Some concepts happen to connect our social mind. Some of them are represented in such a way that they soon become plausible and direct behavior. The ones that do all this are the religious ones we actually observe in human societies. They are most successful because they combine features relevant to a variety of mental systems."

And he goes on to elaborate on the cultural roles of these concepts (as the cultural anthropologist that he is), only mentioning the neuroscience behind the mental systems that he alludes to (largely because there's so much we don't know yet about our own brains).

Atran, on the other hand, presents us with a different point of view. Admittedly, he presents a cynical view of religion that I don't mind so much, but you might. Oddly, while Boyer ends up ambivalent as to whether religious capacity is adaptive, Atran appears to conclude that it is, despite his apparent atheism. So please bear with me. He describes religion as "(1) a community's costly and hard-to-fake committment [or individuals' committment to the community, I think he means], (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents, (3) who master people's existential anxieties, such as death and deception."

I'm sure you don't agree with the "counter-" descriptions, but the rest I think might be agreeable. Rituals of course play a crucial role in all of the aspects of religion that both Boyer and Atran describe, and I'll try to get to that soon.

But at the core of my argument, I think, is that religion is much more a social phenomenon, rather than an individual one.

John Bryden said...

Dan, I've spoken with Bruce and he appreciates your having come back with further explanation. He intends on responding, although maybe not right away, as he likes to have time to think things over thoroughly.

I'd add some thoughts of my own, but these too will have to wait. If I let myself start tonight, I'll find myself up till late, which would be no good for productivity at work tomorrow!

Cheers - John.

Dan said...

Bruce and John,
Take your time! - I'm certainly not going anywhere. I feel that there's a lot that I could explain better, and a lot that I could be corrected on. I'm looking forward to both.

Warmest,
-Dan

Dan said...

Sorry it's been a while, but things have been busy. I haven't forgotten to get back to you on the topic of rituals, and their role in society.

Bruce referenced Levi-Strauss to great effect, who described the function of rituals in society as ensuring that "All sacred things must be kept in their place." I'd like to say that I agree with this assessment, as does one of the two authors which I have been referencing most in this discussion on the evolution of religion. Boyer describes in great detail a variety of functions that rituals serve, with a few points catching my attention in particular:

"...a lot of human culture consists of salient cognitive gadgets that have a great attention-grabbing power and high relevance for human minds as a side effect of these minds' being organized the way they are." (p.235)

"...rituals are organized in such a way that they give a particular shape and tenor to people's notions of supernatural agents and make more plausible the gods' involvement in their existence." (p. 237)

"Why does it seem obvious that performing particular actions in a prescribed, rigid manner will have particular effects - for example, creating a new family or turning boys into men? We might think that there is a simple solution, which is that everyone around believes that rituals have such effects, so that in the end they do have the effects... But there is a problem here, which is to explain why this belief is convincing at all, and why it always focuses on rituals." (p.253)

"Rituals do not create social effects but only the illusion that they do... this illusion is strengthened by the fact that not performing a particular ceremony, when others do, very often amounts to defecting from social cooperation... So the illusion that the ritual is actually indispensable to its effects, although untrue if you consider human societies in general, becomes quite real for the people concerned, as their choice is between going through the actions prescribed - which seems to confirm that the rituals are a sine qua non - or defecting from cooperation with other members of the group, which is not really an option in most groups." (p.255)

That makes a lot of sense to me, and I agree that religious rituals perform those functions. I would only modify it to describe all rituals. There are a great number of rituals and ceremonies that our society performs that are secular (e.g., graduations). Often these do involve references to the dominant local religion, but they are secular nonetheless. This makes me think that rituals aren't actually a part of religion per se.

Regardless, on the topic of evolution of human culture, the origins of ritual must lie somewhere in the origins of our social groups.

Bruce said...

Response to Dan

Note that this is a response to your comments on the 5th September. Will respond to your quotes on rituals later. In the meantime am asking John to send the whole of the rituals article by email if thats OK. [This has been published via Google Docs here: Pacific Rituals: Living or Dying]

To Bruce,
Thanks very much for the commentary! I certainly realize that my thoughts in the Religion and Ethnocentrism essay bear some shortcomings, and welcome the chance to receive criticism and improve my thoughts on the subject.

I'll try and do your comments justice, but I'm afraid that the thoroughness of your essay and my lack of familiarity with your references will force me to take my time in getting back to you - which I promise to do!

Thanks in advance for the patience.

9/05/2007 3:53 PM


Bruce responds:
Thankyou for your careful response to what I have sent you. I apologise for the long delay in replying. My writing time is normally in the morning – and in the last two weeks I seem to have had more morning involvements and distractions than usual. Perhaps there is something in the wiring of my brain which makes it difficult for me to write and think in afternoons and evenings and therefore influenced the way my behaviour patterns have evolved over my lifetime!

