Why Is There Religion?
This page is part of the author’s set of pages on religion.
Religion is a fascinating subject.
Now, I am not religious, I am an atheist. To most people, religion is a personal matter, and if there is any fascination in it, it’s in the fulfillment they feel during the moments they experience communication with supernatural beings. But how can religion appear fascinating to a non-believer?
Why, of course religion is fascinating even if you are not a believer, because it poses so many interesting questions that — from an atheist’s point of view — require an explanation: Why Is Religion Here? Why are people religious? Why so many people are religious — why is it the rule to be religious, and the exception to be an atheist?
Religious people would guffaw with my naïveness. “Why is there religion” — what a silly question! Only a zany atheist would think of asking a question with a self-evident answer: Because God is out there and made us so that we have a knowledge of His existence, you fool! And some of us revere Him, while some others, like you, have fallen into the devil’s trap. It’s so simple!
But wait, I don’t think it is so simple. For one thing, the three great monotheistic religions that talk about a God who created humankind (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) emerged only in the last 4,000 years (the Jewish tribes are estimated to be at most that old, see here). But do you know for how long we humans have existed on this planet as the same species, Homo sapiens? For approximately 150,000 years!(*) How can it be that nobody was talking about God (the God) for tens, and even hundreds of thousands of years? Yes, people have always been religious, but what kind of religion did they have for almost their entire existence? For nearly 150,000 years there was no talk of God. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors believed in ghosts and ancestor spirits. If religion is here because of God, how could God allow this? What the heck was God doing during all this time that we have been around, folks? Please take a look at the following line, which shows (in blue color on the left) the approximate length of time that we have been on this planet without any notion of God as conceptualized by the monotheistic trio, compared to the length of time that the concept “God” started appearing in people’s minds (red color, on the right):
In reality, even the above drawing is flattering for monotheistic religions. The concept “God” did not appear suddenly, full-fledged in people’s minds as we know it today. The ancient Jewish God was very different from the one of the modern times: he was an anthropomorphic God. He had a thunderous voice, legs to walk with on the garden of Eden, and other bodily parts that we don’t need to mention here, lest some people might feel offended. The concept “God” evolved in the minds of believers, until we reached the God-spirit of the Christian religion in the last 2,000 years: a God who is occasionally depicted and imagined as a respectful and healthy Old Man; and the Allah of the Islamic religion in the last 1,300 years, who has no gender(*) and cannot be depicted at all. Also, humanity as a whole did not switch to the notion “one God” suddenly, 4,000 years ago; the Jews were but a minute percent of the entire human population (they still are), and it took the Christian religion and its adoption in Europe, and a bit later the Islamic religion and its adoption in the Arabic world, for the concept “one God” to take off. Even today, people in the most populous nation, China, do not believe in a monotheistic God, creator of the universe. So, if religion is here because of God, then God has created a peculiarly fragmentary and localized (both in space and in time) image of himself in people’s minds. It’s a “God with a thousand faces” that appears in the world. Why?
But my purpose is not to argue with the average believer. For them, all questions are answered, all cases appear closed. Believers usually enjoy staying in a tranquil state of mind, in which questions of fundamental importance, such as whether God exists, or whether there is an afterlife, are not asked at all. They refuse to question the very foundations of their belief system, and this is very understandable, because such questioning would put in danger the entire edifice, which they don’t want to shake and destroy. My purpose is to write down an explanatory system for the phenomenon of religion primarily for myself, because as a cognitive scientist I am very interested in understanding how the mind works, and one important property of human minds is their religious beliefs. But why did I write this web page, if I am interested in an explanation for my own satisfaction only? Because it is not productive to be talking to oneself; I need to receive feedback, primarily from those few believers who do not feel threatened by putting under the microscope of reason even their most basic religious assumptions.
So, certainly, under the assumption that God exists, there is hardly any question to be asked about the origin of religion (save for the objections I presented earlier — see the figure with the colored line, above — but the believer can always cop out with a “God’s ways are mysterious” retort). The question of the origin of religion becomes important only under the assumption that God is a creation of the human mind. If you are a believer and feel offended by this assumption, there is always the Back button on your browser. If you are not offended, you might either be a non-believer, or a believer who simply is curious to see how an atheist would answer the question of the origin of religion (for example, you might want to prepare yourself and gather ammunition for the next occasion a non-believer brings up this issue in a discussion). In any case, assuming that I am not offending the reader, I proceed now to the main topics of this text.
List of Contents
1. Explanations for the Origin of Religion
1.1 Why Are People Religious?
1.1.1 Pascal Boyer’s “Religion Explained”
1.2 Darwinian Explanations
1.3 Religion as a Viral Meme
2. The Evolution of Religion
2.1 Biological Foundations of Morality and its Evolution
2.1.1 The Bible as Guide for Morality
2.1.2 Islamic Sacred Texts as Guides for Morality
2.1.3 Morality Keeps Evolving
2.2 Evolution of Rituals
3. Properties of the Religious Mind
3.1 Is Rationality Appropriate for Understanding Religion?
3.1.1 Does the Religious Mind Avoid, and Can even Be Hostile to Reason?
3.2 The Hardwired Component of Religion
3.3 Confusing What Is Nice to Believe with What Simply Is
3.4 Why is Religion hostile to Sexuality?
4. Dangers from Religion
4.1 On the Inability to Put Oneself in Another Person’s Shoes
4.2 Having God on Our Tribe’s Side: the Justification of Homicide
4.3 Is There a Conflict Between Science and Religion?
4.3.1 Religious Dishonesty: How Creationists Misrepresent Scientific Theories
5. Dangers from Science
5.1 Is Science Another Religion?
5.2 A Thought Experiment: What if Religion Vanishes and Science Remains?
A religious person would have the exact opposite question: why are some people (like the author) non-religious?(*) But is the issue symmetric? Is a religious person as much justified in asking this question, as the author is in asking why so many people are religious? I will argue in this section (§1) that the issue is not symmetric:
state of affairs is a mind free of religious thinking,
just as a normal body is one free of excessive weight.
Religion is something like fat: it’s an added feature
that used to be useful for our survival in the past,
but now causes mostly harm to humankind.
However, the above analogy is not very accurate because one can always opt to lose the excessive weight by going on diet; but in the case of religion, there is no recipe to follow to lose it, for two reasons: first, religious people do not think there is something wrong with their religious beliefs, or that their beliefs are causing harm to other people. And second, there is a strong genetic factor in religion (stronger than any genetic predisposition to acquiring weight), which is an idea that will be discussed later (§3.2).
Religion is mainly a cognitive phenomenon, and thus traditional evolutionary approaches fail to shed light to all of its aspects. This is not to say that biology has no useful information to give us for a deeper understanding of religion. For example, as Frans de Waal and Marc Hauser tell us in their recent publications, the core of the sense of morality that almost all humans share has a biological foundation: other primates may not have to decide on issues such as abortion and euthanasia, but they do have to deal with stealing and murder on a regular basis. (This subject will be developed further in the section on the origins of morality, see §2.1.) Indeed, a comparison of our cognitive abilities with those of other animals will help us understand the basis of the answer to the question “Whence Religion”. This is what I discuss next.
Try to put yourself in the mental position of an adult chimpanzee who has just witnessed the death of an elder family member. Do you think you would be able to entertain the following thought?
“This elder chimp just died;
in fact, all chimps die, sooner or later;
I am one of them; so one day I will die, too, sooner or later.”
No, you wouldn’t. To put it simply, you wouldn’t have the mental capacity to make the above complicated thought. Some pieces of the thought would be reachable (“This elder chimp just died”, “I am one of them” — though they wouldn’t be expressible in such linguistic terms, of course), but others would be completely beyond your mental horizon (“all chimps die”, “so one day I will die, too”). Your basic mental handicap as a chimp (or as any other non-human animal for that matter), is that you cannot conceive of the notion of “remote future”. Only humans can do that.(*) Not all future would be inaccessible to you — for example, you would be able to hide a piece of food from your peers, knowing that you would be able to retrieve it soon, maybe even in a few days. But you wouldn’t be able to think of a future that extends beyond a few days ahead. You wouldn’t understand what “in a few years” means. Thus you couldn’t possibly ever fear your own death.
The fear of death can be lessened and thus become bearable with the belief in an afterlife, which assures the believer that death is not the end of it all. As we will see in §1.1.1 (immediately below, criticizing Pascal Boyer’s book “Religion Explained”), practically all religions and metaphysical belief systems either promise an afterlife, or directly imply its existence. Thus, religion plays the role of a strong painkiller against the psychological stress caused by the fear of death.
The fear of death is just one psychological burden that we humans alone have to carry on our shoulders throughout our lives. Another is the fear of the contingencies of our hostile environment. Right now most of us (and especially those of us who have access to a high-tech information medium such as the Internet) feel completely secure, reading as we are the present text. I can bet all my money that you are not thinking of the wall possibly collapsing and killing you before you finish reading this paragraph. But our ancestors did not evolve in such secure environments, but in ones where any life-threatening situation could happen at any time. They felt that the contingencies of life, especially the damaging and hurtful ones, required an explanation. In reality, there is no explanation for why some person appears unfortunate.(*) But the human mind is designed to seek an explanation, and if one is difficult to find, it will stick to something, some idea that appears as an explanation. So our ancestors, for tens of thousands of years, believed that misfortunes are caused by evil ghosts, spirits, and vengeful dead ancestors (who were assumed to be around, invisible to the living people). Recently (at most in the last 4,000 years only), the notion of “Evil” was personified and attributed to one agent, the Devil; similarly, the notion of “Good” was also personified and concentrated on a single agent, God.(*) But this is a very recent (relatively speaking, see the introduction) development. Thus, the explanation of nature’s capricious character (floods, earthquakes, wild animals, personal disasters, etc.) was another factor in helping us to develop religious beliefs. God, or gods, was the last resort of the unfortunate person. It is widely known that during the time of personal misfortune, or of impending disaster, people implore for divine help and intervention.
Related to the explanation for misfortune and disasters, though of lesser importance, is the need for an explanation of how the world came to be. It should be mentioned that because this need is not of vital importance, we do not encounter creation myths in all of the world’s religions. They do appear in many, however.(*) The human mind is filled with awe when observing the intricate structure of the natural world, and seeks an explanation for it: someone must have ordered this chaos. Religions (at least some of them) can play the role of “layman’s philosophy” when they include creation myths.
Religion also has an important function, which does not explain directly why we are religious, but is indirectly related to the origins of religious behavior: religion, at least in its recent institutionalized form, is a way to impose social order. Until quite recently in Western Europe (before the acceptance of secularism), non-compliance with the religious order might spell even the death of the individual. This is still (early 21st C.) the case in some Islamic nations, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, the judicial system of which is regulated by the sharia (Islamic law). However, religion was not institutionalized during most of the time of its presence (see the blue part of the line of the figure at the top of this page). Still, non-compliance with religious rules was usually discouraged either mildly, or compulsively. The biologist Eugene O. Wilson suggested that the enforcement of religion, i.e., the need to “stay with the group/tribe”, is one of the forces that selected for religious minds, and in particular, for obedient minds: those individuals who could tolerate without questioning the nonsense that came out of the mouth of the religious leader (the shaman, who was usually also the tribal leader), could gain better share of the resources of the tribe (food, social care, etc.), and thus produce more offspring than the others, the mavericks, who, questioning the leader’s authority, would be ousted from the community. Thus we have a proposal for the explanation of why the religious mind is generally not bothered by contradictions,(*) and is willing to accept the illogical ideas believed by religious peers, especially the nonsense that sometimes comes from religious authorities.(*) It should also be noted that the anthropologist and cognitive scientist Pascal Boyer argues persuasively that the more incredible the religious belief is, the better it qualifies as a religious belief. (The introductory chapter of Boyer’s book is also examined immediately below.) In summary, the need to comply to religious rules, no matter how irrational, could be an explanation of how religion was hardwired in human brains. Of course, as in every statistical argument, this does not mean that everyone would have to be religious; only that on average, people tend to be born with a predisposition for religion, rather than an aversion to it. Given suitable societal inputs, the person born with such a proclivity will become religious, usually following the dominant denomination of his/her society.
1.1.1 Pascal Boyer’s “Religion Explained”
The American cognitive scientist Pascal Boyer, who teaches at the Psychology and Anthropology departments of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, essentially rejects all the above reasons as explanations for the origin of religion in his book Religion Explained, in chapter one. For each one of the above explanations, Boyer finds one or more religions for which the explanation does not hold. So he concludes that this cannot be a universal explanation. For example, regarding the mortality and “fear of death” problem, Boyer says:
“[W]e must [...] discard the parochial notion that religion everywhere promises salvation, for that is clearly not the case.” (p. 21)
Yes, but the world’s 2.1 billion Christians, and 1.5 billion Muslims, or a combined 54% of the world’s religious population (see source of these statistics) do believe in afterlife and salvation. Many ancient religions supported the notion of afterlife, too. The Greeks believed that souls go to the underworld, ruled by the god Hades. Romans believed essentially the same, calling the god Pluto.
Even most of the religions that Boyer thinks provide counter-examples, are actually examples of the afterlife belief: every religion that refers to ancestor spirits, for instance, explicitly points to the idea of afterlife: “When I die, I will be a dead ancestor of my living descendants, and my soul might stay around, just as my own ancestors’ souls are around now.” Salvation, which Boyer focuses on, might indeed be parochial. But what nurtures the human psyche with courage is not the particular idea of salvation, but the more general one of afterlife, the hope that death is not the end of it all.
A closer examination of the world’s religions reveals that in essentially all of them, people believe in some form of afterlife: setting aside the well-known beliefs about paradise and hell of Christians and Muslims, the 900 million Hindus believe in reincarnation; ~400 million Buddhists also believe in cycles of rebirth, and the eventual attainment of bodhi (“enlightenment”, i.e., becoming buddha); similar beliefs are held by another ~400 million of Chinese traditional religion (a blend of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism). If we add to this the ancestor worship of Japanese Shintoism and various African, Indian American, and Aboriginal Australian religions, one wonders, just what is the percent of people who can be called religious and do not believe in some form of afterlife. Such religions, if they exist, must be really parochial.
Even the idea that religions provide explanations is a nonstarter for Boyer. He claims that each religious “explanation” results in creating more questions than the ones it originally set out to explain. For example:
Consider the explanation of thunder as the booming voice of ancestors who express their anger over some human misdemeanor. This, Boyer says, creates all sorts of questions: Where are those ancestors? Why can’t they be seen? By what means does the noise come from the distant place where they live? How do they produce the noise, do they have a special mouth? Are they gigantic? On the other hand, says Boyer, people understand the concept of explanation very well. So it can’t be that they bring up the religious idea as an explanation; it must be for some other reason, or reasons (pp. 10-18).
I beg to disagree. In Boyer’s mind (as well as in mine, by the way), perhaps it’s true that religious attempts to explain a phenomenon create more questions than the ones they originally set out to explain. But in the believer’s mind the explanations are perfectly fine, because further questions are not formed. Even if someone (a non-believer) asks such questions explicitly, the believer will perceive them as ridiculous, not worthy at all to be asked. An example, quite familiar to many people, will help illustrate this point:
Suppose I ask a believer of one of the three major monotheistic religions, “Who created the world?” Immediately, I’ll receive the explanation: “But of course, God created it.” But then suppose I try to point out that this doesn’t sound good as an explanation of the existence of the world, because it creates more questions than the one it was supposed to answer. For example, who created God? To this, the believer has a ready-made answer: “Nobody created God, because God has existed forever.” But, I would insist, how do we know this? How can we be sure that God has existed forever and was not created by another hyper-God? Then again, suppose God has existed forever; why did he create our universe at that particular moment? How can a Mind wait for an infinity before creating something? What does it mean to wait for an infinity? Does this imply that God keeps creating universes eternally? If not, why did God create only one universe? If yes, what does he do with those other universes? Does he purge them, do they die naturally? Do some of them keep existing in parallel with ours? Why did God create our universe? Does he get a kick out of this business, or does he have some ultimate purpose? The average believer will miss the notion that, in an effort to give an explanation, a large number of other questions are introduced because of the God-as-creator hypothesis.
No, the average believer does not understand the notion “explanation” the same way Boyer understands it (which, as I said, agrees with my understanding of it). What Boyer has in mind is the “axiomatic theory-like” explanation: one that questions its assumptions, and proceeds backwards answering all newly created questions with further explanations, until it hits rock-bottom, stopping at the “axioms” of the theory. If such axioms can be conventionally accepted (e.g., by direct observation, to the best of our current abilities), fine, we have a scientific theory. If the axioms are arbitrary, not amenable to scientific verification (e.g., “God exists”), then we have an arbitrary theory. But no layperson, lacking training in mathematics, logic, and proof theory, thinks of this kind of explanation when using the word “explanation”. For most people, an explanation such as “God did it” is perfectly self-sufficient. So, yes — contrary to what Boyer thinks — most religions provide explanations to most people. Here is what Boyer says (p. 14, his emphasis):
“If we say that people use religious notions to explain the world, this seems to suggest that they do not know what a proper explanation is. But that is absurd. We have ample evidence that they do know.”
He does not proceed to tell us what this “ample evidence” is, but he describes the above as “a paradox familiar to all anthropologists”. I would agree it is a paradox if by the word “explanation” the average person understood the same notion of axiomatic theory-like explanation as Boyer and I understand. But they don’t. On the contrary, people resort to bogus explanations all the time, such as that their bad luck was caused by a black cat that they happened to come across some time ago (a belief held in Greece, Turkey, and other Balkan and Middle Eastern countries); or that their going to a trip this year was caused by their running around the block carrying an empty suitcase on the 1st of January (a belief held in Colombia); or that two people are good friends because one was born in the year of the monkey and the other in the year of the dragon (Chinese and East Asian); or that some unfortunate event was associated with the number 13 in one way or another (Western); or that a person’s luck depends on the positions of the planets and stars (Western); or that a person’s health improved because some crystal (a stone) was rubbed over the person’s chest (an idiocy of global range). We usually call all these beliefs not religious, but superstitious. However, such beliefs are characteristic of what people can accept as “explanation” and cause-and-effect relation. People can believe trash. There is ample evidence, one doesn’t need to be a cognitive scientist to see it. Unfortunately, “politically correct” anthropologists may deny it. You see, if you are a politically correct anthropologist or sociologist, you might wish to deny that people can be fools. But if you do so, then you are not a scientist. With science we learn not what we wish to find, but what our disinterested methods (our instruments, math tools, etc.) tell us that there is.
Still in the context of explanations, Boyer attacks a 19th century anthropology movement called intellectualism. According to it, if a phenomenon is common in human experience and people do not have the conceptual means to understand it, then they will try and find some speculative explanation.(*)
Boyer thinks a general statement such as the above is “plainly false”, and, to show why, he brings up the question of how our thoughts (an immaterial entity) manage to interact with the physical world, and cause, for example, our arms to move. This, he says, “is a difficult problem for philosophers and cognitive scientists(*) ... but surprisingly enough, it is a problem for nobody else in the entire world.”
Exactly. This observation should tell something to good professor Boyer. Why are people not interested in coming up with an explanation — not even a bogus one — for this problem? Why only philosophers and cognitive scientists see it as a problem, but the average folk cannot care less?
Obviously, because this problem is not one that has any consequence for people’s lives. In contrast, natural phenomena that have been given bogus explanations have had immediate effects, sometimes devastating, in people’s lives. If it rained for a whole week, and the rivers flooded — as it happens every so often in some part of the world — and the whole land in which you lived in prehistoric times was covered with waters, as far as you could see and as far as anyone you know could see, and if many, or most, of your loved ones perished during the event, this would have a devastating effect in your life, and engrave a deep groove in your tribe’s collective memory. You would feel the need to understand why; you would probably ask — nay, shout loudly — WHY did this happen to us? Why were we destroyed? The bogus explanation can differ from culture to culture. The Greeks, for example, thought that Zeus decided he had failed with his original experiment at constructing the human psyche, and wanted to start all over, so he flooded the world; the Jews believed that God was angry with people’s moral behavior. Whatever the explanation, people felt the need to explain. Is this comparable in any way with the “problem” of how our immaterial thoughts manage to interact with and move material objects? Of course no normal person will perceive this as a question to be answered at all: who cares!
If we examine the nature of the problems that were given religious (bogus) explanations, we realize that they all had immediate impact on people’s lives. The rainbow appears during a time of change between inclement and calm weather; it signifies a state of flux in the weather, so naturally it’s a candidate for a bogus explanation. Not many cultures tried to explain the rainbow, actually; I am aware of only the Jews, who thought it was God’s sign of the coming peace in weather conditions. This suggests that the importance of a natural phenomenon in people’s lives might be correlated with the number of cultures that attempted to explain it. Other events, more important, were “explained” by more cultures. The thunder, lightning, and thunderbolts, had more direct effects than the rainbow — people and their livestock were getting killed — therefore, more cultures associated such events with a god’s wrath about something or someone. The mountains played a major role in ancient people’s lives, determining the extent to which they could expand their agriculture and animal husbandry, and the regions from where enemy tribes could not attack them. Therefore, mountains required an explanation, or at least a creator. Why were they there? The Jews thought God made them (for no apparent reason), but the Muslims went a step further: they thought Allah placed them like pegs holding a tent, to prevent the earth from shaking.(*) Rivers were important for similar reasons, and the more important role they played (e.g., the Nile in Egyptian life; Euphrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia), the more likely it was that they would be explained as personified deities. Conversely, the sea didn’t play much of a role in ancient Jews’ lives, so it was just a “thing”, one of the many that God created, but for seafaring peoples such as Greeks and Romans, it was personified by a deity (Oceanos/Oceanus), and powerful gods were thought to live in it (Poseidon / Neptune, Triton, the Nereids, and more).
