Category Archives: religion

The factor structure of Religiosity and its neural substrates

A new article in PNAS by Grafman et al, argues that Religiosity can be broken down into three factors and the underlying machinery that these factors use are basic Theory Of Mind (ToM) circuitry, thus substantiating the claim that religion occurred as a byproduct of basic ToM related adaptations, although not ruling out that once established Religion may have provided adaptive advantage.

First a detour. I am more interested in this study as I had once claimed that Schizophrenics were more religious than Autistics and I have been maintaining that Religion is just one aspect of an underlying hyper-mentalizing to hyper-physicalism continuum on which these two spectrum disorders lie on opposite ends. The case for less ToM abilities in ASD seems to be fairly settled; its also becoming apparent that in Schizophrenia spectrum disorders you have excess of ToM abilities; This study by showing the ToM to Religion linkage, fills in the gaps and another puzzle piece falls in place.

On to the study. The authors first show that Religious Belief can be split into three factors. they use a novel (to me) technique of Multi Dimensional Scaling (MDS) to tease out the factors associated with religious belief. I have not checked how MDS works, but I assume it is similar to Factor analysis and can give us reliable factor structure underlying the data. They build on previous research and discovered the following three factors:

  1. God’s perceived level of involvement,
  2. God’s perceived emotion, and
  3. religious knowledge source. 

The first factor refers to endowing intentionality to superantural agents like God; the second factor refers to endowing emotions to God an dthe thierd factor refers to the source of the religious beliefs- whether it is doctrinal or derived from experience. Thus the trinity of intention, emotion and belief – alos the trinity involved in ToM tasks. The authors do a good job of describing the factors, so I’ll let them do it.

Dimension 1 (D1) correlated negatively with God’s perceived level of involvement (–0.994), Dimension 2 (D2) correlated negatively with God’s perceived anger (–0.953) and positively with God’s perceived love (0.953), and Dimension 3 (D3) correlated positively with doctrinal (0.993) and negatively with experiential (–0.993) religious content. D1 represents a quantitative gradient of a single concept and we will be referring to it as ‘‘God’s perceived level of involvement.’’ D2 and D3 represent gradients of contrasting concepts; we will be referring to them as ‘‘God’s perceived emotion’’ (D2) and ‘‘religious knowledge source’’ (D3).

God’s perceived level of involvement (D1) organizes statements so that ‘‘God is removed from the world’’ or ‘‘Life has no higher purpose’’ have high positive coordinate values, while ‘‘God’s will guides my acts,’’ ‘‘God protects one’s life,’’ or ‘‘God is punishing’’ have high negative values. Generally speaking, on the positive end of the gradient lie statements implying the existence of uninvolved supernatural agents, and on the negative end lie statements implying involved supernatural agents.

God’s perceived emotion (D2) ranges from love to anger and organizes statements so that ‘‘God is forgiving’’ and ‘‘God protects all people’’ have high positive-coordinate values, while ‘‘God is wrathful’’ and ‘‘The afterlife will be punishing’’ have high negative values. Generally speaking, on the positive end of the gradient lie statements implying the existence of a loving (and potentially rewarding) supernatural agent, and on the negative end lie statements suggestive of wrathful (and potentially punishing) supernatural agent.

Religious knowledge (D3) ranges from doctrinal to experiential and organizes statements so that ‘‘God is ever-present’’ and ‘‘A source of creation exists’’ have high positive-coordinate values, while ‘‘Religion is directly involved in worldly affairs’’ and ‘‘Religion provides moral guiding’’ have high negative values. Generally speaking, on the positive end of the gradient lies theological content referring to abstract religious concepts, and on the negative end lies theological content with moral, social, or practical implications.

This breakup of religiosity into three factors is itself commendable, but then they go on to show, using fMRI data that these factors activate areas of brain associated with ToM abilities. I don’t really understand all their fMRI data, but the results seem interesting. Here is what they conclude:

The MDS results confirmed the validity of the proposed psychological structure of religious belief. The 2 psychological processes previously implicated in religious belief, assessment of God’s level of involvement and God’s level of anger (11), as well as the hypothesized doctrinal to experiential continuum for religious nowledge, were identifiable dimensions in our MDS analysis. In addition, the neural correlates of these psychological dimensions were revealed to be well-known brain networks, mediating evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions.