Each of the points you have developed deserves a careful response. So this is no more than an initial series of short initial responses to the particular issues you have raised. So it seems best to insert my responses in your texts rather than gathering them together in one place.

Dan said:
First off, a response to my background in religion: to be sure, I’m not a scholar of theology, and although I have a pretty fair memory for mythologies and stories of many of the so-called historical religions, there’s a lot that I don’t know.

For the sake of these discussions, I’m purposefully avoiding the question of whether there is or is not a God. Instead, I’m keeping it strictly to questions of how we are influenced by whether we think that there is a God, and more importantly, how different religions fare against each other in the changing landscape of world religions.


Bruce Responds
I am definitely not arguing for or against the existence of God in my responses although I personally would see it as an open question. So I am happy to leave the question of the existence of God in brackets. I sort of do that in my first response and will continue to try to explore in that way.

What we mean by the word 'god' in the light of the findings of science and our present experience of the evolving world is almost beyond our powers of thought and imagination. In the early 60s the Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar wrote a book 'Honest to God' where many responded to his statement that 'our images of God must go'! It is so easy to get trapped into the idolisation of our present understandings and conceptualisations whether we be religious or not.

Given the fact that there is a huge variety of understandings and expressions of what is meant by these 'god words' it seems fundamentally important to recognise that diversity and trace the influence of these different understanding of the gods in human evolution and history.

So I will try to primarily respond to your focus on the way societies, cultures, communities and nations are shaped by their religious beliefs and experience.

Working with the question of ' how religions fare against each other in the changing landscape of world religions' has been part of my life story. Part of the background of the military coups in Fiji in 1987 was underlying tension between Fijian Christians (mainly Methodist) and the Indian population who are mainly from Hindu, Islamic and Sikh faiths. I was involved in setting up Interfaith Search Fiji to build relationships of respect and understanding between people of different faiths. This interest was renewed last month when our local U3A (University o the Third Age) created a world religions group and I was persuaded to coordinate one of the 2 groups. We have begun this year by having preliminary explorations of Islam (with a visit to the local mosque) and next month Hinduism (with a visit to a hindu temple). U3A seeks to provide opportunity for seniors like me to keep growing in our knowledge and understanding and and keep thinking! I also belong to a 'science news' group which has made aware of whats been discovered in scientific research, although there is not much depth in what we do.

Dan says:
Much of my argument comes from Scott Atran’s book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, representing the views of an evolutionary psychologist and a cultural anthropologist, respectively. Reviews of both can be found on Amazon.com, but my opinion is that both are nearly encyclopedic in scope – and yet both seem incomplete in describing THE EVOLUTIONARY ORIGINS OF RELIGION IN THE GENUS HOMO, in my opinion. They come so close, but appear to be missing something, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what.


Bruce says:
I note what you are trying to 'put your finger on' and will try to focus on that issue in the light of my own reading, especially the 5 books mentioned in my first response. So I must come back to that issue.

Dan says:
Other books that have profoundly influenced me, and may bear on the topic:
Bronowski, Jacob (1976) The Ascent of Man.
Diamond, Jared (1997) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
Mayr, Ernst (1982) The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance.


Bruce says:
I have read Jared Diamonds 'Collapse: How societies choose to Fail of Survive'. Ronald Wright's 'A Short History of Progress' based on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) Massey Lectures covers the same ground in a briefer and more popular way. Both books seem to me to be crucially important.

Much more to come soon!

9/06/2007 2:27 AM

Dan said...
More in reply to Bruce:

An addition to my reading list that, while I haven't read it myself, it is highly recommended by all of the books that I have mentioned: William James' Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (first published in 1903). It sounds interesting.


Bruce says:
I have heard of James' 'Varieties of Religious Experience' since my days in theological college in the 50s but like you have never read it! The title however has served as a kind of signal to be alert to the diversity of religious expression and experience.

Dan says:
And now on to your comments about the capacity for wonder and religion - I confess to being dubious about this part. Oh, it's not because we don't have a capacity for wonder, or a desire to transcend the boundaries of self and non-self. But I don't think that that is the role that religion serves in human society. I think that instead, you were more correct in associating religion with God(s), which religions are structured around. Perhaps I'm a bit naive, but I think that the desire for wonder and transcendence fuels an atheist's love of wonder for nature just as readily as it fuels such similar desires in the theist, making it a separate issue from the nature or evolution of religious experience itself.


Bruce says:
I am surprised that you can suggest that the capacity for wonder in religion is has little role in human society. The Psalms are full of wonder at the wonders of creation and the wonders of being human, as are the great Christian hymns, music, art... The rituals of religious life recall, nurture, maintain and express that sense of awe from the rich rituals touching all the senses of an orthodox liturgy, to the silence of a meeting of the Society of Friends or the Muslim man stopping his car and going through the ritual words and actions of his daily prayer and catching a moment of transcendence.

