Creationists dealt a blow in Calif.

I was going to include this with the Sunday Cult Watch since creationism really is a cult (within a cult), fitting the definition leading the Cult Watch post quite well: the adherents of various creationist cults invoke a particular form of worship that involves special creation of humans; animals created as “kinds;” a global flood that exterminated all but two of each “kind;” a planet that is only a few thousand years old; etc. And such religious ideals involve a special sort of attention in the way of being anti-scientific and opposing reason and rational thought when it conflicts with their wacky and superstitious ideals.

So, the cults of creationism (Answers in Genesis, Discovery Institute, et al) were dealt a blow even they can’t ignore in California last week. A federal judge in L.A. ruled that the University of California can “deny course credit to applicants from Christian high schools whose textbooks declare the Bible infallible and reject evolution.” Followers of Christian cults, particularly those cults of creationism, objected to UC’s policy, suggesting that it was a policy of “religious discrimination.”

Among the courses rejected by UC is a history course called Christianity’s Influence on America which utilizes a text that, “instructs that the Bible is the unerring source for analysis of historical events” and evaluates historical figures based on their religious motivations.” Another course, this one in science, uses a text titled, Biology for Christian Schools and, “declares on the first page that if (scientific) conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong.”

So UC doesn’t find cult school courses that preach inerrant “truth” to be favorable over those that favor free inquiry and evidence? The only thing questionable about that position is that it actually had to go to court. This is no more asinine than if the Flat Earthers forced the same litigation over refusing to give course credit for denying the sphericity of this two-dimensional planet; or UFO nuts demanding that their high school astronomy programs be accepted even though the first chapter of their textbook deals with the Roswell cover up and the Moon-landing hoax.

And what did the creationist nutters have to say about the ruling on their blogs and sites?

AiG can be quoted to say, “Ultimately, this case is representative of the public—and academia’s—continued refusal to acknowledge the role of presuppositions in shaping how we acquire knowledge, including in the scientific sphere.”

The tragic thing is, these nuts are serious. They assume that because they rely on presuppositions (i.e. that their mythology is assumed the literal word of an assumed god) that, therefore, no one else is capable of achieving objective reality. Which is utter bollocks. There is an objective, knowable truth that can be had more easily and quickly by applying the methods (as opposed to apply the methods of superstition). They presuppose that the Earth is only a few thousand years old based on a single source of information developed by stone and iron age goat herders, ignoring all scientific knowledge and evidence to the contrary because it doesn’t fit their preconceived and particular notion of god.

WorldNut Daily, through the dimwitted Johnathan Falwell, said, well… I’m not going to bother quoting that asshole. Suffice to say, he went on and on about how society pretends values diversity unless it’s his particular notion of god and how his superstitious and unfounded beliefs should be valued in the name of diversity, etc. It was all very nauseating to read. don’t believe me, click the link and see. Ugh. Falwell committed logical fallacy after logical fallacy in a very weak attempt to make a point that students are forced to accept an “atheistic” point of view.

Sorry pal. Call it what you will, no one is telling students they can’t believe in whatever deities, fairies, Jedi, or magic frogs they want. The University system is about gaining an education in reality and if they haven’t the proper scores in the proper prep classes, they’re going to have a difficult time of it, putting an undo burden on professors and making it unfair for the students who actually did obtain an education. Classes would have to be dumbed down, extra time spent on teaching the basics, and, perhaps, even spent on explaining the reality-based point of view versus the sub-natural one relied on by creationists nutters.

To be fair, the creationist nutters did make a fair point in a couple of the articles I read on their sites, which was that it cannot be assumed that because a student came from a school that used sub-standard texts that she wouldn’t be educated sufficiently in the sciences. But, if these same nutters actually bothered to RTFA, they might have noticed the the sentence, “students whose courses lack UC approval can remain eligible by scoring well in those subjects on the Scholastic Assessment Test.”
But, then, it isn’t characteristic of creationists to actually study, research and do their homework, so we shouldn’t be too surprised by their false assumptions. Indeed, the very title of Falwell’s article, “Christians Need Not Apply” at WorldNut Daily is fallacious even before the first paragraph. The unfortunate thing is, this sort of propaganda feeds quite well into the less-informed masses who happen to be religious and are being led to believe that if they accept science they’re denying their god.
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The Need for Absurd Belief Among Fundamentalists

Why is there a “culture war” between science and religion?

