As regular readers have noticed, over the past year my blogging frequency had decreased to near zero. That’s starting to change. I have recently launched a new website & blogging endeavor: Florida Skeptics. I have a number of other “Sunshine State” thinkers lined up to participate and am looking for more. This week I made my first new post there.
If you care to check it out, here’s the link: Florida Skeptics
[Guest post by Susan Gerbic]
The single most powerful skeptical tool on the Internet today is Wikipedia. Only 11 years old, this living, breathing encyclopedia has already changed the epistemology in every language.
I’m here today to plead my case, and ask for help.
On my blog Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia I urge the skeptical community to embrace Wikipedia as our most relevant tool, enabling us to shape the public into better critical thinkers. We already know that shouting and belittling believers does nothing but force them to circle the cognitive dissonance wagons, and shut down. Allowing them to do their own research and think things through independently, without pressure, is the only way to potentially change their minds.
Guerrilla Skepticism is the act of inserting well written, carefully cited skeptical references into Wikipedia pages where they are needed, while still following the guidelines and rules of everyone’s online encyclopedia. This grassroots method allows skeptics working at home to contribute to the skeptical movement without personally confronting people. I began this project in June, 2011 and we are now currently editing in 17 languages with over 85 editors, and growing!
The World Wikipedia project is working to translate well-written pages into other languages, as well as review current pseudoscience pages and forcing them to back up every claim with a notable citation. In other words, prove it or lose it.
The “We Got Your Wiki Back!” Project, a sub-set of the greater Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia undertaking, is important to our community’s reputation and mission. The main idea is to remember that we are not improving Wikipedia for skeptics; our audience is the general public. We are not preaching to the choir. This is important work that must be done if we are to be taken seriously by the public. We know who these people are, we know what they are “famous” for, so we alone hold responsibility for supporting them and enlightening the public. They are our spokespeople; we are all on the same side. Whether or not you agree with these people, they are our representatives. We can’t afford to sit around and hope someone else does our job for us; we need to pull out the dust rags and brooms. We can’t expect the public to respect our spokespeople, if we don’t respect our spokespeople?
We need your help, there are thousands of edits just waiting to be added into Wikipedia, maybe even hundreds of thousands of edits, and hundreds of pages that need to be created or rewritten. I need people who are good at proof-reading, people who can improve the basic edits we leave, researchers, current editors, people willing to caption videos and so much more. In English and other languages as well. We aren’t looking for a handout, we want your time, we want your attention. We train, we mentor, we need you, please join this most powerful and important project.
Questions? Write to me at email@example.com. Friend me on Facebook or twitter as Susan Gerbic.
In her book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions, Karen Armstrong wrote -
“In the ancient world, a firstborn child was often regarded as the property of a god, and had to be returned to him in human sacrifice. The young blood restored the deity’s depleted energies and ensured the circulation of power in the cosmos….The story is supposed to mark an important cultic transition when animal oblation was substituted for human sacrifice.” (29)
This transition from human to animal sacrifice is manifest in the Biblical story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Isaac. In Genesis 22:9 (New International Version) we read,
He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
The modern mind cries, “How could a person do that?” In a sense, we have come a long way. Our nature has been nurtured into something more acceptable . . . to us. To future generations, probably not acceptable enough.
Four verses later in the Bible the story takes a dramatic turn,
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
One might argue that Abraham acted as an agent of modernity—for his time. But to place the credit for any deemed progress in a religion and its practice upon a single source is to narrow-mindedly neglect the crucial environments within which a religion adapts and evolves. Without changed social, psychological, economic, etc., pressures, a religion goes nowhere. Blame inertia. It takes a force to create movement. Where does the impetus come from?
As to sacrifice of flesh (of a child or a meat animal—both valued resources, to put it bluntly), my speculative wording of the subtext to both scenarios might be, “You must placate the great one, the most powerful one, with a sacrifice of something important to you.” For very ancient minds, this sacrifice was of one’s own progeny. Perhaps the ultimate price to pay. For less ancient minds, this sacrifice might be one of a small heard of food animals.