This study defines a psychological and neuroanatomical framework for the (predominately explicit) processing of religious belief. Within this framework, religious belief engages well-known brain networks performing abstract semantic processing, imagery, and intent-related and emotional ToM, processes known to occur at both implicit and explicit levels (36, 39, 50). Moreover, the process of adopting religious beliefs depends on cognitive-emotional interactions within the anterior insulae, particularly among religious subjects. The findings support the view that religiosity is integrated in cognitive processes and brain networks used in social cognition, rather than being sui generis (2–4). The evolution of these networks was likely driven by their primary roles in social cognition, language, and logical reasoning (1, 3, 4, 51). Religious cognition likely emerged as a unique combination of these several evolutionarily important cognitive processes (52). Measurable individual differences in these core competencies (ToM, imagination, and so forth) may predict specific patterns of brain activation in response to religious stimuli.

As always I am excited and would like to see some field work being carried out to determine religiosity in ASD and Schizophrenia spectrum groups and see if we get the same results (less religiosity in autism and more religiosity in schizophrenics) as predicted, based on their baseline ToM abilities.

PS: I was not able to use the DOI lookup fetaure of Research Blogging, but the DOI of article is
* Dimitrios Kapogiannis,, * Aron K. Barbey,, * Michael Su,, * Giovanna Zamboni,, * Frank Krueger,, * and Jordan Grafman (2009). Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief PNAS

IQ and Religion: is the relation mediated by wealth and feelings of control?

Last week, on the blog action day, I re posted one of my earlier posts that questioned Kanazawa’s assertion that IQ causes Longevity (and implicitly that low IQ causes Poverty and not the other way round) and that SES has no effect on longevity net of IQ.  That has been thoroughly dealt with earlier and I will not readdress the issue; suffice it to say that I believe (and think that I have evidence on my side) that shows that in low SES conditions, a Low SES does not lead to full flowering of genetic Intelligence potential and is thus a leading cause of low IQ amongst low SES populations. This Low IQ that is a result of Low SES also gets correlated to longevity; again which would be largely explained by the low SES of the person. But as Low SES leads to less longevity and less IQ , a correlation between IQ and Longevity would also be expected. 

A similar issue has cropped up , this time with respect to religion or belief in God. It has been claimed that high IQ  causes atheism and that low IQ leads to superstition and belief in God. The result, this time by Lynn’s team is again correlational in nature and just like Kanazawa’s study partially relies on Macro-data i.e. mean IQ of a country and its mean religious belief scores.
The abstract of the paper goes like:

Evidence is reviewed pointing to a negative relationship between intelligence and religious belief in the United States and Europe. It is shown that intelligence measured as psychometric g is negatively related to religious belief. We also examine whether this negative relationship between intelligence and religious belief is present between nations. We find that in a sample of 137 countries the correlation between national IQ and disbelief in God is 0.60.