So, if anthropological intellectualism is expanded to include even yawn-inducing “problems”, such as how thoughts move objects, of course it is wrong. But, in my understanding, intellectualism merely says that traditionally people have sought to explain issues that appeared important to them, and they did so without regard to the plausibility of the explanation, or its agreement with observation, or the number of additional questions that it creates. Any odd explanation, be it of religious or superstitious nature, seems equally good. I don’t see how one can reject this statement. The evidence is not just ample, but overwhelming.
Similarly, Boyer rejects other arguments explaining religion by pointing to some religion for which the explanation fails. And thus, since none of these explanations holds in 100% of the cases, he proceeds in the following chapters to vindicate the title of his book: “Religion Explained”. This is a really good book (even if a bit austere in style), and I recommend it to the interested and patient reader. But in its first chapter, Boyer, as a good American, falls into his culture’s trap: he wants total explanations, ones that work in 100% of the cases. Either something explains everything, or it explains nothing, he thinks. (Black-and-white thinking is a typical attribute that pervades the American culture.(*)) He wants the magic solution that will explain everything. Why is this a feature of his culture? Consider this example: It is known that Americans are getting fatter and fatter. Whereas other people grow vertically because of better nutrition, Americans keep growing horizontally. This is a problem, and many Americans perceive it as such. But instead of doing what common sense suggests, namely, to consume less quantity and better quality of food (fewer fast-food products, fewer junk snacks, and drink water for Pete’s sake, instead of their famous national sugary drink), their scientists want to find the magic chemical ingredient that, when taken (in the form of a pill, for example), will allow them to hold on to their eating habits (which means eating like elephants), and still keep in perfect shape. This inanity requires a sociological and anthropological explanation, but here I only want to point out that Boyer’s attitude towards explanations is typically American: instead of admitting the totality of explanations for the existence of religion as a whole, he observes that none of them works as a magic ingredient that explains everything, so he rejects them all.
Every specialist tends to see the world through the spectacles of their own area of interest. The theologian will find religious implications in any given aspect of nature, the artist will marvel at and be inspired by it, and attempt to represent it in an artistic medium, and the biologist will try to outline a Darwinian (evolutionary) explanation for it. Religion, as an aspect of (human) nature, is no exception: biologists have proposed evolutionary explanations for the emergence of religion in humankind. These will be briefly discussed below.
Religion, from a biological point of view, appears on the surface just as puzzling as the tail of a male bird of paradise: so cumbersome that it becomes dangerous for the survival of its holder. A male bird of paradise rises with difficulty from the ground, given the weight of its long tail feathers, thus becoming easier to capture by predators. This disadvantage is more than compensated, however, by the appeal that such fancy tail has to the female bird. Similarly, possessing religion can be dangerous for the individual: religious human sacrifice was practiced regularly until our recent past (well into the historical times) as a means to pacify some nonexistent entity, a god, or gods, i.e., ideas in the minds of religious people. The mythologies and legends of various cultures describe such stories of human sacrifice. In The Iliad, Iphigenia, the virgin daughter of the king-leader of the Greeks, Agamemnon, is sacrificed on the altar in order to appease the gods so that they send propitious winds that can set the Greek fleet in motion, to sail against Troy. In the story, goddess Artemis is supposed to intervene at the last moment, replacing Iphigenia with a deer. This story is repeated in two versions in the Jewish Bible: one in which the sacrificial victim, boy Isaac, is replaced at the last moment by a ram through an act of God before being slain by his father Abraham, and another one in which a virgin girl is actually sacrificed by her father, who believed that God helped him to become victor in a battle (thus he offered his daughter as a thank-you present to God; more details to follow later on). Even though these are just mythological descriptions, it is reasonable to assume that they echo actual ancient customs and practices. Evidence of real human sacrifice has been found among native American cultures of Central America (Aztecs, Mayas) and South America (Incas), always as part of religious rituals. Even non-human sacrifice, i.e., the concept of wasting resources (food) to appease gods, works against survival. The counter-argument is that the notion of sacrifice was developed only after our ancestors passed from the hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence to farming, which provided surplus resources, making possible (or even necessary) the idea that some of them could be wasted. But religion can be detrimental to health not only due to sacrifice. At the time of this writing, there are frequent reports of suicide bombers in the Muslim world: people who arm themselves with explosives and detonate them in order not only to exterminate their enemies, but also to reach their creator and thus live blissfully and eternally after their suicide — at least that’s what they believe. In earlier, pre-farming times, a person concerning him/herself with religion would be wasting precious resources and energy in activities that fail to fill an empty stomach. But every seemingly burdensome feature, be it the tail of the male bird of paradise or religious activities of human beings, must have some non-obvious advantages that compensate for the losses. What are the biological advantages of religion?
Since we are looking for evolutionary explanations, we must consider religion not as it mostly appears now, but as it used to be during most of our existence as a species. (This issue will be further developed here.) The following evolutionary explanations have been proposed:
Other biologists see religion not as benefiting the individual, but as a byproduct of some other important biological or psychological property. The British biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, proposes (without insisting that this must be the definitive explanation) that religious feelings are feelings that start during childhood as obedience to the authority of the parents, and later, in adulthood, misfire and become feelings of obedience to an image of a fatherly and loving God. Undoubtedly, children have evolved to trust their parents’ advice without questions. (Those children who did not, had fewer chances to survive and have descendants.) Once the idea “Trust authority without questions” is established in a young mind, it becomes deeply ingrained, and it later misfires by trusting the authority of the tribal elders, priests, and the “ultimate parent”, God. Although this idea is interesting, one wonders, couldn’t humans evolve so as to lose the ability to blindly trust authority as adults, just as children lose their ability to learn natively languages later in life? But still, Dawkins proposes this as a possibility only: as an example of how religious feelings could be the byproduct of some other function of the human intellect.
Personally, I find evolutionary arguments weak if their purpose is to explain religion in its entirety. The reason is that, although religion might have started as a primarily biological phenomenon with evolutionary advantages, it turned into (should I say “evolved”? — but in the wider sense) a primarily cognitive phenomenon. Thus, biological evolution is insufficient as an explanatory device for religion, unless we restrict ourselves to the times of hunter–gatherers, shamans, beliefs in ancestor spirits, etc., and forget about paradise and hell, churches, mosques, rabbis, priests, imams, popes, ayatollahs, prayers, masses, holy inquisitions, crusades, missionaries, fundamentalists, holy books, and all the rest of paraphernalia that are the products of the development of human cognition, to which we turn our focus in the next section.
It has been more than two decades since the idea that some of our thoughts might be copied from mind to mind in an evolutionary-like process first appeared in Dawkins’s seminal work, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins coined the term “meme” for any such self-replicating idea (by analogy with the word “gene”), and the term has stayed with us ever since (1976), as a new meme (the “meme meme”). Dawkins also suggested, at the very end of his book, that religion might be seen as a “viral” meme. This idea was developed somewhat further in Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine. To understand how a viral meme can commandeer a person’s mind, allowing the person to believe that the person is in control, it is useful to consider an analogy offered by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett at the very beginning of his recent book, Breaking the Spell. Dennett writes of an ant that exhibits a peculiar behavior:
“You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? Wrong question, as it turns out. No biological benefit accrues to the ant. It is not trying to get a better view of the territory or seeking food or showing off to a potential mate, for instance. Its brain has been commandeered by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke (Dicrocelium dendriticum), that needs to get itself into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to complete its reproductive cycle. This little brain worm is driving the ant into position to benefit its progeny, not the ant’s. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Similarly manipulative parasites infect fish, and mice, among other species. These hitchhikers cause their hosts to behave in unlikely—even suicidal—ways, all for the benefit of the guest, not the host.” (p. 3).
Dennett then goes on to compare the situation of a mind of a religious person “taken” by religious memes, to the situation of the brain of an ant that is similarly “taken” by the parasitic genes. Dennett’s analogy should not be construed too literally, of course. For example, the parasite Dicrocelium dendriticum has a metabolism, so if it does not find a host such as a sheep or cow to complete its life cycle, it will presumably die. Not so with the religious memes (thoughts, concepts), which lack metabolism, and can stay in the believer’s mind indefinitely. But, just like the ant with the D. dendriticum, a believer will engage in certain rituals (for example, going to church every Sunday), over, and over, and over. Again, the reader might object that the ant does the grass-blade climbing ritual unthinkingly, whereas the believer goes to church by his/her own free will (and would avoid going if something urgent happened). Certainly, a human mind with a set of religious memes is an immensely complex system. Dennett’s analogy is not meant to belittle a religious mind, reducing it to a mindless automaton, such as that of an ant’s. It does not mean that a believer has the brain of an ant! (for Pete’s sake, as someone complained to me; after all, if a believer is an ant, we are all ants — including Dennett and this author!) The analogy only points to the fact that a religious mind is a normal mind plus some set of ideas (the religious memes), which cause the believer to exhibit some behavioral patterns. One of those patterns is that the believer will try (and usually succeed) to convince his/her own children of the “truth” of those religious memes, so that the memes will be transmitted to the child; and so on, generation after generation. The believer believes that the transmission is done by the believer’s own free will. Fine. But an alternative viewpoint is that this is only a cognitive illusion. After all, how many believers ever thought, “No: I will not teach my own children anything about my religion; instead, I will let them find out about God by themselves.” Believers almost never entertain such thoughts, so where is the “free will”? But even if an occasional believer does entertain this thought, religious memes are not passed only by parents to children, but also by the social environment in which children grow up. To say “I will not teach my children anything about my religion” is like living in a house where every adult has the flu, and hoping futilely that you won’t pass your viruses to your children if you simply do not sneeze or cough in their face.
But there are other memes in people’s minds. Why should only the religious ones be called “viral”? Why should only they be denigrated with a label such as “virus-like”, and not do the same for other memes, e.g., those that a non-believer has regarding God’s non-existence? Why, isn’t an atheist “taken” by the atheism memes?
Because there is an important difference between memes and memes. The religious ones “want”(*) to spread. To this end, religions traditionally organize missions, sending their missionaries to places deemed “ground suitable for sowing the word of God”. (Which means, minds so weakly infected by other, feeble religious memes, that the new and superior ones will spread like the plague — and Churches are usually dead right.) Believers typically make monetary contributions to such missions, considering it as one of their religious duties. In contrast, non-religious memes do not seem to have any “wish” to spread, and so they don’t even qualify to be labeled as memes (a meme is an idea, or set of ideas, that appears as if it wants to spread; other examples are given below). Though religious missions are known since it was financially feasible to organize them, I have yet to hear of the first atheistic mission.(*) Atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers, do not gather regularly at a place listening to the sermon of an atheist priest. There are no atheist temples, no rituals, no prayers, no priests, no bishops, no missionaries, no holy scriptures, no donations for the advancement of atheism in the world.(*) These concepts are all attributes of religion, and that is why there is an asymmetry between believing and not believing, and why religious ideas qualify as memes, whereas their absence does not.(*)
|Boy!... Does this Cameron character look like he wants to sneeze his viral memes in your face?|
Now, if a non-believer’s ideas do not even qualify as memes, but religious ones do, why are the latter labeled as “viral”? What are examples of non-viral memes?
Non-viral, or normal memes, are sets of ideas that generally spread from person to person, but without causing the mind that possesses them to engage in repetitious rituals, nor wanting to pass them on to successive generations. For example, a tune that plays in your mind and causes you to hum it, sometimes for an entire day, could be called a meme. It is transmitted by radio waves, electronically, optically (burned on CD’s), or simply by listening to another person humming it. A new trend in fashion would qualify as another meme, or complex of memes. Certainly, such memes will cause you to exhibit some behaviors (you might go to the music store to buy a CD, or to the department store to buy a fashionable pair of shoes), but they will not cause you to perform rituals, nor congregate with other people to reinforce the rote learning of those rituals, nor summon your child one day and tell him/her in a very solemn voice, “Listen, sweetie: I want to talk to you about a very important tune/fashion that there is in this universe, which I would like you to remember/follow for the rest of your life.”
Are there any other viral memes, besides the religious ones? I think so. Every ideology, every “-ism” that involves a hierarchical organization with leaders and subordinates, some text that spells the ideological principles, gatherings in which rituals or near-rituals are performed, fundraising campaigns, and propaganda for spreading the ideology of “-ism”, including perhaps some magazine or newspaper controlled by the top echelons of the organization, qualifies as “viral” in my view. Followers of such ideologies generally wish to see their children involved in the same organization (i.e., be infected by the viral memes of the ideology). The difference with religions is that the child’s environment (e.g., school) is usually not contaminated by the same ideology, so the viral infection is not as effective as in the case of a religious doctrine. (Usually, but not always: communism would be an example of an ideology with a complex of viral memes that infested even the schools of societies that employed it as the sole form of governance.)
Young students receiving Islamic
education in Afghanistan. (These come from pictures taken in the
summer of 2007,
but the originals are property of the Associated Press, so I did some image filtering to avoid violating property rights.)
The above analogy of religious memes with viral genes can be interesting for the non-believer, because it provides a new perspective on religion, but might appear hostile, even abominable to the believer. Objectively, the analogy misses a crucial point: whereas biological viruses are often detrimental for the health of infected individuals, religious memes must have played a crucial and beneficial role in the evolution of our species. Without them, we might not be around. This idea is further developed in the sections that follow.
When we think of “religion” today, we usually have the present state of religion in the world, in our minds. There are more than six billion people, and well-known religions (e.g., those followed by over 100 million people) account for around 80% of the entire population of Earth. (Source.) The indigenous tribes of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Australia, account for only 6% of the total today. But has the situation always been like this? Could it be that we now witness a very recent and rather atypical view of religion? If we want to understand religion deeply, where it came from, and what it meant to human beings throughout our existence, instead of just how it appears now, we need to acquire a clear picture of how people and their various religions changed over the eons; in other words, how religion evolved in time. Specifically, we need to know the answers for the following questions:
Note that, although — superficially — only the last two questions appear to concern religion, it is wrong to try to answer only them ignoring the rest, which are prerequisites for properly understanding the answer for the last two quesions. So let’s proceed, answering the above questions one by one.
The first three questions are the easiest ones to answer, because data in the form of fossil findings and DNA analyses have been accumulating for some time, converging on roughly the same conclusions.(*)
The age of our species seems to be anywhere between 200,000 and 100,000 years, with the number 150,000 as the best rough estimate, if we insist to remember a single number. How do we end up with these numbers?
|Well, dating fossils has been done since quite some decades ago, with the help of knowledge from quantum physics. There are several methods. If the age of a rock that can be two or three billion years old is at question, some method must be used; but if what is sought is the age of a fossil bone that can be only a few tens of thousands of years old, then a different method must be used. What happens is that when the fossil is formed, some radioactive atoms (called “isotopes”) are enclosed in it and become part of its structure. Over time these atoms decay, turning to atoms of a different element. For example, one common case is that atoms of the isotope potassium-40 turn into atoms of the isotope argon-40 over tens of thousands of years. By measuring what percent of potassium-40 remains in the material (comparing it with the percent that has turned into argon-40) we obtain an estimate of the time that the object remained at that state until it was found. This is just one example of a method, and scientists often apply more than one dating method independently, to arrive at safe conclusions.|
|Examining the way our DNA changes is a more recent method. Normally, when a child is conceived, he or she inherits around half of the genes (half of the DNA molecule) from each parent. However, always a few random mutations (changes) occur in the DNA molecular structure, so at the places where mutations happened the child’s DNA looks like neither parent. Because such mutations occur at a more-or-less predictable rate over generations, by comparing the DNA molecules of two individuals we can tell approximately how far time ago they shared a common ancestor. For example, you and one of your first cousins will be found to have a very small number of differing points in your DNA due to mutations, because you have a very recent common ancestor (any of your two common grandparents). But an Australian aboriginal and a “white” American will be found to have a larger number of differences in their DNA’s, because they share a more distant ancestor (on average).|
|Now, the scientific methods of dating
materials have been vehemently attacked by some religious
fundamentalists and “creationists” (people who deny
that the theory of biological evolution is correct),
because the scientific findings do not agree with the
wisdom of their holy books. Once, I had a
series of weekly meetings (which lasted for several
months) with a such a believer, a minister of the Jehovah’s
Witnesses sect — call him Joe — who was also a
creationist. Joe believed that the age of the Earth is as
estimated by scientists, i.e., around 4.5 billion years.
He had no trouble with that.(*) But he denied that the age of our species is
roughly 150,000 years, believing it instead to be close
to 10,000. The reason is that there is a genealogy of men
in the Jewish Bible, a chain of X begat Y, which starts
with Adam and ends with Jesus, i.e., two millennia ago,
and since the life span of the longest-lived individual,
Methuselah, is given explicitly (969 years), it is
impossible to reach a number anywhere near 150,000 even
if most people in the chain lived almost as long as
Methuselah. (For many of the initial members in the
chain, their life span is given explicitly.) Joe’s
organization had compiled a text in which some scientist’s
words were taken out of context, making it appear as if
the scientist was saying that the scientific dating
methods for human fossils are all wrong. When I went to
the local library, found the original sources, and read
them in the proper context, I realized that the scientist
was reporting what a creationist had said about
dating methods, actually arguing against the creationist.
By the time I had collected all the evidence for this
shameless slandering done by the Jehovah’s Witnesses
sect, and just when I was ready to present it to Joe, he
decided he didn’t want to continue our meetings
anymore. (Saved by the bell... I still have the evidence,
This selective rejection or acceptance of scientific methods, according to whatever suits one’s religious doctrines and agenda, is characteristic of the irrational thinking of religious fundamentalists. Hypocritically, they accept the science that turns on their TV sets, causes their computers to function and their cellular phones to communicate (to mention just a few examples), but reject the science that measures the dates of fossils. When it suits us, it is good science; when not, it’s bad science. The irrationality of the religious mind is a very interesting phenomenon, and is examined later (in this section).
Turning now to where our earliest ancestors appeared, the scientific evidence has again converged to a single answer. Christians and Jews believe that the place was the garden of Eden, somewhere in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq), and that our first ancestors were two individuals, Adam and Eve. Some Muslims believe Adam was sent somewhere in India after his creation (e.g., see here). No religion has guessed correctly the true location of our origin,(*) except possibly some tribes in Eastern Africa, between Ethiopia and Kenya (assuming they have creation myths), because that is where we originated from.
|The region marked with green on the map of Africa on the left encloses approximately the area where the most ancient fossils of our own kind have been unearthed. There is also independent evidence from DNA analysis that confirms the African origin hypothesis, except that in this case the conclusion is not so specific as to say “East Africa”, but simply “Africa”. Sources that present and analyze in detail the scientific evidence include Roger Lewin’s Human Evolution, Richard Leakey’s The Origin of Humankind, Steve Olson’s Mapping Human History, and Richard Cowen’s History of Life. The same sources discuss the evidence for the age of our species. Lewin’s book (in unit 7) and Cowen’s book (in chapter 2) also discuss the details of scientific dating methods for finding the age of rocks and fossils. (Those two books have also been used as textbooks in many universities of the U.S.A.)|
Isn’t this modern conclusion wonderful? Well, to some people at least (like me) it is, while to others it’s not exactly music to their ears. Groups of people that would feel disturbed by this conclusion, besides religious fundamentalists who insist to take the word of their holy book literally, include all racists, and others who insist on the purity of their origins; because, besides everything else, this conclusion implies that our earliest ancestors were all “black”. We are all “blacks”! All people on Earth: “white” Americans, Australians, and Europeans (including Adolph Hitler, let us not forget), Jews, Arabs, Indians, East Asians, American Indians, Australian aboriginals, Eskimos, and of course people of African descent anywhere on the planet, we all have only “black” ancestors, if we move sufficiently far back in our genealogy. The fictional characters Adam and Eve, if they existed they would have to have chocolate-colored skin, too. Nobody’s roots are “purely white”.
What about the size of the population of our first ancestors? Steve Olson estimates it to be anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 (p. 28). This estimate comes from DNA analysis, working backwards from the present population, and taking into account the “molecular clock” which is inferred by the mutations of the DNA structure (discussed earlier).
At this point some readers might experience a conceptual difficulty in accepting the above estimate. If our ancestors started at any number as large as the above, how could they be the first ones? How did they arrive to the world, didn’t they have parents? If not, then who created them? If yes, then wouldn’t their parents (and grandparents, and grand-grand...) also be our ancestors?
