Why I would believe in God if I wasn't an atheist.

I have often made the argument that religiosity, a personal belief in god, spirits, the supernatural, etc., would emerge in human societies on its own if it wasn't there already.

Imagine taking an entire generation of people in a geographically isolated region, and wiping out their memory of religion, and also, removing all references to religion that they might ever encounter. They would be religion free for a while, maybe even for a number of generations, but eventually, they would reinvent it.

Everybody has a theory of why religion exists, what purposes it serves, etc. etc. Until proven otherwise, I will assume that these "functions" are all post hoc. Religion may serve one or another role in a given society or culture, but I'm going to assume that religion was incorporated for this purpose after the fact, not developed, evolved, or inserted for this purpose. I may be wrong, but until I see compelling evidence to the contrary, I think it is the safest assumption.

Why would religion (using that term very loosely) emerge in a non-religious human society? Because of lawnmowers and dogs, or dreams or delusion, mainly.

One day I was driving down the street and I witnessed a dog transform into a law mower. How could that happen if there was no spirit like force beyond some kind of veil that usually clouds our perceptions, hiding from us things that defy physics most, but not all, of the time? The only way to explain this is to invoke some sort of religious thinking, right?

Here's what happened. It was a bright sunny fall day. Warm. It was a densely populated residential neighborhood. Families were out, parents raking leaves and the kids jumping in them, dogs running around, children playing ball. I was unsure of where I was or where I was going (I was not familiar with the neighborhood), scanning back and forth for street signs and house numbers. The sun was low enough to be causing a lot of glare. So, I was paying a lot of attention to my peripheral vision (looking for a kid running into the street, or a dog not seeing me coming). Off to my left, I saw a large dog sitting on a lawn. I glanced to the right, then back to the left, and now saw that the dog was a lawn mower with someone's coat draped over the handle. Miraculous transformation of a spirt being!

Or, a simple mistake.

And that, of course, is how I would actually explain what I say ... a trick of the lousy light in a confused tapestry of activity that I was not initially paying much attention to.

We experience things in real life that can't be true, now and then. We usually but not always explain them, but sometimes we explain them with "I don't know what that was, but it is not important... just a trick of the light." But say I was a young and impressionable youth searching for meaning in life, and I had just seen a talk given by a spiritualist who claimed that spirit dogs occasionally appeared out of nowhere, transforming from inanimate objects into a large dog, then back again. Well, if that has been the case that day, perhaps I would have started worshiping spirt dogs, and I would never look at a lawn mower quite the same way again. If the spirit dog belief was a growing belief in my subculture, a belief held by community leaders, respected individuals, potential mates, and family members, I might be even more likely to break that way. And so on. You get the point.

The current National Geographic Roundtable asks the question, "Is belief in God innate in our brains, as if it were installed by some divine programmer? Or is spirituality a more complex evolving adaptation that has both helped and harmed us as a species?"

Neither, as stated. It is not innate in our species, as people usually understand the term -- coded for by genes, the inevitable outcome of typical development. But I said it would always emerge in human societies, right? Yes, but not because it is innate (built in) but because the process of human behavior in the context of our physical world and culture would prod and poke and hint and push until it started to emerge here and there, and eventually, it would become part of the larger system of behavior. And no, of course, a tendency to eventually develop religion in a society was not put there by a divine programmer, any more than a paisley tea pot was set into orbit around the Planet Jupiter by a mischievous flying unicorn.

Yes, religion, spirituality, and all that, is a complex changing thing that may have helped and may have harmed. But is it an adaptation? No. It is a side effect.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it. But to get a different set of perspectives, check out The God Brain, which premiers Feb 21st at 9PM Eastern on National Geographic.

Host Jason Silva travels to Jerusalem, Israel, to explore, “The God Brain.” Fascinating new research has uncovered the possibility that believing in God may be hardwired in our brains. Is this because a divine power greater than us installed this software? Or is it possible that the believing part of the brain has evolved over thousands of years as an evolutionary adaptation that helps us succeed as a species. Physician and neuroscientist Andrew Newberg of Jefferson University Hospital has spent decades exploring the neurophysiology of religious and spiritual practice. Dr. Trevor Cox from the University of Salford, an expert on sound perception, explains how you respond to different musical keys and music played in churches. Dr. Jennifer Whitson of UCLA focuses on the psychological experience of control and sheds light on how to make sense of the environment and inexplicable events. Dr. Bruce Hood, an experimental psychologist at the University of Bristol, will demonstrate that even the most nonbelieving brain can have unconscious biases, which are fundamental characteristics for supernatural thinking.


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Are humans hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen? Certainly, many great thinkers believe this is the case. "A belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies," Charles Darwin wrote in his book,The Descent of Man, "seems to be universal." Atran, who is 55, is an…
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First of all, I apologize for the most grandiose blog title of all time. I was going to add Love and War to the title too, but I ran out of space. My subject is yesterday's Times Magazine synopsis of the current scientific explanations for the universal human craving for some sort of God. The…

Let's not conflate "religion" and all it's Orthodoxy / Orthopraxy / Christology ( and all the other -ologies http://tinyurl.com/judylp8 ) with the understanding that there is a Creator.

