Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Roots of Religion

Figure 2
The world over. All cultures have religious beliefs, though they express them in diverse ways. (from Science, 326, 5954, p. 784)


Last month, the journal Science had an essay on the origin of religion. It primarily focused on researchers looking at cognitive factors contributing to our belief in a supernatural, and archaeologists searching for the earliest evidence of religious behaviour amongst humans. It is a good short overview, but I'm surprised that it did not discuss in detail ideas that invoke group selection - such as the work David Sloan Wilson and others. To balance this out, check out David Sloan Wilson's lecture at Hampshire College and also a review of Nicholas Wade's book, The Faith Instinct - How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, in today's NYT.

Here are some key points in the Science article, On the Origin of Religion (you may need subscription to access the full article):
This new field, the cognitive science of religion, draws on psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to understand the mental building blocks of religious thought. "There are functional properties of our cognitive systems that lean toward a belief in supernatural agents, to something like a god," says experimental psychologist Justin Barrett of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Barrett and others see the roots of religion in our sophisticated social cognition. Humans, they say, have a tendency to see signs of "agents"—minds like our own—at work in the world. "We have a tremendous capacity to imbue even inanimate things with beliefs, desires, emotions, and consciousness, ... and this is at the core of many religious beliefs," says Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom.

Meanwhile, archaeologists seeking signs of ancient religion focus on its inextricable link to another cognitive ability: symbolic behavior. They, too, stress religion's social component. "Religion is a particular form of a larger, social symbolic behavior," says archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. So archaeologists explore early religion by excavating sites that reveal the beginnings of symbolic behavior and of complex society.
Then it lays out a nice time sequence based on archaeological evidence. It doesn't go into the details here, but I'm fascinated by Neanderthal burials (for example at Shanidar Cave in the Kurdish areas of Iraq) that included rituals 60-80,000 years ago and may possibly hint at their belief in an afterlife (though this last part is heavily disputed):

The first deliberate burials are found at roughly the same time, at a site called Qafzeh in Israel, dated to about 95,000 years ago. Researchers have dug up more than 30 individuals, including a 9-year-old child with its legs bent and a deer antler in its arms. And starting about 65,000 years ago or even earlier, Neandertals also sometimes buried their dead. Henry de Lumley of the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine in Paris has referred to these ancient burials as "the birth of metaphysical anguish."

But others aren't sure what metaphysical message burial conveys. "There can be lots of reasons to bury things; just look at kids in a sandbox," says Barrett. Burial by itself, says archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany, may best be considered a sign of "protobelief."
But these issues are more well-settled when we get to 30-35,000 years ago. Now we start seeing paleo-lithic cave-paintings in Europe, such as the caves at Lascaux and Chauvet:
If they had to name one time and place when the gods were born, Conard and some others might point to 30,000 to 35,000 years ago in Europe. That's when symbolic expression flowered in what's called the Upper Paleolithic explosion (Science, 6 February, p. 709). At this time, Ice Age hunter-gatherers painted strikingly realistic animals—and a few half-animal, half-human figures—on the walls of France's Grotte Chauvet and other caves. They also left small but spectacular figurines in caves in Germany, including a dramatic carved ivory "Venus" reported in May and three "lion-men"—each a carved male body with the head of a lion.
And then from artistic expressions to building structures, such as the various megaliths, starting about 10-11,000 years ago:
Twenty thousand years later, humans reached another religious milestone, building what is often considered the world's first temple at the 11,000-year-old site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey (Science, 18 January 2008, p. 278). There, rows of standing stones up to 6 meters tall march down a high hillside in circles; each massive stone is carved with images of wild animals. "There is the erection of monumental and megalithic architecture for the first time," says excavator Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin.
But then the cognitive side looks at how our mind constructs a world that may also provide clues about the origins of religious belief:
According to the emerging cognitive model of religion, we are so keenly attuned to the designs and desires of other people that we are hypersensitive to signs of "agents": thinking minds like our own. In what anthropologist Pascal Boyer of Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri has described as a "hypertrophy of social cognition," we tend to attribute random events or natural phenomena to the agency of another being.