The long answer is already given on this page of mine, so I will not attempt to repeat it here. The short answer is that we are not talking about some specific instant in time, some beautiful day on which we take a snapshot of the human population, count heads, find them to be 15,824 (say), and decide that these and none else count as our “original ancestors”. Of course it doesn’t work like that. We are talking about a period of time that lasted for thousands of years, maybe even tens of thousands of years, during which our ancestors were changing from what we now call Homo erectus to Homo sapiens. During this period of thousands of years, people were at a transitional stage between the two species, and they wouldn’t be placed squarely into one kind or the other. All of those were our ancestors: the Homo erectus individuals before the transition, the transitional ones, and the Homo sapiens individuals after the transition was complete. Note that this is a general process that applies to all living kinds that evolve and change from some ancestor species to some descendant one; it’s not particular to our kind. And, please, before considering writing to me, complaining that what I describe is logically impossible, make sure you have read and understood my long answer (see the page referenced above).
But how could a mere 10,000 to 20,000 individuals be spread out in a vast region like the one depicted on the map, above? The answer is that the region on the map shows the approximate area where our ancestors could have been roaming for thousands of years; it’s not an area that was populated by some specific 10,000–20,000 people at some particular instant in time.
When did our ancestors start spreading out of their original location, populating the rest of Africa, the Middle East, the rest of Asia, Europe, and even Australia, and (much later) the Americas? The chronology of events, as is known today from both archaeological findings and DNA analysis, is as follows:
For several tens of thousands of years, perhaps until around 100,000 years ago, our ancestors remained in the region of Africa shown earlier. Throughout this time, the only tools they were making were simple stones, chopped on one end to make them pointy (by hitting them with other stones), by which they would kill game, carve flesh out of bones, and occasionally crush the head of a member of a rival tribe. (There is no evidence for this latter idea, but I doubt anyone would seriously contest it.) Their mode of subsistence must have been the “hunter–gatherer” one, by which is meant that men “hunt” (which, more often than not, includes collecting nuts, roots, fruits, etc., rather than killing game, as Jared Diamond points out) and women collect the food at home base, store it, prepare it for consumption, and distribute it. Many tribes of Africans and American Indians continue to operate in this mode of living today, and that’s where our knowledge comes from: direct observation. (It is assumed that the mode of living of contemporary indigenous tribes has not changed in some essential way until our times.)
During a period between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago, a great shift in intelligence appeared among our ancestors, a shift that has been termed “the Great Leap Forward” by paleoanthropologists. The old clumsy stone-made tools were replaced by other, more delicate ones, made mostly of bone. Interestingly, forms of art (making beads and other ornaments, painting) appeared at the “same time” (bear in mind that the time referred to here spans thousands of years). Anthropologists and cognitive scientists suspect that the improvement of competence in language made possible this “sudden” burst in creative activity. This does not mean that brains grew larger. Our present brain size had already been reached by our earliest ancestors, around 200,000 to 150,000 years ago. Greater intelligence might be the result of qualitative (better organized neuronal connections) rather than quantitative change. Whatever the causes, the Great Leap Forward coincided with a physical “leap forward”, by which our ancestors left their original location of Eastern Africa and spread, gradually, to the rest of the world.
The above map, adapted from Lewin and Olson, shows the general routes our ancestors took while moving out of their original region in Eastern Africa. Note that one route involves the crossing of the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, the narrowest point where the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula nearly touches Africa, sometime between 80,000 and 70,000 years ago. (The K stands for 1000 years on the map.) Although the Strait is so narrow that can hardly be seen on the map (see also the previous enlarged view of Africa), its 27 kilometers (17 miles) presented a formidable task of navigation to earlier species of humans.(*) Perhaps by this time our ancestors possessed enough curiosity to attempt a risky trip over the sea, enough general intelligence to conceive of something like a raft, and enough complexity in verbal communication to coordinate the building of a raft by several peers. Whatever the cognitive skills involved, we know that H. sapiens arrived in Australia around 65,000 years ago. However, this should not be imagined as a single brave expedition that was accomplished during a single lifetime. Instead, it involved the gradual spreading of tribes along encampments that remained at a reasonable distance from the seashore, over thousands of years. The spreading happens because people are pressured by crowded conditions to explore new and untapped resources. Soon after the time people reached Australia, some of Australia’s large marsupial mammals were driven to extinction. This, besides human bones, is an additional indicator of the time around which people reached Australia.
Another route involves moving northbound on land, passing over today’s Egyptian peninsula of Sinai, and from there to regions of Asia and Europe. However, their spreading should have been far from effortless and unhindered, because somewhere in today’s Israel, and then further in Turkey and southeastern Europe, they must have met with the previous inhabitants of those regions, the Neanderthals. The latter must have been an offshoot of our ancestor species, Homo erectus, which had already inhabited the Old World (Africa, Asia, and Europe) since around 1.5 million years ago, starting once again from Africa. Thus, there have been at least two out-of-Africa events: an earlier one, of our ancestor species H. erectus, and a more recent one, of our own H. sapiens (the event described here; note that Alan Templeton describes a third such event, between the two mentioned above, plus a more recent event of moving from Asia back to Africa — see Dawkins, pp. 57–60). The Neanderthals appeared as early as 500,000 years ago, and were completely extinct as late as 24,000 years ago. Molecular evidence tentatively suggests that our ancestors did not mix with the Neanderthals, because no parts of our DNA have been found yet that do not seem to converge to a more distant past than around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. (If we had mixed genetically with the Neanderthals we should have some DNA parts common with them that converge to ancestors older than at least 500,000 years.) However, this conclusion is still debated.
Note that the arrows on the map, above, do not mean to depict specific routes taken, but rather indicate the general direction of spreading of our species. The Americas must have been inhabited no earlier than 13,000 years ago, by people who crossed the Bering Strait (the 92 km or 58 miles of sea that separates Siberia from Alaska), at a time when the sea level had dropped due to glaciation, exposing the land where the water is shallow and turning the Bering Strait into a land bridge. The first native Americans were blocked by glaciers and stayed in Alaska for some time (a few generations), but eventually the glaciers receded and people managed to migrate southwards into today’s Canada and the U.S.A. From there on, it took them only 1000 years to reach Patagonia, at the southern tip of South America.
It was mentioned above that the initial size of our first ancestors’ population is estimated to have been between 10,000 and 20,000. By the year 2000 it reached approximately 6,000,000,000 (six billion). How did our size change over time, and why did we become so many? It is extremely important to understand this if we want a proper understanding of how religion evolved, for the following reason: for most of the time, i.e., for around 150,000 years, our existence was characterized by the following attributes:
But for around the last 10,000 years (only), our mode of existence changed drastically. Specifically, it acquired the following attributes:
These attributes were not independent of each other. It is because of the farmer mode of subsistence that large populations — much larger than before — could be fed and maintained. Also, large populations brought about the emergence of classes among people (merchants, soldiers, slaves, scribes, aristocrats, and, last but not least, priests). It was because of farming and agriculture(*) that human populations could now afford to feed classes of people who did not work in order to earn their living (e.g., soldiers, priests, aristocrats), something that was unthinkable in the previous, hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence. One of the consequences of the division of human populations into classes was the structural “complexification” of religion: instead of a single shaman-king of the tribe, there was now an entire class of people, the priesthood, hierarchically organized with a supreme leader (e.g., a Pope, an Ecumenical Patriarch, a Grand Ayatollah, etc.), a few individuals close to the supreme leader (archbishops, ayatollahs), and more individuals farther from the leader, and closer to the base of the pyramid (bishops, priests, muftis, imams, etc.). An excellent source that explains not only the above, but also why agriculture arose in particular places in the world and not in others (resulting in the perceived “supremacy” of the “white” people, when in fact any technological advancements by “whites” were granted to them by mere strokes of geographical, botanical, and zoological luck), is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a must-read for anyone who wonders why some “races” appear more capable, and hence dominant, than others.
It should be noted that in very recent times — perhaps for the last 300–400 years, after the Renaissance — a considerable part of humanity has switched to a third mode of subsistence: the mode of services, in which the product of one’s work is not something edible, or even tangible, but it can still be of value to other people. For instance, it can be insurance, a movie, a novel, a piece of software, a lottery, a piece of legal advice, a deal, or simply a re-selling of somebody else’s work. Because many of us earn a living in this mode of subsistence, it is easy to overlook the vast effect that the farmer mode have had on human society. Yet, just as the services mode is very short compared to the farmer mode, so the farmer mode is very short compared to the hunter-gatherer mode. Another observation is that the emergence of each mode does not imply the elimination of the previous ones: there are still hunter-gatherers in many places of the world, but they tend to play a peripheral role in global world affairs.
With the above in mind, let’s examine a graph that depicts the growth of human population over time.
The population is shown on the vertical axis, whereas time is on the horizontal axis, and it corresponds almost exactly with the Western notion of “year”; that is, time zero corresponds to 1 AD (or 1 CE), or to 1 BC (or BCE), whichever you prefer; time -2,000 corresponds to the year 2000 BC (or BCE), give or take one year, an adjustment that has no significance at all for the purposes of the above graph. The blue region on the bottom-right shows approximately how the human population changed over time. The data to construct this graph were taken from this page, and this one. A version of this graph can be found here.
We see that the the growth of the curve on the above graph is such that the population remains nearly invisible for more than half of the time depicted, until it becomes visible and starts rising in historical times, shooting sharply upwards in recent times. But the most interesting part for our purposes is not the visible, but the invisible part of the curve; specifically, the length of the invisible part. Notice that the graph stops on the left at -10,000 (at which time the data suggest a population of 4 to 5 million). That’s not the beginning of our species, though; it is an arbitrary time, shortly before the emergence of agriculture. If we were to include the whole duration of existence of our species, with the conventional time -150,000 on the left (where I estimated earlier the size of our population to be around 10,000 – 20,000 individuals), we would need to extend the graph 15 times to the left, with the population curve coinciding exactly with the horizontal axis throughout this leftward extension. If you have a hard time imagining this, then picture it on the next figure:
The above figure by itself tells us nothing more interesting than that our population curve took a sharp increase shortly after the emergence of agriculture. What’s more interesting is that throughout the hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence, and even later until well into the historical times (i.e., for the entire part where the height of the curve is practically zero), the religious beliefs of people had nothing to do with God; they were beliefs based on ancestor souls, ghosts, good and bad spirits that inhabit the woods, the lake, the sea, or other unknown, dangerous, and scary places, and so on — just the sort of beliefs that the few remaining hunter-gatherers hold today (they will be discussed a bit more, soon). If we want to plot the rise of the monotheistic religions that sprang from Judaism in the above graph (i.e., Christianity and Islam), then we get the following:
Monotheistic religions in which the notion “God” is dominant are marked in red, above. The appearance of Judaism is marked as starting shortly before time zero, keeping the curve practically at zero for a while due to the insignificant number of Jews compared to the world population, and from time zero and beyond it is largely due to Christianity, and then in addition to Islam, that the red portion of the graph shoots upwards. Before rushing to accuse me of “painting God into a corner” (rather literally), consider that the above graphs were constructed out of hard facts; they hopefully give us a clearer perspective of the magnitude and duration of the idea “God” (the God meme) in humanity than we tend to attribute to it today — at least for those of us who live in cultures imbued with the notion of “God”.
Now, having a rough idea of the timeline of the spreading of our ancestors throughout the world, let’s focus on their religious concepts and customs: approximately when did they originate, what form did they have when they began, and how did they evolve over time?
It is hard to answer the first question with any degree of certainty, but there are indications that beliefs that today we would categorize as “concerning the supernatural” emerged around 100,000 to 90,000 years ago. How do we infer this? Because that’s the approximate time that we encounter the most ancient graves with anything like objects that accompany the deceased person (e.g., source). Burials might have happened even earlier (though not much earlier), but a plain burial is not evidence for belief in an afterlife. For example, the relatives of the deceased person might loathe to see their previously living relative being consumed by scavengers.(*) But if there are objects in the grave, together with the dead body, what purpose could these objects serve other than to accompany the person in his or her afterlife? Of course, it is always possible to object to this idea, countering that the living relatives might not want to be seeing the deceased person’s belongings anymore, because such objects would cause them psychological pain. It is always possible to speculate with counter-arguments against something that is a mere interpretation of a fact (the fact is that objects were found in graves), but one should keep the various interpretations under a rational perspective. For instance, if you want to get rid of objects, you can dump them somewhere else, not necessarily in the grave (as if the latter is a trash bin). Αlso, we don’t find just any random collection of belongings, but ones of particular types, of rather symbolic value. The fact that we can’t find this practice before 100,000 years ago, means that most probably it is because people did not have the cognitive capacity to entertain the idea of afterlife prior to that time.
But the precise time at which belief in the afterlife emerged is not very important. What is more important is to understand what kinds of religious beliefs our ancestors used to have during most of our existence as a species. Given that their mode of subsistence was that of the hunter-gatherer until fairly recently (i.e., until around 10,000 years ago), we can draw conclusions about their religious beliefs by observing the few remaining modern hunter-gatherers. Anthropologists have been doing precisely that for a long time, and a lot of data has been accumulated. The overall picture that emerges is that hunter-gatherer religious (or better described as supernatural) beliefs revolve around souls of deceased ancestors, witches, fairies, other spirits, etc.. When something bad and unexpected happens, such as the roof of a hut collapsing, the explanation offered can be that some imaginary but well-known bad witch caused this intentionally, to hurt some people (in Boyer, ch.1). The members of the tribe might gather and discuss, trying to figure out why the witch wanted to cause harm, and how to appease her. Bad weather might be caused by the displeased souls of ancestors, and thunders might be their angry voices. If one walks alone, away from the tribe, spirits good and bad accompany this person, who is then at their mercy. This is a mere medley of typical hunter-gatherer supernatural beliefs. Since they do not possess any more specific beliefs about gods or God, we might call these beliefs religious, instead of superstitious.
However, today not only most people do not live in a hunter-gatherer world, but also most people do not have religious beliefs of the hunter-gatherer kind, such as those described in the previous paragraph. Today the overwhelming majority of people are believers of a handful of religions, the dominant ones among which are descendants of Judaism. This change in “style” of religious beliefs is not a coincidence. The hunter-gatherer “style” of beliefs was unsuitable for the later, agricultural world, who developed beliefs in specific gods, who were often also creators of the world, or of parts of the world. Let’s see briefly some of those more recent religious beliefs, as they were shaped by the time of the farmers:
The Jewish beliefs are the progenitors of religious memes that later spread like wildfire in the world, so the Jewish religion is a special one in the context of the evolution of religion. It reveals how religious concepts changed. As a case in point, the God of the Old Testament (O.T., or Jewish Bible) is theoretically the same God as the one of contemporary Christianity; but in practice, the O.T. God was very different. He had very different attributes from the Christian God. The latter is a more “evolved” version of the former. For one thing, the O.T. God was a physical entity. He had a voice, and legs to walk with. According to Gen 3:8, Adam and Eve heard God’s voice who was walking on the garden of Eden, and they scurried somewhere to hide themselves, feeling guilty because they had just eaten from the forbidden fruit. Then God has a dialogue with Adam and Eve (“Where art thou?”, etc.). We should note that the story is not meant to be read as a mere metaphor, because the garden of Eden (into which God was doing his walking) was a very real, physical garden on Earth, situated among four rivers known to the ancient Hebrews, one of which was the well-known river Euphrates (Gen 2:10-14), so Eden was some place here on Earth, somewhere in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq), where Euphrates flows. The idea that the story of Adam and Eve should be read as an allegory dawned only later to some people who saw the absurdity of believing it literally (although not all other believers perceive it as absurd).
Now, if God had physical legs to walk with on a physical garden, and presumably a mouth as well, one wonders, what other organs did that God have? He couldn’t be an assembly of just two legs and a mouth, could he? There should be a head with a brain (that did the thinking before the talking), a body to hold the head and legs together, and who knows what else. But this is not the only narrative in the O.T. that describes an anthropomorphic God. In Exd 33:9-23, for example, God talks to Moses “face to face” (Exd 33:11) shortly before giving him the ten commandments. Moses pleads to God to allow him to see his face, God refuses (because anyone who sees his face must die, Exd 33:20), but allows Moses to see his back parts (Exd 33:23). Well, if the Jewish God had a head and legs to walk with, it is little wonder that he also possessed a back side (along with its appurtenances, presumably), but what is important is that the excerpts from Exodus show a consistent view of God in the O.T. This anthropomorphic view, which is in full agreement with the anthropomorphism of gods of other civilizations, contemporary with the Jews, contrasts sharply with the Christian God of later times, who is supposed to be a pure spirit, devoid of human-like features such as legs, mouth, head, sex, etc. (though not of thought — read this page of mine to see the problems that arise with a God who thinks). By the time Islam was established, the Christian God had already acquired his present-day abstract attributes, so Islam inherited the idea of an abstract God — a “pure spirit”.
The O.T. God’s physicality and human-like figure, as opposed to the later Christian/Islamic spiritual God, is only one indicator of the evolution that religion went through. Another indicator is the evolution of God’s morality. This is the subject of the following section.
The O.T. God is a God whose acts would be objectively judged as morally despicable by any person of today who is not blinded by the viral memes of Judaism and Christianity. To corroborate the previous statement with some evidence, recall that God obliterates two cities by burning all their inhabitants — apparently including the babies — because they were immoral,(*) but saving one couple: Lot and his wife, who however made the error to turn and look back over her shoulder, and God instantly turned her into a pillar of salt (Gen 19:24-25). Earlier, the same man, Lot, had proposed to some thugs who were pestering him (trying to break the door of his house), to give them his two virgin daughters, to do as they pleased with them (Gen 19:8), provided the thugs would leave Lot and his male guests in peace! In an earlier episode, God exterminates the entire population of Earth in a Great Flood (except Noah and his family; again, favoritism does not seem to be an accusation that would make God — or rather, the authors of the Bible — blush). Even earlier, God asks an old man, Abraham, to sacrifice his only son, and the moment Abraham is ready to deliver the deadly blow with a knife to the child on the altar, God replaces the child with a ram.(*) But at a later instance, a virgin girl is roasted on the altar by her father, Jephthah, a general of the Jews, who vowed to God that he would sacrifice anything/anyone who would come out of his door first and come to greet him upon returning home, should God help him achieve a great military victory (Jdg 11:30-40); this time God did not deem it necessary to replace the poor victim with some ovine, so the girl was turned to the first documented human barbeque. This is only a brief anthology of the gory violence and — by today’s standards — moral corruption that is presented as virtuous and commendable (or merely worth-mentioning) throughout the Old Testament. A much more complete one can be found in Dawkins’s The God Delusion, pp. 237-250.
What happened to God later? Why did God change so drastically, and from a genocidal, misogynist, diabolically jealous bigot(*) — in comparison to whom, Satan appears like a true angel — turned into the fatherly benign spirit of the A.D. times? We must believe either the incredible, namely, that God himself improved, or a much more economical explanation: that people’s ideas about their own selves (how they should behave toward others, etc.), improved, and this improvement was reflected in how people imagined their God. We have a different set of moral principles now, according to which it is immoral for a higher authority to inflict damage on the weak and helpless.(*) This was not so only a few decades ago, and the situation appears worse and worse as we move back in time (, pp. 262-272). How did we acquire our modern concepts about morality? Where did our morality come from? Is it heaven-sent? Could it ever have come from religions that brandish holy books which extol the making of shish kebab out of the flesh of virgin girls? Highly unlikely. Could there be a more natural origin of our morality? This is examined in what follows.
Once, a few years ago, I received an email message from a psychologist writing from Fort Belvoir, Virginia. She had just read an earlier version of this page of mine, where I discuss what I consider to be the two main contradictions in religious ideas about God, and wanted to give me a lesson in matters of faith, belief, the universe, where we come from, how I “do not understand God’s attributes as revealed by scripture”, and so on. The next day I received a message from her husband, “a physicist for 23 years and now a seminarian”, who, after presenting his religious point of view, cautioned me about his wife. He said, “I will argue for [God’s existence], she will attempt to prove.” Indeed, the next day his wife, filled to the brim with religious certitude and her culture’s arrogance,(*) set out to prove to me that God exists, by drawing what she thought was an ace from her sleeve; specifically, posing what she thought is a real conundrum for any atheist: where did our morality come from?
After exchanging a few more messages, I soon realized there was exactly zero possibility to establish any line of communication with that person. She seemed to me as mind-deaf as a rock (a rock of faith, perhaps?), and after a few days I dropped out of the discussion, figuring that if we continued, we would be talking like signal-exchanging ships cruising along opposite directions at night. What remained in my mind as an interesting idea after this exchange was the psychologist’s conviction that the question “Where did our morality come from?” is answered like this: “It came from God! We are moral because God is moral, and He wants us to be moral, too!”
Amazing. Why would people who are expected to be rational thinkers, like the psychologist and her ex-physicist husband, consider this circular reasoning(*) to be an answer at all? How can rational people fail to see the sorely missing explanation in this “explanation” of human morality when they attribute it to the morality of a higher being? Why don’t they ask themselves, why is that morality the way it is and not otherwise? Conceivably, we could be living in an evil God’s universe, couldn’t we? It could be a malicious God who has an army of scourge-inflicting angels to serve him, and who has banished the only benevolent angel, the Satan, to hell: the only place where good things happen 24/7. That God would want us to be bad like him, and so, crime would be rampant in our world, and the few good-doers would be incarcerated, serving long sentences in jail. Well? Why is reality not like that?
