The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures


During the first few years of ScienceBlogs there was a lot of talk about religion. Yes, there's talk about religion now, but it's toned down in the wake of the ebbing of the publicity around The God Delusion. Naturally in the wake of the New Atheism a raft of conventional apologetics have been published, The Dawkins' Delusion being a typical example. More recently more nuanced books which wend the middle ground between militant atheism and conventional apologetics have taken center strage. Karen Armstrong's The Case for God approaches this from a philo-theistic angle, while Robert Wright's The Evolution of God is predicated on materialist presuppositions.

Nicholas Wade's The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures is of the same genre as Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, though of its own particular flavor (see Wade's review of Wright's book). In particular, Wade admits that the The Faith Instinct fleshes out aspects of his earlier contribution, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. With his bailiwick at The New York Times in evolution and genetics Before the Dawn is an explicable extension of his reporting. What does religion have to do with evolution and genetics in any constructive sense (as opposed to Creationism)? In Wade's telling quite a bit.

In fewer than 300 pages you are treated to a weaving together of evolution, genetics, psychology, history, philosophy and sociology. Many books on religion tend to put the lens on one particular manifestation of the phenomenon, and often treat the rest as somehow marginal or deviations from the type. In Karen Armstrong's The Case for God it seems that she considers philosophical mystics as the apotheosis of the religious. In Religion Explained and In Gods We Trust cognitive anthropologists Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran explore religious phenomenon as an outgrowth of our innate psychologies. In Darwin's Cathedral David Sloan Wilson attempts to resurrect functionalism. Other scholars focus on the specific details of the emergence of ethical monotheism, the explosion of Islam in the world of Late Antiquity, the swelling of secularization in the our own times. There is of course so much to cover because religion is an incredibly expansive and diffuse behavioral phenomenon, which in many societies pervades nearly all of life.

To approach this tractably Wade divides religion at its joints into its distinctive parts. He distinguishes between the horizontal function of religious faiths in cementing group identities and reflecting group will, as well as the individual level psychological predispositions and biases which lead many to supernatural intuitions. The former is the reality of behavior operating visibly, rituals. Rites, communal revivals, and symbolic markers. The latter is the more subtle aspect of the interface between one's inner world, one's mental representation of the universe, and the sensory cues and inputs one receives from the outside world. Many specific behaviors obviously operate at the intersection of the two categories. Early on in The Faith Instinct there is a chapter on our innate moral intuitions, what Jonathan Haidt and Marc Hauser explore in their research programs. Innate cognitive reflexes have a clear effect on our external action, and these moral reflexes seem to be genetically specified on some level. Though the relationship between religion and morality is not a necessary one, historically it has often been intimate. Wade points to how our genes shape our behaviors, and how those behaviors are integrated into the phenomenon of religion. It may not be a seamless web, but the patches of the narrative are stitched together by common threads.

Moral intuitions and how they bleed into the religious domain is not a novel topic. Rather, perhaps the most original chapters in The Faith Instinct are those which focus on music and dance. The ecstatic and communal aspect of faith is one of the most salient visible manifestations, from the cult of Dionysus in the ancient world down to the circuit riders of the early 19th century Second Great Awakening. This sort of populist religion ebbs and flows, erupting onto the scene for a few decades, but eventually fading into the background. Religious professionals, from their literal ivory towers, tend to be fearful of it because of its bottom-up revolutionary power. In the United States where state religion was less of a force than elsewhere populist religion shunted elitist denominations to marginality (Congregationalism), and fostered the rise of other sects to central prominence (Methodism). Through ethnographic surveys of small-scale Wade suggests this sort of religion, in which dance and music in a collective context are the primary manifestations of worship, was the ancestral religion. The ur-religion if you will. It is notable that both music and dance are human universals, and like language there are forms of brain damage which can selectively impair one's appreciation or perception of music (and, there are forms of brain damage which can impair speech but leave singing intact!).