Religionists, particularly the more fundamentalist of them, frequently object to scientific facts of evolution, geology, DNA, and so on. They very often assert that very paranormal and supernatural events described in Christian mythology are genuine and that these events occurred regardless of their unscientific and preposterous nature.

Examples include an Earth that’s thousands of years old instead of billions; the denial of evolution; the belief that the entire planet was completely flooded in a matter of days; that a man put two of every creature on Earth in a boat; that a man was born of a virgin and had magical powers (could heal the sick, rise from the dead, etc.); and they believe that wine and crackers can, if the right magic words are uttered by the right magic person, become the blood and body of the afore mentioned man who has been dead for over two thousand years if he was ever alive.

And these are but a few of the preposterous and absurd notions and ideas held, each contrary to scientific understanding and thought. To all or most of these people, these notions and ideas aren’t preposterous or absurd, but this is due to the fact that they were probably raised from childhood to accept them without question. It could even be that those that profess to believe in these notions realize the absurdity of them but refuse to entertain this beyond their own private thoughts and, even then, only in fleeting glimpses and brief moments of question or wonder. These glimpses and moments quickly turned away from since the spell of their religious belief and indoctrination effectively insulates them from actively questioning their beliefs.

Such people believe not so much in the “miracles” and absurdities of their religion but more so in belief itself. This “belief in belief” is discussed at length by Daniel Dennett in his book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and I recommend the book for anyone that is interested in the scientific study of religion and belief, which is one of the topics I try to concern this blog with. Indeed, you may have even noticed the similarity of the blog’s title to Dennett’s book.

Not a single one of the absurdities that these people hold to be factual is supported by science or reason, however. There simply are no good data or experiences of observation that support these ideas as true. And many religious believers no doubt recognize this, accepting these beliefs on “faith” rather than evidence. They hold these notions and ideas regardless of the lack of evidence or even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Why?

I think one of the main reasons is that accepting the scientific and reasoned perspective over that of their religious doctrines and dogma -in other words, discounting the Biblical accounts as allegory, poetry, literature, or just plain myth- will, for many of these people, invalidate their entire system of beliefs. Just as a house of cards is precariously balanced and fragile, so, too, is the system of Biblical belief, which ultimately informs the political agenda of so many people. The political investment that fundamentalist Christians have in the Biblical compendium is such that should a single story be shown or accepted to be just a myth, the entire Bible would then be in question. And, indeed, it is.

Science, history and archaeology have, time and again, brought Biblical “facts” into question, invalidating them. I think conservative, fundamental Christians realize this so they deny, obfuscate, confuse, ignore, and otherwise bring into question facts of science, geology, archaeology, anthropology, psychology, neurology, biology, chemistry, astronomy and many other sciences that have shown information contrary to Biblical belief to be true. For The conservative Christian to accept, for instance, that evolution invalidates the literal truth of the Bible as told by Genesis, then what reason would those same conservative Christians have to continue excluding homosexuals or other groups with whom they disagree? And that is but a single example. One could also draw into question conservative positions on end of life, stem cell research, the Middle East, etc.

But there is and abundance of evidence that shows vertebrate life on the planet millions of years ago; that the planet itself is billions of years old. The evidence one might expect to see, which would support a global flood just a few thousand years ago simply isn’t there. There is no evidence to support the notion that virgins can be impregnated without help from a male sperm donor. There is no evidence to support that one human can heal another simply by placing a hand on them -and they certainly cannot correct blindness this way. There is no evidence that someone can truly be dead then arise from their grave 3 days later. Either you’re dead or you’re not. There’s no evidence that the planet was brought to a stand-still with regard to its rotation, as the bible says occurred for 24 hours.