Religious people usually balk at the idea of questioning the origin of their God’s attributes. Typically, their answer is “God’s ways are mysterious”, not realizing that this is another way of saying “I don’t know, but I don’t want to admit that I don’t know.” The issue of the shutting down of the faculty of logic by religion will be examined later on, but now we can try to answer this question: Would it ever be possible for us to live in a malicious God’s world, as described above?
Anyone who believes that the origin of our morality is God and can think rationally would have to admit that the fact that “good” is laudable and “evil” is punishable in our world is a matter of mere chance. There is a 50% chance that our God could be evil,(*) and wanted us to be evil, too. It so happened that our God is good — that’s what the believer must believe.
But my view is different. No, our world could not be one in which evil prevails and good is the exception. It is not a coincidence at all that we live in a world in which teachers and spiritual leaders urge us to be good, and in which the minority of people who commit crimes are isolated from the majority. Our morality is explicable by recourse to biological principles, according to which there is no 50-50% chance to be moral or immoral; our world could not be different from the way it is. This is what is shown immediately below.
Let’s start with a thought experiment, which I will then implement as a program and turn into an actual experiment, so we’ll verify that the thought experiment really works that way.
Suppose there are two kinds of animals in an environment that includes a limited amount of food for those animals: some plants, for instance, which the animals eat. Call the two kinds of animals the W’s and the T’s — my choice of letters will become evident in a minute. So, say we start with several individuals of kind W, and an equal number of kind T animals. Both kinds of animals have the custom to take food and cache it for later consumption. But — and here is the difference between the two kinds — the W-animals are all “workers”, which means they simply pick up food when they find it in their vicinity; whereas the T-animals are occasionally “thieves”, which means the following: sometimes they pick up food when they find it on their way, but some other times they steal food from their conspecifics. How much they manage to steal is a parameter of the experiment. Also, what percent of the T-animals comprises thieves, and how often such an individual will actually commit a theft (when meeting a conspecific) are different parameters of this imagined world. The T-animals never attack the W-animals, nor vice-versa. (Why? Because that would destroy their characterization as “thieves”. See the readers’ reactions, below, for the full explanation.)
Otherwise, each animal lives approximately for at most a given time, and when it dies, it is “returned to the environment”, i.e., there is a chance that a plant might grow somewhere after the death of the animal. While living, once the animal possesses enough “energy” (which means, once its cache of stored food items exceeds a threshold), it can give birth to another animal of the same kind, which starts roaming in the environment, looking for food, and so on. Suppose all animals of each kind are identical in their structure, i.e., there are no mutations, hence no biological evolution within the time-frame that our experiment lasts.
In short, what is going on is an abstraction of what one would expect in an environment where two species compete for the same resources, within a time short enough to regard biological evolution as negligible. However, one species comprises honest workers who never steal from each other, whereas the other species includes thieves who sometimes steal from each other. What would happen to these two species as time goes by? Would they continue to exist forever, competing for resources? Would the thieves disappear over time, or would they thrive at the expense of the honest workers?
My guess, when I thought of this situation, was that the T-animals would gradually disappear. How slowly, or how fast? Depends on how many of them practice theft, and how effective the thieves are at stealing: the more stealing that occurs, the faster the T-species should disappear. The thieves themselves, individually, might thrive and spawn more descendants than those who do not steal. (Recall that since these are animals, there are no prisons to incarcerate or punish in other ways the thieves; so there is no reason why the thieves should not thrive.) But the species of T-animals as a whole would disappear as time goes by.
Why? Because, regardless of the habits and fates of individuals, if we take a bird’s-eye view and look at the two species as two wholes, we’ll see that the W-species is a more efficient consumer of food, i.e., a more efficient transducer of food into energy (motion), than the T-species. The former converts all the food it encounters into energy and descendants, whereas the latter occasionally “eats its own flesh”: that’s what an act of stealing is. If food items are found both in the environment and in the possession of T-animals, then each time a T-animal steals food items from others, no food accrues to the T-species as a whole; instead, some food items are exchanged among its members. This might benefit some members, but it would be detrimental for the species as a whole. As an analogy, suppose your body corresponds to the T-species, and the cells of your body are the individual T-animals. Some of your lung cells are responsible for taking oxygen from the air and direct it into your bloodstream. If all cells do this job as expected, fine. But if some of them, instead of taking oxygen from the outside, attack neighboring cells and strip them of their oxygen molecules, your respiration will suffer. If all of your lung cells are into this stealing business, you’ll soon die of asphyxiation.
Is this thought correct? Theory and thought experiments like the above are the province of philosophers. I am not a philosopher, I like to build systems, usually by programming them. When I have a question and a theory such as the above, I immediately think of writing a computer application that simulates the system exactly as I imagined it, so that I let the program run and see what happens. If I were a mathematician, I would like to put down the “axioms” of my system (“there are two kinds of animals”, “each animal lives for time x”, and so on), and then try to prove that either the proposition “species T as a whole disappears”, or the proposition “species T thrives indefinitely”, follows as a theorem. But, not only am I not a mathematician, but I suspect that real mathematicians would have trouble proving such propositions. What I described above is called a “chaotic system” in computational theory, and often the only way to deal with such systems is to let them run and observe what happens.(*) So, let’s do it: let’s build such a system and see what the outcome is. Here is the program:
Please make sure you have the browser with which you view this page in normal mode, not in zoom-in mode. (E.g., Internet Explorer enters zoom-in mode with ctrl +, and zoom-out with ctrl –.) I was notified by a reader that the following program does not run properly with the page in zoomed mode.
What you see above is the space (black rectangle) where our animals live their lives. The space is littered with food items (“plants”, green circles). It contains also some W-animals (yellow), and an equal number of T-animals (red). As it stands initially, the space has 1500 food items, 50 W’s, and 50 T’s, but these numbers are parameters that you can change (by clicking on the settings button , see below).
Now click on the button that shows a running figure . You’ll see that the yellow and red (W and T) animals are set in motion. While they move randomly, they encounter food items, grab them, and grow fatter. After collecting enough food (if they do), they might spawn more of their kind (one child per birth event). After some time, they die. A “time unit” is called an “epoch” in such simulations, and each animal makes one random step in space per epoch. You can see the number of elapsed epochs on the bottom-right corner, on the status bar. The same status bar shows the numbers of W-animals (“workers”, on the left), and T-animals (“thieves”, center). Watching how these numbers change is the whole point of running this simulation.
There is a control for the speed of the simulation, on the tool bar (top). After you familiarize yourself with what is going on, increase the speed a bit, and then even further, until what happens on the main area (the “space”) is too fast to keep track of, so then concentrate on how the numbers of W’s and T’s change. With the given parameters, the T-species will vanish at any time between epochs 1000 and 8000 (these are not hard limits, but an approximate range), whereas species W will stabilize its size somewhere around 100 individuals. No matter how many times I repeated this simulation, I always observed the same result: species T invariably vanished. You can repeat the simulation by pausing it first (clicking on button , which is how the -button appears while the program is running), then initializing it by clicking on the “new space” button (), and setting it again into motion (, once more).
I would like to list now precisely the parameters of this simulation, because they correspond to the axioms (initial assumptions) of an axiomatic theory. The exact values will also help the reader judge the reasonableness of the system.
The reader will notice that there are plenty of parameters used in the above description (i.e., all those numbers mentioned explicitly). Several of these parameters are essential for the viability of the populations, and the reader can find out what their effect is by changing them, clicking on the settings button (). Thus, for example, if the probability of 0.95 for an animal (worker or thief) to turn into a food item after dying is lowered somewhat, then there are not enough food items returned to the environment during animal deaths, and the populations die gradually (regardless of their type), due to starvation; whereas if this probability is increased somewhat, then too many food items are generated over time, and the populations of the surviving animals increase without limit. But note that such changes affect all animals, no matter what their type is, so they are not important. The important observation is the following:
|As long as there are individuals with the psychology of a thief in a species, and assuming there is competition for resources with a different species of non-stealing individuals, the first species is doomed to extinction. This is true whether there is a small or large percent of individuals with the thief psychology, and whether the existing thieves are efficient in stealing or not. As long as there are thieves, their species will be driven to extinction, all other factors being equal with the competing species. Higher theft rate implies a shorter life span for the species as a whole, though it also implies prosperity for the individual thieves, as long as they escape punishment.|
Let’s take another look at the disclaimer “all other factors being equal”. In real life, theft of various degrees (including extreme ones, such as cannibalism) is practiced among many animal species, including humans. This is true because in real life not all other factors are equal. For example, obviously, if there is no competition for resources with another species, there is no reason why theft should be bad for the species, provided theft is not the only way of acquiring resources. Or, if competition exists, but one species has an advantage over another for completely independent reasons (e.g., it develops resistance to heat, which the other species doesn’t), then again the disadvantage of theft (disadvantage for the species, that is), can be counterbalanced. For these reasons, theft, or what we would call “crime” in general, is observed in the biological world. But what this simulation shows is that theft, or crime, is bad for the species as a whole, especially if it becomes the sole means of acquiring resources. And if something is bad for the species as a whole, then it is bad in the long run for the individuals comprising the species, or rather, for the descendants of those individuals (for their genes, as we’d say in modern parlance). For, if a species goes extinct, what difference does it make if its individuals enjoy short-term benefits from crime? In the long run the species will vanish, so whatever evolutionary advantages accrued to the individuals (or to their genes), they will be thrown to the dustbin of paleontology.
This idea, no matter how obvious or how well supported by both evidence and proofs by simulation, is hard for most biologists to digest. The reason is that what they see missing is evolution. They see that certain principles of evolution are not satisfied at the species level. In particular, species do not normally spawn children with random mutations, only individuals do. (If a species evolves to a descendant species, the latter does not differ from its parent by random mutations, but is adjusted to the new environmental conditions.) So what happens at the level of the species is a peculiar kind of “evolution”: it is rather “change dictated by environmental adaptations”, not the familiar Darwinian evolution. Some biologists(*) (many, I suspect), might have difficulty accepting an idea that does not follow from the most fundamental principle of biology, i.e., Darwinian evolution, so they balk at the suggestion that principles can exist at the level of species that can take precedence over the evolutionary principles that work at the lower levels of individuals and genes.
However, that a principle cannot be conveniently put under the umbrella of another, cherished principle, should not be a reason for rejecting it. The principle of competition at the level of species is established both mathematically (by simulations such as the above, because simulations that do not depend on external input are pure formal systems, akin to mathematical proofs), and biologically,(*) by observation of the fossil evidence.
Readers who read the above expressed the following objections/questions:
|1. Why don’t the T’s
steal also from the W’s?
Because then the T’s would not be thieves anymore! Consider this example: a bear finds a beehive and takes all the honey from it. Did the bear steal the honey? I would be reluctant to call this an act of stealing. Rather, I would put it under the category “food finding”, or “doing what is necessary for survival”. If the bear wants to survive, it better do what bears (just like all other animals) commonly do: find food. It is certainly not immoral to find food, is it? That’s why we don’t call “thieves” the wolves that come and kill a shepherd’s sheep. Or, consider a farmer who raises chicken. Does the farmer steal the eggs from the chicken by collecting them every morning? Is there something immoral at that? Again, I don’t think so. If, however, the eggs belonged to the neighbor’s farm, and the farmer sneaked into the neighbor’s place and snatched some eggs, that would be a theft (from the fellow farmer’s property). Thus, I don’t think we can attach the label “immoral” on acts that concern the normal biological “warfare” among different species. That’s why I didn’t want to let T’s and W’s directly interfere with each other.
|2. Why do T’s only have a
probability of 0.10 to have the psychology of a thief? I
thought you wanted to explain WHY there are just a few
that are immoral. It looks like you doomed the T’s to
extinction to get the result you wanted.
On the contrary! If I allow more T’s with the psychology of a thief in the beginning, what happens is that the T species disappears faster! The more T’s there are that behave as thieves, the faster their kind is eliminated.
But you can test this for yourself. Try clicking on the settings button (). On the colorful dialog that pops up, look at the bottom-most, pink region. There is an entry there that says: Probability to be a thief: 0.1. Change this number to something larger, 0.5 for instance, or even to 1.0 if you wish, click on OK, then on the initialize button (), then run (). The larger you make this number, the fewer epochs the T species will survive. So, I used a small number such as 0.1 as a default, above, in a sense to protect the T’s from disappearing too soon. As visitors and users of this program observed, their attempts to tweak the values of parameters only caused the poor T species to disappear faster.
Now, you might think that I still don’t explain why there are just a few individuals that are immoral, and that I simply set their percent at a low value to begin with. But I do explain their small number. The explanation is as follows: if in the real world the situation was as pure as it appears in my simulation, then there would be no thieves at all, because any species that included them would soon vanish, so we’d observe only survivor species (like the W’s) that lack thieves. However, the real biological world is not as pure and crystal-clear as my simulation. There might be no competition with other species, or some stealing can be afforded because the species enjoys some other unrelated benefits. That’s why there can be a few thieves in some species (including ours): because they can be afforded by nature. If, however, stealing turns rampant, then food-finding for the species as a whole suffers, and the species is driven to extinction because of its poor ability to collect resources from its environment. That’s why we don’t observe species in which stealing is the rule, and normal food-finding is the exception.
|3. If stealing is
beneficial for the individual thief, but has negative
effects only for the species as a whole, as you claim,
then what sense does it make to behave morally? Thinking
individualistically, I should act immorally. Why should I
care about the future of my species? Isn’t your
simulation suggesting that we should all be immoral?
Oops! You reached a completely wrong conclusion. My simulation is about animals that do not punish crime. Humans have jails, judges, lawyers, police, and a host of other concepts and mechanisms, all geared toward the idea of punishing the wrong-doers, none of which is found among other animal species. If you think that acting immorally will benefit you, I would suggest that you think twice about the consequences of your actions when (if) the law is enforced upon you. I did not include any punishment mechanism in my simulation because it examines the question of the foundations of morality in animal species, all of which but one (humans) lack punishment methods and law enforcement.
Naturally, all species except one (us) are incapable of entertaining your thought. So, from a moral perspective, they behave “as expected”, that is, “righteously” on average. Humans, the only species that can entertain your thought, punishes immorality; and this can’t be a coincidence, because if it didn’t happen we probably wouldn’t be around.
Of course, one might reject the idea that this simulation shows anything significant, by appealing to the multitude of uncontrollable factors that exist in reality, which are ignored in the simulation. Granted, a simulation is by its nature an idealization, so a large number of factors are ignored (otherwise it wouldn’t be a simulation, but the real thing). But when we want to examine a situation scientifically, the tradition suggests using the analytic method, by which we strip the problem of its irrelevant details, and home in on the essential ones. For example, if we want to examine the free fall of objects in physics, we remove noisy and irrelevant factors such as air resistance, wind speed and direction, and whether there might be an earthquake at the place where the falling object lands. By eliminating all these irrelevances we can make a simulation of free fall on our computer, and observe the falling “object” (e.g., a dot on our screen) move down at a constant acceleration. This is all I tried to do with the above simulation: home in on the essentials.
I also would like to mention that it is necessary to have two abilities to correctly assess the importance of the above: first, to be able to isolate the relevant from the irrelevant factors; and second, to make a cool and rational judgment regarding one’s motivation for posing an objection: is the motivation really the suspicion of a flaw, or is it the subconscious urge of wanting to find a flaw, because the correctness of the argument threatens one’s own cherished beliefs? It is not wrong to want to find a flaw, provided one is not blinded by such wishes and throws rationality out the window. However, given that the reader indeed keeps the above in mind, I would be very interested in learning about possible flaws of the above simulation.
|In summary, we observe that stealing and associated forms of crime are marginal activities among animals because they are detrimental at the level of species. Thus, what we see in our world are the only kinds of species that are viable: the “moral” species. From the biological point of view, we humans are nothing but another species on this planet, so we carry all the biological baggage on our shoulders, which includes animal morality. However, being a cognitively complex species, we developed an intricate system of moral principles, which includes cultural values, priests, exorcists, the Holy Inquisition, laws, police, prisons, judges, attorneys, lawsuits, and a host of other concepts that are totally unprecedented in the rest of the animal kingdom.|
“But, hold on a second,” the above-mentioned psychologist might retort. “This is precisely the point: human morality is not just about stealing and killing. It is so complex! Where did all this complexity come from, since you admit it’s not present among the animals?”
My answer is that each species follows a set of moral rules the size of which correlates with the cognitive and social complexity of the species. For example, trees have no cognitive abilities, hence morality is not a concept that applies to them. Squirrels have a rudimentary cognition, and very little social interaction among themselves, so their moral principles are confined to the very basic core described in the above simulation: “Don’t try to find your food solely by stealing from thy neighbor squirrel, don’t cause harm to thy neighbor”, and perhaps a few more that I am not aware of because I am not a biologist studying squirrels. My “prediction” (it’s a prediction only because I do not know) is that beavers, although they possess a brain of approximately the same size as that of squirrels, must be following slightly more complex moral principles because they form large communities, so they experience many more social interactions than squirrels. Wolves, also with complex social life, have a larger brain and more complex cognition than beavers, so they must be capable of following even more moral principles. (Again, I don’t know, I am only “predicting” out of ignorance.) Perhaps the animals with the most complex set of moral rules aside from humans are gorillas and chimpanzees, who have large brains and experience intricate social lives, forming families, clans, tribes, etc. We, humans, are simply at the top of this pyramid, having unquestionably the most complex cognition, and being a quintessentially social species. Just as our minds are several orders of magnitude more complex than any other animal’s, so is our set of moral rules. We put under our umbrella of morality issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and — courtesy of the Catholic Church — the use of condoms for avoiding the spread of the AIDS epidemic.(*) Of course, to have the capacity to even consider such issues, an animal must have a mind of at least the human complexity, and we are the only such animal currently on Earth. To recapitulate:
But is proposition 1 correct? Are animals moral, even rudimentarily so? Even this has been disputed, mostly by philosophers. It has been argued that the human nature is really the animal nature, which is assumed to be lacking morality, whereas what we perceive as human morality is only a façade, the fleece of a sheep by which we have hidden the wolf inside. Frans de Waal calls this the “veneer” theory of human morality, and provides ample evidence against it. For example:
“In some zoos, chimpanzees are kept on man-made islands, surrounded by water-filled moats. ... Chimpanzees cannot swim and, unless they are rescued, will drown if they fall into deep water. Despite this, individuals have sometimes made heroic efforts to save companions from drowning — and were sometimes successful. One adult male lost his life as he tried to rescue a small infant whose incompetent mother had allowed it to fall into the water.”
In short, whereas some philosophers or others who don’t have direct experience with animals imagine that animals are inherently immoral (mere brutes as the literal and figurative meaning of the word suggests), scientists who work with animals and collect evidence observe that there is a core of animal morality, which correlates positively with the cognitive and social complexity of the animal species.
But human morality cannot have only a biological foundation and nothing else. There must also be a cognitive dimension in it, because our species has not changed substantially from a biological point of view (it has been the same species, after all, with a given brain capacity for at least 150,000 years), whereas our morality standards keep being enriched up to the present. As a case in point, slavery was considered normal only a couple of centuries ago, and racist thinking was normal even among intellectuals, less than 100 years ago. (More on this, below.) The difference with today is that although racism and even slavery exist, they have been branded as scourges, and no rationally thinking intellectual would accept them today as normal. Our moral standards keep evolving.
|Note: Some readers read what follows in this sub-section as what it is not, namely, as an attack on Jewish culture, and/or Jews. Instead, this sub-section is an attack on an idea; specifically, on the idea that our morality comes from God, and therefore that God’s morality has been documented in God’s book, the Bible, as many Christians and Jews believe. That I have no enmity against Jews, cultures, etc., is shown elsewhere (where in fact I express my sympathy toward the Jews being the victims of the holocaust in WWII), but misreadings are still possible; so please keep focused on what this article says, and avoid reading between the lines.|
The fact that our moral standards keep evolving should normally act as a signal to religious people that our morality cannot be based on religion, because the holy books of all major religions were written more than a thousand years ago. And yet, this is apparently what religious people think. Christians, for example — like the psychologist and her seminarian husband — believe that their morality is caused by God, and expounded in the Bible. It is very hard to persuade them that they cannot be more mistaken, because they refuse to read their Bible. They have either only a hearsay knowledge of it, or a fragmentary knowledge which is the result of cherry-picking: they read only what they like reading. If they could read all of it, however, they would realize that the so-called “good book” is one of the most horrible recipes for moral standards, because besides their familiar “cherries” it includes the following “onions”:
15. And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.
17. And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.
8. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy [shall he be], that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
9. Happy [shall he be], that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
44. Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, [shall be] of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. 45. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that [are] with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession.