But is this all incidental? Moral & supernatural intuitions, facility for music and dance, these things are not necessarily associated with religion as such. No, rather, it seems that Wade believes that these traits tend to be associated with religion, can be co-opted by religion, and that religion itself is a phenotype which was subject to natural selection. That is, religion is an adaptation. There is of course an alternative view, and that is that religion is a byproduct of other traits which have survival value. It is here that the cognitive anthropologists emerge, because they make a compelling case that the sub-components of religious belief, an ability to engage in abstraction, intuitions about agency and teleology, as well instincts such as a fear of death, all synthesize together to generate a strong religious intuition as a byproduct. To use an analogy, the components of a car's engine operate in sync to generate power which drives it forward, but the nature of combustion is such that heat is produced naturally out of the chemical processes. It may be that a normal and intelligent human being who is sociable and inclined toward imagination finds supernatural concepts extremely plausible, and will converge upon these concepts through group socialization even without outside indoctrination. In this telling the gods naturally emerge in the normal course of events not through any benefit to the belief in gods, but to the benefit in other instincts which make such beliefs probable. Indoctrination's role, and more generally organized religion, is to channel and constraint these beliefs and impute specific characteristics to the intuitions.

Wade is having none of this. His refutation of this admittedly speculative model is rather thin, verging on incredulity and skepticism as to the motives of militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who no doubt as an adaptationist might prefer that religion was not an outcome of the Darwinian process of selection which he has built his career around. But the primary rejoinder is an alternative mode, a speculative one in its own right, that religion is a trait which aided humans in vicious intergroup competitions in the pre-modern era. It is a vision of tribes who worship together, propitiate the gods together, and die together. Though surely religion has a role in giving one individual solace in the face of death, Wade's primary adaptive focus is on the level of the group, and the role religious activities and beliefs play in cementing bounds and coordinating collective action more coherently. In a multilevel selection framework those who were not favored by the gods of war died, while whose who held faith in their gods flourished. Here The Faith Instinct draws upon Samuel Bowles' models which combine within group altruism and between group conflict. Religion then is a trait which at the group level fosters altruism and coherency to tribes, who then go out and slaughter their enemies, who they naturally may dehumanize as followers of alien gods. It is a brutal hypothesis cloaked in the language of evolution and ethology. I think back to Matthew 10:34, where Jesus asserts, "I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword." Perhaps this was the "Prince of Peace" reverting to type?

These basic units of psychology and ethology, selection operating at higher levels of organization, are scaled up then in the second half the narrative, as Wade races from the transformation of the Hebrew tribal god into the God, the rise of Christianity and Islam, and the early modern relationships between religion, state and nationalism. Some of the historical material is almost out of place in The Faith Instinct, for example the fascinating but tendentious Hagarism Hypothesis for the origin of Islam. While the traditional model is well known, a central Arabian prophet founding a new faith, and the believers crashing the gates of Persia & Byzantium and founding a new empire as well as religion. Hagarism argues that what we believe about Islam is false, that in reality the religion was constructed in the 8th century, and that the first "Muslim" century was not a Muslim one at all, but dominated by a heretical Arab Christian dynasty, the Umayyads. The evolution of Islam in the 8th century was a matter of politics, with the Arab ruling class seeking a new and distinctive religion. Though I found this interesting, I was a bit curious as to what this material had to do with the faith instinct. Additionally, though there is time to explore this obscure and provocative thesis about the origins of Islam, there very little on the religions outside of the Abrahamic tradition. This is a conventional oversight, as it disrupts the linear Western progression from tribal paganism to modern monotheism, but religion is by its nature complex and I believe that a cross-cultural survey can be very informative of both inevitabilities and contingencies as they serve as "independent experiments."

As the narrative approaches its denouement you are treated to ancient customs in modern garb. Yiddish speaking Orthodox Jews do not engage in violent intergroup competition, but they look to each other's needs and live apart from the rest of society. "Cults" aroused to mass paranoia and hysteria are driven to such irrational self-sacrificing heights that they occasionally are witness to mass suicides. Mormons with high fertility rates and a strong communitarian tradition are arguably the first new world religion to emerge since Islam. The modern world is rife with illustrations of ancient dynamics. As the subtitle asserts, religion evolves, and, it endures.