Now, BHA science group , has written a  very good rebuttal to this proposition and I urge readers to go and read the discussion there in full. 
For the sake of completeness, let me summarize the case against the hypothesis that high IQ causes atheism.
Problems with the macro data on which this analysis is made:  for countries that have about 100 (average) mean IQ, the correlation does not hold. The correlation is mainly an artifact of the fact that low mean IQ countries also have high religious belief (see accompanying figure) . We can, in my opinion, thus restrict the discussion to low (mean) IQ countries and try to explain whether its the Low mean IQ of their people that causes religiosity; or that high religiosity somehow leads to low IQ (a very counter-intuitive though indeed); or more plausibly that some other factor like SES/ feelings of control may be the underlying reason for both low IQ and high religiosity. 
Now, I have shown elsewhere that low SES causes low IQ and not the other way round; what remains to be shown is that low SES also causes religious faith. 
The latter part I’ll like to break in two parts: first , I believe that it is intuitive and there would be wealth of data showing that poverty or Low SES leads to fellings of helplessness or feelings of loss of control. Thus , the first assertion is that low mean SES in these countries, leads to the average person feeling less in control of his/her life and thus to feelings of loss of control.
The second part of the argument is that low feelings of control lead to religiosity/ superstition. Again I too have touched this before, but would right now like to point to this recent study that found that feelings of loss of control, lead to magical thinking/ superstitious belief and by extension (I am indeed taking a leap here) propensity towards religiosity. Of course we all know that religion is the opium of the masses (which are usaully poor) and rightly subdues the pwoerlessness and lack of control feelings that are otherwise unbearable.
Thus, I rest my case,  claiming that it is the low SES that leads to low IQ and high religious beliefs; the effect being mediated by nutritional/ enriched environmental factors in the former (IQ) case, while that of religion being mediated by feelings of control in the latter case. The actual correlation observed between IQ and religious faith , on the basis of low SES data , is at best spurious and due to the underlying low SES effects.

Richard Lynn, John Harvey, Helmuth Nyborg (2008). Average Intelligence Predicts Atheism Rates across 137 Nations Intelligence

J. A. Whitson, A. D. Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159845

Intentionality: order, order!

I have been reading, of late, some articles that have invoked the concept of intentionality and its orders. More specifically, this has been with respect to Social Brian hypothesis of Robin Dunbar, whereby he claims that humans evolved intelligence to be able to cope with your in-laws (and other social members of one’s groups). Leaving asides the main premise of the social brain hypothesis, which I find convincing to an extent, he also claims that monkeys have only first order intentionality, while apes have second order and humans are able to function at about fifth order of intentionality, with some like Shakespeare being able to work on the sixth order. To quote at length form the ‘beginner’s guide to intentionality’:

Computers can be said to know things because their memories contain information; however, it seems unlikely that they know that they know these things, in that we have no evidence that they can reflect on their states of ‘‘mind.’’ In the jargon of the philosophy of mind, computers are zero-order intentional machines. Intentionality is the term that philosophers of mind use to refer to the state of having a state of mind (knowing, believing, thinking, wanting, understanding, intending, etc).

Most vertebrates are probably capable of reflecting on their states of mind, at least in some crude sense: they know that they know. Organisms of this kind are first-order intentional. By extension, second-order intentional organisms know that someone else knows something, and third-order intentional organisms know that someone else knows that someone else knows something. In principle, the sequence can be extended reflexively indefinitely, although, in practice, humans rarely engage in more than fourth-order intentionality in everyday life and probably face an upper limit at sixth-order (‘‘Peter knows that Jane believes that Mark thinks that Paula wants Jake to suppose that Amelia intends to do something’’).

A minimum of fourth-order intentionality is required for literature that goes beyond the merely narrative (‘‘the writer wants the reader to believe that character A thinks that character B intends to do something’’). Similar abilities may be required for science, since doing science requires us to ask whether the world can be other than it is (a second-order problem at the very least) and then ask someone else to do the same (an additional order of intentionality).

I find the above definitions (and other I have found on the web), slightly problematic, so I’ll attempt my own synthesis on the matter:

  1. Zeroth order or No intentionality: Having knowledge but no ‘awareness ‘ of knowledge. Mere representation of information, but no meta awareness of that representation. Computers and machines , and even simple life forms like bacteria etc, may have this (no) intentionality, wherein they have ‘facts’ about the world, but no beliefs, desires etc.
  2. First Order Intentionality: Awareness of knowledge that is distinct from mere knowledge. A belief system. Knowing that something you know may be incorrect from the actual world scenario. You know what you know and you know what you don’t know. Meta cognition. Beliefs, desires etc. Important thing to note is that only ‘I know’ is covered in this definition. A limited ‘You know as I know’ may be covered at this order as one may be aware of other people as being intentional agents , but whose beliefs are congruent with one’s own! ‘You know something that may be different from what I know’ is not possible yet. Most mammals including rats and monkeys are at this level. Awareness ta this level may be that others too have facts of world at their disposal.
  3. Second order intentionality: Awareness of a belief-system that is distinct from the belief system itself. A Theory of Mind. You know that someone else may know things differently from both as they are and as you think they are. Awareness that others have a mind or a belief-system. Ability to keep two different belief systems in the mind- one of your own and the other of another third person. Apes and children age 4 demonstrate this level and order of intentionality. They have a theory of mind as to the fact that others have beliefs and that these are after all beliefs and can be false too. Awareness that others have beliefs, but still no awareness that they have a ToM too!
  4. Third order intentionality: Awareness of a ToM that is distinct from the ToM itself. A communicative intent. Joint attention. Language. symbol grounding. Knowing that someone else may have different views regarding what you yourself believe and thus it is important to communicate your internal intentions, beliefs , desires etc to others so that there is common ground on which communication and speech acts can proceed. this also enables grounds for lies and deceptions in the sense that one can deliberately lead someone to believe what one oneself does not believe. As per this source , communication requires third order of intentionality. To quote:
  5. Suppose my little brother intends for me to jump. He might (and sometimes does) achieve this by sneaking up behind me and yelling “Boo!”. But that’s not communication, in the fullest sense of the word. It would be quite a different sort of action were he to instead request of me, “please jump.” (I don’t think he’d find that nearly so fun, for one thing.) Such a speech-act would show not only that he intends me to jump, but also that he intends for me to recognize that he wants me to jump.

    Purposive communication requires an intentional state of at least third-order complexity. The speaker wants his audience to recognize what the speaker intends by his utterance. Put another way, you don’t just communicate ‘X’, you rather communicate, “I am trying to convey ‘X'”. (This is the difference between discreetly insulting someone, or making it clear to him that you want him to know you’re insulting him.) Anything less would fail to qualify as ‘communication’, in the fullest sense of the word.

  6. Fourth-order Intentionality: Awareness of a communicative act that is distinct from the communicative act itself: A narrative or story telling/ story understanding capability. An ability to weave experiences into a running narrative such that it incorporates different communicative acts or ‘scenes’. An understanding of ‘roles’ that one is playing that give shape to all the communicative acts one participate sin and the narrative one weaves for oneself. A limited awareness that others are also communicative agents , but not a full awareness , that like oneself, they are also acting a script/ playing a role/ having a running narrative using which they interpret events. It is important to emphasize that story telling requires one to visit a new world in which the protagonist is separate, but also one is in a state of willful suspension of disbelief and thus one feels along-with the protagonist, but still retains one’s own narrative: separate, and quite distinct, form the story-teller’s narrative. Story-telling, and story understanding and the interpreter module of humans that gives rise to stream of consciousness to me are the hallmarks of fourth order of intentionality and most of us juts stop there. One may mistakenly believe that there is only one role / narrative and that everybody shares the same narrative.
  7. Fifth order intentionality: Awareness of roles and narratives that are distinct from the role or narrative. An organizing system of religion/ myths using which one interprets stories. Awareness that others too have their own narratives and are playing a script/ performing their roles. Awareness that one’s role/ stance / understanding of world can be radically different from someone having the same experiences but using a different interpretation. A culture . A worldview. It is instructive to note that Dunbar considers that religion and story telling are higher level intentional activities.

I’ll leave things as they are for now as this fits nicely with my obsession with 5 + 3 stage developmental process. Higher orders of intentionality may exist, but probably we humans are not yet evolved to appreciate their subtleties/ find practical examples.

God is just a type I error!

Yes, believe me God is an error and that too a type I error. But before we appreciate the subtleties of that argument, we have to first learn a bit about error management theory ( not to be confused with the TMT or terror management theory about which too I have blogged previously). EMT in simple terms is an evolutionary theory that posits that we do not minimize the number of errors that are possible when we are faced with ambiguous situations and corresponding ambiguous decisions to make; but that we minimize the total costs associated with making the errors. To simplify, whenever we make a decision about reality that is based on our inferences then we can make two types of errors : in type I errors we assume/ infer something to be real, while the phenomenon is itself unreal (this is a false positive);l while in type II errors we assume/infer something to be unreal while the phenomenon is real.