Moreover, you believers may raise whole families of slaves, just as others raise chicken, for example. Indeed (from Exd 21 again):
4. If his master have given [the slave] a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he [the slave] shall go out by himself.
Behold, you can make some good profit by selling even your own daughters to slavery — how about that! Have some nice “procurements” folks! Here:
7. And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. 8. If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. 9. And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. 10. If he take him another [wife]; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. 11. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.
Wow! In other words, if your daughter’s master doesn’t want to do all three that are required (give her food, clothes, and “her duty of marriage”), then she’ll walk out of this ownership relation penniless! As if it was her fault! (Whatever the ancient Jewish lawmaker was smoking, it must have been real gooood!)
On the other hand, so much good fortune awaits your daughters as “maidservants”, if only “she please not her master”! Sell them into slavery tomorrow! Except that — oops! sorry, I forgot — believers must be men to make such a deal. Only a man can engage in such financial arrangements for selling his belongings, according to the above paragraph. Just in case the believer is a woman and this escaped her attention, let me make it abundantly clear: women are part of their husbands’ belongings, according to ample evidence in the good book, and as properties they cannot arrange financial transactions.
And if you Christians dismiss all the above as merely “Old Testament stuff”, thinking that your morality, e.g., about slavery, is superior because it’s based on the New Testament, here are some N.T. excerpts on the subject:
Eph 6:5. Servants, be obedient to them that are [your] masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;
1Ti 6:1. Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and [his] doctrine be not blasphemed.
How about that for a good cherry-picking? Or
does it sound more like onion-picking to the believer? Well,
perhaps it does, but they should understand that there are plenty
of foul-smelling onions (I didn’t even list them all) in the
book they brandish and claim that it elucidates and expounds
their morality. If the morality that they follow in their daily
lives originated from this cesspool of moral advice, today they’d
be serving long sentences behind bars.
Readers who read the above expressed the following objections:
|1. [Your text] shows that
you also are, as you [...] put it, “cherry picking”.
There are examples in the bible, even in the examples
that you despise, of exemplary moral attitude. I question
your objectivity in analyzing the biblical passages.
Clearly, it was for the purpose of trying to “poo-poo”
on the notion of existence of God, and not to create a
reasonable and rational argument. As you know all too
well, there are many passages which are morally strong.
They speak of protecting the orphaned and the widowed, of
not gossiping, of not bearing false witness, of not
stealing, of being industrious, of fidelity between
husband and wife, of parents not provoking their children
to wrath, and of children providing for their parents in
their old age [...].
But of course I am cherry picking! Not only didn’t I deny this, but I even described my attitude as “onion picking” (see the paragraph just prior to this “Readers’ Reactions”). Of course I am not being objective in looking at the biblical passages! Did you notice what this section is a reaction to? It is a reaction to the idea that the Bible should serve as our guide for morality. Look: suppose some die-hard communists come to you and present you with a list of all the good things that happened in communist regimes: how the state took care of the weak, how it provided job to everyone, and so on, and so forth. What would your reaction be? Wouldn’t you want such people to face the crimes commited by such regimes, as an antidote to their mental blindness? Wouldn’t you want to tell them about the executions for political dissent, the dislocations, the millions that died in the Gulags under Stalin’s rule, the poverty of the common people and the accumulation of wealth and social benefits by the party cadres, and all those other “onions” of communist regimes, which eventually caused them to collapse practically everywhere? What would you offer to such propagandists, a balanced and scientifically documented academic analysis of the pros and cons of communism?
Likewise, I am not interested in telling you about the biblical passages that are morally strong: you know them. You read them, perhaps even quite often. Why do you want to hear from me words that are music to your ears? You’re familiar with the music. My purpose is to bring to your attention the fact that the “garden” which is the Bible doesn’t have only beautifully-smelling fruits, but onions, too, and garlic, and dead rats, and other foul-smelling objects. You must put all of those in the basket that you carry with you when you claim that the Bible should serve as a guide to our morality; that is, if you want to be objective.
|2. The story of the “first
human barbeque”, Jephtah’s Daughter, which you
described in your Religion page [...], is not a story
added to the writings to say “this is how to be pious”.
It’s just a story, traditions from ancient, primitive
people. It probably started as a piece of drama, a father
who makes a stupid vow and is thus punished by losing
something dear, and someone added it in so it wouldn’t
be lost to the nation’s memory. It appears to me as
more of an expression of the superstitions they had about
vows than anything else, about how they shouldn’t be
taken so lightly. It really doesn’t matter why it is in
there, morality is not to be derived only from [stories
like that one].
I fully agree with your assessment. Jephthah’s and other similar biblical stories are only stories, they’re not meant to imply that our morality should be based on them. But remember what this section is about: it is an answer to the proposition: “Our morality comes from God.” Most religious people (the vast majority, nearly 100% I’d think), agree with the idea that we are moral because God is moral, and he wants us to be like him, “in his own image”. (Muslims, too, agree on that.) But also according to most religious people’s opinion (I wouldn’t venture to estimate any percent in this case), the only way that God has used to communicate with us is through the Bible, if we exclude the personal communication that an individual might feel that they have had with God (which is not a universal experience, but rather a marginal one). So, if God is moral and wants to tell us how to be like him, all we (who don’t have personal experiences) can do is read the Bible. (And Muslims would read the Qur’an.) Now, here come some people who tell to the religious believer: “No, don’t look at the Bible in its entirety in order to find out what’s moral and what’s immoral! Don’t look at this, and this, and this story, look here, and there, and there instead!” But there’s a problem now: If we are to believe these people, then our morality doesn’t come from God, but from these people. After all, who are they to decide this issue, who gave them this authority? If they claim they got it from God, why should I believe them? I could also claim I was suddenly given authority from God to tell you what is moral in the Bible — why shouldn’t you believe me? So, if we are to listen to people, or even to our common sense about stories such as Jephthah’s, then our morality doesn’t come from God, contrary to the assumption that this page argues against. (So I have nothing to disagree with, case closed.) But if only God is responsible for telling us what is moral and what not, then we must take the whole Bible indiscriminately, without introducing any human bias and cherry-picking.
|3. Perhaps you are confusing compassion (a
recognition of someone else’s pain and an intense
desire to alleviate it) with morality (concern with the
distinction between good and evil, or right and
wrong). So what you are describing in your page as “morally
despicable,” is really more accurately described by
today’s standards as emotionally traumatic.
Do you mean that morally everything is fine in Jephtha’s story of roasting of his own daughter, and I am only having an emotional trauma due to my compassion for the poor girl’s fate?
Compassion is a big and inseparable factor in our human moral judgments. Without compassion we wouldn’t understand morality. We would be robots, doing calculations according to rules: “This is moral, because according to...” Let me give you an example: Suppose you witness a thief grabbing a purse from an old lady; during the incident, the lady falls and is being dragged on the ground, and the thief runs away. Is there a morally wrong action? There is, I’m sure you’ll agree. Can you perceive the whole event without feeling compassion for the victim? You can’t, because you’re not a robot. Only judges are supposed to judge without compassion, but in theory only, because as human beings they have feelings like other human beings, and they need to exert effort to avoid being compassionate. But morality is not understood in the theoretical “perfect judge’s” fashion, but practically, in the real human way, which almost always includes compassion for the victim.
Most Christians believe that God is the source of their morality. At the same time, some Christians (the majority, I suspect) believe that God is the true author of the Bible (that is, God inspired its authors, who wrote it with divine guidance). But if this is true, then we must draw one of the following two incredible conclusions:
Since none of the above two alternatives seems plausible, the mystery remains if we attribute the source of our morality to God. But the mystery vanishes if we avoid this error, attribute the source of our morality to our biological origins, and observe the mere fact that human morality evolved in time, and keeps evolving. We can then conclude simply that the authors of the Bible imprinted in it the morality of their times.
Did the morality of the world improve later, several centuries after the Bible was written? Well, the “morality of the world” is not a notion with a single value; we can’t measure it, say, in the 3rd C. BCE and find it to have a value of 0.2, and then measure it a thousand years later and find it to have advanced to 0.5! Different parts of the world exhibited different moral standards throughout time. So, moving forward to the 7th C. CE we still find examples of barbaric, atrocious, even inhuman morality in the world of monotheistic religions.
Specifically, we learn about the morality of ancient Islam by reading the texts that are considered sacred in the Islamic world. These include the Qur’an (or Koran), the Hadiths (narratives) of Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, and the Sirat Rasul Allah (life of Allah’s Messenger) by Muhammad ibn Ishaq, and al-Tabari. These texts give us a glimpse of what was considered normal, or socially accepted, in the times of the ancient Muslims (all except the Qur’an, because the Qur’an is supposed to be about what Allah himself [or itself(*)] dictated to Muhammad, so it’s not a narration of historic events). And what we learn in these texts appears shocking to the modern reader. In particular, we learn that, in Muhammad’s society, it was normal to kill your adversary who criticized you! There are at least three examples in which Muhammad himself had his opponents killed (i.e., instigated or directly ordered his Muslim followers to murder his critics) because they said or wrote things against him: (Warning: the bulleted section that follows quotes the Islamic texts, which describe some atrocities in graphic detail; if the reader feels that such reading might be disturbing, I strongly urge the reader to skip the bulleted section.)
The above is only a sample of a larger whole, not just a few and isolated incidents in which Muhammad had his critics silenced by murder. More atrocities and inhuman behavior are described in the Islamic holy texts, such as the brutal torturing and eventual killing — under Muhammad’s orders — of some thieves of camels (Bukhari:V4B52N261), the torturing and beheading of other opponents of Muhammad’s (Tabari 8:122; Ishaq:515), and more. I have written more extensively about these in this page, so I prefer to avoid repetitions here. But even today, Islamist leaders follow in the steps of the founder of their religion: in 1989, the supreme religious leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa ordering the murder of Salman Rushdie, an Indian expatriate living in England, because Rushdie had written a novel (“the Satanic Verses”) that, according to Muslims, was an insult to Islam and Muhammad. More recently, a situation having a lot of the flavor of Rushdie’s case erupted in late 2005, and became known as the “Muhammad cartoon controversy”, when cartoonists depicted Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, an act considered blasphemous in Islam. More than 100 people died in protests that occurred in the Muslim world, and some Muslim leaders issued death threats against the newspaper publishers and the cartoonists themselves. That incident has been adequately caricatured in this page.
An overall theme emerges after considering all the above:
appears to violate a deeply-rooted human moral principle:
“Do not retaliate in a manner harsher than the way you feel you were wronged.”
Or, to put it more simply: “Be Just.”
Interestingly, there is a Quranic verse that nearly advocates the above rule explicitly: “Fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, but do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.” (Qur’an 2:190) But the very next verse contradicts the previous one, continuing like this: “And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from where they drove you out, [because] persecution is worse than slaughter. But if they cease, then Allah is forgiving, merciful.” (Qur’an 2:191–2:192).(*)
Could the morality of Muslims have originated from Allah? Note a phrase quoted above, uttered by Muhammad to his decapitated critic: “Allah has slain you”. Either Muhammad was right, or he was wrong. If Muhammad was right, then Allah slays people, decapitating them! If Muhammad was wrong and this murder was not committed by Allah, then it was committed by Muhammad himself — perhaps not by his own hand, but by the hand of one of his men, which morally makes no difference at all. In either case, either Allah or Muhammad committed a murder. (If only it was the only one!)
Given all the evidence that exists in their own sacred Islamic texts, rationally thinking, I conclude that Muslims who truly believe in their religion today can belong to one of the following three categories:
I believe that, for the vast majority of today’s Muslims, the first of the above three options is the case, given the rampant illiteracy in the Islamic world (source). Most Muslims either don’t read about their religion and have a hearsay knowledge of it, or are given to read only specific excerpts from the Qur’an that are not morally offensive. (There are plenty of morally offensive passages in the Qur’an — a few can be found in my earlier-referenced page — but Muslims engage in the same kind of cherry-picking with their Qur’an as Christians do with their Bible.)
|A question unrelated to morality but related to the general issue of the evolution of religion is: What can be the future of the religion of Islam? My personal view is that Islam can survive — and probably will survive — as long as there are large illiterate, uninformed masses. I don’t mean to say that every Muslim is illiterate! Far from doing such sweeping generalizations, I simply observe that Islam is strongest and has the most fanatical zealots where illiteracy is highest: in Afghanistan (71.9%), Pakistan (50.1%), Algeria (30.1%), Egypt (28.6%), Iraq (25.9%), Iran (23%), Saudi Arabia (21.2%), etc. (same source). In contrast, Islam is weakest where illiteracy in the Muslim world is the lowest, such as in Turkey (12.6%). Even within Turkey, there is a sharp contrast between Western Turks, who are generally well-educated, with incomes similar to those of neighboring European countries, who are not observant and for whom Islam plays a minimal role in their lives; and Eastern Turks, generally much less educated, belonging to poorer classes, and who are strongly religious. Islam has a love–hate relationship with education: although most Muslims are taught that, according to the Qur’an, they should learn and seek knowledge in their lives (a directive tacitly understood to apply to men only), they don’t know how to learn. Specifically, that in order to believe what one learns one must rely not on authority, or hearsay knowledge, but on the original sources: reading and researching by him/herself, and using one’s own judgment, not relying on the imam’s opinion or interpretation. However, I expect that knowledge about knowledge (i.e., on how to learn) will spread in the Islamic world, gradually and slowly, just as so many other trends have spread worldwide. The more educated Muslims become, the less they will allow religion to exert control over their lives. However, poor and uneducated people will not be magically eliminated, so I don’t predict a totally bleak future for Islam.|
Not only has our present-day morality come a long way from the wretchedness of the Bible and the Islamic texts, so as to consider notions such as infanticide, slavery, murder of one’s critics, and treating women as belongings of men abominable, but we keep evolving our moral standards century after century, decade after decade. The concept “All men are equal” appeared only after the Enlightenment, in the 18th century.(*)
|But even though the concept of equality of all human beings appeared in the 18th C., it was not digested immediately by everybody, not even by the intellectuals. As late as in the second half of the 19th C., Jules Verne (1828 – 1905), the Frenchman writer considered by many as the father of science fiction, would depict dark-skinned people (Africans, Asians, Australian aboriginals) as semi-intelligent, naïve brutes, good only for serving their “white” lords. In fact, in one of his stories (“The Mysterious Island”), there is a group of white people served by a black slave (who is treated humanely because his white lords are “good people”), who is in turn served by a gorilla! — an idea that depicts graphically the tragically erroneous view of “evolution” by many intellectuals in Verne’s time: the great apes evolved to “niggers”, who evolved to “whites” — thus explaining the supposed superiority of “whites”. (It is a superiority of technological nature, which was erroneously thought to be of intellectual nature; I discuss its origin in this article.)|
Another famous writer of science fiction, the British H. G. Wells (1866 – 1946) wrote the following in a utopian work of his, in 1902:
And the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity — beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds [...] —and to check the procreation of base and servile types, of fear-driven and cowardly souls, of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies, or habits of men. [...] And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness, [...] the method that must in some cases still be called in to the help of man, is death. In the new vision death is [...] the merciful obliteration of weak and silly and pointless things. [p. 298]
The men of the New Republic will not be squeamish, either, in facing or inflicting death [...]. They will have an ideal that will make killing worth the while; [p. 300]
All such killing will be done with an opiate, for death is too grave a thing to be made painful or dreadful, [...] If deterrent punishments are used at all in the code of the future, the deterrent will neither be death, nor mutilation of the body, nor mutilation of the life by imprisonment, nor any horrible things like that, but good scientifically caused pain, that will leave nothing but a memory. [p. 301]
And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? [...] the yellow man? [...] that alleged termite in the civilized woodwork, the Jew? Certainly not as races at all. [...] It will, I have said, make the multiplication of those who fall behind a certain standard of social efficiency unpleasant and difficult [p. 315]
And for the rest, those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go. [...] So far as they fail to develop sane, vigorous, and distinctive personalities for the great world of the future, it is their portion to die out and disappear. [p. 317]
Yes, this was written in 1902. Doesn’t it sound more like the ramblings of Adolph Hitler, or one of his close associates, Goebbels, maybe? Yet it was penned down by H. G. Wells, an intellectual (and a supposed progressive!) of the time. If Wells could write like this, endorsing the most despicable and reprehensible form of Social Darwinism,(*) one cannot avoid thinking, is it any wonder that the Holocaust followed only four decades later in Nazi Germany? Today we read such passages with horror (and shame for the thoughts entertained by fellow humans), but back then — only a century ago, mind you — the word and concept “genocide” did not exist, nor had the world been “burned” yet with the wounds of World War II.
And yet, our moral awareness continued growing. Women’s right to vote (suffrage) was established in the U.S.A. only in 1920 (with the 19th Amendment), and this was among the first places in the world where women could vote (though not the first; women had already gained suffrage by the end of the 19th C. in places like Britain, Australia, and New Zealand). African Americans did not gain suffrage in all States until well into the 1960’s (by the Voting Rights Act of 1965). The notion “one person, one vote” is indeed very recent (and is usually thoughtlessly quoted as “one man, one vote”).
What about today? Are there any moral precepts for which we should feel shame, causing our descendants to write derogatorily about us, despising our standards? Sure there are. For example, we often treat animals in ways that cause them to suffer greatly. I envisage a “golden rule” of the future for animal treatment that will be approximately as follows:
should be treated in accordance with their cognition,
hence with their ability to perceive their own suffering.
Thus, a fly has no way of perceiving anything about itself, because its cognition does not afford it such an achievement — it is merely an intricate reacting device. The only reason for which I do not harm flies — or other creatures for that matter — is because I see them as marvels of what the evolution on our planet can achieve. But the cognition of a chimpanzee is sufficiently complex to allow the animal to represent in its mind its own self, its immediate future, its possible suffering at present, etc. — not in as complex a way as a human being, but close enough. Experiments harming great apes have now largely subsided, but we are not yet at the stage of litigating for the rights of animals, and punishing the violators of law. Many scientists continue administering their lethal experiments on monkeys and other smart mammals, mainly in the U.S.A. Other nations, such as Japan and Norway (both among the nations with the highest per capita income), continue killing whales, unashamedly. The Chinese contribute to the killing of rhinos, because they have the largely bogus belief that an extract from the horn of a rhino has beneficial medicinal effects. Many Asian cultures still value and use ivory, thus encouraging poaching that eliminates elephants in Africa. The term “animal genocide” is still unknown, even unthinkable: we are not there yet. All the same, one day these nations will be condemned by history, as our descendants will write it.
[This sub-section is not ready yet.]
A few days after the Christmas of 2007, a correspondent from South Africa wrote to me a letter in which he expressed an idea that has been repeated often by believers (and has not been well-received by non-believers): that religion cannot be understood rationally and scientifically because it requires faith, and faith is the opposite of rational thinking. When you believe something, you believe, you don’t seek to explain why you believe. Here is a short excerpt of the argument, in my correspondent’s own words:
“I felt that I, as a Christian, might just elucidate af few crucial points that non-believers misunderstand about Christianity. The main point I would like to demonstrate to you in due course is that Christianity cannot be approached along intellectual lines at all. In other words, one cannot come to a satisfactory knowledge about God and about Christ through any intellectual enquiry as such. There is, interestingly, ample evidence in Scripture for that. [...] Were I to engage with you in such a debate, my objective would not so much have been to persuade you of the truth of the Bible, as rather endeavouring to get you to doubt the reliability of science a little more [...]”
Note that although my correspondent argued with Christianity in mind, the exact same argument could be advanced by Muslims. They, too, would argue that God (Allah) cannot be approached by reason. After all, the notion of submission to God without questioning is central in Islam. Because Christianity and Islam account for a very large percent of today’s believers, I will not specialize the argument to Christianity but will generalize it to “religion”, with the understanding that it might not apply to some other, non-mainstream religions.
Other believers have proposed an analogy that might appear particularly illuminating. Think of a piece of art, they say: a painting, for example. Would you be able to appreciate the art in the painting by reason alone? Would you expect to use logical rules, such as: “If the red hue on the upper-right corner on the canvas is between 128 and 184, then...”? Or: “If the logarithm of luminosity exceeds the square root of saturation at pixel [1054, 3582], then...”? No, come on, art cannot be appreciated by means of any set of such rules. It must be felt. Likewise, religion is felt by the believer’s “heart”,(*) it does not require nor expect any justification from the microscope of the reasoning mind. This just cannot be digested well by some non-believers’ stomachs, who want rationality to be always at work.
But non-believers have their own argumentation, too. The philosopher Ronald de Sousa has described philosophical theology as “intellectual tennis without a net”, an idea that is best explained by D. C. Dennett in the following excerpt (Dennett is speaking to an imaginary believer who claims that reasoning has no place in religion):
I have [...] been assuming without comment or question up to now that the net of rational judgment was up. But we can lower it if you really want to. It’s your serve. Whatever you serve, suppose I return service rudely as follows: “What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil. That’s not much of a God to worship!” If you then volley back, demanding to know how I can logically justify my claim that your serve has such a preposterous implication, I will reply: “Oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves? Either the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down, there are no rules and anybody can say anything, a mug’s game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your own time or mine by playing with the net down.”