It is clear that Wade approaches the topic as a nonbeliever in the tenets of specific religions, but admiring of the outcomes and actions of many believers. Like David Sloan Wilson he seems to look to a future when a religion arises which is rid of its primitive legacies of Bronze Age sky gods. E. O. Wilson has also expressed a hope for this sort of evolution. Call it religion without the superstitious silliness. Wilson grew up an evangelical, and was Born Again at one point in his life, and he has claimed that even today Baptist church services can arouse his emotions and inspire awe. And at these services he knows once more that he is "among his people." Carl Sagan once spoke of a "God Shaped Hole" in our brain, but it seems rather more accurate to speak of numerous holes into which the pegs of religion pit, allowing the gods to hitchhike along where our brains lead. For the mystical there is withdrawal and communion with God, for the philosophical there are arcane texts, for the emotional there are revivals, for the bloody-minded there are subhuman unbelievers, and so forth. The psychologists who are skeptical of religion being an adaptation, such as Scott Atran, nevertheless argue that the basal intuitions make supernaturalism compelling to the human race in a way that is impossible to eliminate. I have pointed to data which shows that though organized religion has collapsed in much of Europe, the slack has been taken up more by unaffiliated theism than atheism. The star in The Faith Instinct is the horizontal and integrative dimension of religion, but it seems that in the developed world a combination of rampant pluralism as well as a general weakening of organized religions is breaking bonds which tie people together in a sacred body. Rather, it is a more atomistic faith instinct on the individual level which persists once the communal aspect is stripped away, a world of ghosts, energies and spirits. The future may be Sedona and not Ethical Culture


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"Call it religion without the superstitious silliness."

Clearly theistic religion without the superstitious silliness would not exist. Religion is the superstitious silliness.

By Simon Gardner (not verified) on 19 Nov 2009 #permalink

Thanks for the informative review.

I've wondered about a possible underlying motivation for the "religion as adaptation" argument, namely that it provides a justification for religion as a beneficial phenomenon, i.e., the naive but attractive "if it's adaptive, it's good" approach. It seems to me almost as if some people fall away from conventional faiths but still feel compelled to find some "good reason" why such faiths exist and still exert an emotional pull. By contrast the Atran/Boyer/ approach (which, like you, I'm partial to) would seem to drain any larger meaning from religion, making it more like music -- something we're drawn to simply because we're predisposed by nature to be drawn to it.

Thanks for the review, I appreciate the outstanding work that went into it. But I still think all religions are vestigal - and useless now - remnants of our cave-dwelling ancestors, and we will need to put all religious stupididty, symblism and superstition behind us to achieve world peace. God(s) kill.

Great article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Question. Do you think it possible that -if religion is somehow inherent in the way our brain functions ("byproduct")- we are capable of "shutting off" that mechanism? Or, better still, like the heat in the above example, find ways to neutralise this?

I have a hard time teasing apart when you (or maybe it's Wade) are referring to biological evolution and when it's cultural evolution. Are we imagining a prehistoric time when groups with religious "instincts" outcompeted those without, fixing a tendency to supernatural belief as a behavioral phenotype in humans? That seems far-fetched and has group-selection problems (is this kind of thing a real individual phenotype or a population trait?), but perhaps plausible. And once the trait is fixed, then we are talking about cultural evolution--how this general cognitive trait is instantiated in different ways over time and space? I'm not sure I get it.

In no-rules evo psych mode, one could argue that those that exhibit this trait strongest are less likely to be in a high fitness group compared to those who are able to manipulate the credulity of others, regardless of their own supernatural views. Perhaps it is like the vasopressin / monogamy story, where the behavioral trait is an "as-if" performance of an underlying state; the overt behavior is a social misdirection about reproductive behavior or actual belief, whatever that is non-operationally.

Another problem is that I don't think it is generally true that people who are raised atheist/materialist feel anything is missing from their reality, 4 bong hit Saganisms aside. I don't particularly want to bring up memes, but I think Dennett's analogy works best here... religions are concepts which have high fecundity in human brains, for whatever reason, but early vaccination (or more extreme therapies later in life) makes you immune.

I really loathe the double-standard inherent in the term 'militant atheism'. You actually have to pick up a gun and kill somebody to be considered a 'militant' believer, but all you have to do to be considered a 'militant' atheist is write a book.

Other than that, a good review.

Do you think it possible that -if religion is somehow inherent in the way our brain functions ("byproduct")- we are capable of "shutting off" that mechanism?

your laptop has a fan right? so probably requires energy. surely the disposition also varies. i don't have much of a struggle avoiding it, and never have.

but early vaccination (or more extreme therapies later in life) makes you immune.

perhaps. but

66% of men who reported no religion at age 12 were Nones at the time of their participation in ARIS 2008, but only 47% of females who reported no religion at age 12 remained Nones.

Michael H. Barnes provided a helpful description and analysis of the evolution of human religion--In the Presence of Mystery: An Introduction to the Story of Human Religiousness. He takes the four traditional stages in human religions--primitive, archaic (polytheism), historic (monotheism), and modern (monotheism and science)and correlates them with stages of individual human growth. This uses ideas of Robert Bellah. Of course some individuals and some cultures don't progress into later stages or have not yet done so. One could even argue that atheism is a regression to the pre-primitive; or one could argue that it has taken in the advance to science, but has erroneously thrown out religion with the bathwater of superstition and magic that is characteristic of the primitive (cultural) and infantile (individual psychological) stages.