The suggestion that all humans are indwelt with a moral compass or an ability to recognize beauty or a "soul" isn't one that most atheists attempt to tackle. The naturalist who attempts this is swimming in uncharted waters.

It's a worldview discussion where one side can provide for the preconditions of intelligibility, and the other cannot. http://tinyurl.com/hvsmdkz

Religion/belief in spirituality/denial of reality are hard-wired traits that enhanced the survival of early humans and so virtually all people have the indelible urge to succumb to some sort of myth about eternity/souls etc. This is all beautifully laid out in Morrison's Spirit in the Gene (http://regmorrison.edublogs.org/1999/07/20/plague-species-the-spirit-in…) and from another angle Ernst Becker's classic The Denial of Death.

I actually stopped by to ask you about something else when I saw this post, Greg. I was wondering if you might consider thinking about a post on the following topic, referencing the linked article below.

Given 1. We need to get to zero emissions, soon (actually, negative emissions) and 2. there will never in the foreseeable future be any way that air travel can occur without emissions (whether of fossil or biofuels)

what should climate scientists be saying about public policy restricting air travel; and
should climate scientists set an example by not flying themselves?


I would be so curious to know your position on these questions.



By Gail Zawacki (not verified) on 15 Feb 2016 #permalink


Oh rubbish. Only someone unfamiliar with the online atheist community would say such a silly thing and then arrive at such a wrong conclude as you do.

Humans are meaning making, pattern seeking, critters. We presume agency; that's why you yell at inanimate objects that are bothersome. Religions hijack this tendency (don't they all steal everything and claim the good bits for themselves?) and pretends it's evidence for some agency of Oogity Boogity!. When asked how this agency causes such effects as morality and whatever, we are introduced to Poof!ism... as if this is an answer! Only the credulous think it is and only the most smug amongst them assume this is a slam dunk argument.

It's not.

Assigning agency is what people do. It's how con men and homeopathic naturopaths make a very good living: from the credulous and gullible: hidden agencies.

So why do people do this?

In evolutionary terms, consider the person who always assumes the rustle in the tall grass is a malicious entity. By making this assumption, the person can then put themselves in that place and consider the motives of this agency... generalized, let's say, to be a motive of hostile intent. In almost every case, this person is factually wrong but once in a while the rustle really IS an agency with hostile intent. By responding appropriately in only a few instances, the person goes on to successfully reproduce.

Now compare that to the person who assumes no agency with intention but in almost every case understands that the rustle is merely the wind. When this person does encounter an agency with hostile intent, that person gets killed and does not go on to successfully reproduce.

The same is true for morality: those people who fail to understand why going forth every day to rape, murder, and pillage is not a long term career path that produces lots of offspring.

And so on.

The answers to the causes of human behaviour and intelligibility belong with biology. All theology can produce is pseudo-answers that satisfy only the those already committed to some religious allegiance. And we know this because religious belief does not produce real world knowledge about anything. Ever. One might be tempted to see this as a clue...

Do you have a link for the National Geographic Roundtable you referred to? thanks

By Gail Zawacki (not verified) on 15 Feb 2016 #permalink

#3 tildeb said "The same is true for morality: those people who fail to understand why going forth every day to rape, murder, and pillage is not a long term career path that produces lots of offspring "

Odd that you would appeal to morality (multiple times) and against violence as it relates to societal advancement. I'm trying to set "religion" and its doctrines aside when appealing to transcendental argument for the existence of God, and you swerve into one of those immaterial concepts that must originate from God (morality).

It seems Darwinian evolution would encourage the strong to "pillage" the weak, or do I misunderstand what the vast online atheist community espouses? Despite this teaching, nations throughout history, dare I say universally(?), have set their laws in opposition to this version of "morality".

Self-defense does not hold its place in society based on Darwin's propagation of species, but the concept that humans have inherent worth, due to their dignity/reflection of the Creator. http://tinyurl.com/jjazflf But I digress...

Appealing to morality when Darwinian morality, if we can call it that, is so universally rejected, seems to undercut the argument.

@ Ron said

It seems Darwinian evolution would encourage the strong to “pillage” the weak, or do I misunderstand what the vast online atheist community espouses?

You misunderstand both evolution and the atheist community. You have bought into the misinformation of the religiously motivated to vilify that which stands in conflict with certain fundamental beliefs. Next time you think of an atheist community, look to the happiest nations in the world and the ones least socially dysfunctional. Then try to comport the lack of widespread religious belief with high functioning societies. You'll find your misunderstandings revealed to be such by reality.

Do not confuse social Darwinism with evolutionary theory; the former has exactly nothing to do with the latter.