Religious adherents would be quick to say that neither can these things be disproved or that there’s evidence to the show that any of these things couldn’t occur. But I’d say this is only partially right. Sure, there’s no way to prove gods don’t exist or that these improbable things couldn’t occur. But there is evidence that is to the contrary. And that evidence is the distinct lack of evidence that supports any of them.

The spell of belief among adherents of Christianity will not easily or willingly be broken. The best we can do, for now, is to keep up the “fight,” as it were. Continue to be voices of reason and rational discourse and to value each and every believer that has a rational epiphany that causes them to begin to question their system of beliefs.

Eventually, perhaps, the spell of religion will be broken.

Are all Believers Bigots?

This was the question that was posed to me by James Ross, a visitor to my Employee of 1800Flowers.com thread, when I accused him of bigotry. It’s a fair question. I thought I’d repost my answer to the atheosphere, which is…

… I suppose that depends on what they believe in. If they believe blasphemy is a “sin” that deserves death, then yes. If they believe that atheists, non-believers, or those that believe in cults different than their own have not the right to be free of their spam/proselytizing, then yes. If they believe that people different than they don’t deserve equal rights (i.e. different races, genders, sexual preferences), then yes. If they believe that their superstitions should be unquestioned and respected even if done in public and forced upon the public (which is where the communion Cook attended took place), then yes.

If they believe that scientific knowledge must be suppressed and avoided in public schools because it threatens their superstitions, then yes.

If they accept only supernatural terms to explain the world and seek to impose these superstitions on the rest of society, then yes.

If they believe that those who don’t accept their superstitions or have superstitions different than their own are immoral or unjust because of this, then yes.

If they believe that criticizing religion, their’s or anyone else’s, should be a taboo; if they believe that non-believers should remain silent while their superstitions are codified in local, state, and federal governments; if they believe it’s okay to defend anyone who threatens bodily harm to a critic -be it in jest or not, then yes -they are bigots in the truest sense of the word.

(n) bigot (a prejudiced person who is intolerant of any opinions differing from his own)

And because I’m big enough to recognize some of my own intolerance (I can’t stand assholes, for instance), I’m also willing to admit, freely, that I’m open to change. I’m willing to enhance, improve, revise, or even completely turn around any opinion that I hold.

I only require a modicum of evidence.

Templeton Founder Dead

The Templeton Prize is worth $2 million, intentionally more than the Nobel (about $1.5 million). The thought was that it would send the message that “spiritual” matters are worth more than “scientific.” The result, intentional or not, is an attempt to undermine science with religious superstition. Ironic, since the purported goals of the Templeton Foundation includes the reconciliation of science and religion. The foundation’s primary mission is to explore “the big questions” regarding the universe, life, and everything.

There have been many critics of the Templeton Prize, perhaps none so notable as Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion this of Prize winner Paul Davies, author of The Mind of God

[It] seems to hover somewhere between Einsteinian pantheism and an obscure form of deism – for which he was rewarded with the Templeton Prize (a very large sum of money given annually by the  Templeton Foundation, usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion).

Dawkins also criticizes the Templeton Foundations support of the 2006 study by Herbert Benson on the efficacy of prayer, which basically showed that there was no efficacy to prayer.The important point to this is that it shows that the Foundation’s goals do indeed include supporting religious superstition in spite of their repeated insistence that they “support” science and are not a religious organization.

Reported to have been a “a very nice fellow” [Pharyngula], Templeton Foundation creator, Sir John Templeton, died today at age 95 of complications associated with pneumonia.

Reference:

Benson, H., et al. (2006) ‘Study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients’, American Heart Journal 151 (4), 934-42.