By Richard L.A. S… (not verified) on 19 Nov 2009 #permalink

"to achieve world peace": what an odd creed.

By bioIgnoramus (not verified) on 19 Nov 2009 #permalink

I have not read the book, but how does he bring the hagarene hypothesis into this book? The authors of the hypothesis (Michael Cook and Patricia Crone) have long since backed down from its claims and now treat it as "a hypothesis", something you propose and then test, and in this case, mostly abandon.

I can understand the urge to explain God away. And I can also understand the desire to rely exclusively upon logic and material evidence for explanations. To those who value objectivity, reason, and logical analysis, I pose this question: What if âfaithâ is in reality, not the abrogation of such tools, but rather the highest form of their implementation? In other words, a true believer receives knowledge, information, demonstration, and manifestations of Godâs existence through an engagement with the grace of God, which magnifies all of our reasoning and logical capacitiesânot suspends them? Try reading a chapter of the Gospel of Johnâor from the Book of Mormonâand then ask God to magnify your reasoning capacities to be able to logically analyze whether the words in those chapters make the reality of God manifest. I did. Then he did. What have you got to lose? Especially since you're already convinced that any thought you have has been geneticallly programmed into you well before you were even born. Want to transcend that programming? You can--but not by conceding you can't.


I have conducted a similar experiment many times at the behest of my theist friends - to pray to their god(s) for enlightenment as to his/her/their plan for me.

No answer.

Is this the kind of experiment where one deems it a "success" and stops experimenting after the first positive, but must conduct it a multitude of times if it results in a negative?

The only prayer experiment to which I always get a positive hit is when I pray, "Dear god, if you want me to stay an atheist: Keep silent."


To those who value objectivity, reason, and logical analysis, I pose this question: What if âfaithâ is in reality, not the abrogation of such tools, but rather the highest form of their implementation?

Because those tools produce a communicable result. That is, if you arrive at a conclusion through objectivity, reason, and logical analysis, you should be able to reproduce that analysis when relating the experience to another human. That is in fact, one of the great strengths of those tools--they have a universality that allows the communication of

From what I've seen, experiences of revelation or faith are personal and are liable to be expressed in the manner that you yourself just did. If what you experienced was magnified reasoning and logical capacities, it is strange that you come to us with a personal testimonial and not a cogent, reasonable, and logical argument.

I've also noticed that the the use of the word "trancend" correlates quite well with emptiness of argument, and is usually a clear sign that the speaker or writer is drawing from exalted feelings rather than a solid base of evidence or reasoning.

This is very much in the same vain as Evolutionary Psychology's "Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters." It has a chapter that touches on how ancient man confronted a problem like hearing a rustling outside their cave and they could do one of two things; ignore it and risk being attacted if it was in fact a predator or enemy (False Negative), Or they could assume it was an enemy when its just the rustling trees in the wind (False Positive). The False Negative was definetly more costly so the mind adapted a preference for 'reading into things' (False Positives) and religion is supposed to be a variant (maladaptive?) of that. Intriguing hypothesis..

Grand-li, MengB,
Fair comments. From those who value the gift of dialogue. Transcendence is indeed an interesting wordâand concept. Often tossed as a trump card when real arguments fail. I agree. But should we reject the card just because it is so often misplayed? Is there really any other purpose of reason and analysis than transcendence? Arenât we all on a constant journey of course correction? We recognize different cognitive traps and errors we have acquired and constantly test them against further evidence and experience. And thereby, we occasionally âtranscendâ misapprehensions, false biases, and cultural imprintingsâ living our lives freer than before. And so I repeat what I think is the most important question that can be asked at this site: do you accept that transcendence is possible? Really? But is transcendence possible if, as I find it very difficult to logically or reasonably conclude otherwise, you concede the idea that every person has been inevitably and irrevocably programmed genetically and chemically to think and act according to material exigencies only? And what if the only alternative to such material programming just happens to be such things as prayer and grace, that, like transcendence, weâve discounted because of occasional abuses we (rightfully) disdain?