Now if you want to reason about faith, and offer a reasoned (and reason-responsive) defense of faith as an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, I’m eager to play. [p. 154]
Instead of reasoning about faith, my correspondent argued that this must not be done, and that, indeed, this is the error that believers often do: they engage in argumentation with non-believers, and so the believers implicitly agree to play with the rules of the non-believers, since reason is needed to conduct even the simplest intellectual discussion — lest one would be free to make the most ridiculous statements, as Dennett demonstrated. Believers shouldn’t argue (read: reason), they should just believe, my correspondent claimed.
And yet, such correspondents evidently keep reading this text at least up to the point that caused them to compose an email message and send it to me. They have the curiosity to go through a large part of this article and see what is said in it. And they use their reasoning ability to do so, because without reason not even a Mickey Mouse story can be understood. So believers have two options, it seems: either follow my correspondent’s advice and stop reading now because this is a text that reasons about religion (though it’s already too late, since this is an advanced point in the text), or keep reading, but with the understanding that they do something they probably shouldn’t be doing.
Will you keep reading, dear reader, in case you are a believer? Do you have the intellectual curiosity to see how I will argue that reason (through science, in particular) can approach and perhaps explain religious feelings, at least in principle? I bet you do. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. But even if you don’t agree that science can eventually (after several decades) explain religious feelings, I am sure that — if you are open-minded enough — you agree that science should be given a chance to attempt it. For it is one thing to say “I don’t believe it can be done”, and quite another to say “I don’t want it to be done”. If you don’t want it, fine, this means you’re not willing to be personally involved in the scientific exploration of religious feelings, but at least you shouldn’t interfere or obstruct those who want to do it. If you simply don’t believe it can be done, then you could sit back and watch those who sweat, trying to do it. If they eventually fail, this will be your intellectual triumph. But until then, you must be patient. Because it is too early to issue a judgment, all I can do now is to outline what efforts have — perhaps timidly — started being made in an attempt to provide a scientific explanation of religious feelings.
At this point I’d like to mention briefly an argument put forth by atheists quite often, because it will be treated more properly in §5.1. First, believers say: “Is there any difference between a believer’s faith in God, and a non-believer’s faith in rationality? In the end, they both require faith! Isn’t it obvious that the moment you opt for rationality as your mental tool you’ve made an arbitrary choice, which cannot be justified on the basis of rationality itself, because that would amount to circular reasoning?”
To this, some atheists retort as follows: “Your computer works because rationality and the sciences that rest on using reason predict that it will. Look around you and try to realize how many of the objects that you see — including such low-tech things as the walls of the multistory building in which you possibly reside — would be impossible without the scientific reasoning method. So, faith in rationality and faith in faith are not exactly on par with each other! The former produces results and makes correct predictions about the world, whereas the latter produces nothing tangible, and has made no prediction of a repeating event that has been repeatedly verified (to bar chance prediction of single-instance events).”
This answer of atheists refers to the practicality of religion: it is only relevant if we request practical and — obviously — positive results from religion in people’s lives. In that case, the question becomes: “Which is better as a benefactor in people’s lives, science, or religion?” (Perhaps they are both benefactors, and one must decide the use of one over the other only in those issues where the two disagree, giving conflicting answers; this will be examined in §4.3.) But the believer is not required to focus on the practical aspects of religion. For many believers, religion is important because of its spiritual help and guidance, not because of its ability to explain the natural world, or to predict its future. Insisting that religion produce practical results is akin to requiring the same of art. We don’t have to request this from religion, just as, for instance, we don’t require from a painting by Rembrandt to make verifiable predictions and create tangible products (other than attempts to copy or steal it).
No, my correspondent’s argument was not about the practicality of religion; it was a theoretical, a logical one. My corresponding believer made a solid, rational argument, which is this: the moment we find a rational explanation for why rationality is preferable over faith in approaching religion, we have fallen into the vortex of circular reasoning: we used rationality to justify itself.
But the believers are not exactly pure and innocent in this debate: they use reasoning — plain mathematical logic, actually — to force non-believers to admit that they cannot justify rationality, i.e., that rationality must be taken as an axiom; and then, the moment they achieve this, they drop the tool they made an excellent use of, and cry triumphantly, “Now let me use only my faith, okay?” That’s exactly what Dennett was complaining about: believers use the net of reason only as a fence against the opponent’s serve — for as long as it suits the believer — but drop the net when it’s their turn to serve.
To summarize this theoretical debate, non-believers are guilty of trying to lift themselves off the ground by pulling up their own bootstraps, and believers are guilty of shameful duplicity, changing the rules in mid-game to suit their purposes.
Must we conclude then that believers and non-believers speak different languages, and never the twain shall meet? What alternative is there other than considering reason and faith (read: science and religion) as two different domains that must not interfere with each other? Must we accept Stephen Jay Gould’s proposal that science and religion constitute two “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA’s)? In Gould’s view, each “magisterium” occupies a separate realm of human cognition. Science informs us how the natural world works, and religion informs us how we ought to behave morally. Each magisterium is separate, and they should not interfere with each other.
Gould’s idea of NOMA’s has been rejected by Dawkins, who argued that the notion that there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us, is a scientific hypothesis, and is therefore not exempt from scientific examination. But my correspondent’s idea (which I suspect is shared by many other believers) is not about God-as-Creator of the physical world (which, admittedly, is a physical problem), but about God-as-Redeemer (for Christians), and as Recipient of Personal Communication that takes place between the believer and God (for believers of most major religious denominations). It’s a personal, subjective issue, one that doesn’t admit rationality to creep in — so believers would say.
But here is a way in which although rationality cannot prove faith wrong, i.e., it cannot completely dethrone and kick away faith (for we concluded that, logically thinking, this leads to circular reasoning), it is possible that rationality can paint religious faith into a corner. Indeed, if that happens, the “corner” will be so narrow that to keep on relying on faith in the face of the alternative, rational explanation of religion would border on the comical, in the same sense that believing today that the Earth is flat is comical.(*) The earlier phrase “if that happens” means that we are not there yet; we don’t have the necessary knowledge to conclude the analogous of a “round Earth” conclusion in the rationality vs. faith controversy; but we’re getting there. The following analogy might help understand the idea.
Consider how our knowledge of the creation of stars was modified. Until only a century ago the account of Genesis 1 was a serious contender for an explanation of how stars were made, even among some scientists of that time. Because telescopes were not powerful enough yet, people thought that stars had been created once and for all. Even the dying supernovas, which were perceived as new stars (hence the “nova” in the term), are so rare that they didn’t pose a serious threat to the belief that “God made the stars”. (Jews and Christians believe this to have been the fourth day of creation; Muslims believe that Allah made the stars during the creation, as the Koran affirms, but not at a specified time.)
But recently we started learning new things about stars. The power of telescopes increased to the point of allowing astronomers to see snapshots of star formation at any stage during their birth. You turn your telescope to some bright diffuse nebula, such as the one shown in the picture on the left, and see the material that will turn into stars after millions of years. Then you turn your telescope to the constellation Taurus,
Nebula around star η Carina
The open cluster M45 (the Pleiades)
(image made by the program Celestia)
and see the Pleiades (middle picture), an “open cluster” of stars born only around 100 million years ago (that’s recent in astronomical standards). You see the stars still wrapped in the dust that gave rise to them. This was dust just like the one shown in the picture on the left, but, given the time that passed, it got condensed into the stars that we see in the middle picture, with some visible amount of it still floating around. As time goes by, the dust disperses, resulting in stars that appear isolated, like our Sun (image on the right), which has an age of around 5 billion years. But once upon a time the Sun was a member of an open cluster, which included Sirius, α Centauri, Procyon, and other neighboring stars. We learned that the dust becomes condensed into stars because it collapses under its own gravity. As it collapses and becomes denser and denser at some random spots, the extreme force of gravity causes nuclear reactions to start. The more the amount of dust that accumulates the more powerful the nuclear reactions become, which exert a pressure opposing gravity and thus prevent the material to collapse any further. Stars are the balancing experts between gravity and nuclear power. And nuclear reactions (explosions, like those of hydrogen bombs) provide the energy that causes stars to shine.
Once we understood this, God was eliminated from the star-creation picture. It is not necessary to invoke God for the creation of stars, any more than it is to invoke him for the creation of water droplets in a cloud. Indeed, the analogy is quite accurate. Clouds become denser and denser in the atmosphere of the Earth (owing to meteorological phenomena that are more or less random), and if it happens that their density is very large (and the temperature and pressure suitable), water droplets are formed at random places, which descend to the ground and are observed by us as rain. No God. If we were bacteria whose life depended crucially on those droplets (especially the big droplet in which we were all living), then we might have invented a story relating how a Supreme Bacterial Architect created the droplets in the heaven at day-whatever. But we’re people, and for our scale of sizes it is the gravity-droplets (stars) that are important, especially the big bright gravity-droplet that circles the sky of the Earth daily and gives us the energy we need to move around.
That our knowledge about star creation would grow and change the status of the Genesis 1 story from matter-of-fact to oh-it’s-an-allegory was not evident at all one century ago, because back then knowledge was missing. Could it be that, likewise, we now live in times during which it is not evident at all that future science, through observation and reasoning, will illuminate and explain religious faith, turning it to nothing more than a special mode of mental operation? I think so, but note that here I am expressing only my personal bias. I might be wrong, and it is only the overall evidence (including future one) that will tell us if I am right or not. The evidence that makes me having this hunch exists and keeps coming, although at a rate that implies that my lifetime might not suffice to witness the complete scientific explanation of the religious mind. Still, some evidence is already here. Specifically, here is how rationality encroaches little by little in the realm of faith, and how scientific research gnaws, bit by bit, at the throne of the magisterium of religion:
There is a lot of work being done recently on the subject of the evolutionary foundations of human morality. Traditionally, to be moral has been considered a “spiritual” task, with the understanding that “spiritual” is supposed to be in opposition to “material”. (Recall also that in Gould’s NOMA’s, the “magisterium of religion” presumably informs us how we ought to behave morally.) A minor point has already been discussed above, where it was shown by simulation that it is not a chance event that we generally support the morally good and punish the evil, since animal species that do otherwise have fewer chances to survive. But much more substantial work has been done (also discussed in the literature, at the end) that provides evidence that morality has not been sent to us from God, or asked of us by God, but that it evolved in us just as all other properties of ours evolved: from lower origins through natural selection. Morality is a foundational pillar of religion. This pillar is currently being sawed. If it is finally severed and tumbles down, the throne of the magisterium might be engaged in a desperate (but futile) balancing act.
Research is conducted on mystical experiences during meditation and other moments of isolation, concentration, etc. Neuroscientists like Andrew Newberg (Penn State U.) examine the brain while it is engaged in, e.g., Tibetan Buddhist meditation. After the study, the subjects describe in words the feelings that are often associated with intense meditation. A subject said that, concentrating on a mental image, he focused and focused, quieting his conscious mind, until something he identified as his true inner self emerged. It felt “timeless and infinite”, a part of everyone and everything in existence. Meditators often report feelings of touching infinity. A Franciscan nun, Sister Celeste, said: “I felt communion, peace, openness to experience... [There was] an awareness and responsiveness to God’s presence around me, and a feeling of centering, quieting, nothingness, [as well as] moments of fullness of the presence of God. [God was] permeating my being.” Newberg scanned her brain, and during her most intensely religious moments, when she felt a palpable sense of God’s presence and an absorption of her self into his being, her brain displayed some changes similar to those observed in Tibetan monks. Specifically, there is an area in the brain nicknamed the “orientation association area”, that tells us where the body ends and the rest of the world begins. (This area is in the superior parietal lobe, for neurologically savvy readers — see figure, below.) In particular, the left orientation area creates the sensation of a physically delimited body, and the right orientation area creates the sense of the physical space in which the body exists. This area is always active as long as we are conscious. But during the intense moments of those people’s meditation it went blank. It turned off, ceasing to provide information about where the body ends, presumably causing the feeling of “becoming one with the universe”. They turned it off: the meditators did, having acquired the skill to do it, through their years of practicing meditation. Of course, nobody told them, “You have to switch the orientation area in your parietal lobe off!”, anymore than one needs to tell you that you must activate a particular area in the frontal lobe of your brain if you want to use your rationality (see figure, left side). No, the meditator learns to do some routine by practice, and the brain does its work. But by using neuro-imaging machines we see which regions in the brain are responsible for some feelings, and we understand why.
|Diagram of the human brain, showing
the areas mentioned in this text.
The eyes are situated on the left side, just under the frontal lobe.
Now, I wrote above that the meditators did this switching off of the orientation area of their brain, and thus reported the mystical experience — the Tibetan monks felt one with the universe, the nun united with God. But one might retort that this doesn’t prove that there is nothing external to the brain that causes the switch-off. It might be that a supernatural power switches off that part of the brain, allowing you to have the mystical experience. However, this is not a very convincing thought. For one thing, it would reduce God to a mindless automaton. You concentrate in your meditating way whenever you want, and, if you are skillful enough, God is there (supposedly causing your orientation area to switch off). You stop, and God ceases tinkering with your brain. You concentrate again, you get God with his “spiritual screwdrivers”. You cease, God whisks away. Aw, come on! This can’t be God! This thing is less intelligent than an elevator.
Still, I appreciate the thought that, just as the visual cortex evolved to allow us perceive (see) real external objects, maybe regions in the parietal and temporal lobes evolved (or were designed like that by God) to allow us perceive real external entities of the “spiritual” realm. Sure, it’s a possibility. And just as I agree that it is a possibility, religious people might want to reciprocate by admitting that it is a possibility that the religious sense is a purely internal mental state, independent of the external world (spiritual or otherwise), akin to the sense of hunger, the organ of which (the digestive system) perceives not an external world but our internal need for food. As I wrote in the beginning of this section, we don’t know yet. To form an informed opinion, one must first acquire as much knowledge as possible on this and all related subjects.
Hearing voices and seeing visions: It has long been noted that temporal-lobe epilepsy seems to trigger vivid, Joan of Arc-type religious visions and voices. Famous people like Dostoevsky, Saint Paul, Saint Teresa of Avila, Proust and others are thought to have had temporal-lobe epilepsy, leaving them obsessed with matters of the spirit. However, temporal-lobe epilepsy is not necessary to hear inner voices, nor the only cause of such phenomena. Inner voices can also be triggered by anxiety, personal crisis, lack of oxygen, low blood sugar, and simple fatigue. Note that one way to induce such states is through religious fasting. But they can also be caused to appear on demand in the lab, by wearing a helmet equipped with electromagnets that trigger electrical activity in the temporal lobes (at the bottom in the figure of the brain, above), as Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Canada has shown. Persinger, a researcher in neuroscience, having a perfectly healthy temporal lobe, applied his device first on himself and reported having felt the presence of God. Regarding hearing voices, what is suspected is this: the temporal lobes of the brain seem to be important in speech perception. One experience common to many spiritual states is hearing the voice of God. It seems to arise when you misattribute inner speech (the “little voice” in your head that you hear even while reading, and you know you generate yourself) to something outside yourself. During such experiences, the brain’s “Broca’s area” (responsible for speech production, see figure) switches on. Most of us can tell this is our inner voice speaking. But when sensory information is restricted, as happens during meditation or prayer, people are “more likely to misattribute internally generated thoughts to an external source” suggests psychologist Richard Bentall of the University of Manchester in England in the book “Varieties of Anomalous Experience”.[in 26] (The American psychologist Julian Jaynes went as far — too far, in my opinion(*) — as to suggest that ancient peoples could not attribute their inner voices to themselves, and were thus misattributing it to a god, or gods.) The same is true for visual experiences: normally we understand that an imagined image is generated by us; but under special conditions the brain ceases to receive external input (from the eyes) and misattributes the source of its own imagination to the external world. People in such states generate a virtual world, which they believe exists independently — after all, they see it, and seeing is believing. I never experienced anything like this firsthand, but have had the pleasure to discuss with people who did. One such person, corresponding with me, reported that at times he felt the presence of something, which he attributed to the Jewish God, “about four feet away” from him. This was only a “presence”, not a vision, and the presence didn’t speak words, but instead approved or disapproved my correspondent’s thoughts.
“I went to the other world and returned”: People who suffered a serious car-accident, or other accident of similar severity (e.g., bomb explosion at near distance, or of a gas bottle, etc.), have at times described weird experiences. Some have said that they felt being transported through a long tunnel, at the far end of which there was a bright light. (What happens when they reach the end of the tunnel varies from case to case.) Others describe an even stranger situation: they felt being levitated, and stayed afloat for a while over their own dead body. That is, they could see a body, which they identified as their familiar own one, and which appeared lifeless after the accident, whereas their existence (their “soul”, presumably) stayed floating a few feet above the dead body. Instead of treating such descriptions as fanciful stories, and even sometimes poking fun at them, I believe they should be taken seriously as incidents that show us what’s possible to occur in extreme situations, when many regions of the brain have suffered lesions simultaneously. I have no clue on what the cause of the “tunnel experience” might be; the experience of levitation and floating over the “dead” body, however, seems to imply a situation in which both the parietal and temporal lobes are malfunctioning. With their parietal lobe “tweaked”, victims do not have sense of the limits and position of their bodies, hence the brain might be giving wrong information regarding where the self is located within space. With their temporal lobe “tweaked” as well, victims do not understand that the image they “see” did not originate from the external world, but is an internal product of their own making (see previous paragraph). Also, rational judgment (frontal lobe) is likely to be compromised as well in such a situation, so victims cannot make observations about what they “see”, which in a normal state of mind would tell them that something is wrong, something is logically incongruous in that image.
All the above experiences fall squarely into what people describe as “spiritual”. Without detailed knowledge of how the brain works, the feeling during such experiences is that an external “spiritual world” is directly perceived, and causes the experiences. But by studying the brain we learn that more economical explanations exist, which avoid the innumerable unanswered questions raised by the admission of the existence of a “spiritual world”, and according to which various regions of the brain turn off or on, and cause us to misattribute the source of our experiences from an internally generated to an external source. In ancient times (and even in our times to some extent, depending on culture) people used to believe that dreams come externally to us, sent by some deity. But today most sensible people understand that dreams are internal creations of our subconscious. Religious experiences are usually more intense than dreams, and happen under special conditions, so they’re less readily accessible and have been studied to a lesser degree. But when their cognitive functioning is thoroughly understood, there is little doubt that the “magic” (read: “spirituality”) will be explained away. This does not mean that people will cease enjoying spiritual moments; only that they will not be misattributing their source to external agents.
So this is the sense in which the rationality of science can help us understand spirituality. It is not possible ever to be absolutely sure that there is no external spiritual world because, for all our thorough understanding of human cognition in the future, it might be that the spiritual world wants to make us believe that when we examine the brain thoroughly we explain spirituality away; so the spiritual world tricks us to believe that it doesn’t exist. Certainly, it could be. Likewise, you can’t ever be absolutely certain that there is no Ghostly Leprechaun acting to contract the biceps brachii muscle every time you flex your forearm. It might be that although you think you understand perfectly how the biceps brachii and the other muscles of your arm work — especially if you are a doctor — there is still a Ghostly Leprechaun who causes your muscular cells to contract, and tricks you to believe that it doesn’t exist because of your full understanding of muscular functions. Of course. But it is more economical to believe that there is no Ghostly Leprechaun since it’s redundant, and, from a certain point of view, it is saner.
When did I realize I was God?
Well, I was praying
and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself.
One issue that could be perceived as “danger from religion” is the purported conflict between science and religion: as religion is the older attempt of the human intellect to explain the world, it encroaches into domains that increasingly become amenable to study by the newer attempt, which is science. If religion gives us false explanations for natural phenomena (e.g., creation of stars, emergence of life, emergence of our species, cause of disease, basis of morality, etc.), then it is an impediment to human progress. But is there really a conflict? Do science and religion compete against each other?
Sometimes knowledgeable and well-meaning people state that, in their opinion, there is no conflict between science and religion, because each one is only applicable in its own domain: science on the world of nature, and religion on the world of metaphysics, including morality. An example of this sort of thinking was discussed earlier (see the biologist’s Stephen Jay Gould’s view).
My impression is that such people, though indeed well-meaning, peaceful, and motivated by politeness, ignore the most fundamental principle in science, which is understood in the exact opposite way in religion. First, I would like to introduce the heart of the conflict between science and religion in a light-hearted manner, by means of a quite well-known cartoon:
The content of the above cartoon is captured in a more concise way as follows:
Scientists will of course agree with the statement on the left, because there is nothing more unscientific than having beliefs and opinions that are not founded on observations, i.e., data.