By tildeb (not verified) on 15 Feb 2016 #permalink

In reply to by ron (not verified)

Yes the IDEAS of superstition and pattern seeking as an aim to survival and dealing with unknown. This activity will produce customs and traditions that if investigated will lead to dogma and to religion as religion as NOTHING to do with faith but wheeling power. And then kings and nobles. As when did we get government by & for the people before science slapped down religion or after? When people learn to think and question past primitive survival did we gain what we now have. And to be thrown onto desert island type scenario after a short time if there are no real leaders to keep thinking on track it will revert to BS believing because for the majority thinking is too much work. One smart dude with no moral compass can soon control most and the most will then control the few who may try to think.

If there is a god S/He, should be held accountable. I suggest something along the lines of the Nuremberg Trials.

Or as George Carlin said, "“I tried to believe that there is a God, who created each of us in His own image and likeness, loves us very much, and keeps a close eye on things. I really tried to believe that, but I gotta tell you, the longer you live, the more you look around, the more you realize, something is fucked up.”

By Kevin O'Neill (not verified) on 15 Feb 2016 #permalink

Kevin: It's the people...

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 15 Feb 2016 #permalink

Ron #5: 'It seems Darwinian evolution would encourage the strong to “pillage” the weak, or do I misunderstand what the vast online atheist community espouses?' You misunderstand both the community and biology.
'Survival of the fittest' does not necessarily mean 'strong preying on the weak'. Cooperation is everywhere in nature. In mammals it starts with relatives; your genes have a better chance of surviving if you cooperate with them. In the approximate words of J.S.B. Haldane, "I would be willing to die for two brothers or four cousins." If you form groups (herds, chimpanzee bands, tribes), the same applies to cooperation with allies--and against other tribes. As human groups grow, the scope of cooperation expands, until now, in a world unified by technology, it becomes reasonable to regard everyone as brothers and sisters (but still punish non-cooperators). And religion tends to get dragged along the upward path.

Brainstorms writes: " It’s the people…"

Product liability laws then.This will be the mother of all class action suits ....

By Kevin O'Neill (not verified) on 15 Feb 2016 #permalink

Greg: The factors I think are relevant appear to be innate and many of them should follow one or another well-known statistical distribution (e.g. skewed normal curve, yeah I'm a frequentist;-) A few examples:

Sense of meaning in relation to something larger than self. Identification of self with tribe clearly had adaptive value in collective endeavors e.g. food-seeking and defense. Identification of self with various transcendent ideas is a variation on the theme, reinforced by the emotions related to these ideas.

Attribution of agency. Has adaptive value where concerned with predators, hostile others, etc. Easily extends to forces of inanimate nature such as storms, particularly their more dramatic effects such as lightning, thunder, tornadoes, and rain where agricultural dependencies are concerned.

Attribution of personhood. Subtly different to "agency," and applies to numerous aspects of nature including other organisms as well as inanimate objects/processes. Thence comes the idea of plants and animals having souls, etc. Attribution of personhood to other humans is essential to forming interpersonal bonds (obvious adaptive value). Conversely the absence of this characteristic is a clear sign of sociopathy which in turn is maladaptive.

Extraordinary experiences. The obvious one is the discovery of plants with mind-altering properties (notably hypnotics & psychedelics, e.g. cannabis, opium poppies, psilocybin mushrooms, etc.), and the discovery of fermentation (alcohol). Less obvious, but I believe far more pervasive than generally given credit, NDEs (near-death experiences) with spontaneous resuscitation. Regardless of one's hypothesis re. the nature of NDEs, they are certainly experientially compelling and would provide an immediate basis for beliefs in immortal souls and in various unseen person-like agencies e.g. deities.

Emotional states. Awe, wonder, etc., all of which must necessarily have neurochemical correlates, some of which are known and others are yet to be determined. Keep in mind that many are the well-known working scientists who have remarked on the value of these emotions in motivating their own work.

Dreams. The subjective impression of having been "elsewhere" whilst one's body was soundly asleep in a room and seen by others. This is an obvious source for the belief in the existence of an immaterial self, which belief becomes formalized in terms of the immortal soul.

So yes, if you were to isolate a population from all exposure to beliefs regarding deities and immortal souls, it would not be long before some members of that population had experiences that suggested those beliefs, and others took those suggestions and ran with them.


I'm of the opinion that arguing over untestable propositions (deities and immortal souls) is a dead-end, and the place to focus the effort is on propositions that are clearly falsified and are having pernicious effects.

At this point in history, the irrational belief that is doing our species the greatest harm, is the belief that infinite economic growth is possible on a finite planet. Speaking of pervasive irrationalisms, that one is nearly universal, and the behaviors it produces are destroying the biosphere. The Church of the Invisible Hand is in serious need of a dose of Even-Newer-Atheist pushback.

#9 Treesong said: "‘Survival of the fittest’ does not necessarily mean ‘strong preying on the weak’. Cooperation is everywhere in nature."

SOTF certainly doesn't rule out preying on the weak. Packs/prides and cooperation does provide an added level of protection when preying on weaker groups.

