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Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport 
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 Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport



Fri Jun 22, 2012 12:20 am
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
We've just been talking about sports fanaticism on the previous The Righteous Mind thread. Haidt opens this chapter with a scene from the religious rites of football game-day at the University of Virginia. As a professor who doesn't care a bit about sports, it's all pretty silly to him, yet he has the objectivity to realize that these ecstatic rituals have benefit for the broader UVA community, a benefit which trickles down in practical ways to him and the work he is able to do at that university. Football builds community in a big way, and the subject of this chapter is how the non-athletic versions of religion have built human community and continue to do so.

It shouldn't mean anything that I find Haidt's telling of the religion story the atheist perspective that wins out over that purveyed by Richard Dawkins and other popular atheist writers. I've always found the parasitic-meme theory of religion to be myopic and factually lacking. I was therefore primed to accept Haidt's full explanation of the adaptive value of religion for human groups throughout our history. But everyone must judge this for himself, which would mean of course reading what Haidt has written. I would add, though, that arguments for the importance of religion in human evolution (both cultural and genetic, according to Haidt) are not necessarily arguments for continuing importance. I would instead advocate strongly that the watering-down of religion is the most adaptive path for humanity to take today. Religious differences need to mean much less to us than they have up to this point.

There is so much to talk about here that I'll try to cover only the beginning part for now. The overall opposition between the Dawkins view and Haidt's can be summarized as useful mental modules gone awry and causing mischief (Dawkins) vs. useful mental modules producing byproducts that humans then applied to strengthening groups (Haidt). The major mental tool involved is the hypersensitive agency detecting device that inclines human minds toward false positives in attributing phenomena to causes. It was more adaptive for this agency to to be on a hair-trigger than to be used sparingly, because failing to locate a cause could be fatal, whereas reaching the wrong conclusion about the nature of the cause often had no immediate negative result. Both Dawkins, et al, and Haidt agree on this so far: Notions about gods result from our hypersensitive agency detection module. The dispute comes in when valuing the ideas of the supernatural that result. For Dawkins, these have all detracted from human progress and success; our story would have been happier without them. For Haidt, we would not even have been able to be here, criticizing religion, if it were not for the major importance of religion in reinforcing our groupish abilities, which are responsible for our building of complex civilizations.



Sat Aug 18, 2012 7:17 am
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
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I've always found the parasitic-meme theory of religion to be myopic and factually lacking. I was therefore primed to accept Haidt's full explanation of the adaptive value of religion for human groups throughout our history.


I don't see the two explanations as mutually exclusive. That religion is a parasitic meme is true by definition in my book, it is quite simple. That it serves a function, or many functions, is to be expected as part of the package.

The diverging point is that whether the community focused benefits of religion would have existed if religion did not. Perhaps there would have been a different set of beliefs or rituals to strengthen communities. But we can only speculate, since we've already traveled that path, and religion was our boat. The boat served an important function, but can you be sure that the important function was only able to be fulfilled by religion? Who's to say there isn't an even better system for fulfilling that function?

If Dawkins is correct in saying that religion is detrimental, then the most appropriate time is now. We no longer need multiple versions of a community building belief system, because these versions are antagonistic towards each other, and refuse to fade or merge. We need something different now, especially in light of modern science and how interconnected our world is.


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Sat Aug 18, 2012 12:05 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
Interbane wrote:
DWill wrote:
I've always found the parasitic-meme theory of religion to be myopic and factually lacking. I was therefore primed to accept Haidt's full explanation of the adaptive value of religion for human groups throughout our history.


I don't see the two explanations as mutually exclusive. That religion is a parasitic meme is true by definition in my book, it is quite simple. That it serves a function, or many functions, is to be expected as part of the package.

To say that religion is a parasite or virus whose mandate is to propagate itself, and that religiosity was selected on the group level because it strengthened groups, would seem to be a contradiction. The meme theory, at least as Dawkins formulated it, precludes adaptive uses. It was a bug in the system.

Quote:
The diverging point is that whether the community focused benefits of religion would have existed if religion did not. Perhaps there would have been a different set of beliefs or rituals to strengthen communities. But we can only speculate, since we've already traveled that path, and religion was our boat. The boat served an important function, but can you be sure that the important function was only able to be fulfilled by religion? Who's to say there isn't an even better system for fulfilling that function?