Grand-li: I accept your points about prayer. There is always the danger of self-deception and designing experiments to obtain oneâs preferred results. Can we, as flawed humans, ever avoid self-deception and pre-programmed âepiphaniesâ? I hope so, but I am confident such âtranscendenceâ wonât be possible through any empirical meansâmy eyes and ears have proven all-too-fallible. So I go to grace not to bypass reason and logicâbut in order to purify those processes, that I might finally trust the knowledge thereby obtained. To those on this site, I might more specifically say that I want to get past those pesky genetic and chemical (and for those not on this site, social and cultural) predispositions and imprintings. I have hope of doing so. Do you? How?

Well-put responses. Points taken. I was being theoretical and anecdotal and should offer some concrete arguments or reproducible experiments. Here is one: a concrete experiment. I am posing the argument that the Book of Mormon (as well as the New Testament, btw) was written by the power and inspiration of God, and could not have been written without such. And that the reality of such power and inspiration will be made clearly manifest to anyone who sincerely reads and then invites God to guide his understanding. If that is the caseâas I have said I have learned through my personal experiences (my âtestimonialâ as you say)--then such a chapter in either the Gospel of John or the Book of Mormon could not be manufactured or contrived or counterfeited by someone who is not guided by inspiration and divine appointment.
I will offer you a chance to conduct what should be a completely acceptable logical experiment to prove or disprove my assertion (other than through the âtestâ of prayerâobjections to which Grand-li and others have expressed). And the results and conclusions of this experiment will be easily communicable. Further, this experiment will be easily repeatable and reproducible by all future inquirers. Here is the experiment: Take any chapter from the Book of Mormon (may I suggest one of the following: 2 Nephi 2 or Alma 34, though about any chapter would do just fine). If these chapters were not really written by ancient American prophets who lived centuries ago, and who communicated directly with God, but instead were manufactured by someone more recently who tried his best to make them appear to be written by such ancient prophetsâthen it should be possible for someone today to likewise counterfeit such a chapter. Here is your chance: go ahead and try to counterfeit what might be the next logical chapter from either of those two books on your own. Or go try to find someone somewhere who might have a better chance of doing soâand ask him or her to give it a try. Let me know how your experiment turns out.

So besides group selection arguments, how does being religious increase fitness? Intergroup competition would reduce allele frequency in and imagined religious v. non-religious group competition through gene flow, I'm sure. We're not talking about soccer teams.

Religion is a combination of 1) primitive explanation 2) moral pedagogy 3) social control. I don't understand what about it requires a biological explanation. The argument that our brains are good at / prone to 'x', therefore we evolved a specific capacity for 'x' is circular and empty, same as Chomsky and Pinker hand waving about language.

So besides group selection arguments, how does being religious increase fitness? Intergroup competition would reduce allele frequency in and imagined religious v. non-religious group competition through gene flow, I'm sure. We're not talking about soccer teams.

well, every nation i've seen in the WVS has religious people either matching, or more often surpassing, the non-religious in total fertility. i won't hypothesize the mechanism, but it's a robust finding.

Religion is a combination of 1) primitive explanation 2) moral pedagogy 3) social control. I don't understand what about it requires a biological explanation.

#2 is more of a post 600 BCE phenomenon according to many historians and anthropologists (something i'm a little skeptical about because i believe that oaths by the gods precede this, but wuteva). in any case, the psychologists tend to fixate on the similarities between religious cognition the world over. they don't really believe it is biological as much as it is subject to biological constraints and that the trait is "canalized." though some of them are adaptationists (jesse bering).

How does religiosity increase fitness?

Besides the higher fecundity razib mentions, it is very socially unifying. A unified group of people colliding with nonunified people will win in battle. Fighting for a higher power/cause increases the will to fight. Individuals need a motivation to put the group ahead of their own individual survival, and religion can provide that motivation.

"well, every nation i've seen in the WVS has religious people either matching, or more often surpassing, the non-religious in total fertility."