#3 tildeb said: "And we know this because religious belief does not produce real world knowledge about anything. Ever."
That's quite a claim. (I'd like to hear an explanation of inductive reasoning from the vast atheist community.)

Francis Bacon, a Christian who is widely credited with establishing the Scientific Method disagrees (http://tinyurl.com/jdzgw7c):

I had rather believe all the fables in the legends and the Talmud and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind.
Of Atheism.

A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.
Of Atheism.

That might be a clue...

@ Ron

You don't even understand fitness. In evolutionary terms, it means success of one's offspring to reproduce. Little critters filling a niche can be far more fit than some large carnivore.

Again, the misrepresentation of what 'survival of the fittest' actually means is most common among those whose fundamental religious beliefs are most threatened by how reality is known to operate. That's why you sometimes find a religion without creationism but will never find creationism with a religious impetus. Creationism comes from not understanding how reality operates, and accepting the idea that understanding reality means granting it to be an arbiter of the beliefs we hold about it, but is misrepresented to be an important element of faith... a means of believing promoted by religious beliefs that necessarily castigates an evidence-adduced method as a vice.

Show us one new understanding about how reality operates brought about only by religious belief. Show us one new therapy, one new application, one new technology discovered by religious belief alone. There are none. Theology is not a path to knowledge or insight into reality but is imposed on it. That's why it requires faith to erect pseudo-explanations that explain nothing, while motivating those who don't know - and don't really care to know - to pretend they do.

By Tildeb (not verified) on 16 Feb 2016 #permalink

In reply to by ron (not verified)

I'm reminded of Skinner's superstitious pigeons... In a world where many important things are at least to some degree unpredictable, people (and pigeons!) will inevitably begin to ascribe good or bad fortune to unseen influences, simply as a by-product of the ability to (mis-)perceive cause and effect. Then various social feedback loops kick in, and before long, hey presto! You've got a bouncing new baby religion.

#15 "Show us one new understanding about how reality operates brought about only by religious belief. Show us one new therapy, one new application, one new technology discovered by religious belief alone. There are none. "

I have just demonstrated more than you've demanded... how one man's religious belief brought forth the concept of inductive reasoning and the Scientific Method (which has been used for centuries to find new therapies, applications and technologies). Study Bacon (and/or acknowledge that atheism cannot account for inductive reasoning).

They that deny a God, destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts, by his body; and, if he be not of kin to God, by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.

No, Ron. Religion did not produce the scientific method any more than my dancing produced the rains. There is no causal link. The methods of science to use the OED definition require systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses... none of which are in harmony with the central claims of religious faith. Yes, Bacon formalized inductive reasoning but did not produce these methods that allowed reality to arbitrate our beliefs about it. That distinction tends to be assigned more to Galileo who wrote extensively about why reality should be used to inform a better understanding of scripture... an accommodation that worked out almost as well for him as Collin's failed BioLogos site worked out to comport creationism with evolution. Religion has been the primary adversary of those who would respect reality's right to arbitrate claims made about it... because such fundamental religious claims do NOT comport with overwhelming evidence adduced from reality but stand contrary to and in conflict with it.

By tildeb (not verified) on 16 Feb 2016 #permalink

In reply to by ron (not verified)

In my mind religion addresses two important areas which are only vaguely related. On the one hand it is an attempt to answer musings such as "why are we here" and "what is all this happening", which covers not only religion but philosophy in a wider sense. On the other hand, it also is a set of rules and rituals to govern our daily life.

The latter case is not really about religion per se, but there is an overlap with "law and order" since ethics an morality straddle the fence.

Th first case is a legitimate line of consideration, but as most people do not have the patience or inclination to spend time on it, they leave it to "specialists": priests, shamans, philosophers, hermits, etc.

The second case is what creates much of suffering since the rules and rituals are prescriptive and restrictive and have no other motivation other than appeal to "higher authority", i.e. they cannot be reasoned about but must be followed even when they make little sense.

So, in your hypothetical scenario, I believe that very quickly rules of conduct for a functioning society will be established ("the law") but they need not be attributed to some deity.

A slower process is the growing body of knowledge (or actually speculation) on why we are here, but these thoughts do not need to absorb the "law and order" aspect. In the western world we have spent decades trying to separate the two.

(To quote Kilgore Trout in "Venus on a half shell" where he travels the universe asking the question "Why are we born to suffer and die?", in the end he receives the answer: "Why not?". It is a funny book, but the answer merits some serious consideration).

"In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move."
~ Douglas Adams

"For years astrophysicists have been racking their brains over the reason for the great difference in the amounts of cosmic dust in various galaxies. The answer, I think, is quite simple: the higher a civilization is, the more dust and refuse it produces. This is a problem more for janitors than for astrophysicists."
~ Ijon Tichy

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 16 Feb 2016 #permalink

Religion is a pollution of the intellect that is gradually being cleaned up all around the world.