There could be some determinism here. If the hypersenstive agency detection device corresponds roughly to a real faculty of the brain, an animal having it would create gods. At that early point in our development, was there a chance that some other means to promote group binding could have muscled religion out? Granted, religion isn't, and never was, the only thing we can identify as a binding agent.
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If Dawkins is correct in saying that religion is detrimental, then the most appropriate time is now. We no longer need multiple versions of a community building belief system, because these versions are antagonistic towards each other, and refuse to fade or merge. We need something different now, especially in light of modern science and how interconnected our world is.

That's why I'm for the watering-down of religions, specifically religious differences. I don't think Dawkins is correct, though, that religions are detrimental in a general sense. Local conditions vary. There is evidence that in the U.S. currently, religions contribute greatly to social capital. Haidt argues as well that by our evolved nature we are homo duplex, an animal that must live on two levels, which he calls the profane and the sacred. If institutionalized religions (which are very recent innovations) were to vanish, we'd still feel the same needs, he says.
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Asking people to give up all forms of sacralized belonging and live in a world of purely "rational" beliefs might be like asking people to give up the Earth and live in colonies orbiting the moon. It can be done, but it would take a great deal of careful engineering, and even after ten generations, the descendants of those colonists might find themselves with inchoate longings for gravity and greenery.



Sun Aug 19, 2012 6:04 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
Quote:
To say that religion is a parasite or virus whose mandate is to propagate itself, and that religiosity was selected on the group level because it strengthened groups, would seem to be a contradiction. The meme theory, at least as Dawkins formulated it, precludes adaptive uses. It was a bug in the system.


Dawkins says that memes cannot be useful? The way Susan Blackmore explained it was that usefulness was one of the "sticky" characteristics for memes. Methods of food harvesting, nut cracking, farming, etc. are all useful memes. But a meme doesn't "need" to be useful. There are other characteristics a meme can have to make them believable or viral, such as entertaining or evoking emotion. I also don't see how one characteristic could exclude the others.

Quote:
There could be some determinism here. If the hypersenstive agency detection device corresponds roughly to a real faculty of the brain, an animal having it would create gods. At that early point in our development, was there a chance that some other means to promote group binding could have muscled religion out? Granted, religion isn't, and never was, the only thing we can identify as a binding agent.


I believe that our susceptibility to religious thinking is an aspect of how our brains have evolved to work. Agency detection mixed with a host of biases makes it nearly inevitable. Would another method of group binding have an equal chance of developing in tribal life? I'm not sure, and I don't think so, seeing as how religion developed unilaterally across separated population groups. But could another method have arisen to fill all the same roles? Sure, it's possible.


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Sun Aug 19, 2012 8:06 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
Just apropos of Susan Blakemore: I didn't read The Meme Machine, but I came across an endnote in Haidt's book saying that she had held that religion was a destructive meme. In 2010 she announced that she no longer believed that and now viewed religion as adaptive.

The way I read Dawkins on religion, he thinks that religions couldn't have arisen and survived because of their usefulness to people. They survived despite their wastefulness and power to shackle minds.



Sun Aug 19, 2012 8:35 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
To fill out the narrative on religion used by the New Atheists: we have mental modules that have produced real benefits; they've contributed to our survival-- not just the supersensitive agency detection device, but possibly others such as a "gullible learning module" (Dawkins) or a module for falling in love. The incidental results of these modules have given us religion. We created gods because we saw agency everywhere; religions took advantage of our ability to fall in love to make us fall in love with God. No argument from Haidt this far, but he parts ways from them when they say that religion itself didn't benefit individuals or groups in terms of evolutionary or adaptive advantage. Haidt believes that "genes [were] selected because individuals or groups who were better at 'godding' outcompeted those who failed to produce, fear, or love their gods." So Haidt goes beyond those who argue that religions strengthened groups through cultural, but not genetic, evolution. Haidt also finds it extremely unlikely that "the genes for producing these various modules were all in place by the time modern humans left Africa," but that "the genes did not change in response to selection pressures either for or against religiosity during the 50,000 years since then."