To take by the way of an example , if we are in a jungle and hear a sound in a bush ; then if the sound was from a lion and we inferred that it was not from a lion we make a type II error; if the sound was not from a lion, but we infer that it was from a lion we make a type I error. Obviously in this case it is best to make a type I error as a type II error can mean death. Evolution would thus select for a behavior that is biased towards the flase positive inferences in this case.

I’ll now let Haselton define the theory and give examples:

Error management theory proposes that the direction of a bias in social judgment is tied to how costly different kinds of errors are. For example, consider how smoke alarms are designed. Failures to detect fires (false negative errors) are extremely costly, whereas false alarms (false positives) are usually just inconvenient. So, when engineers make smoke alarms, they tend design them to be biased away from the more costly false negative error by setting a low threshold for fire detection. As a consequence, smoke alarms will tend to be systematically biased toward false positive errors (false alarms). A low threshold for fire detection will cause smoke alarms to make more errors overall, but it will minimize the cost of errors when they inevitably occur (i.e., the errors will tend to be false alarms rather than missed fires).

Error management theory proposes that the same principle of design applies to the evolution of judgment mechanisms in the human mind. Ancestrally, in many areas of social judgment, the costs of false positive and false negative errors differed. When the costs of false negatives are greater, error management theory predicts a bias toward false positives (as in the smoke alarm example); when the costs of false positives are greater, error management theory predicts a bias toward false negatives.

One example of a false-positive bias is in men’s estimations of women’s sexual interest. For an ancestral man, failing to detect sexual interest in a woman resulted in a missed reproductive opportunity, which was highly costly to his reproductive success. The opposite error (believing that a woman was interested when she was not) was perhaps a bit embarrassing, but probably was less costly overall. Thus, error management theory predicts that natural selection designed a bias in men toward slightly overestimating a woman’s sexual interest in order to reduce the likelihood of a missed sexual opportunity; this leads modern men to “overpercieve” women’s sexual interest.

Satoshi Kanazawa, who has applied the error management theory to the above men-think-women-are-attracted-to-them behavior has a two part post over at his psychology today blog that is worth reading in entirety. There he argues that we believe in god, because of an inbuilt bias to detect agency. He says that detecting agency when none is there can only lead to paranoia in the worst case, while not detecting agency when there was one could lead to death. He has a beautiful figure illustrating the same and I post it here.

Different theorists call this innate human tendency to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors (and as a consequence be a bit paranoid) “animistic bias” or “the agency-detector mechanism.” These theorists argue that the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs in supernatural forces may have come from such an innate cognitive bias to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors, and thus overinfer personal, intentional, and animate forces behind otherwise perfectly natural phenomena.

You see a bush on fire. It could have been caused by an impersonal, inanimate, and unintentional force (lightning striking the bush and setting it on fire), or it could have been caused by a personal, animate, and intentional force (God trying to communicate with you). The “animistic bias” or “agency-detector mechanism” predisposes you to opt for the latter explanation rather than the former. It predisposes you to see the hands of God at work behind natural, physical phenomena whose exact causes are unknown.

In this view, religiosity (the human capacity for belief in supernatural beings) is not an evolved tendency per se; after all, religion in itself is not adaptive. It is instead a byproduct of animistic bias or the agency-detector mechanism, the tendency to be paranoid, which is adaptive because it can save your life. Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid

It is interesting to note that Kanazawa mentions the research of Nettle as I am myself a big fan of his work, but never knew that he had contributed to the EMT too. I myself have speculated on the close association of religiosity with psychosis and the Kanzawa post just bolsters the arguments there.

To sum up, it is perhaps better to be paranoid and suffer from the God delusion! You would at least survive to pass your genes along!!

Religion continued: Throwing the baby with the bathwater?

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.

Science and Religion revisited: a case for a universal spiritual grammar?