Five Stages of Religious Evolution

A well-known theory of religious development was proposed by Robert Bellah (1964) in which he defined an axial point of religious evolution Bellah describes 5 stages:

1. Primitive Religion (i.e. Native American & aboriginal)
This stage contrasts with others in that it isn’t “world rejecting” and mythical characteristics are related to characteristics found in the experienced world. Thunder, for instance, would be the expression of a deity’s anger. Whereas later stages utilize sacrifice, the Primitive Stage is characterized by identification, participation, and acting out. Rituals involve reactualization where events aren’t simply portrayed but made to happen again. The Hopi or Zuni mask ceremonies are good examples of this. The person in the mask becomes the mythical being.

2. Archaic Religion (i.e. ancient Greece; early Judaic)
This involves gods, priests and sacrifices. The distinction between men and gods is defined and demarcated. The world is not rejected, but there is likely to be a concept of hierarchical cosmology where every being has its place in the hierarchy. Fluidity of the religion exists, where individuals exercise some creativity in their worship, but the presence of priests will limit it. Different cults come into being during this stage and certain priests are attached to cult centers such as the Oracle of Delphi in Greece. Greece provides a good example of an archaic religion since there is clear record of the temenos that physically existed between the sanctuary (the sacred) and everything outside the sanctuary (the profane/secular).

Egyptian and early Judaic cults also show these characteristics with hierarchical gods and demarcation of the sacred versus the secular. Growing populations in each of these societies also gave rise to new cults as priestly-classes and ruling-classes variously merged and emerged.

3. Historical Religion (i.e. Roman Catholicism)
This marks an “axial age,” which, to Bellah, is the point at which the world’s great religions emerged along with philosophy and science. The world is rejected both morally and philosophically and writing is now present. A dualism emerges with a concept of a supernatural world as well as an earthly world. Salvation becomes a paramount purpose of religion and old myths are put aside as the participants are taught to believe in monotheism. The human moral condition is now perceived as much worse than by primitive and archaic stages (pre-axial). Consequently, humans can only participate in the “ultimate reality” by seeking salvation.

In this stage, a four-class system emerges
1. Political/Military Elite
2. Cultural/Religious Elite
3. Peasantry (farmers)
4. Merchants and Artisans

Struggles begin to exist between political rulers and the religious elite, such as the King versus the Pope in pre-Anglican Britain.

4. Early Modern Religion (i.e. Protestantism)
This is best exemplified by the Protestant Reformation. World rejection continues as does the dualism of heaven and earth. An unmediated relationship between humanity and God is now taught and religious doctrine is no longer kept as privilege to just the religious elite but made available to all. God is now accessible to the peasantry and merchant classes. Emphasis is placed on “faith” and total dedication of oneself in all areas of life. The distinction between “elect” and the “non-elect” is substituted for the distinction that existed between ascetics like monks and the “mass of believers” as with the Historical Stage. In the Calvinist cult, for instance, the elect equates to those chosen by God for salvation. The non-elect are all others; the non-chosen.

5. Modern ReligionNot world-rejecting and has diminished interest in creeds or “right” doctrines. There exists an increased emphasis on the individual and the idea of moral deprivation is not taught. Bellah finds difficulty pinning this new religious movement down and admits to as much, though he cites the growing tendencies (even in the 1950s and 60s) of people to find new forms of enlightenment and that

…”…for many churchgoers the obligation of doctrinal orthodoxy sits lightly indeed, and the idea that all creedal statements must receive a personal reinterpretation is widely accepted. The dualistic worldview certainly persists in the minds of many of the devout, but just as surely many others have developed elaborate and often pseudoscientific rationalizations to bring their faith in its experienced validity into some kind of cognitive harmony with the 20th century world.”

Of course, Bellah’s Five Stages theory doesn’t imply that the previous stages disappear, but it gives an interesting point of reference that we might apply to the anthropological perspective that Horton provides with regard to society and complexity.

Magical Thinking – a Common Spell

One of the most prevalent spells that afflict humanity is that of magical thinking. Atheists are familiar with the spell of religion, which they reject, and magical thinking is very much a part of religion. But it goes beyond religious thought and belief. There are even atheists who are guilty of magical thinking!