Tangentially, for a gift to count, to signal true commitment, there must be a real cost to it. A custom from the “modern world” illustrates this well. When a male proposes to a female, he gives her an expensive ring. When the ring is very expensive (How many carats?!), this is taken to reflect greater passion and thus greater commitment on the part of the giver. No, it isn’t all about diamonds, it isn’t all about making someone happy. Superficially, sure. But beneath the words, beneath the current ‘nurture’ we might discover a more ancient nature pulling the strings.
Back to Abraham. Religions do not evolve in isolation. To credit a single divinity or human prophet for a radical change is to overlook the changed and changing. Unfortunately, digger deeper requires more work. And in contrast to the simple and simply appealing answers that religions offer, the answers generated by greater work are both more complicated and far less flattering.
Ah, our god decided to make a new covenant with us. That explains the change….. Or, um, the people had behaved badly, so god decided to change the rules of the game.
As the research on split-brain patients by Michael Gazzaniga has helped reveal, when human beings lack a ready answer to some question, they tend to make one up.(30) That answer will subsequently strike them as natural and reasonable.
Conversely, to the scientific mind easy answers are suspect. We must ask ourselves what goes on behind ready explanations. The ultimate ‘reason’ for something may not be as obvious as we would like. Consider our primate cousin, the baboon. Sure, sometimes the baboon relies upon its physical size and/or booming vocalizations to attain and maintain its social position. But there are those times it relies instead upon what can described as social craft and guile.(31) Yet behind these evolved innovations, the primate’s social needs continue to be the underlying issue.
To better understand modern religious behavior perhaps we would do best to eschew those answers that so nicely appeal to the contemporary mind. God is love . . . . Religion is all about metaphysics….etc. These may best speak to today’s intellect. But what resides beneath these words?
I think we should keep digging.
(29) Armstrong, K. The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions, Knopf, New York, 2006, p. 94
(31) Cheney, D. L., & Seyfarth, R. M. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007, p.55
As much as we may like to simplify, religion is more of a toolkit than a single tool. Some individuals may use the tool for this, other individuals and groups for that.
What type of things is religion used for? A religion can offer explanations, increase perceived control, provide real control, generate and maintain social cohesion and harmony, and facilitate group action. That said, any utilitarian value of religion does not equate to truth value. An equivalent case is that of Santa Claus. Does Santa Claus really exist? No. Yet we’ve got all sorts of Santa myths and pseudo-rituals and artifacts based on him. In the words of David Sloan Wilson -
“A fictional belief system can be more motivating than a realistic belief system.” (23)
Furthermore, because religion can be a useful tool also does not mean it is always a useful tool. Consider the coal-burning stove. Some beneficial cultural advances do become out-dated and misfit to the current human environment.
The Explanatory Benefits of Religion
What types of benefits can religion bring to those who practice it? There are a number. Perhaps the most obvious of these, but not necessarily the most important, are the explanatory. Religions provide answers as to why things are they way they are. They can additionally offer answers as to how to deal with problems. Today this aspect of religion is obvious because the answers religions give are often at odds with what science tells us is the case.
Why are having explanations desirable? Because unanswered questions leave uncertainty in their wake. Uncertainty bleeds into anxiety much more often than it does pleasure.
“[A]ccidents happen, people want to know why, if they have gods and spirits they can say why.” – Pascal Boyer (24)
Furthermore, religions succeed in not only offering explanations, but explanations that better appeal to social creatures. People find the idea of invisible agents working behind the scenes naturally compelling.(25)
For example, people can easily see how their own behavior impacts others. For good, for bad. This is an elemental human precept, if you will. Oh my! The group’s alpha ‘blew up’! Was it something I did?…That mountain just blew its top. Was it something we did?
Religion and Control
Next we come to the issue of perceived control. When human beings arrive at the conclusion that A caused B, it then becomes possible to infer the way to prevent B. Don’t do A. Or, if B is desirable, do A. Despite the fact that the link between A and B may be completely mistaken, people will persist in the belief and in their ineffectual attempts at control. Why?
Two elemental psychological concepts come to mind. First, a link has only to be intermittently reinforced to persist. In the case of preventing something bad, a “no response” can be perceived as effective and thus reinforce the behavior. Say you make offerings to keep hurricanes at bay, more often than not your offerings are going to result in . . . no hurricane. Alas, the ancient mind had yet to develop a way to test a hypothesis by employing controls. As for reinforcing behavior, the activity of trying to control nature often involves ritualized group action. Which has its own payoff. More on that in a moment.
