scientific theories of the origins of religion

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  • Created on: 30-05-17 23:45

part 2 scientific theories about religion

Common themes in the earlier theories of the origins of religion:

Religion as something people invent to explain things
- links in with ignorance idea, primitive science- explaining why there's a world 
- Marx religion serves bourgeoise 

Religion as something that’s there because it’s useful or comforting to people.

But Pascal Boyer argues1:

The urge to explain things is not nearly as widespread as scientists and philosophers commonly think. Supernatural beliefs don't fit iin. 

We have to ask: why do people believe things that are useful or comforting?

Many religious beliefs are not comforting at all! hell, harsh punishments 

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religion. Basic, 2001.

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Evolutionary Psychology

Some people have tried to explain religion as a product of biological evolution.

(Boyer: Religion Explained, Dennett: Breaking the Spell, and many others.)

The basic idea behind Evolutionary Psychology is that the mind contains lots of special-purpose mechanisms – modules.

E.g. a module for recognizing faces which easier <- specialised kit , a module for learning language,  maths more difficult

These modules are products of evolution and are adaptations to life in the Stone Age

makes sense in evolutionary terms we are social creatures 
brain damage/trauma people losee that ability 

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Evolutionary Psychology

Modules are relatively independent of each other and operate automatically.

Because of this, they can produce illusions

Sensory illusions

Cognitive illusions - confirmaation bias- seeing things confirms other hings 

Illusions can be useful to people, or can be by-products of other things that are. < heuristics 

Either way, they have a tendency to persist even when we know rationally that they’re false.

what does this have to do with religion?
Key- religion people see agency in things 

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Hyperactive agent-detection mechanism

 Why would it be useful to see agency when it’s not there?

Because it’s better to have some false positives than some false negatives

(In other words, it’s better than not seeing agency when it is there.)

beter to be safe than sorry  e.g. predator detection - tigers 

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Neuroscience - Ramachandran and the 'God spot'

Ramachandran and the ‘God spot’

Ramachandran found that people who had epileptic seizures sometimes described their seizures as experiences of God.

Moreover, these experiences could be artificially produced in other people.

“When the Canadian psychologist Dr. Michael Persinger got hold of a similar device [a transcranial magnetic stimulator] a few years ago, he chose ... to stimulate parts of his temporal lobes. And he found to his amazement that he experienced God for the first time in his life.”

Ramachandran and Blakeslee:
Shadows of the Mind, Harper 1988.

The idea that “God really does visit these people”, they say, “can be neither proved nor ruled out on empirical grounds”, so they don’t consider it as a possible explanation

if any of these theories are true is religion debunked? - proved 2b false

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The genetic fallacy

If ay of the theories is true, is religion debunked? 

The fallacy of thinking that we can find out whether something is true or false by finding out what causes a person to believe it.

E.g. “You only believe that because of your upbringing”


“You want to believe that.”

– Even if that is why you believe something, that doesn’t make it false.
- could say same to atheists, anyone's beliefs 

Fallacy means misconception/fantasy/deception - mistaken beliefs based on unsound arguments 

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freud quote

“[P]sychoanalysis can indicate the subjective and individual motives behind philosophical theories which have ostensibly sprung from impartial logical work and can draw a critic’s attention to the weak spots in the system. It is not the business of psychoanalysis, however, to undertake such criticism itself, for, as may be imagined, the fact that a theory is psychologically determined does not in the least invalidate its scientific truth.”

[Freud: “The Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest”, 1913].

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Adolf Grünbaum interprets Freud as giving an argum

Adolf Grünbaum interprets Freud as giving an argument for atheism:

Premise 1: All archaic, evidentially ill-supported illusions are very probably false.

Premise 2: Anyone’s belief in theism is an archaic, evidentially ill-supported illusion.

Conclusion: Anyone’s belief in theism is very probably false.”

[Grünbaum: “Psychoanalysis and Theism

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Freud-type story about atheists

However, Freud’s evidence for his account of the origins of religion is very weak. 

Moreover, we could tell a Freud-type story about why 
people are atheists if we wanted to.

-Maybe atheism stems from a desire to get rid of one’s father?

-Or maybe it stems from a desire to be free from the oppressive Super-ego?

-Would that discredit atheism?

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Freud criticism

A general problem with many of these explanations of religion is that they are based on general psychological theories that are themselves very speculative

Freud’s theories (i.e. not just his theories about religion) are regarded by most psychologists today as little more than unfounded speculation.

Evolutionary Psychologists are often thought to be inventing ‘just-so stories’2

(Note: Even if you accept the Theory of Evolution, you don’t have to accept Evolutionary Psychology)

2. Gould and Lewontin: “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm”

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This is ironic given new atheists’ insistence on only believing things on evidence

“[N]ext time somebody tells you thatsomething is true, why not say to them:‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.”

Dawkins: “A Prayer for my Daughter”

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Do these theories merely presuppose (Assume)  that only certain types of explanation are acceptable, and that religious explanations of the origins of religion must be false?

“[U]nless we at least entertain the possibility that God is a part of the environment in which evolution occurs, we will deny the possibility of any biological structure whose existence might constitute evidence for such a claim.” Ratcliffe: “Scientific naturalism and the neurology of religious experience.”,

Religious studies, 39 (3), 2003.  Matthew Ratcliffe on Ramachandran:

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religious beliefs - folk stories?

Should we think of religious beliefs as folk theories?

Folk theories are theories about the world that we hold pre-scientifically.

They may not be true, but they help us get around

They may be products of evolution

E.g. folk physics, folk psychology.

But are theories wrong just because they’re ‘folk’?

Science does tell us that some folk theories are false, but it doesn’t usually have to do this by the roundabout route of telling us why we believe them.

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