When it comes to natural phenomena, "we may be intuitive theists," says cognitive psychologist Deborah Kelemen of Boston University (BU). She has shown in a series of papers that young children prefer "teleological," or purpose-driven, explanations rather than mechanical ones for natural phenomena.

For example, in several studies British and American children in first, second, and fourth grades were asked whether rocks are pointy because they are composed of small bits of material or in order to keep animals from sitting on them. The children preferred the teleological explanation. "They give an animistic quality to the rock; it's protecting itself," Kelemen explains.
Along the same lines:

Other researchers find the work intriguing. "If her data are right, we all from childhood have a bias to see the natural world as purposefully designed," says Barrett. "It's a small step to suppose that the design has a designer."

This predisposition to "creationist" explanations has resonance with another tendency in the human mind, says Barrett—something he calls the "hypersensitive agency detection device": looking for a thinking "being" even in nonliving things. In classic experiments in the 1940s, psychologists found that people watching animations of circles, triangles, and squares darting about could identify various shapes as characters and infer a narrative. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie noted in 1993 that this tendency could help explain religion, because it implies we attribute "agency" to all kinds of inanimate objects and ambiguous signals. As Barrett describes it: "When I hear a bump in the night, I think ‘Who's there?’ not ‘What's there?’ ... Given ambiguous stimuli, we often posit an agency at play."

Guthrie suggested that natural selection primed this system for false positives, because if the bump in the night is really a burglar—or a lion—you could be in danger, while if it's just the wind, no harm done.

There is a subsequent discussion of "theory of mind" in the article, but then it briefly turns to the adaptive explanation of religious origins: additional class of explanations for why religion is so prominent in every culture: It promotes cooperative behavior among strangers and so creates stable groups (Science, 3 October 2008, p. 58). Other researchers hypothesize that religion is actually adaptive: By encouraging helpful behavior, religious groups boost the biological survival and reproduction of their members. Adhering to strict behavioral rules may signal that a religion's members are strongly committed to the group and so will not seek a free ride, a perennial problem in cooperative groups (Science, 4 September, p. 1196). Norenzayan and others also note that helpful behavior is more common when people think that they are being watched, so a supernatural god concerned with morality could encourage helpful behaviors, especially in large groups where anonymity is possible. Some researchers suggest that cognitive tendencies led to religion, which then took hold and spread because it raised fitness.
As you can see, there are multiple explanations and (so far) the question is wide-open. At the same time, it is clear that this is an active and exciting area of research. Perhaps most importantly, many of these models provide testable hypotheses and some of these ideas will scientifically prevail over others. I don't know what will be the impact on religion. One can argue that all these models only provide the "how" but not the "why" of religion - thus possibly placing God behind the mechanism that makes the belief in supernatural universal. On the other hand, one may consider it another major retreat of religion - this time not only removing God as the cause of some natural phenomena, but declaring God to be simply an invention of the human mind. Whatever the case, the discussion won't end any time soon.

Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access the article). If you are interested in this area of research, I would also like to recommend a fantastic blog, Epiphenom, run by Tom Rees. Most of his emphasis is on the sociological and psychological aspects of religion, but many of his posts also deal with why people believe in gods.


Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said...