Given intellectual leaders who promote and share their capacity for rational analysis with their communities, there shouldn't be any reason why anybody would want to listen to intellectual leaders who try to inflict irrational non-thought, usually through bullying, threats and violence.

Then again, Dawkins thinks like Greg and explains it using similar words. I call them both pessimists. Many, many people live in societies where religidiots can and are almost completely ignored. France, Scandinavia, Japan. Australia is almost there, at least we've had a PM who was able to declare her atheism.

Dawkins, being English, lives in a country where Archbishops are part of the system of governance, and where the Head of State is by definition the head of a religious sect.
And Greg lives in America, a country pioneered by a large chunk of Europe's least wanted expelled religious fundamentalists and crazies whose malign influence has yet to die down.

It's good to see the desperation exhibited by the rear-guard action of religidiocy in one of the world's most advancedly secular nations:

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 16 Feb 2016 #permalink

Well, science evolved out of superstition, for instance astronomy evolved out of astrology. That in no way makes for an endorsement of astrology. Just an awakening and putting aside of childish things.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 16 Feb 2016 #permalink

ron#15: Bacon had plenty of predecessors and successors in developing the scientific method, including many in the Arab world (until Islam shut them down). Insofar as religion was involved in his philosophy, it was because there was no other starting point for educated people then. But the scientific method has done a great deal to demolish the pretensions of religion, so I wouldn't put too much emphasis on it if I were you. And you still haven't answered Tildeb: 'Show us one new therapy, one new application, one new technology discovered by religious belief alone. There are none.'

You add, 'acknowledge that atheism cannot account for inductive reasoning'. I'm not sure what argument you're making here, so I'll answer the two that seem likeliest.
One is that because evolution is a 'random' process (no,it isn't), there's no reason to believe our senses. The answer to that is that from amoebas on up, if your senses (and, in higher animals, your brain) don't give an accurate match to reality, you are not going to survive to breed.
The other is that induction works because (1) the universe is an orderly place and (2) that's because God said so. I see no reason to complicate the question with a fuzzy concept that explains nothing, so I stop with (1). Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.

Yo, Treesong, WRT your last two paragraphs:

Too little definition here to have a serious discussion. I could argue that the universe is not an orderly place, and I could argue that "God" is a single entity that explains everything.

plg at #17 makes a good start at clarification by separating the mundane from the sublime-- ron is trying to conflate the two tracks. If there were no "religion" in his sense, there would still be philosophy.

So, what exactly are you guys (ron et al) talking about?

zebra #23: In the context of induction, when I say 'orderly' I'm not talking about organization, but the fact that the universe acts consistently, so that we can predict the future from the past. By induction. (Quantum indeterminacy is irrelevant to things our size.
'God' can't be a single entity that explains everything. As Dawkins and others have pointed out, if it created the universe, it has to be at least as complicated (and in need of explanation) as the universe. Postulating God just kicks the problem one step further along the ontological road, so I prefer to stick with the universe, a single entity that explains everything. It is what it is and ever more shall be so.


Look, there's a lot of conflation going on here.

Let's first define a few terms. Religion is broadly speaking a belief in the supernatural. This can take many forms. A monotheistic god is actually a relatively new innovation, and for a long time was limited to a small part of the planet. (China, for one, didn't go in for it, nor did much of India and Africa, Australia and South America pre-1500).

You seem to posit that cooperation is not a good survival strategy, and that there has to be some innate "moral compass" that defies naturalistic explanation. But cooperation between species and within occurs a lot in the natural world. At one end is the eusociality of insects. I don't think you'd ascribe moral agency to bees or ants or termites. Yet they work together very well, and the "strong" do not prey on the "weak" (what that means isn't every really explicated in your posts). If anything the warrior caste protects the queen, who would be unable to defend herself.

Among mammals there are social organizations of many, many kinds (usually some variant on pack behavior). Social cohesion seems to be damned common, in fact. And this makes perfect sense when you consider that mammals do not lay eggs and invest a lot in offspring. The bigger the investment the more important sociality is, generally. (I can't think of too many mammal species that are solitary; perhaps some big cats, porcupines, and sloths?)

From that it makes perfect sense that humans would find their survival strategy in cooperation; our ancestors did it. And in fact there's been a lot of work suggesting that the modern human innovation was cooperation across kin groups, allowed by our superior ability to manipulate symbols -- to make analogies. That is something that most other animals seem to have a tough time with.

And if you cooperate across kin groups (or even within), then a morality of a sort -- it doesn't matter what -- has to emerge. Otherwise the group wouldn't function. And yes, there are some limits on the size of the group that can be built with personal connections (I know people have issues with the guy but Napoleon Chagnon's stuff on the approximate maximum size of a Yanomomo village is interesting here -- it seems to be about 300-500 people or so). I don't think it's an accident that you don't get cities without some way of sending and encoding information that didn't involve people just telling oral stories. (Example: the Incas has no writing but they had the quipu system of numerical records -- every city civilization has had something like it even if they had no writing).