The second, elemental psychological concept that comes to mind–long verified by many experiments–is that control does not have to be real to bring satisfying feelings. The mere perception of control alone brings good feelings. And so thousands of professional athletes (to use one class of example) continue their superstitiously formulaic behaviors ways week after week.
In prehistoric times people made offerings to the dead and gone (26) and even the fully imagined in efforts to . . . “make them happy.” Which means what? When you focus on the all-important outcome, the ‘happy’ is really just part or all of the motivating state that bridges the gap between A, cause, and B, effect. What do happy spirits do? They do good things. They at least refrain from doing bad…in the minds of instinctively social creatures.
In his book, Religion Explained, Pascal Boyer noted that cultural transmission of artifacts and ideas is not so much realty-driven as it is “relevance-driven.”(27) What is more relevant to people than other people? As an illustration by means of a psychological tangent, consider the notion of the basic temperamental trait of introvert-extrovert. These words literally mean inward-turning or outward turning. A case could be made that the turning is all about other people: towards or away from them. While the introvert tends to turn away from other people, the extrovert tends to turn toward them. Why? Scant little is more exciting to human beings than other human beings. And so introverts attempt to control their level of excitation by limiting their exposure to others. Extroverts do the opposite. This excitation is evidence of an innate relevance, if only in potential.
Beyond perceived control we have real control. Religion is not all about some land of make-believe. (Admittedly, years ago this realization came as a bit of a surprise to me.) In brief, by employing empirically false concepts, religion can affect the real world. Religion can cause change. How? By way of personal and social action.
Group Harmony and Action
Remember the “stone soup” folk tale? A townspeople are motivated to contribute real foodstuffs to a community pot seeded by strangers with mere stones. But that’s not all they do. The strangers provide this one essential ingredient–motivation. Later in the story there is a truly nourishing soup where there previously was none.
So beyond the explanatory role, which today certainly runs smack into a better understanding of the universe, religion also serves the role of uniting a people behind some specific, grand group task, or set of smaller tasks.
Perhaps even more so, religion emphasizes a set of general values, motivating individuals to promote these values in their speech and behavior, to some degree. A fundamental value to any group is loyalty to the group (otherwise it won’t last) and a fidelity to its structure. In a sense, religion helps those on the bottom of a social pyramid to find acceptance of the current order–to the benefit of those higher, and even to those lower, if ascension is unlikely. Group stability allows individuals to better cope and work with their social environment.
Those higher on the pyramid of social power definitely have it in their interest to protect their current position. If they can use mythology, more power to them. Or at least not less. Religion, in a real sense, sanctifies the subjugation of others to the greater benefit of some. (28)
But it isn’t all give and no get for those subjugated. By putting their efforts into a pot stirred by the few, the entire group can work together to the benefit of all. Some may benefit more at the expense of others, but the entire social group can better prosper where there is cohesion and harmony. Religion can facilitate this. Can. Not always, but it can. And once again, the benefits come to all group members. (Which says nothing about the overall impact to individuals and the society-as-a-whole in today’s small world, with people belonging to many overlapping groups.)
In America today people freely leave their religion. Why? Because a person’s religious group is no longer all-inclusive. It serves a mere sub-set of their life. Individuals generally have a number of social groups they are a part of, or could be a part of. Yet in the past that wasn’t as much the case. As evidenced by ceremonies and that rites and more to less serious sacrifices required of members yesterday relative to today, there was a time that religion was a much bigger and more important part of peoples’ lives. As it is today in some parts of the world (or in some subset of modern society).
When individuals are subjugated to a greater cause, those individuals can be put to use. With numbers come greater muscle. Besides a cost to enter, commitment to the group can be maintained by regular signs of subordination. This keeps the group structure stable. As when one chimpanzee, after having been dominated by another, continues to make gestures of subordination toward that other for days, months and even years to come. A peaceful order is thus maintained.
Likewise, in churches filled with human primates you can view gestures of subordination to the greatest being: bowing heads, dropping onto knees, making conciliatory noises in song and word, etc. The result: group order and a working cohesion—even if that order consists of All members below the One highest.