But Wade seems to argue that a predisposition to the supernatural is something fixed in human evolution--like language, we all supposedly have it. I still think a meme is a better conceptual framework... religious memes that contribute to increased fecundity would thrive because an easy way for them to spread is parent to child. Again, other than the fact that certain evolved features of our brains are necessary for religious belief, I don't see what explanatory work is done positing a genetic basis specifically for religion--let alone religion as a quantitative or variable trait. People in most cultures wear various kinds of shirts, should we loosely hypothesize about the genetics of textile production, or polo vs crewneck? Or are humans just kinda clever? Although there is some serious evo psych, I think a pop industry of lazy adaptationist wanking makes the whole thing into a joke, and Wade routinely gets in over his head (in other stuff, I haven't read this) with his patchy-at-best grasp of evolution, and science in general.

miko, yes, you are correct here: But Wade seems to argue that a predisposition to the supernatural is something fixed in human evolution--like language, we all supposedly have it. i am skeptical of wade's position here. i think religion is a cultural adaptation which co-opts preexistent domain specific faculties which are genetically specified (more or less). but yes, wade does look to biological group selection as a driver to traits which result in the fixation of the tendency toward supernaturalism. that's why i referenced the bowles paper, as that's a bio group selection model. i don't buy the implicit genetic architecture that wade is outline here.


"So I go to grace not to bypass reason and logicâbut in order to purify those processes, that I might finally trust the knowledge thereby obtained."

This is similar reasoning to the "ontological guarantor" of Descartes.

I am sympathetic to your points. I think atheists often overlook the evidence in support of religion, including the experiences of the immanence of a deity, such as the one you expressed (if you were the only one with such an experience, it would be easy to discount it, but such reports are legion). There's also a meta point that some things are simply unknowable, and we can chose a bleak hypothesis or one that offers some hope of transcendence. Given that choice -- and given the positive effect religion (i.e., religions such as mainstream Christianity, not scimitar-waving ones) has in so many people's lives -- why not try to believe? It may not be an easy thing for smarties to do, but there are brilliant scientists who remain religious, so it's certainly possible. And, as the great rationalist Spinoza once said, "all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare".


I think you are conflating different meanings of "transcend" in the same way and for the same ends that other religionists conflate different meanings of "believe." In that regard, then, you've fallen into a similar trap as the other religionists of whom I wrote - you are abusing language to pre-establish a particular result.

By deliberately equivocating the spritual meaning of transcend, in the sense of transending the material world, with the physical meaning of transcend, as in moving past an obstacle, you put the other party into a no-win situation. If I say that I do seek to transcend mistakes, and mean that I look for ways to correct my mistakes in reasoning by improving my use of the tools of reasoning, you will spin my response to mean that I wish to transcend the material world and move on to a spiritual plane.

Is this an example of what your appplication of prayer and grace does to logic? If so, then the result is not only illogical, it is dishonest in the way that knowingly using logical fallacies is dishonest.

I don't understand what your experiment is supposed to be testing - that a person could not predict the next chapter of a work of fiction? If you have never read David Brin's "Startide Rising," for example, and I ask you to read chapter 7 and predict chapter 8 and you fail to do so accurately, does that mean "Startide Rising" is not a work of fiction but instead a work divinely inspired?


Your benevolent variation on Pascal's Wager is the more appealing version of the argument. The authors Razib is discussing above are doing their best to explain from a rationalist and materialist point of view why the personal experiences of the actions of deities are widespread. I don't have an explanation why other people have feelings they attribute to the actions of gods, demons, sprites etc. in their lives - I've never had those experiences. Perhaps if I did, I would be more likely to believe that there are intelligences that are from a different sort of reality than what we categorize as the material world who can somehow act on the material world.

Until such time at that happens, I'll just remain a "free rider," gaining whatever benefits there are from living in a society with benevolent religionists without being a religionist myself. This is in answer to your question, "Why not believe?" Because I can get all the earthly benefits that believers have without any of the effort.

Well, jaytree has done transcended English from my perspective, 'cause don't understand what "transcend" or "grace" means coming from jaytree's fingertips. And why should I meditate on jaytree's questions while reading the Mormon myths rather than the Zoroastrian myths or the Hindu myths?

@10,000li (Emperor, Communist, or Distance?)
Does religion provide benefits? I'm not so sure it does. I'd much prefer to live in a secular society. There are a lot of correlates with "good behavior" and religion, but it seems like the least religious/dogmatic societies are better as a whole.

Thanks, Davein, for pointing to Descartes.
Grandi-li again: Sorry if I seemed to playing tricks with transcendence. Didnât intend to. Such a word really is the lynch-pin of our discussionâin both a spiritual or simple material sense. Using your own words, how can you hopeâin a simple material sense--to âtranscend mistakesâ or to âlook for ways to correct my mistakes in reasoningâ or âimproving my use of the tools of reasoningâ if this âyouâ you speak of is just whatever your genes decide it isâin order to maintain the species? Transcendence for âyouâ then becomes every bit as paradigm-shifting when âyouâ somehow hope you can get past your genetic programming and âdecideâ to âimproveâ your attitudes or knowledge as it would be for the Apostle Paul when he meets the resurrected Lord on the road to Damascus. My point is that âtranscendenceâ will always be the elephant it the room that you and all other materialists must most adamantly avoid calling attention to. Transcendence in any sense of the word.