And I should say that human societies have some broad agreements about what is moral -- taboos on killing people and incest seem to be almost universal things -- but the way those play out is insanely varied. Have a conversation about morality with a Zen Buddhist, a Christian and a Diné and you'll see what I mean.

That would point to people coming up with what works in context. And that is going to be something that is highly dependent on the environment you are in. There's nothing particularly mystical about it. The Native Americans weren't into being "one with nature" because of some mystical force, they did it because it kept them alive and every one of the 400 or so Native cultures in the current United States did it differently. Some were not so "at one" with Nature at all -- the Algonquin-speakers built plank houses and had farms, and the mound builders of Illinois had cities and all of that wouldn't have been too unfamiliar to a European.

Religions are outgrowths of this cooperation and response to local conditions. I don't think there's any one function they serve -- again, it depends on where and when and what. (Supposedly, by the way, there is no Diné word for the concept, though I do not know if that's apocryphal).

And again, the way people approach religion is so wildly varied. It's hard to talk about because the basic assumptions of a Shinto shrine builder are almost completely different than a Catholic building a cathedral. (A Christian sees God as apart from the world; Shinto sees the world as lots of little gods -- the two are almost opposites).

So it is far from clear to me that morality has to have a supernatural source.

And getting a little bigger here, it's far from clear to me that the universe has to have "meaning" for anyone or anything. n fact the very nature of reality would seem to work against that, given that immortality is a basic physical impossibility. (The universe will eventually no longer support the existence of matter).

Um, I agree that there is a problem with definitions here, probably because religion tends to subsume so much of people's thought and, especially in the west, discourage questioning.

Generally I borrow from Bob Brier's framework on how we attempt to deal with the big questions:

Mythology -- contains stories from primordial time that are not to be taken literally.

Religion -- belief is essential and includes stories that are taken as historical. (In practice, I see this as cultural. There are people in a lot of traditions, for instance, who identify as culturally religious, but are atheists.)

Philosophy-- deals with the same questions as religion but requires proof based on logic. So it deals not so much with opinion as facts that are unknown. (Contrast this with 'faith'.)

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 17 Feb 2016 #permalink

Treesong #24,

What I think puzzles me the most when I come across these discussions is what the "sides" would be like if they didn't have each other to disagree with.

If we say "the universe was created by the Big Bang", which some might argue was an event that occurred in a purely random (quantum random, not chaotic) meta-frame, then the argument about "God would have to be complicated" (a derivative of Godel, I guess?) doesn't hold up at all.

Really, that's an argument that only works with certain preconceptions about "God", which you derive from people like Ron. Does that make sense?

Again, I'm not sure what the philosophical disagreement is.

The mundane argument-- physics is about measurement and prediction, and "religion" isn't-- is almost trivial. The question that interests me is whether your conception of the universe beyond that-- the meta physics-- can be differentiated from that of the religionists.

#22said : "Bacon had plenty of predecessors and successors in developing the scientific method, including many in the Arab world (until Islam shut them down). Insofar as religion was involved in his philosophy, it was because there was no other starting point for educated people then."

Bacon wrote about atheists in his day, so you're excluding atheists from the set of "educated people" who advanced Science?

You close by citing Occam's Razor to explain induction. If anyone claimed Occam's Razor to explain the existence of God, you'd likely reject the claim, but expect readers to accept this explanation (or consider this a sincere contribution to the conversation)?

#20 "Bacon formalized inductive reasoning but did not produce these methods that allowed reality to arbitrate our beliefs about it."

Reality or truth exists outside of our beliefs about it. Bacon's beliefs led him to the truth of induction and an atheistic belief system cannot reconcile induction as Treesong demonstrated by citing Occam's Razor. Without induction, there's not much to discuss.

Back to Treesong #22 Why do you trust your thoughts/senses (perhaps Occam's Razor)?
“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.” C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity, p. 32

Ron tells us about some known atheistic belief system as if this makes sense. Now, we know atheism means non belief in a god or gods so he's telling us about a non belief belief system. That might make sense to him, loading the terms to mean whatever he wants them to mean be but let's substitute and see if this writing technique makes any sense at all: a non bicycle bicycle system, a non fish fish system, a non economic economic system.

I am truly mystified how anyone can make an antonym mean a different kind of synonym. That's quite the linguistic trick and seems to be swallowed without any critical misgivings by so many in the various theistic communities when it comes to atheism. Obviously, we're a special case where it's fine to mangle language as long as it involves deriding and misrepresenting atheists.

By tildeb (not verified) on 17 Feb 2016 #permalink

In reply to by ron (not verified)


This argument from C. S. Lewis is completely circular. If you don't have enough education to see that, you are in way over your head.

The reason that 'survival of the fittest' when only applied (erroneously ) to an individual (who would become a monster presumably) is a poor strategy for long time survival of the individual, is that everyone needs to sleep at some point.
Cooperation and integration in groups is a better hedge against threats.