Before going further, perhaps it would be helpful to define what magic is in order to understand what it means to think magically. Magic is the use of techniques whereby a person expects to exert supernatural power without any assistance from a supernatural being, often a perceived psychic emanation believed to affect or influence the natural world.

The obvious example of magic is the witch, who casts spells or “psychic emanations” to affect health or property of self or others either positively or negatively. In some societies there are those that believe themselves to be witches with abilities to produce magic and the book shelves of the local Barnes and Noble can attest to this fact with titles like Moon Magic and Summer Witchcraft, targeted to western adolescent girls.

Other societies believe that witchcraft exists in others and that being a witch is something to avoid being accused of at all costs. Those accused of being witches in African nations like Mali or Uganda stand a fair chance of being murdered by a frightened and superstitious public.

But neither the suburban, middle-class witches of the Starbucks culture in the west or the West African witches who are alleged to ride banana leaves and abduct people who wander away from the village at night are actually conducting “magic.” The only spell that can truly be at work in either case is that cast by brewing delusion in the cauldron of superstition.

The degree by which believers of either culture’s witches actually perceive witchcraft as real could be debatable, but at least no one in recent times has been publicly executed or lynched for practicing witchcraft in Woodland Heights –or any other suburb of the United States. The same cannot be said for Uganda, where there are actually laws restricting witchcraft practices.

To recognize the more subtle forms of magical thinking, it’s important to first examine some of the main types of magic:

Imitative Magic:
This type of magic is based on the principle that like produces like. IN other words, if you wish to achieve a certain result, you should do something which resembles it. Conversely, if you wish to avoid an undesirable result, you should avoid doing anything that resembles it. If you want rain, for instance, you imitate a thunderstorm by beating a drum; to avoid going into early or complicated labor, a pregnant woman should avoid standing in doorways or lying crossways on a bed.

Contagious Magic:
This type of magic is based on the principle of contact. After two things or a thing and a person have been in contact, whatever happens to one will have a similar effect on the other. AN example might be the use of a voodoo doll, created with an article of clothing or lock of hair from the intended victim –sticking pins into or burning the doll is expected to harm the victim. Another example is wrapping an arrow which wounded a man in damp leaves with an expectation that it will also care for the man.

Incantation Magic:
This is the belief that by reciting the proper words in the proper order will “give power” through chanting, praying, singing or simply saying.
Repetitive Magic: If something worked before, it’s simply repeated. An example might be the “good luck” rituals and talismans of sports figures who always eat the same foods before a game or wear the same underwear.

Written Letters and Words
: these include nonsense words like “abracadabra” and such magical beliefs are used with practitioners of Kabala. Ancient examples might also include the book of the Dead prayers and incantations inscribed into eh tombs of ancient Egyptians.

Magical thinking is most prevalent among ordinary people during situations involving chance and uncertainty. Studies of “baseball magic” revealed that magical thinking may help control anxiety since most use of rituals and “good luck charms” are found among the pitchers where there is the least control over the results of their own efforts and the most complexity, uncertainty and chance involved with their tasks. Outfielders, on the other hand, have the least instances of the use of rituals and chances. They also experience the least complexity in their assigned tasks and exert the most control in the results of their own efforts. Clearly there are several types of magic at work (or at least perceived) in sports like baseball. The repetitive magic of eating certain foods, wearing certain clothes, and tapping the home plate a certain number of times with a bat are prime examples.

There are even taboos within baseball that are silly when examined closely, such as mentioning a “no-hitter” is in progress or crossing base ball bats (on bat might “steal” hits from the other, implying that there exist a finite number of hits in a given bat!). Even the most skeptical and rationally-minded persons involved in a game won’t violate these taboos, perhaps for fear of having the eventual end of a pitching or hitting streak blamed on the violator. Statistically speaking, all streaks end just as surely as they are predicted to occur.