For Dawkins and Dennett, people and genes had little to do with the growth, or rather mutations, of religion. Religions are not composed of genes, but like genes they are "heritable, they mutate, and there is selection among these mutations." The selection isn't based, however, on advantages the host gets from the religions, but from the competition among the religious memes themselves, some of which happen to be better than others at lodging deep within the human mind and getting themselves passed on to the next generation of host minds. In the case of religious memes, the effect on the host is negative, but that is consistent with forms of life called parasites and viruses.

It's important to make clear that throughout the book, Haidt generally doesn't use the words 'beneficial' or 'adaptive' in a normative sense. It might not be a 'good' thing, in our view or for other groups, that a group becomes more effective by exploiting religion. Haidt clearly marks the exceptions to this labeling practice, when occasionally he does venture to say that religion can be positive on the social level.



Mon Aug 20, 2012 6:47 am
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
It's my suspicion that Dawkins, Dennett, and the others unconsciously chose to cast religion as parasitic, viral, or infectious because you can easily observe that of all the influences that can bind people together, religion is the most powerful. Seeing the way that religion leads people to display fanatical belongingness, these writers could have naturally been reminded of virus or infection. Being completely unable to fathom such behavior as well, they might have to assume attack by invading memes to be the cause.

We've often talked about this--how it's not just religion that can take over people's minds and make them want to force their ways on others. But I think that religion is the most frequent target for censure, as opposed to nationalism, tribalism, rationalism, capitalism, etc., for the good reason that it does it better than the others. In the chapter, Haidt offers evidence that when groups have religion as a binding agent, they have greater coherence and longevity. Note that this quality is not necessarily a good thing--often isn't--but it does probably confer a competitive advantage on groups that have it. If this advantage goes along with higher birthrates, as among Muslims, then better watch out.

He cites an interesting study of 19th Century communes, in which the researcher, Richard Sosis, found that communes with religious requirements for membership tended to last far longer than most communes founded on secular principles. Sosis argued that the reason is that all the sacrifices and constraints imposed and laws enacted worked best when they were sacralized. Sosis quoted another anthropologist, who wrote, "To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity."

Another example of the competitive advantage of religion for a group is the diamond trade, which is still dominated by ultra-orthodox Jews. Trades that require a high degree of trust will benefit from built-in, rather than imposed by bureaucracy, ethical rules. To have to provide this support structure would be costly for the secular firm, so even more up-to-date business practices or technology might not wipe out the advantage owned by the Jews.

Gods have long been useful to people by increasing cooperation through reducing selfishness. The Balinese achieved the difficult feat of managing a shared resource for the good of the whole society with a simple system of temple worship. In this case, the resource was water used for irrigating terraced rice paddies. A small temple placed at every fork in irrigation system functioned to unite all the small groups downstream of it into a community that worshipped the temple's god.

Haidt does weigh in over the last part of the chapter about whether God or gods is a force for good or evil. At least, he cites evidence from contemporary Western societies that leads him to conclude: good, on balance.



Tue Aug 21, 2012 9:11 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
Quote:
Seeing the way that religion leads people to display fanatical belongingness, these writers could have naturally been reminded of virus or infection. Being completely unable to fathom such behavior as well, they might have to assume attack by invading memes to be the cause.


The conceptual definition of "viral" does not only apply to organisms Dwill. If an idea spreads for any reason, it can be legitimately considered viral. The list of characteristics that make an 'idea' viral is a different list than that of an organism, of course.

Religion has shown itself to be viral, by definition. This can be true at the same time that it acts as a binding agent for populations. If the reason religion spreads is that it confers an advantage over non-religious societies, then that is a characteristic. That characteristic is one of many that results in the viral spread.

Quote:
"To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity."


That's great, and makes perfect sense.

For all the advantages that religion offers on a group level, I see that there are also consequences, trade-offs. By increasing survivability of one group, it also influences the group to be more hostile towards other groups. It has a polarizing effect, in other words. It's relieving to see some of the modern ethos promoting unity amongst religions, but I don't see how that can work. It's like trying to breed a dog with a cat. The groundwork was laid long ago. Unless you rewrite most religious books of all denominations, you won't effect change.

From a modern perspective, we now have a small group of religions vying for dominance of the planet. Those small few have so far shown to be the 'best of the binding agents'.

