The Mental Scaffolding for Religious Belief

The Mental Scaffolding of Religious Belief

Yesterday’s post was about our mental structure for seeing causality in the world where there is none. We attribute agency to inanimate objects, imbue them with emotions, attribute intentions, and ascribe goals to objects that don’t appear to have any capacity for conscious thought or awareness. From a young age, our minds are built to see causality in the world, and we attribute causal actions linked to preferred outcomes to people, animals, plants, cars, basketballs, hurricanes, computers, and more. This post takes an additional step, looking at how our mind that intuitively perceives causal actions all around us plunges us into a framework for religious beliefs. There are structures in the mind that act as mental scaffolding for the construction of religious beliefs, and understanding these structures helps shed light on what is taking place inside the human mind.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes the following:

 

“The psychologists Paul Bloom, writing in The Atlantic in 2005, presented the provocative claim that our inborn readiness to separate physical and intentional causality explains the near universality of religious beliefs. He observes that we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. The two models of causation that we are set to perceive make it natural for us to accept the two central beliefs of many religions: an immaterial divinity is the ultimate cause of the physical world, and immortal souls temporarily control our bodies while we live and leave them behind as we die.”

 

From the time that we are small children, we experience a desire for a change in the physical state around us. When we are tiny, we have no control over the world around us, but as we grow we develop the capacity to change the physical world to align with our desires. Infants who cannot directly change their environment express some type of discomfort by crying, and (hopefully) receiving loving attention. From a small age, we begin to understand that expressing some sort of discomfort brings change and comfort from a being that is larger and more powerful than we are.

 

This is an idea I heard years ago on a podcast. I don’t remember what show it was, but the argument that the guest presented was that humans have a capacity for imaging a higher being with greater power than what we have because that is literally the case when we are born. From the time we are in the womb to when we are first born, we experience larger individuals who provide for us, feed us, protect us, and literally talk down to us as if from above. In the womb we literally are within a protective world that nourishes our bodies and is ever present and ever powerful. We have an innate sense that there is something more than us, because we develop within another person, literally experiencing that we are part of something bigger. And when we are tiny and have no control over our world, someone else is there to protect and take care of us, and all we need to do to summon help is to cry out to the sky as we lay on our backs.

 

As we age, we learn to control our physical bodies with our mental thoughts and learn to use language to communicate our desired to other people. We don’t experience the build up action potentials between neurons prior to our decisions to do something. We only experience us, acting in the world and mentally interpreting what is around us. We carry with us the innate sense that we are part of something bigger and that there is a protector out there who will come to us if we cry out toward the sky. We don’t experience the phenomenological reality of the universe, we experience the narrative that we develop in our minds beginning at very young ages.

 

My argument in this piece is that both Paul Bloom as presented in Kahneman’s book and the argument from the scientist in the podcast are correct. The mind contains scaffolding for religious beliefs, making the idea that a larger deity exists and is the original causal factor of the universe feel so intuitive. Our brains are effectively primed to look for things that support the intuitive sense of our religions, even if there is no causal structure there, or if the causal structure can be explained in a more scientific and rational manner.
A Religious Start to Ideas of Drug Prohibition

A Religious Start to Ideas of Drug Prohibition

In his book Chasing The Scream Johann Hari briefly writes about human practices of using drugs dating back well over 2000 years ago. He uses a story about Greek rituals at the Temple at Eleusis to show how common and widespread drug use was, and how it occupied a central and almost sacred role in human life for ancient Greek civilizations. Hari writes about the downfall of the ritual use and near celebration of drugs which occurred at the temple. A downfall that doesn’t appear to have been brought about by negative consequences of drug use, but a downfall that was a deliberate power grab.

 

“The early Christians wanted there to be one rout to ecstasy, and one rout only – through prayer to their God,”  Hari writes. “The first tugs towards prohibition were about power, and purity of belief. If you are going to have one God and one Church, you need to stop experiences that make people feel that they can approach God on their own.”

 

Hari writes that drugs alter states of consciousness and can give people a new sense of wonder, of awe, and of being something more than themselves. These senses, he argues, were what the Christian Church wanted to offer people through their religious experiences. Church and drugs were competing for the same mental faculties and experiences, and the Church wanted to limit outside exposure to sources that gave people a supernatural feeling.