But lest we leave this post thinking that magical thinking is a spell of over-paid athletes and wannabe Sabrinas of Suburbia, consider the number of people who:

  • find Friday the thirteenth unlucky;
  • avoid walking under ladders;
  • believe bad things happen in threes;
  • that things happen “for a reason;”
  • believe that it always rains when they wash their car (my mother used to say when she hung out the laundry);
  • think that a bride must wear: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue

Even atheists cross their fingers, wish on stars and pennies tossed in mall fountains, and speak directly to traffic lights to make them change!

It is important as an atheist blogger for me to do my part in spreading rationalism while standing up for scientific naturalism and critical thought. But I find it helpful to remember that magical thinking is a human trait and, very likely, one that is evolutionary in its origin.

Why study religion scientifically and what are we able to objectively examine?

[note: this is one of the earliest posts from brokenspells.blogspot.com]

The Scientific Study of Religion

On science message-boards and blogs, there are typically two camps: believers and non-believers. Many discussion forums omit religion sub-forums because of the controversy and division that ultimately erupts and most bloggers probably avoid it altogether, but I think that in any decent discussion community of science, there should be time and space devoted to the topic of “religion.” Whether those of us in the sciences like it or not, religion and science affect each other. In addition, I think that religion deserves to be examined and explained scientifically just as any other social phenomenon.

Among religionists, the objection to examination of their beliefs is often immediate and harsh. They readily claim that theirs is a “way of knowing” that is outside the ability of science to comment with informed authority. They readily claim that theirs is a “way of knowing” that is outside the ability of science to comment with informed authority.Not a single religion would ever object to any scientific evidence that supports their position, and many claims of such evidence have been made! The Shroud of Turin, last year’s Noah’s Ark “find,” and the recent Tomb of Jesus nonsense (preceded by the James ossuary hoax) are examples of this. However, not a single one of these religions would readily accept scientific evidence that dispels their myths and superstitions. Ken Hamm’s Creation Museum demonstrates this.

But science can objectively examine all the “earthly” manifestations of religion: the institutions, the rituals, the texts, the symbolism, psychological effects, the traditions, myths, etc. Indeed, we can examine the beliefs themselves and determine if evidence exists to support these beliefs. And it’s because religion is such an “important and pervasive phenomenon in human society” that it should be studied (Dennett 2006).

Another reason to study religion is to reach a consensus about what religion actually is. Guthrie notes that definitions imply theories and that there simply are no good theories about religion (1993). Anthropologists have their definitions; sociologists have theirs; believers of various religions have various independent versions; philosophers yet another; and so on. Even within these groups there is much disagreement about what constitutes a “religion” or “religious thought.”

Daniel Dennett’s definition is the most succinct and utilitarian: one or more social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.

There are, however, two main positions when it comes to religion: that of believers and that of non-believers. The positions of believers are primarily central to their own religious beliefs and typically discount other positions as inferior. As Guthrie puts it (1993:8), to them, “belief must precede understanding” in many cases and that “these theories primarily concern some single, ostensibly true, religion, not religion in general.

The various theories that explain religion are, in brief:

1. A given theistic belief of the hundreds, if not thousands, of individual theistic worldviews that are either extant or extinct, is correct.

Of course, it could rightfully be argued that each of the religions’ believers think theirs is the correct religion, but, logically, the answer must actually be only one or none is correct.

This explanation only works for one religion, however, and fails to take into account what motivations other religions have for their existence. Of course, it could rightfully be argued that each of the religions’ believers think theirs is the correct religion, but, logically, the answer must actually be only one or none is correct. Some do argue that all religions are correct and their focus is on the one “true” God and that it is their individual methods or practices that are diverse, yet this doesn’t explain the diversity –some of which is significant enough to be contradictory between religious cults.

