I recently came across the work of Norenzayen et al regarding the linkage between religion and tolerance (courtesy Mixing Memory) and found some surprising commonalities with the views I have espoused earlier.

For one they talk about the need for religion and accept it as a human universal. They also note some aspects of the religious belief that are universal.

Anthropologically-speaking, there is a near universality of 1) belief in supernatural agents who 2) relieve existential anxieties such as death and deception, but 3) demand passionate and self-sacrificing social commitments, which are 4) validated through emotional ritual (Atran & Norenzayan, 2004). There are salient similarities to be found between even the most radically divergent cultures and religions (Norenzayan & Heine, 2005).

One can see that these have clear parallels with the autism/ schizophrenic differences on four dimensions I highlighted yesterday. Specifically:

  1. Agency: belief in supernatural agency in religious people
  2. Meaning: religious beliefs give meaning and relive existential anxieties like those of death (Terror Management theory)
  3. Causal and Magical thinking: leading to rituals, and pro-social behaviors in the religious people
  4. Experience: An emotional and ecstatic experience of oneness with others in the devotees and mediators.

The book chapter goes on to describe the two aspects of religiosity: a subjective/natural one and a objective-coalitional one. To put in simple words, one is belief in a personal , felt and experienced god (combining 1 and 4 above) and the other is the traditional scripture and culture driven coalitional religion that binds people together and provides them wioth a sense of meaning and purpose (combining 2 and 3 above).

For centuries, those who have attempted to explain religion (and even those who have propagated certain religions) have often distinguished two aspects of religion, treating them not only as distinct but also as opposites.

Dual understandings of religion generally consider a sense of the omnipresence of the divine (whether sensed directly and spontaneously or with the aid of prayer, meditation or drug-ingestion) more subjective/natural than it is socially transmitted/cultural.

Some illustrative examples are: James’ (1982/1902) distinction between the “babbling brook” from which all religions originate (p. 337) and the “dull habit” of “second hand” religion “communicated … by tradition” (p. 6) as well as that between “religion proper” and corporate and dogmatic dominion (p. 337); Freud’s (1930/1961) distinction between the “oceanic feeling” as an unconscious memory of the mother’s womb and “religion” as acceptance of religious authority and morality as a projection of the father; Weber’s (1947, 1978) distinction between religious charisma in its basic and “routinized” forms; Adorno’s distinction between “personally experienced belief” and “neutralized religion” (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950); Rappaport’s (1979) distinction between the “numinous”—the experience of pure being–and the “sacred” or doctrinal; and, more recently, Sperber’s (1996) cognitive distinction between “intuitive” beliefs—“the product of spontaneous and unconscious perceptual and inferential process” (89), and “reflective” beliefs “believed in virtue of other second-order beliefs about them.”

The authors then go on to synthesize material on tolerance- religiosity linkages and explain how the subjective-natural religiosity is inversely related to intolerance while the coalitional- objective religiosity is directly related to intolerance and co-occurs with intolerance and prejudice. A note of caution though, the authors do not consider the two dimensions of religion independent, but find a positive correlation between the two.

The measures we are most concerned with are those tapping religious devotion, rooted in supernatural belief, and coalitional religiosity, rooted in the costly commitment to a community of believers—a community that is morally and epistemically elevated above other communities. Religious devotion centers on the awareness of and attention to God or the “divine” broadly conceived.

Coalitional religiosity, on the other hand, should be approximated by validated scales measuring what social psychologists consider coalitional boundary-setting social tendencies, such as authoritarianism, fundamentalism, dogmatism and related constructs (e.g., Kirkpatrick 1999).

The authors then go on to explain coalitional religiosity in terms of sexual selection and costly signalling, instead of group selection as we had discussed yesterday.

Coaltional religiosity is likely rooted in the costly sacrifice to the community of believers that is the hallmark of religion. As evolutionary theorists have noted, sacrificial displays can be selected for if carriers of honest signals of group membership are more likely to be reciprocated by a community of cooperators. Even in rights-oriented “individualist” cultures, one is expected to sacrifice all selfish gains that might accrue from being on the benefiting end of injustice towards others. Atran (2002) and others (Atran & Norenzayan, 2004; Sosis & Alcorta, 2003) note that sincere expressions of willingness to make any kind of sacrifice (including the potential ultimate sacrifice of one’s own life) only occasionally necessitate actually following through on that sacrifice in a way that has long term costs to the potential for survival and reproduction of the genes carried by that individual. However, the material and social support benefits that can accrue to those who sincerely express or demonstrate such willingness are both more likely to occur and are of more obvious value to the long term survival of one’s genes—unless one is among the unlucky individuals whose sincere demonstration involves actually dying before reproductive potential is maximized (and even then, socially-given benefits to close kin may offset the genetic loss of one individual). This “adaptive sacrifice display” explanation for religious devotion is related to the evolutionary concept of “costly signaling”, a process that explains many forms of sacrificial displays in the animal kingdom, for example, why male peacocks who burden themselves with more costly plumage may nevertheless be more likely to pass on their genes, by increasing their chances of mating with a receptive female. Costly signaling theory offers an explanation of why humans engage in altruistic displays such as sacrifice and ritual without treating the group as a unit of selection (Sosis & Alcorta, 2003).

While I disagree with the above explanations for coalitional religiosity, I still believe that it works primarily to ensure altruism/ pro-social behavior and to manage existential anxieties. the evolutionary rationale for subjective or intrinsic religiosity (spirituality) is much more problematic. The authors believe it is selected as it enables us to empathize and to become transcendent to group boundaries.

That coalitional religiosity encourages intolerance towards outgroups seems obvious. But it is less clear why devotional religiosity can, under some conditions, foster tolerance. Some evidence from neuroscience may help us with a novel speculation as to the process by which devotional experience may lead to transcendence of group boundaries.Some investigations (e.g. Holmes, 2001; d’Aquili & Newberg, 1998, 1999; Newberg, d’Aquili & Rause, 2001) have found that when people are subjectively experiencing a transcendent or supernatural-oriented state, there is often decreased activity in the parietal lobe or other object association areas, where perceptions that distinguish self from non-self are processed…..These areas may play a role in any relationship prayer might have to greater tolerance, empathy or other-concern, since they all seem potentially relevant to whether sense of self is experienced in a more limited or more expansive way. Perhaps commonplace empathic experiences of seeing oneself in another or caring for another as one would care for oneself have some family relationship to rarer mystical experiences of ”oneness” and even to more extreme cases where the self-other boundary melts down completely.

They finally get to why transcendence is needed or what function it serves.

Coalitional religiosity arguably reflects a limited kind of self-transcendence that simply upgrades individual selfishness to group selfishness, sometimes with dramatically violent consequences. Yet religious devotion’s independent relationship to tolerance suggests that religion has the potential to transcend group selfishness as well. It is almost as if a more limited religious transcendence is in tension with a more thoroughgoing transcendence. What lies beyond group selfishness we may dub “God-selfishness,” a focus of oneself on a God or divine being or principle that is transcendent of all individuals and groups, including oneself and one’s own groups. God-selfishness would appear to be what religious devotion measures tap into when the variance of coalitional religiosity is controlled for. To the extent that this broader transcendence of self often manifests itself as a tolerant sense of kinship with all, then it would appear to render Dawkins’ pessimism about religion unwarranted.

With that note I’ll end the post and explore the readers not to throw the baby with the bath water, when it comes to religion/ spirituality.

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