 

I like to think about the world in terms of the systems and structures that shape the possibilities of our lives. Institutions matter, and they can inform what we find to be immoral, just, and common (or uncommon) parts of human nature. Hari’s research suggest that human desires to change their states of consciousness with chemicals are not in fact the immoral and uncommon problematic desires that we have portrayed them. Institutions, such as religions, have shaped the ways we think about and understand drugs and chemical intoxication. There are probably some true elements of public safety and health in our drug prohibition today, but much of our policy stems from and still maintains a system of authority, power, fear, and xenophobia. Drug use can be widespread and accepted, even if it is problematic – just look at alcohol use in the United States and across the globe. It can also be prohibited and marginalized, it just depends on the institutional systems and structures we chose to attach to drug use. We can develop ways to use drugs responsibly and safely, or we can force drug use into illicit and shady corners of society, where a guarantee of safety and protection is a laughable idea.

Three Factors That Push In Favor of Religious Belief

In The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, the idea that many of the ways we act and behave have little to do with our stated reason for our actions and behaviors is explored in great detail. The authors’ thesis is that our self-interest dominates many of our decisions. The authors suggest that our beliefs, our social behaviors, and our interactions in the world are reflective of our self-interest, even if we don’t admit it. One area the authors examine through this lens is religious belief.

 

Simler and Hanson identify three factors that tend to push people toward belief, even though the factors have little to do with evidence for or a belief in a deity. They write:

 

“1) People who believe they risk punishment for disobeying God are more likely to behave well, relative to nonbelievers. 2) It’s therefore in everyone’s interest to convince others that they believe in God and in the dangers of disobedience. 3) Finally, as we saw …, one of the best ways to convince others of one’s belief is to actually believe it. This is how it ends up being in our best interests to believe in a god that we may not have good evidence for.”

 

The argument the authors put forward is that people believe that people of faith will be better people. That they will be less likely to commit crimes, more likely to have high moral standards for themselves, and more likely to be an honest and trustworthy ally. In order to be seen as a person who is trustworthy and honest, it becomes in one’s best interest to display religious faith and to convince other people that our beliefs are sincere and that we truly are an honest, trustworthy, and moral ally. These social factors don’t actually have to be related to religious beliefs, but the beliefs can create a structure that allows us to demonstrate these qualities.

 

These factors then push us toward belief. It is hard to always convince people that you are authentic, but it is not hard to simply adopt a belief, even if there is a shaky foundation for the belief you adopt. This occurs today with political beliefs about specific governmental decisions and interventions. It happens with climate change denial, and with fad diets. We convince ourselves that we are doing something because it is correct, and we can then better defend our decision and better defend our actions which might be signaling something else about ourselves.

Sex, Society, & Religion

An argument I found very persuasive in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson is that religions establish norms for sexual behavior in an attempt to help create social cohesion partly through systems of shared sexual family beliefs and values that build into family beliefs and values. The norms around sex ensure help establish specific norms around relationships which add to social cohesion. There are many different norms about sex across the planet, and religions, or the lack there of, often have different rules about sexuality which reinforce those norms.

 

In the book the authors write, “As Jason Weeden and colleagues have pointed out, religions can be understood, in part, as community-enforced mating strategies. The religious norms around sex become central to the entire religion which is part of why any social topic surrounding sex sets off such a firestorm. Religious sex approaches are also community based and community enforced, meaning that they need the buy-in and support of the entire community to work.”

 

Simler and Hanson go on to describe the way this looks in the United States with our main political divide between family and sex traditionalists who tend to vote more Republican and be more Christian versus more secular individuals who are more careerist, less family and sex traditional, and more likely to vote for Democrats. Sex and family traditionalists benefit when people avoid pre-marital sex, stick to one partner, and have many children starting at a young age. They create communities to help with child raising and everyone is encouraged to reinforce the view of a successful two-parent family.

 

The authors contrast that view with a more open view of sex and families. Women are more likely to use contraception, allowing for multiple partners and allowing childbirth to be delayed. This gives men and women a chance to have fewer kids starting at a later point in life and allows both to be more focused on their career than on building a family.

 

In both cases, having more people adopt your norms around sex is beneficial. If you are trying to be a traditionalist, it can be challenging and frustrating to work a job you dislike, limit yourself to one sexual partner, and have children early if everyone else is having lots of sex, advancing in interesting careers, and not having to spend time raising children. You will have fewer people to share childbearing with and will receive less social praise for making an effort to start your family in your early twenties. However, if you are more open with your sexual preferences in a traditionalist society, you might be looked down upon, might not have the sexual partners that you would like to have, and be criticized for your promiscuity and for pursuing a career rather than a family. The norms around sex, in both instances, shape how you are viewed and treated by society, and reinforce or hinder the sexual, family, and even career strategy that you might pursue.