By skeptictmac57 (not verified) on 17 Feb 2016 #permalink

" The question that interests me is whether your conception of the universe beyond that– the meta physics– can be differentiated from that of the religionists."
Well, they would seem to be polar opposites: scientists are asking questions in order to fill in the blanks with facts. Religidiots are filling in the blanks with non-answers without regard to the facts in order to stop questioning.


"Whitmarsh, a fellow of St John’s College, believes that the growing trend towards seeing religion as “hardwired” into humans is deeply worrying. “I am trying to destabilise this notion, which seems to be gaining hold all the time, that there is something fundamental to humanity about [religious] belief,” he told the Guardian."

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 17 Feb 2016 #permalink

zebra #27: The argument is not 'God would have to be complicated', but 'God would have to be more complicated, more in need of explanation, than its creation.'

ron #28: 'Bacon wrote about atheists in his day, so you’re excluding atheists from the set of “educated people” who advanced Science?' The Church had a near-monopoly of education before the Reformation, so yes, it was hard to be an educated atheist in Europe in his time. I suspect he was arguing against Greek and Roman atheists.

'You close by citing Occam’s Razor to explain induction. If anyone claimed Occam’s Razor to explain the existence of God, you’d likely reject the claim, but expect readers to accept this explanation (or consider this a sincere contribution to the conversation)?' I'm not sure what you're trying to say here. I explained why, if 'God' is 'one thing', so is the universe (which is simpler), so who needs God? Induction doesn't even come into it.

ron #29: 'Why do you trust your thoughts/senses (perhaps Occam’s Razor)?' Did you spend more than two seconds thinking about my comment? To anyone who knows anything about evolution, the nonsensicality of Lewis's argument is blatantly obvious. Brains work because good (reality-simulating) brains outcompete bad brains.

treesong #35,

The argument is not ‘God would have to be complicated’, but ‘God would have to be more complicated, more in need of explanation, than its creation.’

Why? You too are being circular, just like ron, which is my point-- too many unstated assumptions. How do you know how complicated God "would have to be"?

Craig Thomas 34,

Why did you leave out the first sentence in that paragraph?

"The mundane argument– physics is about measurement and prediction, and “religion” isn’t– is almost trivial."

zebra 36: Again, this argument is specifically aimed at the argument that God is one thing and therefore is the most parsimonious explanation for the universe. It obviously doesn't apply to Azathoth, the blind idiot god that blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity, but nobody claims that Azathoth explains the universe. Similarly for a deist god who set up a Big Bang and let the universe evolve as it saw fit. But if you want a god who deliberately made everything as it is; who can explain why we are born to suffer and die, or why a hen's egg don't turn into a crocodile; who decreed that this star should go nova and that whale should have vestigial leg bones; then I think the argument holds. He's got the whole wide universe in his mind, he's got the whole universe in his mind.

Let's hope that Nat Geo can explain induction and the human mind reasoning within itself, at least better than R. Dawkins could...

"A universe with a God would be very different than a world without a God. For starters, a world with a God would be one in which non-material entities — like logical propositions — could be reasonably aligned with facts in the material world, such that we could call such propositions either “true” or “false.”

In a world without God, we have no reason for thinking that the chemicals churning around in Dawkins’ brain have any relation whatever to the affairs of the outside world, any more than the clouds in my coffee are doing shrewd stock market analysis. In a world without God, atoms bang away over here in this way, and some other atoms bang away over there in another way, and so we consequently have no reason to believe that our thoughts on the matter are in any way true, which then takes away from us our one remaining solace in the fact that any atoms are banging away at all. We know nothing. We can’t even know that we know nothing, for to know that we know nothing is a species of knowledge. But then, even a blank nihilism pursued for the sake of consistency is in fact an attempt at consistency, and all such attempts are self-contradictory. But trying to stop it is self-contradictory also. Atheism is a high and demanding calling, and someone should point out that no one has ever actually attained to it yet.

Look at it another way. Dawkins picks up a banana and acknowledges that it has the appearance of design. It is not designed, he maintains, but natural selection makes it look as though it were. That is only the appearance of design, you chump. Okay, let us take that picture of Dawkins dismissing the banana and zoom out, shall we? Now we are looking at Dawkins tossing a banana on the table, and doing so as though he were actually arguing something. But is he? It seems that he is also just part of these appearances. Dawkins’ argument has the appearance of design. There is nothing to it but blind chance, right?

Dawkins might try to reply that his argument has actual design and rationality because he is the one who designed it. He framed the argument, and so it is therefore designed — but by Dawkins, not God. But who is Dawkins? Excuse me, what is Dawkins? I have just learned from Dawkins that he is just a complicated banana, only less yellow. He is not arguing for atheism because atheism is true. Given his premises, he can no more do that than the banana can."

ron #39: 'In a world without God, we have no reason for thinking that the chemicals churning around in Dawkins’ brain have any relation whatever to the affairs of the outside world' Argument by false assertion after I've explained the falsity of the assertion twice. Not convincing. I don't see any way to make the point any clearer, so I'll just yell. EVOLUTION IS NOT RANDOM!