You may recall that my original use of the wordâto which you first objected (see 6:09 posting above)âhad to do with the kind of logical bind into which every materialist simply canât extricate themselves logically or analytically: you must concede that you are genetically programmed to think, respond, and act however your chemicals dictate. This whole debate weâre having (by your perspective) thus pits two agency-less chess pieces not against each other but as pawns to some biological puppeteer (to horribly mix metaphors). Sure, you can re-define and stipulate a new concept of agency and autonomyâbased on a Rortian legerdemain of pragmatismâbut after all those attempts at hocus-pocus, you remain wherever your latest bodily chemical reaction determinesâin thought and action. That is the sense of transcendence I intended---and I repeat the question I asked during that post: because of your hard materialism, âyou're already convinced that any thought you have has been genetically programmed into you well before you were even born. Want to transcend that programming? You can--but not by conceding you can't.â

Grand-li again again: As far as my experiment (see post 12:59): okay, donât try to âpredictâ the next chapter of either 2 Nephi 2 or Alma 34. Just try to compose ANY chapter of writing that in ANY way faithfully resembles either of those two chapters. Do it in such a way that you think could deceive someone into believing it was written by ancient American prophets. As I said, I am absolutely convinced the Book of Mormon could not possibly have been written by anyone without the inspiration of the Spirit of Christ (in fact, as I have said, I know this to be the case). So go ahead and try to write any additional chapter that could someone resemble any other chapter in that book. I picked those two particular chapters because they, especially (in my opinion), resound with that Spirit of Christ. This challenge should be fairly easy for you (or anyone else out there)âespecially if the entire book was just ad-hoc fictionalized by an uneducated 18 year old country bumpkin, as you contend. Hereâs the stakes of the experiment: if you can do it, fine: show us the goodsâletâs see your equivalent chapter. If you canât: then explain to us what there is about the unique spirit and power of those chapters that you canât reproduce on your own? Seems fair to me. Iâll await your chapter (or else another reason from you why this simple task seems too difficult to accomplish).

Infinite space and time to the pee brain of man, could you not think God exiss, to the assumption God stood on the planet and waved his un imaginable hand to the hypothesis, of ever passing
God by the wave of a hypothesis, the knowledge of who and God is, seems to be a lot on the mind of my pee brain to the copastetic design of geometrical designing forum of the quantum notative language of the universal Atomic anomoly, to the hopostetic fear of what trully out there is the design of mans inability to focus past his own research of what the?

The Bible says faith is a gift from God given to Man(kind). This means faith is given to all mankind - therefore it is innate (which today means genetic). Likewise, the Bible says the law of God is written on all mankind's hearts - again innate (genetic). In both cases we have the same innate predispositions - the qualifier is that mankind gets to choose where/how we place/use our faith and utilize the innate laws written on our hearts. This explains the idea that cultures create different constructs to control similar impulses that are seen across cultures. This also explains differing religions that focus on the same premises. I find it interesting that DNA or genetic programing is considered evolutionary 'without god' by many commenting here, when before scientific methodology was created the Bible stated that faith and cross-cultural laws are innate (genetic) for all mankind.

Dear Razib,

This is a response to your conversation with Nicholas Howe at

I liked Howeâs account of some things, mostly historical and accessible through reading, but thought that his understanding of what he insisted on calling âprimitiveâ culture was pretty much empty. There are several distinctions and sources of material that he seems to have no awareness of.

First, the inner structure and content of ritual and even âtheologyâ in pre-literate (I think this is probably what he means by âprimitiveâ) societies are contained in âfelt conceptsâ rather than words. âFelt conceptsâ (see Suzanne Langer) are contained or indicated in stories, objects, music, dance and other âartsâ which are not well understood by anthropologists who are just recording surfaces. The philosophy of such pre-, un- or sub- concepts might be more accessible through psychoanalysis where dreams are composed of felt concepts.

Anthropologists who DO seem to perceive âfelt conceptsâ include Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, who were attentive to the content and organization of rituals and liturgies in ways that revealed inner coherence and a kind of grammar of âhow to do it.â I have used these principles when offering worship services (Unitarian Universalist) and find them very effective IF you can get hold of the âfelt conceptsâ of the people present. Right now one of the strongest is the feeling of the world/cosmos falling away from us, expanding and changing faster than we can adapt. One sympathizes with cults that form to impose tight patterns, a kind of holding.