Religion and Yoga reflect identical meaning. Religion (re-ligare) means union again with Ultimate Reality or binding back to Absolute. Yoga is the derivative of Sanskrit root ‘yuj’ which means yoking of power of body, mind and soul. Yoga primarily consists of concentration, meditation and realization apart from practicing asans, mudras and breath control which help to achieve concentration and physical and emotional well-being. Yoga is experimental technique of spiritualism. Religion is blend of ritual and spiritual. Rituals dominate religion these days. Whereas rituals are altogether not necessary for practicing yoga.
Yoga in India has been practiced since the dawn of the human civilization, according to Hindu mythology millions of year back.
In Bhagavad-Gita Lord SriKrishna says to Arjuna:
“I taught this immortal Yoga to Vivasvan (sun-god), Vivasvan conveyed it to Manu(his son), and Manu imparted it to (his son) Iksvaku. Thus transmitted to succession from father to son, Arjuna, this Yoga remained known to the Rajarisis (royal sages). It has however long since disappeared from this earth. The same ancient Yoga has this day been imparted to you by Me, because you are My devotee and friend, and also because this is a supreme secret”.
At this Arjuna said: You are of recent origin while the birth of Vivasvan dates back to remote antiquity. How, then, I am to believe that you taught this Yoga at the beginning of creation? Lord SriKrishna said: Arjuna, you and I have passed through many births. I remember them all, you do not remember.

Famous historian Romila Thapar has described in her book A History of India about the status of Yoga in 300-700 A.D. She writes: “Yoga (Application) which was based on the control of the body physically and implied that a perfect control over the body and the senses led to knowledge of the ultimate reality. A detailed anatomical knowledge of the human body was necessary to the advancement of yoga and therefore those practising yoga had to keep in touch with medical knowledge.”
As far as anatomical knowledge of human body is concerned it is very much required for the optimum result during practice of Yoga. Yoga system has very close connection with the human anatomy i.e. chakra or nerve centres distributed along the spinal column and in brain region.
Besides, connection chakras with the practice of Yoga, chakra has also great role in the development of personality. People do not realise that personalities can grow to include a balance of all the six chakras. Jung referred to this growth process as “individuation”, and associated it with life’s spiritual dimension. Danah Zohar evolves a model of spiritual quotient (sq) based on the six petals of a lotus and its centre, corresponding to the seven chakras described by the Hinduism’s Kundalini Yoga, as an aid to the process of individuation in the mid-1990s. Contribution of Danah Zohar for coining the term spiritual quotient for the first time is immense. But she did not establish any mathematical relationship, which is very much required, for this quotient.

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said...

Deepak Chopra has given a formula of spiritual quotient in terms of Deed (D) and Ego (E). According to Deepak Chopra S.Q. =D/E. He (2006) writes: If Vedanta is right and there is only one reality, then all desires must follow the same mechanics, desires arise and are fulfilled in consciousness. Making yourself happy involves ….. I have a ” Spiritual Quotient” where SQ = D/E. Where D = Deeds and E = Ego. Now you can ONLY have an SQ = infinity when E = 0. If E is little even then SQ is approaching infinity (or one is close to be a “Great Master”) but not actually “Pure .This appears to be very fascinating but it is highly abstract which cannot be measured experimentally, accurately and precisely. However, this formula has immense value to understand S.Q.

I have also discovered a mathematical relationship for S.Q about eight years back in 2001. I have used physiological parameters which can be measured accurately and precisely and can be tested and verified experimentally. According to this formula S.Q. can be expressed as the ratio of parasympathetic dominance (P.D.) to sympathetic dominance (S.D.). Parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) are the two parts of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is largely under hypothalamic control. Hypothalamus is situated very close to the Sixth Chakra. During practice of meditation at Sixth Chakra these centres are galvanized which has very positive effect on practitioners spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical well being.

According to this relationship spiritual quotient can be written as:
S.Q. = P.D./S.D.
If the value of S.Q. comes >1 (greater than one), it can be assumed that the person is moving towards self-realisation and if the value of S.Q. comes

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said...