Would a planet with a single religion be better than a planet with multiple competing religions? Would that ever happen? I don't think so.

It's troubling to think that only false worldviews have a chance of sanctifying ethics. Can a free-floating rationale not be sanctified, as it's an algorithmic consequence of the laws of nature? I think once a phenomenon is understood and the clockwork mechanisms are visible, it can't be sanctified. Knowledge, then, is pandora's box.


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Wed Aug 22, 2012 12:57 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
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By increasing survivability of one group, it also influences the group to be more hostile towards other groups.


Tell that to Quakers.

Want me to go on?



Last edited by ant on Wed Aug 22, 2012 4:36 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Wed Aug 22, 2012 4:35 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
ant wrote:
Quote:
By increasing survivability of one group, it also influences the group to be more hostile towards other groups.


Tell that to Quakers.

Want me to go on?

Yes, could you go on, or at least be less cryptic for my sake?



Wed Aug 22, 2012 5:54 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
Quote:
Tell that to Quakers.

Want me to go on?


Yes, please. Explain in detail how the Quakers exemplify the fact that no religion is hostile towards any other religion. :lol:


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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
Interbane wrote:
Quote:
Tell that to Quakers.

Want me to go on?


Yes, please. Explain in detail how the Quakers exemplify the fact that no religion is hostile towards any other religion. :lol:


You support the quote you posted, right?
Give me an example of Quaker hostility, please.



Wed Aug 22, 2012 6:57 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
Interbane wrote:
The conceptual definition of "viral" does not only apply to organisms Dwill. If an idea spreads for any reason, it can be legitimately considered viral. The list of characteristics that make an 'idea' viral is a different list than that of an organism, of course.

Thanks for these comments. Since almost all ideas can be presumed to have some spread, are they all viral, and if so, how useful is the term descriptively or otherwise? Or does it become a judgment as to when the spread is fast or far enough to label it as viral? I can see the reason for viral memes to have become so well established on the internet, as that use of the term seems very appropriate in that environment,
Quote:
Religion has shown itself to be viral, by definition. This can be true at the same time that it acts as a binding agent for populations. If the reason religion spreads is that it confers an advantage over non-religious societies, then that is a characteristic. That characteristic is one of many that results in the viral spread.

I'm trying in part to present the views of the author, who, being a social psychologist, has a basic difference with those who think of religion as being about beliefs at its core. The model he says is used by the New Atheists (a label I don't like much, by the way) goes from believing straight to doing, in single-arrow fashion. In his preferred model, belonging is added, and there are bi-directional arrows connecting each part of the triad. Religious ideas are just not where the most action is, in his opinion. The ideas themselves don't even seem to matter much, as far as any inherent qualities that would make them win against competing ideas. He never mentions an evolution of ideas through natural selection as far as I can recall; he focuses on the evolution (including genetic evolution) of groups who make use of whatever presents itself to become ever tighter and more cooperating groups, which lends them an advantage over other groups (either in being stronger militarily or in being able to make better use of resources). So you could say that what spread was really groupishness rather than ideas or gods, primarily.
Quote:
For all the advantages that religion offers on a group level, I see that there are also consequences, trade-offs. By increasing survivability of one group, it also influences the group to be more hostile towards other groups. It has a polarizing effect, in other words. It's relieving to see some of the modern ethos promoting unity amongst religions, but I don't see how that can work. It's like trying to breed a dog with a cat. The groundwork was laid long ago. Unless you rewrite most religious books of all denominations, you won't effect change.

Of course, religion is only one of the factors that can make groups stronger than others with whom they have contact. Whether religion was that important in any particular case (Diamond would pick the environment), the group growing in hostility might depend on cultural factors (including religion). But without doubt, group strength gives the group more muscle to flex. Haidt has a good theory about the worst kind of group hostility, moralistic killing. "Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonizing another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited for that task. Religion is often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity."

Well, maybe, though, unity isn't such an impossible project, it could just take a great deal of time to get it. We've achieved some of this already within Christianity, with inter-denominational rivalry and hatred not being the big thing that it once was. Even Mitt Romney will get the votes of almost every evangelical Christian. But I grant you it's still a long shot, and especially so when you consider that unity needs to include those who don't believe in any religion at all.