Some religious people, however, might disagree with the statement on the right, because they are of the impression that they base at least some of their beliefs on data and observations. What they miss is that what they call “observations” and “data” are either (1) mere opinions of other people, not real data, or (2) not truly elementary data but interpretations (according to their beliefs) of elementary data; in other words, they are theories that attempt to explain the data. Here is an example of case (1):
Islam, which is one of the major religions of the world (in terms of number of adherents), claims that the holy books of Christianity (the New and Old Testament) and of Judaism (the Torah, which includes several of the books of what Christians call “the Old Testament”) have been changed in content and are thus corrupt; i.e., their original content as given by God was different, but people corrupted the texts as time went by. Hence — Muslims claim — their Qur’an represents the true and uncorrupted word of God (Allah). There is of course not a single shred of evidence showing that the books of Christianity and Judaism have been changed as drastically in content as the Qur’an suggests, if the Qur’an gives the correct and uncorrupted divine word. Rather the opposite is true, judging from the most ancient extant texts of the Old and New Testament, which predate the Qur’an: compared to them, the Qur’an appears as if it is their caricature — as if Muhammad, the author of the Qur’an, asked scribes to write down whatever he could remember from the Old & New Testament by heart, omitting important parts, having serious gaps in his knowledge of those books, and as if he was illiterate, unable to read them so as to refresh his memory. (Muhammad’s illiteracy, by the way, is something the Muslims agree on.) But Muslims believe the exact opposite: that the Qur’an (the newcomer) is the correct text, whereas the Bible (predating the Qur’an) is the corrupted one. Muslims fail to realize that this is a mere opinion of theirs. When they are asked why they believe so, they reply that the answer is in the Qur’an itself; and why is the Qur’an correct? Because the Qur’an — they say — is the word of Allah, and that’s where the questioning must stop. In other words, their belief that Allah recorded his word in the Qur’an is primary; everything else is a derivative of that primary belief.
Now here is another, well-known example of case (2):
The religious person observes the stars one dark, moonless, starry night, and — awestruck by the magnificence of the spectacle — concludes that a supernatural power, namely God, must have created all that magic. Religious people use the awe, which the starry sky causes them to feel, as their basis for the conclusion that an intelligence far greater than the human one must be responsible for what their eyes witness.
The elementary data in this case is that which our eyes witness; i.e., the stars. The awe is not an elementary datum, but rather a subjective feeling, which some people experience but others do not; in any case, the awe is a psychological phenomenon, not part of the objective world of data out there. Finally, to reach the conclusion that God must be the creator of the universe the religious person makes two more hidden assumptions: (a) that something ordered and complex (such as the stars) can only be created by something which is even more ordered, complex, and intelligent; and (b) that the Higher Intelligence that created the stars is the God they believe in. Both (a) and (b) are not necessarily true: (a) is demonstrably false, and (b) is a logical non sequitur. Specifically regarding (a), ordered structures appear out of simpler ones all the time in nature. One such example is the various crystals, which are ordered structures that were created out of unordered matter by the application of purely natural forces, following the laws of physics as we know them (see the pictures that follow). But even the stars themselves were created out of unordered interstellar dust by mere application of physical laws, as we are now in a position to know. So there is no need to insert a Higher Intelligence into the picture of star creation. At best, such an Intelligence could be introduced to “explain” the specific laws of physics that we witness in our universe; but given those laws, the stars are a natural consequence of them. And regarding (b), even if our universe was designed by a Higher Intelligence with its specific laws of physics as we know them so that one day we humans could exist, it simply doesn’t follow logically that that Higher Intelligence is the God that most people in the world (Christians and Muslims) believe in. It could be a Higher Intelligence who enjoys creating universes in a Super Lab, doing it as part of an experiment, but who has none of the other properties that religious people attribute to God (omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving, all-merciful, etc). Thus, whereas the true data are what our eyes see (i.e., the stars), the religious person misuses the true data concluding an unwarranted conclusion about the existence of the particular god they believe in.
|Various natural crystals: green calcite, white
cubes of pyrite, & white natrolite (part of the author’s collection).
|A hexagonal crystal of ice that landed on the
windshield of the
author’s car one winter day and was captured by his camera.
From the above fundamental principle a second one follows, in which science and religion come to a headlong clash:
It should be quite clear, I hope, that the above conflict of principles is a consequence of the one mentioned earlier. If, from the scientific point of view, observations (data) are primary and beliefs must be grounded on data, then it follows that beliefs are dependent on data. No belief can be considered absolute, or eternal, because new data might cast doubt on it in the future. In contrast, from the religious point of view, since beliefs are primary, they form the “axioms” of the religious belief system, and as axioms they cannot be questioned.
The idea that religious beliefs must remain unquestionable has cost, at times, the freedom, or even the lives of freethinkers. Among the well-known historical cases is the one of Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600, found guilty of heresy by the Roman Inquisition of the Catholic Church. Bruno supported the heliocentric system, which contradicted “the spirit of the scripture”, as the Inquisition declared. Thirty-three years later, another Italian, Galileo Galilei — a figure of highest eminence in the history of science — was threatened by torture for the same reason and by the same Inquisition, and was forced to recant his beliefs and stay under house arrest for the rest of his life. Nearly 1000 years earlier, the founder of a new religion, Muhammad, would butcher and torture to death anyone who disagreed with him or mock his beliefs, as reported in the Islamic holy scriptures (the various “ahadith”). Muhammad’s way of dealing with dissent is, unfortunately, followed in our times by fanatics of Islam, who murder those who disagree with them or criticize their religion. In general, the idea of “death for disagreement” seems to be one of the ways in which religion copes with dissent; another, milder punishment, has been the excommunication from the Church — especially in Christianity.
Interestingly, the idea that there are no absolute certainties in science is not always fully appreciated by scientists who have only a superficial scientific training. For example, suppose that we let free a body heavier than the air near the surface of the Earth. What is our certainty that — banning a magician’s act or other trickery — the body will fall downward? One who is not well versed in the philosophy of science might answer that we have a 100% certainty that the body will move downward (toward the center of the Earth) because of “the law of gravity” — thinking that a “law” of physics cannot be violated. But in reality we cannot have such an absolute certainty. Our certainty is extremely high, bolstered by all the objects that fall downward daily, as well as the many more objects that simply stay put on the surface of the Earth and don’t suddenly shoot themselves in a random direction toward the outer space; and yet, our certainty cannot — should not — be absolute. A “law” of physics is only our temporary shorthand description of a large number of observations (an extremely large number, in the case of gravity), and as such it might be found to be incomplete in the future. After all, the law of gravity itself, as expressed by Newton, was later found to be incomplete by Einstein, who expressed it in more accurate terms. This does not mean that, according to Einstein, an object let free can move not downward but in another direction; but it does imply that we only have a “not yet falsified” expression, which we call a “law”. In principle, it might be that under certain unknown and not-yet-experienced conditions, gravity can be locally “reversed” and objects can fly away from the planetary center. No one can ever be absolutely sure about anything in science, which is an empirical business, meaning that it is based on observations, not on immutable “laws”.
A third fundamental idea follows logically from the above, and differs between science and religion: it says that in science we must seek the falsification of every theory, rather than merely its support by evidence. In contrast, in religion, neither the support, nor — much less — the falsification of beliefs is sought; beliefs are simply given, and remain unquestionable.
Given the above observations regarding the fundamental principles on which science and religion take diametrically opposite positions, one wonders how it can be that some people — whether trained in science, religious, or both — see no conflict and no overlap between the two domains. (E.g., see Gould’s idea of NOMA’s — Non-Overlapping Magisteria — in §3.1.) For example, religion makes some claims about nature: how the world was made, when it was made, how humans and all living beings were created, and so on. Religion starts from beliefs, which are enshrined in “holy books”. Science also makes claims about nature, but it starts from observations, and reaches conclusions that, at least on a first reading, seem different from those of religions. Some religious people claim that some parts of science are wrong (e.g., the theory of evolution); others try to interpret their holy books so that they do not conflict with the scientific observations — a not-so-easy endeavor, with no universally accepted solutions. But, as long as there is discussion, no one should deny that a conflict exists. As another example: religion is still considered, by many, as the only authority on moral values, the idea being that morality comes from God. Yet scientists, in our times, have started questioning this received wisdom, and explore the origin of morality, finding it elsewhere; specifically, in nature (see §2.1; also, see Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape” ). How can we deny that there is a conflict here? A third example concerns the notion of “soul”, which is of fundamental importance to most religions. According to many religions, souls keep existing after death, and/or will be summoned during an ultimate “Judgment Day”, or will enter and live in different humans or animals in the future, and so on. But science, and specifically cognitive science, explores human cognition and finds a different “story” as more plausible: what we perceive as “soul” is an emergent property of a single, but extremely complex, self-referring concept: the concept of “self”. (E.g., see Douglas Hofstadter’s “I Am a Strange Loop” .) How can there be no conflict when science (some relevant disciplines of it, anyway) and religion (almost all of it) disagree on such a fundamental idea, such as the nature of “soul”?
I think that to deny the existence of not just conflict, but conflicts between science and religion requires us to be self-blindfolded, or uninformed, or both. And I state this not because my thought is imbued by a polemical attitude, but because I do not find it fair to close my eyes to the existence of opposing views and their consequent contradictions.
This topic will be further developed in the future like the rest, but meanwhile the reader is referred to a separate discussion of it in this page by the same author.
Footnotes (clicking on the caret (^) on the left of the footnote brings back to the text)
(^) Yes, yes, I know, some religious people believe that the whole world was created some 10,000 years ago. Others admit that the Earth was created around 4.5 billion years ago, as modern science assures us, but that our species is at most 10,000 years old; thus they accept science where it doesn’t matter much to them, but reject it where they think it doesn’t suit them. (I’ve had lengthy discussions with such people in the past, so I have a first-hand experience of conversing with those who accept science selectively.) For those whose temporal horizons of the past are shrunk like that... what can I say... they’ll get over it. People in the past have believed much more incredible things: that the Earth is flat, that it is at the center of the universe, that the heaven is a crystalline dome that holds and separates “the waters which [were] under the firmament” from those below it, and so on. Eventually the scientific knowledge becomes the layperson’s knowledge, but it takes whole centuries for that to happen.
(^) Muslims have expressed to me the opinion that the Allah of Islam is a better-conceived notion (“more perfect”) than the Christian God, because Allah has no gender, is neither Man nor Woman. Yes, it might be true that Allah has no gender in a Muslim’s mind, but this might be a simple consequence of the fact that Arabic, the language of the Koran (Qur’an), as well as nearly every language where the Islamic religion dominates, does not have grammatical genders. Thus, Muslims are not in need to say He or She when referring to Allah, because the concept of grammatical gender does not exist in most of the languages they speak. But most Christians speak Indo-European languages, which happen to have an obligatory grammatical gender, forcing the speaker to use a pronoun with gender, such as He or She. (The option “It” for languages with a neuter gender would be considered disrespectful when applied to God.) As a case in point, in Modern Greek, even proper names require a definite article with gender; so, Muslims who speak Greek are forced to say “o Allah” (“the [masc.] Allah”), using the masculine article, because omitting the article means speaking ungrammatical Greek, and choosing the feminine article (“i”) or the neuter one (“to”) seem even worse options. Thus, the issue of God’s gender is largely of linguistic nature, and should not be a reason for bragging about one’s own religion.
(^) It was brought to my attention that some people use the word “religion” so as to include even non-believers. For example, they claim that atheists and even agnostics are religious, as long as they hold some opinion about the existence, or non-existence, or even ignorance of existence, of God. In other words, whether you like it or not, you are religious. They do this by applying their own definition of the concept “religion”. Some people enjoy playing the “what is your definition?” game. I would like to make it clear that I do not find the discussion on the definition of religion particularly productive or illuminating. There are some so-called definitions that end up defining as religious only those people who subscribe to a particular creed (e.g., Christianity). Other “definitions”, as I mentioned, are so inclusive that they include practically every set of beliefs as a religion. What good is a definition that includes everything? I think that the only purpose of an all-inclusive “definition” is to satisfy the religious person’s ego in being able to claim, “Ha! See? Even those who say they are non-believers, are actually believers!” I find this attitude merely childish. A better view toward a definition of religion is described here, where a list of criteria for characterizing a set of beliefs as religion is provided (from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy), suggesting that some belief systems might satisfy some, a few, one, or none of the criteria. Thus there can be a gradation to how much a belief system qualifies as a religion.
(^) How do we know this? There is no direct evidence that no animal other than humans can conceive of the remote future, because it is extremely hard to set up a cognitive experiment in which a task is repeated, e.g., once every two years, and test whether some animal learned to anticipate the future occurrence of the event after some decades of training. (Who could be the researcher that would receive a grant for this sort of never-ending research! However, this doesn’t mean that research on this subject through different means is absent.) But an indirect argument seems to be persuasive: animal species do not develop abilities just for the fun of it, but because there is some environmental pressure that causes them to evolve so as to acquire the ability and survive in spite of the pressure. (This is true of every living kind, not just animals.) For example, giraffes got their long necks not because they enjoy watching the world from high, but because the vegetation they feed on in the African savannah includes some very tall trees, and giraffes specialized in feeding on those. Now, there does not seem to exist some physical event that repeats periodically on our planet with a period longer than a year and shorter than an animal’s life, the perception of which would be beneficial for the survival of the animal. Even aperiodic events, such as the randomly timed deaths of relatives and peers, do not seem to work: how would an animal benefit and leave more descendants by knowing that its peers will die some time in the remote future?
Here is a hypothetical concrete example: there are some cicadas, such as Magicicada septendecim, which appear once every 17 years in some places in North America; if there were some brainy apes living in places where these cicadas appear, and the apes fed on them, perhaps this would be an example of an environmental pressure for the apes that could cause them to evolve so as to conceive of the remote future, with a temporal horizon of at least 17 years; but there are no apes other than humans, nor other indigenous brainy animals in the New World.
Thus, there is no environmental pressure to cause an animal with sufficiently large brain to need to think about the remote future. As for humans, we must have developed our ability to conceive of the remote future as an “added bonus” — if it can be called a bonus at all, causing us the fear of death — because we developed other, more fundamental cognitive abilities.
(^) Or, if you will, the explanation exists, but it is probabilistic, and usually beyond the layperson’s grasp. If you toss a coin 1000 times, chances are that you’ll get approximately 500 “heads” and 500 “tails”. Let’s say that “heads” is good, e.g., you receive one meal for each “heads”, whereas “tails” is bad: you pay one meal per “tails”. Overall, after 1000 tosses of the coin, chances are that either you receive a small number of meals (you are a bit “lucky”), or you administer a small number of meals (a bit “unlucky”). But if 1000 people repeat the same experiment, chances are that one or two of them will get a very small number of “tails” and mostly “heads”: they will be the very lucky ones; likewise, one or two people will get a large number of “tails” (the unfortunate ones). The larger the sample of people, the greater the chance that there will be some very unlucky person, maybe someone who would need to pay in meals more than this person’s entire property. In a community of 1,000,000 people, you and others would be talking with pity about the misfortune that befell that poor fellow, and would be trying in vain to find an explanation in terms other than the theory of probabilities. But there is no need for another explanation. All one needs to understand is elementary probabilities, and how the dice of life happen to be sometimes too good, and sometimes too bad, for a few people. Our attention is usually focused on those few, and we ignore the bulk of those with less spectacularly good or bad luck.
(^) God was good for us of course, the believers, the authors of the story. For the others, our God would annihilate them without further notice. The morals in those times were such that the ancient Jews could not find any fault with the idea that “our God is helping us to wipe out a neighboring tribe, including their newborn babies, their mothers, and elder people”. So they attributed their ancient genocidal acts to their God. The notion that God cannot be so mean to kill the infidels — or help us kill them — is too modern, and has not even been digested very well by all people on this planet, since genocides in the name of a god continue to happen. More on the evolution of morality in this subsection.
(^) The creation myths of most ancient religions appear naïve to rational thought. For example, the ancient Greek creation myth talks of an initial void, in which there was only Nyx (Greek for “Night”), personified as a bird with black wings. Nyx then laid a golden egg, out of which came Eros, the god of love, etc., etc. But who created Nyx? Where did that come from? Similarly, the ancient Jewish creation myth (inherited by Christianity, and copied inaccurately by Islam), starts with God, who created the heaven and the earth. But who created God? Where did that come from? Contrary to common sense, adherents of Judaism and its descendant religions do not seem to even consider this as a logical question. Now, one might think that it is only the religious mind that falls into the trap of believing that there is a total explanation of creation, when in reality no explanation can be self-sufficient (since every explanatory system must be based on some initial assumptions). However, even modern scientists do not seem to be immune to this mental glitch. Theoretical physicists, for example, seek the ultimate formula that would explain everything — a “theory of everything”. But what would explain the properties of the fundamental elements in such a formula? This question is further discussed in this page of mine.
(^) Contradictions exist, for example, where religious texts report information that contradicts modern science. Anticipating the fervent protest and rejection of this idea by some religious readers, I will only make a short list (for brevity) of such contradictions, restricting myself to Genesis of the Old Testament, and pointing out that what is interesting is not so much the existence of the contradictions themselves (they can only be expected, since the texts were written by ancient peoples lacking modern knowledge), as the eagerness with which the religious mind is self-blindfolded, being in denial of the existence of contradictions, and finding the most ridiculous and irrational “explanations” for why these are not contradictions, after all. My short list follows:
A reader expressed the objection that the Hebrew verb used for “created” is bara´, an imperfect indicative active, thus indicating an action that began in the past and still continues... God keeps creating (even stars), according to this reader. But the problem is not with the tense and aspect of some verbs in Genesis. The reader misses two points: first, if God created and keeps creating, then what sense does it make to pinpoint the star creation at a specific “day”, such as the fourth one? Why not the first (as would be more fitting, since of all things mentioned in Genesis 1, star formation is a process as old as nearly the entire universe)? And second, does God really create stars? Why would anyone who has understood the physical processes behind star formation believe that God does it? Does any educated person today believe that God creates the raindrops? No, right? Then why would God create “gravity-drops”, or stars, as we commonly call them? Of course, if one doesn’t know much about clouds, what they are, and under what conditions raindrops are formed, one is prone to attribute rain to God (“If, then, you truly heed my commandments [...] I will give the seasonal rain to your land, the early rain and the late rain [...]” [Deut. 11:13–14]). Similarly, today there are many people who have no idea how stars are formed, so they attribute their creation to God. Please read at least the explanation of how stars are formed in the present text, in this section.
(^) An example of modern, and even dangerous religious nonsense, is the position of the Catholic Church that contraceptive devices (condoms) should not be used, because they work against God’s order to humankind to multiply; never mind that this religious directive acts as a death squad, sending human beings to their death by AIDS (see more in another footnote(*)). Nonsense in the Islamic world includes (but is not limited to) the treatment of women, who, in countries such as Saudi Arabia, cannot vote, cannot drive, cannot be educated formally, cannot go out of their home without being escorted by a man, when they do so they have to be dressed like a sack of potato, and are severely punished if any part of their body is revealed in public; in addition, the testimony of two women in court is equal to the testimony of a single man.
(^) Not to be confused with the more common use of the term “intellectualism”, meaning the devotion to and praise of the powers and development of the intellect, which is strongly associated with “elitism”. This has caused the emergence of the movement of “anti-intellectualism”, which is synonymous with “egalitarianism”. All this is unrelated to the notion of anthropological intellectualism.
(^) For philosophers, perhaps this is a problem to ponder on. For cognitive scientists, however, I beg to disagree. Being a cognitive scientist, I don’t want to give the impression that I react as en expert who feels compelled to give an answer even though he doesn’t have one, but this problem in cognitive science is really elementary. The problem exists only when we mix up the software and hardware levels of description. Think of the computer analogy. A program can cause a peripheral device of the computer to move (e.g., a printer, a hard disk), and if the program is sophisticated enough, it can do this without having been explicitly programmed by the programmer. (The head of my computer’s hard disk moves at unanticipated intervals all the time, without my direct control of it, and its motions are meaningful, not erratic.) How can the immaterial software move anything physical? Well, if we stay at the level of software of course we have a conundrum. But the software that does this has a hardware correlate: the bits of information that are physically realized in terms of zeros and ones in the computer’s memory. Bits are both software (0 and 1, abstractly) and hardware (whichever physical way they are realized in a computer chip, or CD/DVD). It is the hardware bits that make the computer peripheral move, and it is the organization of the bits, along with the supplied electrical power, that cause the peripheral to move in a meaningful way. Similarly, thoughts have correlates in the neurons of the brain, though the neuronal correlates are probably even more non-obvious and opaque than the hardware bits. It is the neurons that move the arm of a person, and it is their organization that makes such a motion meaningful to us.
(^) Exactly the opposite is true: mountains are the “wrinkles” of our planet precisely at the places where it trembles and shakes: in the vicinity of current or prehistoric seismic faults, where the tectonic plates meet; but Muhammad and his followers did not live in Australia or Siberia to realize that the Earth is mountain-less exactly where earthquakes are practically never felt.
(^) Unsurprisingly, most Americans do not seem to be aware of this feature of their culture, judging from my personal experience with them. Some examples of black-and-white thinking in American life are the following:
For a concrete example, consider this one: in 2004, a 12-year-old boy in Ohio won the right in court to wear a T-shirt to school bearing the words “Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!” (In , p. 23.) There are more examples, but this is not a survey on the American psychology, so I’ll cut the list short. And, no, I didn’t get the above ideas about Americans “from the movies”, as a correspondent of mine thought. First, I seldom watch movies, and second, I got my ideas by direct observation, having lived for over a decade in the U.S. However, if you are an American, you don’t necessarily need to be pigeonholed into the stereotype that I describe above. There are always exceptions to the rules.