o According to His Holiness Huzur Maharaj, the Second Most Revered Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had stated : “Love or Force of attraction (i.e. the Force of Cohesion) is the Param Tattva or the chief ingredient of the creation, i.e. the entire creation has come into existence out of Love and is sustained by Love.” In scientific terminology this is known as Gravity.
Based on my recent comments posted in various blogs , I have postulated a hypothesis. propose. Theoretical Physics describes four fundamental forces of nature viz., weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force, electromagnetic force and force of gravity. Here we can present an analogy. Weak and strong nuclear forces represent pancha-bhutas or the five elements. Electromagnetic force represents force of current of mind which mainly works through sensory organs and force of gravity represents supra-causal state of Consciousness. We know that during advanced stage of practice of meditation and yoga pancha-bhutas or five elements merge into mind and mind into supra-causal state of Consciousness and ultimately Individual Consciousness merges into Cosmic Consciousness. This is the state of Perfect Bliss or Self-Realization. Likewise during the reverse process of Cosmic Evolution i.e. Perfect Dissolution of the Universe, weak and strong nuclear forces merge into electromagnetic force and electromagnetic force merges into force of gravity.
In the beginning, the entire Creation came into existence from this Single Force Current which later on manifested into many force currents during the process of Cosmic Evolution.
Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator, this paper I presented at the 1st Int. Conf. on Revival of Traditional Yoga, held at The Lonavla Yoga Institute (India), Lonavla, Pune in 2006. The Abstract of this paper is given below:
The Universe includes everything that exists. In the Universe there are billions and billions of stars. These stars are distributed in the space in huge clusters. They are held together by gravitation and are known as galaxies. Sun is also a star. Various members of the solar system are bound to it by gravitation force. Gravitation force is the ultimate cause of birth and death of galaxy, star and planets etc. Gravitation can be considered as the cause of various forms of animate and inanimate existence. Human form is superior to all other forms. Withdrawal of gravitational wave from some plane of action is called the death of that form. It can be assumed that gravitation force is ultimate creator. Source of it is ‘God’. Gravitational Field is the supreme soul (consciousness) and its innumerable points of action may be called as individual soul (consciousness). It acts through body and mind. Body is physical entity. Mind can be defined as the function of autonomic nervous system. Electromagnetic waves are its agents through which it works. This can be realized through the practice of meditation and yoga under qualified meditation instruction. This can remove misunderstanding between science and religion and amongst various religions. This is the gist of all religious teachings – past, present and future.

emre said...

I think these experiments into the roots of religion, while fascinating, do not answer the Big Question, simply because life is not necessary for the existence of God. For this, I think the video by Paul Davies you posted earlier about the origin of the laws of physics is more enlightening.

Salman Hameed said...


Sure, but the goals are different and these experiments are trying to answer different sort of questions than the ones raised in Paul Davies' lecture: Origins of belief in the supernatural versus the origin of physical laws and the universe.

Nathan Schneider said...

I'm glad you raised this... I've long been interested in this debate about group selection, and why people like Atran and Dawkins and Boyer are so insistent that religion must be pretty much a spandrel. Of course it relates to debates in evolutionary biology that go beyond religion, but in the case of religion, there certainly do seem to be reasons to suspect ideological motivation.

Michael Blume said...

I put you on my blogroll just before I read this article! And I liked it very much, as the evolution of religiosity and religions is an expanding field where I have the honour to participate.

In order not to advertise my own blog, I just want to recommend an article Tom Rees did:

Thank you for your work and have a good new year, I am looking forward reading more of your posts!

Rycharde Manne said...

I would like to propose that faith be reclassified as an emotion. Philosophers have always had trouble with faith because it is thought to be something special, but it has many many similarities with the state of being in love. If one looks at the descriptions by people who have either fallen out of faith, or into it, the feelings are little different to human love.

Yoga has already been mentioned. My own background is in mathematics, physics and tibetan buddhism. The terms may change but the meditations are similar across eastern philosophies. In those terms something like Christianity looks like a simple heart chakra religion. It teaches nothing about the other chakras and higher states of mind. It focusses on an army of faithful stuck in a dependent relationship between their emotional centre and a projection of what they believe is an external entity.

Why are such religions based on faith so successful compared to systems based on self-knowledge? That is the (sad) question.

Have just come across your blog and have added it to my A World Beyond Belief blogroll.