At this point in my own understanding, I go to the development of the brain, mammalian as well as human. As soon as the brain tissue forms in the fetus, âthoughtâ in the sense of electrochemical events begin to happen and axons knit to form systems. The sensory information that is the content of this thought must be limited to what the fetus can sense, which is best understood in terms of binaries: warm/cold; falling/rising; paralysis/movement; loudness/silence; light/dark; feeding/starving and so on. The accounts of mystical experience as recorded by Christian European saints are loaded with these experiences, often presented as paradoxes.

This internal brain information is meant to indicate homeostasis vs. change, possibly indicating danger, and is reflective of the way the hormone/enzyme balances are maintained in the body. Before birth the information canât be much acted upon, but after birth the lack of homeostasis can cause an infant to go into an uproar of activity. As a child grows older, more strategies are available until as adults we can mostly keep ourselves warm, fed, unfallen, and so on. Emotional and what we might call âspiritualâ homeostasis is a little more fugitive.

One of the most basic binaries is trust/suspicion which are generally focused on adult providers at first. I think that faith emerges from this early experience interacting with basic temperament. It may be that you (Razib) feel no religious search is necessary because your needs were well provided for. You may have rarely been out of homeostasis. It would be interesting to investigate whether infants who are subjected to challenges become more or less âreligiousâ as adults, though their âfaithâ may be more in the Devil than Jesus.

Howeâs idea of there being a âwindow of opportunityâ for the development of faith seems very interesting but not entirely congruent with the âwindow of opportunityâ for learning language. He does not distinguish between spoken and written language and I think that, indeed, for him literacy is the same thing as speaking. But it is not. Both the limits on learning speech or âfaithâ are probably imposed by brain growth, which is much shaped by environment. Weâre told that patterns of axons not assigned by the time one is three will simply disappear. Growth of axons after that does proceed, but mostly is a matter of complexifying the basic pattern, which is a kind of grammar. I do like the idea that the âgrammarâ is spontaneous and innate, while the content is a matter of environment/culture. I think religion is like that, too.

The study of literacy is now exploring the idea that there may be one place where language is explicitly gated, though not necessarily supported, but that fMRI evidence shows that reading/writing (which can be separated as we know from stroke damaging prevent one without preventing the other) are produced by the interaction of various parts and functions of the brain. Though there are typical ways of using oneâs brain to read, not everyone conforms -- some people seem to invent different dynamics and some people are NEVER able to achieve literacy, at least in the sense of written language, though they might be rather brilliant when speaking and can understand what is told to them.

The issue of whether or not there is a supernatural can be addressed as a matter of words, theology, or may be addressed as something âfelt.â When I preach about the âfeelingâ that there is something extra, more, holy and describe specific sensory moments when that feeling is present, there are invariably people who will come up afterwards to tell me about their own experiences like this. There are no words involved, no theology, and not necessarily the impression that a âBig Personâ is involved.
It seems clear that such feelings can be âcalledâ by extremes that challenge homeostasis or by drugs, so I suspect that they are as much in the human brain as in the environment, though thereâs no reason to think that a brain might be âreceivingâ something as contrasted with producing something.â¨
Religious experience, felt concepts, are then susceptible to entrainment in politics, institutions, habitual practice, morality and so on. I do not think the basic dyadic grammar of religious feeling will change, but I do think that every culture provides its own content. The most sublime and liminal content at present is simply science, esp. the visions of the cosmos (star nurseries, dark matter) and the deeply internal.

My credentials: an MA in Religious Studies from the U of Chicago Div School, an MDiv and ten years of experience as a minister, and fifty years of contact with the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana; plus a good deal of reading.

People have lot of faith on God even if they dont see God. We all believe that there is a power who control our lives.

Nicholas Wade & others establish that "faith" is compatible with evolution, that believing does not lead groups or genetic pools to oblivion. Thanks God !

But that "faith" be compatible with the dynamics of evolution leaves completly open the issue of the existence, or not, of God.

Same with "ethics" and evolution. There is good evidence that "altruistic" behavior in a population can foster the dissemination of its genetic pool.

But here I am, I know that, which my forebears did not know. Why should I give a damn for the dissemination of my genetic pool ? How can I think today about my own ethical choices ?