I have earlier commented on how Science and Religions may be alternate frames via which we try to make sense of our lives and the world and how autistic thinking may be more related to scientific leanings; while a schizophrenic thinking style more prone to religiosity/ spirituality. I have also commented recently how one may view mind as composed of Agency and Experience; while a brain as composed of no agency/ experience; thus again bifurcating our concepts about self along religious/ scientific lines. One may add to this too much causal reasoning about the world as opposed to belief in randomness; and extend this to the earlier observations on Autistic and Schizophrenic thinking styles:

To recap:

  • Autistic/ scientific thinking style attributes too less of agency or intentionally (to even fellow human beings), while a schizophrenic/spiritual thinking style attributes too much agency (to even non-living things).
  • Autistic thinking is more correlation-is-not-causation type and makes sense of the world via statistical inferences and reasoning (I am not using probabilistic reasoning by purpose as there is difference between a probabilistic reasoning based on understanding of events involved (say the fact that a die has six faces and it is equally probable that it lends on either face ) versus a reasoning based on just number crunching on past data set (say given the outcomes of a number of such die throws statistically calculating the chances of the next throw value)); while the schizophrenic thinking style is more jumping to conclusions and more of causal (cause-and-effect) type of reasoning.
  • Autistic thinking is more of attributing no-experience-of-feelings-beliefs etc to fellow humans mind blindness), while a schizophrenic style is marked by a felling that one can intuit thoughts, feelings of others and a converse belief that one;s thoughts, feeling are being broadcast etc that is belief in too much of experience by self as well as others. The theory of mind or mirror neurons may go on overdrive in a psychotic episode.
  • Autistic thinking being more realistic/ literal; while schizophrenic thinking being more symbolic/ metaphorical. one could summarize this as too much meaning on one hand (there is meaning to life etc), while a nihilistic attitude on the other hand (evolution has no meaning and neither is evolution progress).

I read a recent NYT article by Robin Marantz Henig, that seems to nicely summarize the major arguments on why religion evolved and whether it is a spandrel or an adaptation. I would now like to quote from that article on one theory of how religion evolved as a spandrel:

Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to come up with causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions. Psychologists call these tools, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind.

These map very well to our Autistic/ scientific vs schizophrenic/religious/ artistic dichotomy. It is interesting to note that evolution itself decreed that we have capacities for agent detection, causal reasoning (though in a scientific sense we should have statistical or probabilistic Bayesian reasoning) and theory of mind capacities. Schizophrenic are the evolutionary cost for having these capacities. Later in the article it is also mentioned that making sense of death and life may be one region religion evolved. But first the importance of each of these abilities:

Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent — which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior — is more adaptive than assuming its absence. If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead.

So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.

What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. “The most central concepts in religions are related to agents,” Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, “people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world

A second mental module that primes us for religion is causal reasoning. The human brain has evolved the capacity to impose a narrative, complete with chronology and cause-and-effect logic, on whatever it encounters, no matter how apparently random. “We automatically, and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us,” Barrett wrote, “and ‘stuff just happens’ is no explanation. Gods, by virtue of their strange physical properties and their mysterious superpowers, make fine candidates for causes of many of these unusual events.” The ancient Greeks believed thunder was the sound of Zeus’s thunderbolt. Similarly, a contemporary woman whose cancer treatment works despite 10-to-1 odds might look for a story to explain her survival. It fits better with her causal-reasoning tool for her recovery to be a miracle, or a reward for prayer, than for it to be just a lucky roll of the dice.

A third cognitive trick is a kind of social intuition known as theory of mind. It’s an odd phrase for something so automatic, since the word “theory” suggests formality and self-consciousness. Other terms have been used for the same concept, like intentional stance and social cognition. One good alternative is the term Atran uses: folkpsychology.

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads.

The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others’, that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of “Descartes’ Baby,” published in 2004, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God.

The adaptive advantage of folkpsychology is obvious. According to Atran, our ancestors needed it to survive their harsh environment, since folkpsychology allowed them to “rapidly and economically” distinguish good guys from bad guys.