With commitment to a group, via commitment to the leader of that group (whether that leader is real or imagined) comes personal sacrifice, even total sacrifice. For example, decades ago in Japan a samurai warrior was considered ultra-noble if he gave his life for his “lord.”(29) By promoting and reinforcing the idea of a most-great, immortal Lord, it is not surprising that religions can motivate group members to into doing so much.
What tasks do religions face today not accomplished by some other means? Care for the needy? Battle evil (as great as an entire group of people to as little as the ‘bad’ behavior of one’s own people)? Convert non-believers so as to “save” them? Because secular governments do so much, the nature and strength of contemporary religions is on the wane. It is in the remote past that we can best see and understand the reasons for religion, and the origins of it.
(23) Wilson, D.S. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, University of Chicago, Chicago, 2002, p. 99
(24) Boyer, P. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Basic Books, New York, 2001, p. 170
(25) Boyer, P., 2001, p. 28
(26) Redford, D. B., The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, p. 284
(27) Boyer, 2001, p. 164
(28) Ehrlich, P. R., Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect, Island Press,Washington, D.C., 2000, p.215
I once had a dog that was an extremely quick learner. Sometimes too quick. You might say she would prematurely jump to conclusions — though I’m not sure you could call them “conclusions.” Perhaps you might more accurately say she was quick to generalize. For example, one day, when on my way out to our pool with a towel wrapped around my waist, I called her out with me. I had a new game for her. Attached to a fishing pole with a length of rope I had tied a plush, toy squirrel. When pulled around the yard and made to evade her, she went nuts. Loved it. It was as if she had snorted cocaine.
Three days later I wrapped a towel around my wasted and headed out the backdoor. My dog went nuts. I was confused for a moment. And then I remembered. My dog had mistakenly associated “Andrew heading out backdoor with towel around waist” with “fun-chasing-squirrel-ish-thing.”
While this does not qualify as superstitious behavior, perhaps it is one step down that road. Further down the road we might have the dog bringing me the towel, thinking it would magically make the faux squirrel appear.
A baseball player taps his wooden bat to his foot, and accidentally drops the bat. The bat appears to balance upright for a moment, long enough for the batter to grab it and assume his stance. He clobbers the next pitch for an out-of-the-park home run.
Upon his next at bat, the player attempts to recreate the event. He taps the bat to his foot, then balances the bat on end. And next nearly hits another home run. So he continues this practice. This behavior could be called superstitious. The individual has mistakenly concluded that a coincidental behavior caused a subsequent event.
Is this religious behavior? No. What is missing here is the essential social element–a supernatural element. If the player were to say a prayer to Saint Babe, hoping for invisible strings pulled in his favor from the supernatural realm, I believe we could say the baseball player’s behavior has ventured into the realm of religion.
Of course, there is more to religion as we know it than personal rituals. But for now the important point is that religion relies upon supernatural agents. And agents do have or at least could have intentions. Intentions to help, intentions to hurt. There is a crucial social element to religion. And this crucial social element explains why chimpanzees can not be said to engage in religious behavior. Superstitious, maybe, but not religious.
What goes missing from all forms of chimpanzee behavior that seems nearly or even pre-religious is social intent. An understanding – or misunderstanding as the case may be – that behavior x is associated with supernatural agent y for intention z.
What do chimpanzees lack? Why do no chimpanzees build altars to their alpha beyond the clouds? There are likely a number of reasons. But a most important reason is surely what hominids call “theory of mind.” The chimpanzee theory of mind is woefully undeveloped compared to humans.
What is a theory of mind? It is the ability to see the world from another individual’s perspective. It manifests as an understanding that individuals differ in what they see and know. Human children develop this ability remarkably quickly and well. You may have heard a line that goes something like this: “I know that you know that I know what you know.”
Wow! How socially smart is that? Or maybe Machiavellian. Or both. As Robin Dunbar has noted,
“Chimps have a very limited theory of mind — knowing what other chimps know or don’t know and acting accordingly.” (17)
Without the human’s advanced ability to project their perspective into the minds of others, even imaginary others, chimpanzees show little religious behavior. Yet in a couple instances of peculiar chimpanzee behavior we might see the very early behavioral kernel that would later grow into the full-fledged tendency to imagine and worship invisible, “great” agents.