2. Religion is the human response to anxiety, fear, desperation and dissatisfaction and provides comfort to humanity.

This explanation has been around for some time and is very plausible. It has been proposed by intellectuals like Freud, Hume, Spinoza, Marx, and Malinowski. Freud is quoted as having said religion “must exorcise the terrors of nature” and “reconcile men to the credulity of fate, particularly as it is shown in death.” Hume noted that “the primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear.” These opinions are supported by the work of Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands where he found that the Polynesian inhabitants had varying degrees of magic for varying degrees of risk in their daily activities. If the natives were going to fish in their local lagoon, no magic was required; but as they ventured further from shore to the deep sea, the amount of ritual and magic involved increased proportional to the risk involved. This theory also supposes that people in all cultures fear the finality of death and the unpredictable forces of nature and therefore find comfort in religious beliefs of an afterlife or rewards/punishments in the form of bountiful seasons or catastrophes like floods and volcanoes.

3. Religion creates and maintains solidarity and social cohesion.

This is a theory of religion for which Emile Durkheim was a strong proponent (Durkheim 1965), but it was variously proposed by others such as Auguste Comte and even as early as Polybius of first century BCE Greece. Freud and Malinowski also commented on this theory as did anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown. Durkheim, however, was the most influential proponent of this theory and his position was that religion couldn’t be actually about gods and deities (since they don’t actually exist) and must therefore be about something else entirely. Durkheim asserted that religion seeks to divide the universe into two realms: the sacred and the profane. The sacred, being that which is devoted to the illusionary gods, and the profane, being everything else, sets apart the two realms. In ancient Greek religion, this was often a physical barrier at a sanctuary called the temenos, often just a low wall that surrounded the temple grounds. The temenos wasn’t designed to restrict access but rather to demarcate the point at which the sacred began and the profane ended. According to Durkheim, the believers considered the “sacred” to be set apart from the “profane,” but what really occurred was that the society was setting itself apart and thus providing a cohesive unity or a solidarity between itself and all else, such as other religions. The problem with this theory is, of course, that there are many religions, extant as well as extinct, in which there is no separation between the sacred and profane. The Navajo along with most Native American cultures view everything as sacred, albeit in varied degrees.

This theory also makes “perpetuation of the society the purpose of religion (Guthrie 1993:17),” but there are religions that have destroyed their societies such as the Xhosa, whose beliefs caused the “cattle killing” in South Africa; and the inhabitants of Easter Island, who decimated their forests in their beliefs that included the giant monuments. Likewise, it can be argued that the Maya destroyed themselves because of ritual warfare and deforestation due to temple construction.

4. Religion is whatever a given set of believers think it is and provides explanations valid for a given culture.

Boyer (Boyer 2003:10-12) summarizes this theory quite well by pointing out that people created religion to explain puzzling natural and mental phenomena as well as the origins of things like plants, animals, humans, the world, etc., and that religion explains evil and suffering. Guthrie (Guthrie 1993) also calls this theory the intellectualist and rationalist theory, and compares it with science (though, clearly Guthrie is not a proponent of this theory) as a means of explaining the world. He cites Bernard Fontenelle, a 17th century intellectual: [i]religion started when lighning, wind, and other natural phenomena made people imagine human like agents, “more powerful than themselves, capable of producing these grand effects.” People imagine these agents as like themselves because they think analogically. Fontenelle’s recognition that analogy and metaphor are universal makes possible a naturalistic and rationalistic account of religion.”

E.B. Tylor was one of the first to assert this theory with his study of Australian Aboriginals and his hypothesis that primitive religions begin with animism. Few who study religion today consider his work to have provided a valid or concise theory, but his discussions about animism bring up good points that relate to anthropomorphism, a concept that may well tie into each of the theories (except the irrational first in this list). Tylor proposed that early people contrived the notion of a soul or “spirit” after experiencing dreams or hallucinations about deceased loved ones and assuming that the reason these people could be “seen” after death was that there is something that survives the body when it stops living. This “life-force” can find its way into non-human things as well, such as crows, bears, rocks, etc. Tylor asserted that these “spirits” that inhabited various things by “animating” them, evolved into polytheistic religions then, finally, were reduced to a single god.