Obviously, Ron has no understanding of evolution and has no desire to learn. He has his beliefs and he's going to stick with them no matter what anyone or even reality itself has to say about them.

I'm going to follow my own advice to you and just go and enjoy the day.

By tildeb (not verified) on 19 Feb 2016 #permalink

In reply to by Treesong (not verified)

Treesong 38,

You are confirming what I said at 23 and 27 and subsequently-- you have not been clear what you are arguing about.

Now that you have picked a God, I can point out that invoking Parsimony is not valid here-- unless you have some further clarification about what it is to which you are applying that test.

You can't say that "God's will" is less parsimonious an answer to the question "How did the universe get to be the way it is?" than "it's random".

And speaking of randomness-- you keep missing the point in your replies to ron. The fact that evolution is constrained says nothing about whether or not we are perceiving "reality" beyond the mundane.

Again, we can make measurements and predictions, which differentiates us from those practicing some form of magical thinking, but that doesn't mean that the stories we tell ourselves to help in the process describe an actual underlying structure.

If "EVOLUTION IS NOT RANDOM"!, then who / what designed it to follow certain constraints and what are those constraints?

ron #43,

I guess I have to educate both you guys on this word.

"Random" does not mean "not designed".

-It means, in quantum physics, that there is no cause.

-Random in the classical vernacular is used to describe things that are unpredictable in practice, like the path of a gas molecule. The path is, however, the result of causes, and it is also constrained.

-But evolution is probably best described as "chaotic", because there are different possible discrete outcomes. We can't predict them, but the number of possible states is limited.

Perhaps you could rephrase your question to reflect these distinctions?

If we're to accept that evolution is chaotic (rather than random), what / whom limits it? What / whom sets its limits? If not a Creator or a mind, what?

If we're to accept Occam's Razor (advising which hypothesis to test first) as an explanation for the basis of induction versus a chaotic system, why would one believe that God is not preferable / simpler than chaotic systems?

Phylogenetic (including genetic) constraints, adaptive space, mechanistic inertia and potential, history, time, and luck constrain evolution. Random inputs are mostly ignored but critically shaped by these things.

Occam's Razor, though not recommended to find correct answers (it is used rather to limit the number of wrong answers), would never predict, prefer, or suggest god, for obvious reasons.

ron 45,

No idea what "an explanation for the basis of induction" means.

Please see my #42 for treesong. You can't apply OR unless you have a clearly stated question. I certainly haven't been able to figure out what yours is. (Please note that is talking about the universe not evolution.)

Greg is correct-- evolution occurs in a particular "space"-- Earth, with all its physical characteristics, like sunlight and water and asteroid impacts and mineralogy and so on, and then there's more fundamental physics and chemistry-- gravity, molecular bonds, yadda yadda. So the possible outcomes are obviously limited.


Who designed the Designer?

Who created the Creator?

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 19 Feb 2016 #permalink

"The Creator/ Designer" is merely a place holder for 'I don't know'.
Think of the (further) fantastic leaps of imagination beyond the fuzzy ideas of an uncaused, eternal, all powerful, non-material being (if it could even be thought of as a being by those criteria) to any of the specific gods (of which there are many) as described by the myriad religious texts that exist.
There are so many leaps of faith that have to be done from the beginning of that premise to the end, that it is truly amazing that anyone who has truly thought about it in anything approaching an open and intellectually honest way, could ever take it seriously. But many do, and they are all certain that they have miraculously stumbled (been born to, in most cases) upon the 'correct' answer out of all of the thousands of possible 'correct' answers.
What are the odds, I ask you?

By skeptictmac57 (not verified) on 19 Feb 2016 #permalink

zebra #42: 'I can point out that invoking Parsimony is not valid here.' That's what I keep saying!.

'The fact that evolution is constrained says nothing about whether or not we are perceiving “reality” beyond the mundane.' If by 'mundane' you mean everything we can or ever will be able to see, feel, hear, examine with electron microscopes and large hadron colliders, quantum-frandobulate, calculate, etc., then you're right. But I see no reason to believe that there is anything beyond that 'mundane'. If that's not what you mean, then you're wrong, as has been explained repeatedly.

So I'm not going to try again. Bye, all.

Except I forgot to recommend Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea to anyone who doesn't think evolution is the greatest idea since fire.

OK, now I'm going.

Treesong 50,

...or ever will be able to see, feel, hear, examine with electron microscopes and large hadron colliders, quantum-frandobulate, calculate, etc., then you’re right. But I see no reason to believe that there is anything beyond that ‘mundane’.

Why not? Your belief that humans have an infinite capacity to do all that frandobulating and calculating, and get it right, is as fantastical as anything the rons of the world think.

We are clever monkeys, and we can light the fire of the sun over our cities if we so choose to wipe ourselves out, but our conceptualizations are rooted in a limited frame of reference.

Power is not wisdom.