 

There are many ways for humans and communities to treat sex. I would imagine that different strategies at different times of human existence have been more advantageous than others. When humans barely lived past 30, when we didn’t have medical technologies for abortion, and didn’t have technology for producing contraceptives, then it made sense for certain strict rules to emerge around sex to help create communal norms that reinforced health behaviors, continued human existence, and community cohesion. On the opposite end, I recently heard someone suggest that early hunter-gatherer societies likely permitted individuals to have lots of sexual partners, and that fathers likely didn’t ever know for sure if a child was there offspring or not. This created a situation in a small tribe where it was best to just take care of every child to ensure that any child you might have was taken care of. This is another norm around sex and family that worked for the time. I may just be a modern career focused individual, but it seems to me that acknowledging that humans can have different sexual and family preferences, and allowing norms to adjust to our economic, technological, and social trends may be more helpful than adhering to strict norms established to fit different societal demands of the past.

Religion As a Community Social Structure

There are not many things that pull people together quite like religious beliefs. Sports pull us together when our kids are on the same team, when we are all in a stadium, or when two of us are wearing the right hat on an airplane, but those don’t make for strong ties that are lasting and uniting. Religion offers an entire worldview and set of corresponding behaviors that do create lasting ties between people who otherwise wouldn’t have much in common and wouldn’t likely interact for any significant time. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler look at religion in their book The Elephant in the Brain to understand the ways that religious signaling, behaviors, and beliefs operate in ways that often go unnoticed.

 

They quote a few authors in a short section that stood out to me:
“Religion,” says Jonathan Haidt, “is a team sport.”
“God,” says Emile Durkheim, “Is society writ large.”

 

Simler and Hanson go on to explain what this community and larger social aspect of religion means given that we tend to think of religion more as a private belief system:

 

“In this view, religion isn’t a matter of private beliefs, but rather of shared beliefs and, more importantly, communal practices. These interlocking pieces work together, creating strong social incentives for individuals to act (selfishly in ways that benefit the entire religious community. And the net result is a highly cohesive and cooperative social group. A religion, therefore, isn’t just a set of propositional beliefs about God and the afterlife; it’s an entire social system.”

 

Religions typically encourage pro-social behaviors that get people thinking more about a cohesive group than about selfish motives. By pursuing these prosocial behaviors, people can gain more status and prestige in society. For selfish reasons then (at least to some extent), people pursue the religious dictates of their society in their own personal lives. As they do this, positive externalities may arise and may create a society that is more cohesive and supportive all around. This might not always happen, but having a shared system of understanding the world, our places in the world, and the stories about who we are and why we exist help to create the social fabric and social capital to further encourage cooperation and social cohesion. In a weird way, our selfish motives encourage religion, even if we don’t acknowledge it and assume that religion is entirely about personal beliefs.

Beliefs Are Not Always in the Driver’s Seat

I am not a religious person. I can explain to you all the reasons why I don’t believe there is a deity who created the universe or interjects into our lives, but according to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, that might not be a particular meaningful thing to try to communicate. If I set out to explain what I believe about the world as a rational for the beliefs that I hold, I might be missing a more fundamental but less appealing reason for my atheism. I don’t come from a religious family, and to be a good part of my familial group and our friend groups, I adopted their beliefs and have found justification for those beliefs through the years. I may think those justifications are sound, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the part of my brain that set me down the path I am on.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Simler and Hanson write, “as we’ve seen throughout the book, beliefs aren’t always in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of the underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological. This is the religious elephant in the brain: We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.”

 

Hanson and Simler explain the ways in which both theists and atheists approach religion following a belief-first model. In this model, we develop beliefs about the world and universe from what we see and experience and then we adjust our behaviors to align with those beliefs. This is the model, the authors suggest, that is at work in debates between most theists and atheists. This is why we argue over the veracity of religious claims and the implications of ever growing scientific understandings of the universe.

 

But what might really be going on, and this is a view you might see from an anthropologist but might not hold front and center in your views, is that religious views help us be part of a social group and community of people who cooperate, share common values, and can provide support to one another. Religion has social values that can draw people toward it, and increasingly today, atheism seems to have many of  the same social qualities.

 

I have been in very religious contexts and circles though I am most comfortable among atheists. In both groups I have noted a tendency to characterize the other group as deviants. Religious people are mocked as morons while atheists are scoffed at as selfish and amoral trouble-makers. Both groups use the other as an out-group of villains to create more cohesion internally.

 

There is surely a part of religious beliefs that is driven by our experiences and how we think about and understand the world, but whether we want to admit it or not, a large part of our religious identity is shaped by our relationships and social groups surrounding the idea of religion. We can use religion as a model and a guide for our lives that provides us with social connections and social benefits, and we can also use our lack of religious beliefs to do the same. The true nature of the universe and the reality of the world around us often come second, and that is part of why it is so hard to change someone’s religious beliefs and why we tend to hold the same beliefs as our parents and family.