First, there is the chimpanzee “rain dance” -
“…a sometimes spectacular collective display, done just before a storm (in response to thunder and lightning?) or during rainfall (in frustration at being drenched?) Saplings or lianas are bent and flailed or thrashed, and sometimes swapped off, leaving a trail of damaged vegetation. Interestingly, with one exception, the raindance is an east African custom, being done at Budongo, Gombe, Kibale, and Mahale, but no further west in Africa.” (18)
Perhaps this chimpanzee behavior, like Christianity and Islam, must be transmitted culturally, through the nurture of social learning acting upon pre-existing potential.
Similarly, chimpanzees will make threat displays at inanimate phenomena. Numerous researchers have observed individual primates make this category of behavior upon encountering a waterfall.(19) Rather than like another of our dogs, who retreated to his hiding places upon hearing the sound of rain, maybe these chimpanzees instinctively strive to chase the source of the commotion away.
“Other chimpanzee populations [besides Gombe] have waterfalls, but they do not show the display [“Adult males scale the lianas, whip them back and forth, swaying in mid-air and bouncing off the crags”]. Instead, they toss boulders into pools to produce huge splashes.” (20)
As we covered previously (e.g., see Who Goes There?), animals are better off (have better odds of survival) to mistakenly react to an inert object as if it were a living being than to react to a stationary, yet potentially dangerous being as if it were a harmless object.
Another chimpanzee behavior that seems to precede the advent of religion, and also fully relate to it, is the use of objects to empower itself. This phenomenon relies upon the innate psychological tendencies not only the individual, but of group mates. In a phrase: classical conditioning. Without it, totems and sacred objects would lose the essential dimension believers ascribe to supernatural forces, yet are more accurately seen as evidence of psychological plasticity being hyper-extended into the phantasmal.
Consider the anecdote of chimpanzee Mike, who rose to the top of his social group thanks to kerosene cans. No, not just the inert objects, but his use of them. As Jane Goodall recounts:
“Mike learned to keep as many as three cans in front of him as he charged, batting them forward one after the other with his hands. And he would charge not once but several times. When he finally stopped, even the mighty Goliath hurried up to him. Panting nervously and bowing to the ground, he kissed, touched, or groomed him, thus acknowledging [granting, really] Mike’s superior status.” (21)
For Mike, the kerosene cans were really just a means of creating an impressive ruckus, an arousing clamor. Which became associated not with just the cans, but with the manipulator of those cans. You might say Mike somewhat accidentally acquired supernatural powers. “Super” because kerosene cans are not something that occur in the chimpanzees’ natural environment.
No, Mike did not need a burning bush to impress his troop. Had he been able to generate one, he might today be known as the Pan Moses. And, as with humans, it seems that a response classically conditioned does not readily become extinguished if it is periodically reinforced to some minimal degree. In Mike’s case, once he succeeded in nearly scaring the excrement out of his troop (maybe he did), he only needed to threaten the use of the cans to re-excite others and thus keep low the firing threshold of the pertinent neurons in their brains. And when the cans were confiscated by annoyed camp workers?
“He then had to resort to mere branches and rocks like the others. But if artificial props had indeed raised his status, he no longer needed them. His position remained unchallenged. Without question, Mike is the most feared, the most respected of them all.”(22)
Likewise, with our kind, once props and perhaps mere symbols for have endowed their user with prestige—social power—that power becomes easier to maintain. Academy Award winners, Nobel prize winners—not only do these individuals enjoy a surge in their status just after winning the award, but the prestige follows them to their grave. How real is the affect? Winners of these awards live significantly longer, on average, than losers. Talk about survival value. Thanks not to something dietary, something physical, but to how symbols can pull the strings of the human beings social instincts.
You might say that prestige is a social power of high proof. Mere belonging, a weaker brew, but still impactful. In many ways, the tool of religion is just another way human beings, males especially, acquire and wield social power.
(17) Dunbar, R. Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996.
(18) McCrew, W. C., The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 123
(19) McCrew, W. C., 2004, p. 156
(20) McCrew, W. C., 2004, p. 148
(21) Goodall, J., My Friends the Wild Chimpanzees, National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C., 1967, p. 171
(22) Goodall, J., 1967, p. 171