5. Religion has its origin in some biological or cognitive predisposition.

Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neuroscientist from the University of California-San Diego discovered that an individual’s religiosity may be heavily influenced by the electrical activity of a specific region of the brain. Ramachandran evaluated 3 groups of people: 1) patients of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) who had religious “preoccupations;” 2) “very religious” people who were not TLE; and 3) non-religious people without TLE. He found that the first group had the highest response to religious words and icons, significantly more than the control group (Ramachandran et al 1997; Ramachandran 2003). There are other theories and suggestions that religiosity in humanity is an evolutionary advantage and is passed on through DNA. It could very well be that the willingness to “believe” is just the right addition to intelligence that allows us to develop technology. The technology of agriculture may have developed from the propensity for belief: procedures for food production and water management show up in the archaeological record as having “ritual” significance that varies in intensity and frequency from culture to culture. Undoubtedly, early humans applied magical thinking to the availability of food, rain, predators, etc.

There are certainly reasons to study religion scientifically. The theories of religion I outlined briefly above are by no means complete nor have I mentioned each theory.

6. The Theory of Human Relationships.

This is another theory of religiosity in humanity which originates from Robin Horton (1960).

Horton suggests that people will turn to relationships outside of “purely human society” when those relationships within society fail to meet needs. Horton asserts that large, complex and technologically advanced societies have the ability to predict and control their physical world but the members of such societies are often individualistic, alienated and lonely when contrasted with small, simple societies that are technologically less advanced. The smaller, less complex societies are typically better at creating intimacy and friendships within their populations. They are, however, bad at material control and prediction of the physical world with regard to things like weather, agriculture, disease, etc.

The small, simpler societies look to deities for technical assistance with the environment: they have rain gods, for instance, as well as rituals and deities associated with the forces they cannot control. The larger, more complex societies look to deities for personal relationships: “Jesus is my co-pilot;” or “do you have a personal relationship with God?” are both phrases common in American religious communities.

Horton’s theory seems to be similar to the “Wish Fulfillment” theory of #2, which suggests: “Religion creates and maintains solidarity and social cohesion.” The objections to Horton’s theory are similar as well: that there is much in religion that is deleterious and frightening. The Xhosa Cattle Killing; the sacrifices of children or warriors by the Maya and Aztec; the Inquisition; the Salem Witch Trials; Suicide Bombers; etc. Still, his correlation of societal size and technological advancement to religious trends can’t be ignored, even though no clear line of causation has been established or suggested.

So, religion can be studied. We just did it. And this post doesn’t even scratch the surface of what can be objectively examined about religion. My primary interest is in ancient religion and cult practices, but I firmly believe that in order to understand past religious practices and beliefs, it is first necessary to understand those of the present. I also hope that by studying religious belief, others come to examine their own beliefs and the beliefs of those that seek to impose them on the rest of us.

Before we can hope to break the spells of superstition that inhibit and hinder progess in society -superstitions that are responsible for hatred and violence in society- we must learn about them. We must seek to find out why people succomb to the spells of belief and why these beliefs -these superstitions- are so powerful their believers are willing to kill and die for them without regard for the rest of humanity.

Bibliography

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Dawkins, R. (2003). A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Dennet, D. (2006). Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking Adult.

Durkheim, E. (1965). The Elemental Forms of Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1950). Witchcraft, Oracles and magic Among the Azande, 2nd ed. Oxford: Carendon Press.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Horton, Robin (1960). A definition of religion, and its uses. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 90, pp. 201-226.

Malinowski, B. (1979/1931). The role of magic and religion. In W. Lessa & E. Vogt (Ed.), Reader in comparative religion (4th ed., pp. 38-46). New York: Harper & Row.

Ramachandran, V., Hirstein, W., Narmel, K., Tecoma, E., & Iragui, V. (1997). The Neural Basis of Religious Experience. Annual Conference of He Society of Neuroscience, 23(Abstract #519.1).

Ramachandran, V. (Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California (San Diego)). (2003). Audio Q&A: Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese. In Reith Lectures. Oxford University.

Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.