After my earlier communication I heard by accident the second of the 2007 CBC Massey lectures by Margaret Somerville, 'The Ethical Imagination'. She argues that the terms 'religious sacred' and 'secular sacred' with their companions, a sense of wonder and awe and with their counterpoints of 'fear and trembling' (in relation to the 'tapu' aspect of the sacred), could provide a bridge between the secular and religious in the search for a universal ethic to face the ethical challenges posed by the new scientific discoveries and new possibilities opened up by technological innovation and manipulation. This is perhaps a more helpful way of expressing the idea that the sacred and the human response of wonder belong to all human beings and societies with perhaps in our modern age significant differences between the religious and non religious.

[The lectures are being rebroadcast on our National Radio. Only the first lecture is available on the web site because of copyright concerns. (Google: CBC Massey Lecture 2006). Details of the disc or book are available there.]

Dan says:
Moreover, I am rather skeptical on the idea that religions are significantly influenced by individuals or their own ideas. Instead, I am under the impression that, for the most part, it is the spiritual environment that more greatly influences the beliefs of the individual. To be sure, there is significant variation in theology among members of each religion, and that there are periodically those who conceive of some new idea that is received well by the group, and procedes to effect the group's theology. As such, I am working under the opinion that any theory on the origins of religion must account for both the success of the religion in question, and for the success of a majority of individuals within that religion. (ADAPTIVENESS = SUCCESS OR FITNESS IN THE ENVIRONMENT WHICH IS OUR SOCIETY, IN MY MODEL OF CURRENT EVOLUTIONARY THINKING)


Bruce says:
My arts degree in the 50s was in Anthropology and I was especially drawn to anthropological functionalism. I have not kept up with anthropological study in any serious way since then but am surprised that the functionalist way of understanding how societies, cultures and communities function as living, interrelating, dynamic functioning wholes has continued to shape my thinking. This is reflected in my introductory essay essay in 'Pacific Rituals'. Religion and secular life, individuals and the community are dimensions of and integrating (and sometimes disintegrating) whole.

Dan says:
This gets at what I mean by 'the capacity for religion can be described as arising from a "loose confederacy of separate modules in the human brain"' - which I take from Boyer specifically (p50):

"All scenarios for the origin of religion assume that there must be a single factor that will explain why there is religion in all human groups and why it triggers such important social, cognitive, emotional effects. This belief in a "magic bullet" is, unfortunately, exceedingly stubborn. It has hampered our understanding of the phenomenon for a long time. Progress in anthropology and psychology tells us why the belief was naive. Some concepts happen to connect with inference systems in the brain in a way that makes recall and communication very easy. Some concepts happen to trigger our emotional programs in particular ways. Some concepts happen to connect our social mind. Some of them are represented in such a way that they soon become plausible and direct behaviour. The ones that do all this are the religious ones we actually observe in human societies. They are most successful because they combine features relevant to a variety of mental systems."


Bruce says:
Focussing on a single factor triggering important social, cognitive and emotional effects seems to me to be an inadequate way of trying to understand how evolution works if you take seriously Barbour's account of where Darwin's evolutionary theory has evolved today (summarised in my first reponse). How do different aspects of these new understandings of evolution affect your thinking here?

Dan says:
And he goes on to elaborate on the cultural roles of these concepts (as the cultural anthropologist that he is), only mentioning the neuroscience behind the mental systems that he alludes to (largely because there's so much we don't know yet about our own brains).

Atran, on the other hand, presents us with a different point of view. Admittedly, he presents a cynical view of religion that I don't mind so much, but you might. Oddly, while Boyer ends up ambivalent as to whether religious capacity is adaptive, Atran appears to conclude that it is, despite his apparent atheism. So please bear with me. He describes religion as "(1) a community's costly and hard-to-fake commitment [or individuals' commitment to the community, I think he means], (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents, (3) who master people's existential anxieties, such as death and deception."

I'm sure you don't agree with the "counter-" descriptions, but the rest I think might be agreeable. Rituals of course play a crucial role in all of the aspects of religion that both Boyer and Atran describe, and I'll try to get to that soon.

But at the core of my argument, I think, is that religion is much more a social phenomenon, rather than an individual one.


Bruce says:
Dan, I must admit that I find myself getting stuck in the mud in trying to grasp and respond to your last few paragraphs. Give me time!

I note that you have made some comments responding to one section of my introduction to Pacific Rituals I thought that I should send you a copy of the whole of my introductory essay. It can be read here: Pacific Rituals: Living or Dying

Note that a fundamental theme of the article is about how rituals are able to adapt to change – are Pacific traditional rituals living or dying?

Dan said...

Thanks for the continued commentary, Bruce. I'm quite busy until next week however, so there's certainly no rush on the response.

Hope all is well,
-Dan