(^) I put the word “want” in quotes because, naturally, memes do not have any volition; they do not really seek anything, any more than real viruses seek anything. But the functioning of viruses makes them appear as if they want to spread and infect people. A virus doesn’t have a brain, it’s a tiny scrap of DNA. But evolution has honed viruses so that, e.g., some of them cause us to sneeze, so they look as if they do everything they can to transfer their residence from person to person (because those viruses that didn’t do such tricks, aren’t around — they have been eliminated by natural selection). Similarly, a meme doesn’t need to think “I want to be transmitted” — it can’t think anything. But some sort of natural selection has kept in our minds those memes that are good at being copied from mind to mind. Those memes that are not good at that are absent from our minds, since we didn’t receive them from others. So, memes too, like viruses and genes, appear as if they have volition.
(^) And because the world is large, and statistically every possible aberration will be observed given a large enough sample, please don’t write to me bringing to my attention some idiot atheist’s attempt to organize a mission, if there is any. Don’t lose sight of the forest, focusing on the tree. One exception will not suffice to annul the rule, which is that traditionally missionaries are religious.
(^) One might claim that the 20th C. communist regimes could qualify as institutions that sought the spread of atheism. There is a bit of truth, and a lot of detachment from reality with this idea. Communist regimes — specifically the metropolis of them all, the Soviet Union — sought to advance communism, not atheism. The latter was only the official dogma, a reaction to organized religion that the Bolsheviks in tsarist Russia had fought against. Also, the theoreticians of communism, Marx, Engels, and Lenin, had expressed their views against religion, so atheism was adopted as somehow the only officially possible stance against religion. But communists did not organize missions in Africa, for example, trying to convince African tribes that they should convert to atheism. Wherever “people’s republics” were established in Africa or Asia back then, atheism played essentially no role, because local tribes retained their local religions. (After all, tribe leaders established those “people’s republics” so that they could receive financial support from the Soviet Union, not because they had any ideological attachment to communism.)
(^) But if atheists are not interested in spreading their ideas, what am I doing here? Am I not spreading my “viruses”? I hereby sincerely affirm that spreading my ideas is not my purpose in writing the present text. If there is any spreading, I apologize — it should be construed only as a side effect. As I explained in the introduction, my purpose is to put my thoughts about religion in some coherent order, in an effort to understand the cognitive phenomenon of religion. (Recall that I am a cognitive scientist by profession, which I hope explains my interest.) I uploaded this text in the Internet seeking feedback from various sources — both believers and non-believers — not attempting to “convert” anyone to atheism. Personally I find the idea of preaching for conversion abominable.
(^) And this is very important, because measuring the age of fossils and the age implied by differences in the DNA structure are two independent methods. Whenever two independent scientific methods converge to roughly the same answer, this lends much stronger support to the conclusion than either one of the methods would provide in isolation.
(^) However, Joe did not have a clue about the actual number. He simply believed that it’s not just a few thousand years, or better yet, he believed he had no objection to the age of the Earth as announced by scientists. But when I asked him exactly how old he thought the Earth is, he estimated it to be some tens of thousands of years. Upon pointing out to him that it is actually around 4.5 billion years old, he replied, “Oh, well...” — with a taunted expression on his face, which I interpreted to mean, “Who cares... some tens of thousands, a few billion — what difference does it make?”. Like every good creationist, he was oblivious to the fact that even to begin to find evolution possible, familiarity with the actual age of the Earth makes all the difference in the world.
(^) It’s not just religions that failed to guess correctly the location of our origin; some scientific theories were not much more successful either. Lacking the evidence that accumulated recently, there was (in the 2nd half of the 20th century, and still appears in many textbooks) the theory of multiregionalism, according to which each type of people (Europeans, Asians, Africans, etc.) evolved independently from earlier, ancestor types of humans (the Homo erectus kind), and through interbreeding. The way I understand it, multiregionalism implies that our kind, H. sapiens, and the ancestor kind H. erectus are actually one and the same species! Otherwise how could the various H. erectus individuals in Asia, Africa, and Europe, evolve independently into the same kind of animal, the modern H. sapiens? There is not a single similar evolutionary example in the biological world. So, either we, humans, are somehow biologically special (able to evolve independently into the same species from geographically distant populations of an ancestor species — an impossible hypothesis), or H. sapiens is not really a new species but the same species as H. erectus, a conclusion that simply pushes the question of the origin of our species back in time by about 1.5 million years. However, multiregionalism is not supported sufficiently anymore by the paleoanthropological and molecular-biological evidence.     
(^) The depth of the Red Sea at the Strait of Bab el Mandeb is deep enough to guarantee that it has always been a water strait, never converted to a land passage, even when the sea level was at its lowest (e.g., during glaciation periods, when large masses of water were accumulated on the poles). Also, we know that our ancestor species H. erectus did not possess the necessary skills to build rafts and travel any significant length over the sea. For example, H. erectus reached the islands of Indonesia (hence the “Java Man” fossils) because there were times during which the sea level had dropped, turning many Indonesian islands into parts of a connected land mass; so H. erectus individuals could walk over the land, but never managed to cross the Timor Sea, which separates Australia from Indonesia, and remained always a body of water.
(^) I use the term “farming” and “agriculture” interchangeably and in the general sense, which includes animal husbandry.
(^) However, just because most people in the world today would loathe to see the bodies of their relatives being consumed by scavengers does not mean that all cultures on the planet think the same. In Tibet, for example, a traditional way for dispensing the dead body is to leave it in the open for vultures to consume it, a practice known as “sky burial” (warning: the reader is advised not to follow the previous link if s/he suspects s/he would feel uncomfortable reading the article of the encyclopedia; at the very least, read the following explanation first). This practice is not without justification, and does not mean that Tibetans do not believe in the afterlife. It is precisely because they believe that the soul has departed from the body, that they regard the body as a lifeless object, and deem it best that it be returned to nature, where it originated from. Seen from the proper perspective, the practice makes rational sense, and cannot be relegated simply as “barbaric”. (Tibetans might think that, instead, the Western practice of burial is barbaric, for reasons that I do not need to explain, but are within everybody’s reach.) Thus, we see that avoidance of burial (as well as cremation) does not imply that some culture does not hold beliefs about the afterlife.
(^) This legend, which sounds so much like a plagiarism of the Great Flood of the Hebrews, is at least as old as the Jewish legend, so it is not possible to say which was plagiarizing which. More likely, none of the two is a plagiarism of the other. Mythological stories were memes floating among ancient cultures, through their mutual interactions. Thus, the Great Flood legend is found in the mythologies of several ancient peoples. Another Great Flood legend, most probably predating the Hebrew and Greek legends, and with many similarities to both, is the story of Ut-Napishtim in the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, ca. 2100 BCE.
(^) Some readers might object to my use of the term “Muslim nation”. Indeed, there are some nations, such as Nigeria, with a population split between Muslim and Christian beliefs. Also, there is one nation with predominantly Muslim population, Turkey, in which the death penalty has been abolished (though openly criticizing Allah, the Koran, or Muhammad in Turkey is not the wisest thing to do). However, in most other nations with Muslim populations, such as the Arabic countries, Iran, Pakistan, etc., speaking against Islam does incur the death penalty (so nobody does it), and that is what I mean by “Muslim nations”.
(^) Today, when it is people who perpetrate such an act, we call it a genocide. But when it is God who does it, then it’s called “Divine Justice”.
(^) Why is this story, in my opinion, morally unacceptable? Because it is perceived as horrendously frightening by some children: it ruins their trust in their parents, which hasn’t become rock-solid yet with all the things we learn about our parents later in life. I am speaking from personal experience: I admit I had a hard time swallowing this story as a 7-year-old child, the time when I first read it, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only child in the world who had this reaction. I identified of course with poor Isaac, and couldn’t digest the idea that a father could raise a knife and slaughter his own little son — and this was presented as virtuous in the book! Really, is it a virtue to agree to slaughter your child because the Führer of your tribe asked you to do so? When the young mind is still uninjured by the religious infection it can see this act for what it is: the molesting of a powerless and inferior (child Isaac) by the powerful and superior (father Abraham, or even God himself, since he gave this horrible command to Abraham). That was the first time I felt something is deeply rotten in the book my parents gave me to read.
(^) Genocidal: Gen 6:5-8:22, Gen 19:12-28, Num 31:1-10; Josh 6:13-27; misogynist: Gen 19:8, Jdg 11:30-40, Jdg 19:23-29; jealous bigot: Exd 34:14. These are not the only derogatory epithets that befit the O.T. God, but I don’t want to appear as if I am motivated by ulterior motives of hatred against religion, so I include here only what can be indisputably(*) attributed directly by the biblical text. (*) Indisputably only if one’s mind is not infected by the religious memes, which have the capacity to make one see black as white, and vice versa — more about this in §3.3.
(^) This statement is meant to be understood as applying only at the interpersonal level (among individuals), not at the international one (among nations). For example, at the time of this writing, European nations (including some that are aspiring members of the European Union) have abolished the death penalty; the United States, however, regularly executes criminals on its own soil (the U.S. is among the champions in capital punishment, together with China, Iran, and North Korea), and non-American civilians elsewhere in the world (e.g., most recently in Iraq, under the pretext of warfare). Apparently, the average American does not feel immoral or even responsible for the human lives lost due to their nation’s offenses against other nations, or for the ease by which convicted fellow Americans are executed; but they do employ modern morality when it comes to interpersonal relations.
(^) This is not meant to be interpreted as saying that every member of her culture is arrogant. Clearly, there are many humble Americans, and I have had the pleasure to interact with quite a few of them over the years, including some of my best friends. The characterization “arrogant culture” should be construed only in a statistical way.
(^) I call circular reasoning the attempt to explain morality through morality (ours through God’s). One might claim this is not circular reasoning, strictly speaking. Okay, but it is logically very unsatisfying, unconvincing reasoning. It’s like trying to explain the shaking of the earth during earthquakes through the shaking of an underground deity who occasionally sneezes. The question is whence cometh morality; not our human morality, but morality in general. When they tell me: “Morality comes from God”, they explain to me the origin of human morality, but not of morality in general, because they have no idea why God is moral and not immoral; they simply take it as an axiomatically accepted fact that God is moral.
(^) Okay, fine, there is also the possibility that God could be indifferent to evil or its absence, or that he could display a mild interest in morality (like Zeus, for example), and so on. My purpose here is not to examine all possibilities exhaustively, but to present the diametrically opposite alternative to the predominant religious view of today, which admits only one possibility: that God is good.
(^) Sometimes it is possible to prove mathematically a few properties (usually trivial, though) of chaotic systems, but much more commonly, proofs are impossible. In some cases it has been proven that such proofs are impossible, so it is not merely our ignorance that prevents us from finding a proof. There is a good chance that the property I am interested in (whether species T would survive or be extinct) is such a typical property of a chaotic system, lacking a proof, because it is somewhat reminiscent of the “halting problem”, a famous “undecidable” (provably unprovable) problem of computability theory in computer science. In such cases, amassing evidence by repeatedly running the simulation of the system is the next best thing short of obtaining a proof.
(^) It might sound unrealistic that plants don’t die; and yet, it isn’t. I could make each plant stay at a location for a fixed number of epochs, then “give birth” to another plant with similarly restricted lifetime at another (random) location, and then die. But this is equivalent to a plant that moves randomly in space. Because animals also move randomly in space, it doesn’t make any difference after all if the animals will find the plants at their original locations or at different ones. This means that moving plants around doesn’t add anything of interest to the system.
(^) For example, Richard Dawkins was asked what in his opinion the origin of morality is, during the question-answer session of the presentation of his book, The God Delusion, in Lynchburg, Virginia. After first offering his well-known explanation of altruism based on the evolution of genes (see The Selfish Gene, chapters 1 & 10), he ended up admitting honestly: “I don’t know”. (The entire lecture can be found online at this address.) In The Selfish Gene we read:
“I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans ought to behave. [...] My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true. [...] Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.” (pp. 2-3.)
On the contrary, I believe that help in understanding the origin of morality can come precisely from biological nature. Dawkins didn’t see it because he has focused on the leaves of the trees, and missed the forest.
(^) That species compete and some of them become extinct because of competition is a moot subject among biologists, but some evidence exists in favor of answering in the affirmative. For example, it is well known that marsupial mammals generally do not compete favorably against the placental mammals. For this reason, marsupials have been restricted mostly to the isolated continent of Australia, with a few exceptions only in South and Central America (and the single species of opossum in North America). Fossil evidence indicates that South America was once inhabited only by marsupial mammals, when the two Americas were disconnected. At that time (between 120 and 100 million years ago), South America, Antarctica, and Australia were all connected, forming one gigantic southern continent (what was left of the earlier and even larger continent of Gondwana), where marsupials were the only mammals. Later, when the isthmus of Panama was formed, placental mammals invaded South America from the north, and marsupials essentially vanished in the south — with only very few surviving in specialized niches, including the opossum, which is a remnant of the marsupial species of South America that migrated northward. Of course, the American marsupials weren’t extinct because they became a meal for the other ones, but because the placentals have better specifications for survival in the same environments. (Meanwhile, Australia was already disconnected from Antarctica, so its marsupials were saved from the placental invasion.) Thus, what we have here is an entire biological taxon competing against another: the subclass Eutheria (placental mammals) against the subclass Metatheria (marsupial mammals). At the species level, whenever placentals such as rabbits and foxes were introduced in Australia (by European settlers), they displaced completely the corresponding native marsupial species, and are now treated nearly as pests by the Australians. The “battle” of placentals against marsupials, although superficially appears unrelated to stealing and morality, is a clear example of competition among species (or even taxa) that can result in the survival of one at the expense of another.
(^) For the occasional reader who is unfamiliar with this issue, the Catholic Church opposes the use of condoms during sexual intercourse, thus condemning to death by AIDS thousands, if not millions of people, mainly in Africa and other under-developed places. (See also this footnote.) The Catholic Church’s rationale is that human beings should not intervene in God’s will, and so should not kill sperms, each of which is a potential human being. Unbelievable or not, the Catholic Church gives more rights to sperms than to fully developed adults, disregarding the fact that it’s not just sperms, but any cell of the human body that has all the information and potential in its DNA to become a human being. Come to think of it, following the Catholic Church’s logic, every time you scratch your head you commit a genocide of colossal proportions.
(^) Note that even the Levite’s servant was saved from the ordeal, presumably because he was male, and the old man’s maiden daughter was offered to the hungry mob instead, along with the concubine. I suspect that the ancient Jewish hierarchy in a household ran something like this: first the male lord of the house, then the male children, then the male servants, followed by the wives, female children, female servants and concubines, asses, and oxen. (I am not sure whether male asses and male oxen would be worth less than the wives and other female property, though.)
(^) In other words, Allah appears to give the following self-contradictory command: on one hand, “do not exceed the limits”, i.e., do not retaliate in a manner harsher than your enemy’s wrong-doing; and on the other hand, “kill them wherever you find them [because] persecution is worse than slaughter.” Really? Is persecution worse than slaughter? What would you prefer, to be persecuted, or to be killed? I bet that every sane human being would prefer to live, even under a state of persecution, rather than to be killed. So, either Allah made the incredibly stupid statement that “persecution is worse than slaughter”, or that statement was made by the illiterate “prophet”, the founder of Islam. In the first case, Allah appears to contradict common sense, and so proves to be dumber than the dumbest person. In the second case, Muhammad is simply wrong, for almost everybody would prefer to live rather than die; therefore slaughter is worse than persecution, therefore the Muslim who kills his enemy at war indeed exceeds the limits, contradicting the Quranic command of 2:190.
(^) If this “argument” hadn’t been posed by someone in an e-mail exchange that I once had, I wouldn’t consider it worthy of mention. And yet, someone suggested it in all seriousness! This idea is reminiscent of the following situation: say that someone that goes by the name of “Rasheed” is standing in front of a mirror, wearing terribly wretched rugs, torn to pieces, full of dirty spots. Suppose you tell him, “Take a look at yourself in the mirror Rasheed: you’re full of dirt!” Then he becomes indignant, and argues with you as follows: “Yes, but don’t you see that there are also several clean spots? Why do you disregard the clean spots when you say that my clothes are dirty?”
(^) It is interesting also that the word “men” in “all men are equal” did not bother much most people until very recently, when political correctness prescribed the use of “people” or “humans” instead of “men”, thus not excluding half of the human population. Still, many people do not see any problem, insisting that the word “man” in this case stands for all people; well, then, why not using “woman” to stand for “people”? If you are a man, how would this sound to you as a dictum: “All women are equal”, if you were told that in this case the meaning of “woman” is “all people”?
(^) Social Darwinism is the misapplication of biological (Darwinian) principles on human societies. Its only relation with real Darwinism (i.e., with biological evolution through natural selection) is the unwarranted use of Darwin’s name in its title, as its principles are not biological (natural), but human-made, suiting the needs of certain ideologies (usually fascist), and conflict with evolutionary principles on several counts (see this Wikipedia article for more details).
(^) I put “heart” in quotes to avoid confusion with the real heart, which is nothing more than a pump of the blood. I hope it is understood by all readers that when we say “feel it with your heart”, we mean “feel it with that part of your brain that deals with emotions”. The true heart has nothing to do with feelings. Simply, when certain feelings are involved, such as anger, fear, sudden love, etc., there is a lot of activity in some regions of the brain, which thus require more oxygen, and fast; the extra oxygen can be fetched only through a larger quantity of blood arriving in the brain per unit of time, which is accomplished by a faster heartbeat. Thus, strong emotions in the brain can cause the familiar flutter of the heart, which is what made people attribute feelings to the blood pump ever since antiquity.
(^) It’s comical only for our Western standards of knowledge, if any Westerner believes it sincerely. Once a professor of mine told me that when he served in a peace corps unit in Africa he met with tribes the people of which believed that the Earth is flat. That’s not comical. It’s not even “tragic”, if those people lived happy lives. It’s just that, with the data that are available to them, they have no reason to believe that the Earth is not flat. Ideas start becoming ridiculous, bordering on the comical, when we have accumulated enough knowledge and amassed enough evidence from independent sources supporting the contrary view.
Jaynes suggested (in )
that ancient peoples, before some time around 3,000 years ago,
could not understand that the inner voice of their thoughts was
their own, because the right part of their brains was generating
voices which the left part was hearing, without the latter being
able to tell that such voices were coming from inside of the
person’s head. That’s because, according to Jaynes, the human
mind was split in two, in a “bicameral” state
(whereas today the minds of people are assumed to be in a “unicameral”
state). Jaynes cites evidence from literature: e.g., in Homer’s
epics, the poet asks the Muse to sing to him, and although today
most people understand a “Muse” to be a mere personification
of the ancient bard’s inspiration, Jaynes contended that the
ancients were actually hearing a voice — which they attributed
to a Muse — singing the poems to them. He says that more
evidence comes from passages in the Old Testament in which
ancient people lament the fact that the gods, who were speaking
to them until that time, later remained silent; which is
explained by Jaynes as indicating that the minds of those people
were passing from a bicameral into a unicameral state. In the
Iliad, and in entire passages of the Old Testament, there is no
sign that anything like the mental state of introspection was
going on. Jaynes concluded from such observations that ancient
people with a bicameral state of mind were not conscious!
This is the wackiest theory of consciousness I’ve ever heard. First, why is the ability for introspection what determines consciousness? According to Douglas Hofstadter, consciousness is present, even in a minute degree, when the individual (which can be an animal, or a human infant) has the ability to entertain an internal (mental) symbol that represents the “self”. It can be a “little consciousness” if the self-symbol is poorly connected to other symbols, or a “larger consciousness” if the self-symbol is richly connected; and all the in-between degrees of consciousness are possible. Thus, consciousness varies in degree according to Hofstadter (and I can’t agree more with him), it’s not an all-or-none phenomenon, which makes people either fully conscious or zombies! But, leaving aside Jaynes’s messing up with consciousness, even his idea that people who would hear disembodied voices would attribute them to a god, or gods, sounds silly to me. First, when I hear my inner voice while thinking, it always sounds masculine (if not exactly with my tinge of voice), I never hear a woman talking to me! So I would never attribute that voice to a goddess. So, how could men believe in the existence of goddesses, and women in the existence of gods? (Let alone children, who should believe in the existence of only kiddie-gods.) Second, and more important, I never hear that voice pronouncing whole sentences. It almost always stops in the middle of a thought, goes back, restates the thing, stutters, changes its mind again... If I were to believe that this is the voice of a god talking to me, then I’d conclude this god is a stutterer, and moreover, he’s a complete idiot, because he never manages to finish a full sentence. And third, if Jaynes were right, there should be people existing today — perhaps in remote hunter-gatherer societies — who retain the old “bicameral” state of mental functioning, since no sane thinker should expect that the entire world switched to the “unicameral” state of mind, magically, about 3,000 years ago. (What exactly would the cause of this global switch be?) Why hasn’t any anthropologist found such tribes, whose members report hearing voices? Yet Jaynes managed to write a whole book about that idea, and had it published.
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