Quote:
From a modern perspective, we now have a small group of religions vying for dominance of the planet. Those small few have so far shown to be the 'best of the binding agents'.

Would a planet with a single religion be better than a planet with multiple competing religions? Would that ever happen? I don't think so.

I wonder if religion could even survive without something to differentiate itself from.
Quote:
It's troubling to think that only false worldviews have a chance of sanctifying ethics. Can a free-floating rationale not be sanctified, as it's an algorithmic consequence of the laws of nature? I think once a phenomenon is understood and the clockwork mechanisms are visible, it can't be sanctified. Knowledge, then, is pandora's box.

That is just a little bit depressing, but true! Is that also why people cling to the mystery part of religion, because full knowing destroys the infinite value they place in it, replacing it with a much less satisfying sense of the finite? Haidt says, though, that almost everybody invests something with infinite value, which is the hallmark of the sacred. I think I do this with nature; others may do it with scientific inquiry or the sense of the limitless cosmos.



Wed Aug 22, 2012 8:24 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 11: Religion Is a Team Sport
Quote:
The ideas themselves don't even seem to matter much, as far as any inherent qualities that would make them win against competing ideas. He never mentions an evolution of ideas through natural selection as far as I can recall;


What of the first commandment in Christianity, or the absurdly over-the-top discrimination against other religions that you find in Islam. These are defenses against competing idea groups, and have been exceptionally effective over the years. Add to this the emphasis each religion places on preaching the word across the land. Converting others is a virtue. Then Pascal's wager to keep people from disbelieving after they've swalllowed the pills.

These ideological features are some of the most powerful belief manipulators you can imagine. Whatever comparative competing ideas there may be out there, I can't see many winning against that lineup. I would confidently say that religion is structured intentionally to maximize contagiousness. All you have to do to see this is look at the characteristics of the component ideas.

I'm not saying the characteristics of the ideas are more influential to the spread of religion than the selective advantage it confers to the group. We don't need to reduce the past to a causal chain rather than a causal web. I'm sure multiple influences all worked together. Contagiousness of ideas mixed with group advantage. To focus on one over the other is all too human. There are likely other extraneous factors as well that have had an influence.

Quote:
"Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonizing another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited for that task. Religion is often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity."


So you know, I've enjoyed this discussion enough that I'm buying the book and will continue to post. This quote is well worded as well, The distinction is made that religion is an enabler of out-group hostility, rather than the motive. I can see many cases where religion is the motive as well, with some passages thrown in the face of the dying heretics. But many times, it would be used to justify a man's pre-existing motive. "God is on my side."

Quote:
That is just a little bit depressing, but true! Is that also why people cling to the mystery part of religion, because full knowing destroys the infinite value they place in it, replacing it with a much less satisfying sense of the finite? Haidt says, though, that almost everybody invests something with infinite value, which is the hallmark of the sacred. I think I do this with nature; others may do it with scientific inquiry or the sense of the limitless cosmos.


The infinite is a good way to put it. Anything that prevents us from "closing the loop" on a specific portion of our worldview. When the mystery is solved, we no longer dwell on it, no longer fantasize about the possibilities. Our focus turns to the mundane daily life and never returns to the fantastic. I'm not sure that true infinite is necessary. Perhaps only the appearance of infinite. For example, I could see worship of mother earth as being sanctified. Earth is a finite ecosystem, but is vastly more complex than we could ever understand.

There's also something to consider with followers of physics becoming religious. Think of the mysteries within quantum physics. Perhaps not infiinite, conceptually, but they are hopelessly mysterious to the point where sanctification is all too likely. On the other hand, we do not worship Pi. I think that not only is the infinite that is the hallmark of the sacred, but a dose of the mysterious is needed as well. Perhaps not "mysterious", but "insoluble"?


Quote:
You support the quote you posted, right?
Give me an example of Quaker hostility, please.


There is nothing wrong with my statement that got your knickers in a bunch. Show me how a single black swan is evidence that most swans are not white. I'm not advocating an absolutist stance. Asking me to show you where a white feather is on this black swan is ridiculous ant. It breaks from reasoning and misses the point.


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DWill
Thu Aug 23, 2012 12:50 pm
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