This is an interesting line of argument and later in the article one also find mention of group selection and co-operation being important for evolution of religiosity.

The bottom line, according to byproduct theorists, is that children are born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible minds, immaterial souls — and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition, Paul Bloom says, with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way, he says, we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing — whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death — are culturally shaped.

This bodes for a more fuller post detailing and chalking the universal religious/ spiritual grammar, similar to the exercise I did for Universal moral grammar. Wait a little for that post!! For now on to the religion is an anti-dote to death anxiety argument:(which covers out fourth difference between Autistic and schizophrenic centered on meaning (or lack of it)):

Fear of death is an undercurrent of belief. The spirits of dead ancestors, ghosts, immortal deities, heaven and hell, the everlasting soul: the notion of spiritual existence after death is at the heart of almost every religion. According to some adaptationists, this is part of religion’s role, to help humans deal with the grim certainty of death. Believing in God and the afterlife, they say, is how we make sense of the brevity of our time on earth, how we give meaning to this brutish and short existence. Religion can offer solace to the bereaved and comfort to the frightened.

Now for the adaptionist arguments:

Intriguing as the spandrel logic might be, there is another way to think about the evolution of religion: that religion evolved because it offered survival advantages to our distant ancestors.

So trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves.

There is ample research that religious people are happier and live longer that atheists, so religion still has evolutionary advantages. It makes sense a being religious and believing in omnipotent god can contribute towards longevity in multiple ways: abstaining from alcohol/ tobacco and reducing death-anxiety being a few that come to mind.

Still, for all its controversial elements, the narrative Wilson devised about group selection and the evolution of religion is clear, perhaps a legacy of his novelist father. Begin, he says, with an imaginary flock of birds. Some birds serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which is doubly harmed: by keeping watch, the sentry has less time to gather food, and by issuing a warning call, it is more likely to be spotted by the predator. So in the Darwinian struggle, the birds most likely to pass on their genes are the nonsentries. How, then, could the sentry gene survive for more than a generation or two?

To explain how a self-sacrificing gene can persist, Wilson looks to the level of the group. If there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.

There are costs to any individual of being religious: the time and resources spent on rituals, the psychic energy devoted to following certain injunctions, the pain of some initiation rites. But in terms of intergroup struggle, according to Wilson, the costs can be outweighed by the benefits of being in a cohesive group that out-competes the others.

There is another element here too, unique to humans because it depends on language. A person’s behavior is observed not only by those in his immediate surroundings but also by anyone who can hear about it. There might be clear costs to taking on a role analogous to the sentry bird — a person who stands up to authority, for instance, risks losing his job, going to jail or getting beaten by the police — but in humans, these local costs might be outweighed by long-distance benefits. If a particular selfless trait enhances a person’s reputation, spread through the written and spoken word, it might give him an advantage in many of life’s challenges, like finding a mate. One way that reputation is enhanced is by being ostentatiously religious.

This brings us to controversial group selection part and some recent research ahs suggested that group selction after all does work.

The study of evolution is largely the study of trade-offs,” Wilson wrote in “Darwin’s Cathedral.” It might seem disadvantageous, in terms of foraging for sustenance and safety, for someone to favor religious over rationalistic explanations that would point to where the food and danger are. But in some circumstances, he wrote, “a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better.” For the individual, it might be more adaptive to have “highly sophisticated mental modules for acquiring factual knowledge and for building symbolic belief systems” than to have only one or the other, according to Wilson. For the group, it might be that a mixture of hardheaded realists and symbolically minded visionaries is most adaptive and that “what seems to be an adversarial relationship” between theists and atheists within a community is really a division of cognitive labor that “keeps social groups as a whole on an even keel.”

Symbolic systems having group selection advantages fits with our symbolic/ realistic dichotomy. On this note I’ll like to end our discussion and ask readers do they see a need for religion/ spirituality now, or do they still prefer the realistic, scientific method as the only true method, even at the cost of robbing us of meaning.