January 2007

OK, so having had a brief canter through defining good/evil, and legislating morality, I’m now interested in the question of WHY faith?

Having the background I do (English, white, lower-middle-class, brought up in the 50’s and 60’s) I was constantly exposed to christianity – Church, Sunday school, Bible classes, baptism, confirmation, and so forth. All of this was presented to me by competent teachers, clergy and communicators, none of whom ever gave me cause to doubt their sincerity.

All of my young friends and schoolmates had pretty much the same experience – yet I cannot think of one who is now a believer.

Nontheless, there are many people in the wider community, with similar backgrounds, similar or better intelligence compared to mine, who were and are believers.

What is the difference between us?

The above suggests that it is not “nurture” but “nature”. I and people like me lack an inner something that allows us to have belief in something the existence of which we have no credible evidence for. At the same time, some very similar people – similar enough to be a matched cohort – have no trouble with this.

Anyway, aftre long and convoluted arguments with myself, I am leaning toward the idea that I lack the “faith” gene (or gene complex)- or conversely, that believers lack a fully functional skeptic gene/complex.

I can see some past evolutionary advantage in having the “faith” gene – besides the more subtle societal advantages, there have been many periods in the histories of many cultures when a lack of religious belief, if not well concealed, could have been fatal – indeed, this is still true in some places.

My lack of belief seems (so far) to be doing me no harm, unless and until some fervent believer decides to be the instrument of god and strikes me down, that is – so perhaps the evolutionary advantages are slowly disappearing.

Is it true to say that there will soon be an advantage in inheriting the ability to need to understand rationally that which is known and will become known about the workings of the Universe?

Well, yes – because the corollary of that is that if you believe in a supreme being, you tend to leave your fate in its hands. If you have a burning need to understand the HOW of everything, your descendants will be the ones who will discover how to escape a dying universe if such a thing is at all possible – or better still, will discover sufficient of the HOW to develop the techniques of building a new one.

So it could be that the the spawn of the skeptical become the (no doubt benign) amsters of the new universe, whilst the offspring of the credulous faithful die with the old one.

Now there’s a thought.

Personally, I think that religious belief is almost 100% nurture, not nature. But just to confuse the issue, I think that the potential for religious belief — and the propensity for it — is nature.

Let’s look at the nature part first. Humans are very good at recognizing patterns. We do this instinctively and automatically, and it is a facility that has many evolutionary advantages (by helping us identify hunting targets in complex environments, for example). The down side to this ability is that humans also tend to pick out perceived patterns in random data, and this cherry picking of data very often leads to beliefs that would not be supported by more rigorous evaluation.

For example, let’s say that 80% of the land in a certain area is over an underground source of water. A dowser comes in and chooses ten places to dig. Eight turn up water and two do not. It would not be at all unusual for the dowser to find some pattern that justified the eight “hits” and made the two “misses” not count — for example, perhaps the two misses were near natural sources of magnetism. So with 8 hits out of 8 tries that “counted,” the dowser feels that he has a 100% success rate when he is not interfered with. And, of course, this completely ignores the fact that random chance would have given the same results.

The same kind of thinking can “prove” the efficacy of prayer. When prayers appear to have been answered, God is credited. When prayers are not answered, it is for a good reason known only to God. So no matter how things turn out, even an imagined deity couldn’t help but win.

Now think about our ancestors, way back when religion was in its infancy. Og has an argument with Ur, runs out of the cave during a storm, and is hit by lightning. On another occasion, there is a lightning storm while the tribe is considering moving to a new hunting ground. Is there a pattern here? If you’re still figuring out how the world works, you certainly might think so.

Another factor — and I think this is a cultural one — is that people have a big problem with saying that they don’t know the answer to a question. We try very hard to find answers even when we have nothing even close to enough information, and when some of these answers become part of our culture, they are very difficult to revise. You can see this in some parts of current creation/evolution debates: because creationist explanations have become part of culture, a creationist might say that scientists are attacking religious beliefs instead of saying that scientists are trying to find out the truth.

So, summing up, humans have the propensity for religious belief based in part on pattern recognition and a need for answers. Even so, I say that religion is largely cultural because I am not convinced that anyone has an innate, genetic need or resistance to religious belief. A child may have a propensity for curiosity that will lead it to investigate its cultural beliefs, but such curiosity can generally be suppressed or limited by cultural factors (e.g., punishment of one sort or another for questioning authority).

I think that the relatively large numbers of people “losing their religion” today is not due to any genetic shift, but instead due to the availability of information and more acceptance of the fact that asking questions is not in and of itself evil. It might be interesting to informally survey your friends who have lost their religion and those who have stuck with it — is one group more willing to investigate their beliefs than the other?

This is one of the main reasons why I spend so much time talking about examining beliefs, and pretty much no time talking about trying to get rid of religion. I think that asking questions is the path to atheism or, at the very least, fully informed religious belief, and both are an improvement over where much of the world seems to be today.

Posted on January 31, 2007 at 11:56 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Discussion

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