25 September 2015

The Complex Phenomenon of Religion.

It's 25 years today since my father died. His death was one of the events that got me thinking about life, death, and all that. I dedicate this essay to:

Peter Harry Attwood (1935-1990).

Religion is sometimes portrayed as a simple phenomenon. As a simple crutch for the weak, as a "violent" control mechanism and so on. Although these kinds of criticisms sometimes contain a grain of truth, in fact religion more generally is a complex phenomenon that emerges from the interaction of a number of qualities, characteristics, or abilities that humans possess. In this essay I will try to outline a set of minimal common features of all religions and link them to an evolutionary account of humans.

The diagram below attempts to summarise some of the key factors involved and to show how these factors interact to produce the basic phenomena of religion. However, any given religion may include many more elements and be considerably more complex that this summary suggests. At the end of the essay I will add a few comments about Buddhism as a religion and about what makes Buddhism distinctive (or not).

Religion seems to minimally involve supernatural agents, morality, and an afterlife. I have argued that belief in all these is "natural", by which I mean they are emergent properties of the way our brains work. I do not mean that these are necessarily accurate intuitions in the sense of being true. However, as ideas which have guided human behaviour they have been very successful in helping us go from being just another species of primate, to the highly sophisticated cultures we live in today (and I include all present day human cultures in this). What follows is not a critique, but a description. There are possible critiques of every point, both in the conclusions of religieux and of the reasons for things that I am proposing here. But I want to outline a story about religion without getting bogged down in the critique of it. In most cases I've made the critique previously. 

Supernatural agents emerge from a combination of such properties of the brain such as pareidolia (the propensity to see faces everywhere); agent detection and theory of mind (Barrett; see also Why Are Karma and Rebirth Are Still Plausible?). Fundamental to the supernatural is ontological dualism and the matter/spirit dichotomy.

Theory of mind is tuned to make living in social groups feasible and means we tend to see other agents in human terms (anthropomorphism). Supernatural agents are human-like in their desires and goals, and counter-intuitive only in that they lack a physical body. Because this is minimally counter-intuitive it makes supernatural agents more interesting and memorable. Thus, human communities tend to be surrounded by a halo of supernatural agents. Lacking bodies, supernatural agents may possess associated abilities, such as the ability to move unhindered by physical obstructions, but they are often located in some physical object, such as a tree, rock or home. Those who can bridge the two worlds of matter and spirit we call shaman. Though of course spirits also operate in the two worlds, if spirits remained wholly in their spirit world they would be a lot less interesting. For some reason the spirit world seems inherently leaky. Shamans interpret and use knowledge gained from spirits to guide decision making in the material realm. Supernatural agents can become gods and when they do, shamans become priests.

Fundamental to this account of religion is the social nature of human beings. Any account of religion which rejects the social nature of humanity or demonizes the basic structures and functions of human groups is simply uninteresting (so that is almost all psychology and most of social theory inspired by French philosophers). Unfortunately in this libertarian age there is a tendency to take a dismissive or critical stance on human groups. Social living is undoubtedly involves compromises for the individual. But the evolutionary benefits massively outweigh any perceived loss of autonomy. What's more human social groups look and work very much like other primate social groups. This has been apparent since Richard Leakey sent three young women to Africa to study chimps, gorillas and baboons in the 1960s. The most revealing of these studies was Jane Goodall's work on chimpanzees at Gombe stream, which showed chimp groups to share many traits with human groups. As social animals our behaviour is tuned towards being a member of a group, as it is in all other social primates.

Robin Dunbar showed that the average size of group that a social animal generally lives in, is correlated with the ratio of the volume of neo-cortex to the rest of the brain. For humans this predicts an average group size of ca. 150, a figure for which there is now considerable empirical support. The Dunbar Number represents a cognitive limit, beyond which we cannot maintain knowledge of each member of a group, their roles in hierarchies, mating preferences, past interactions, that is the information we need to be a well informed group member. In practice humans typically organise themselves into units of about 15, 50, 150, 500, 1500 and so on. Groups of different sizes serving different functions and operating with differing levels of intimacy and knowledge. As well as collecting information through observation, we use theory of mind to infer the disposition of other group members. The smallest viable unit of humanity is probably the 150 sized group.

Social living depends for it's success on the active participation of all group members and social norms. Norms are primarily to help the group function effectively. But they may work indirectly, for example to help strengthen group identity "We are the people who....". If social animals were, as economists claim, fundamentally selfish, then groups could not function. We are adapted to being cooperative. But there are temptations to freeload or break other group norms. Up to around the 150 number, groups maintain norms by simple observation. Everyone knows everyone else's business. 

Anthropomorphism allows us to relate to non-human beings as part of our group. We also have the ability to empathise with strangers, though empathy evolved to help us understand the internal disposition of other individuals or small groups. Empathy is personal, which is why we humans still have trouble comprehending large scale disasters without some Jarrod Diamond has noted that in places like the highlands of New Guinea, where the population is almost at a maximum density for hunter-gather lifestyles and thus competition for resources is intense, that tolerance of strangers is low (which is also true of other primate species). In many instances, strangers are killed on sight. However surpluses and trade between groups makes tolerance of strangers more feasible. Thus the factors which lead to civilisations (i.e. much larger groupings) also facilitated tolerance of strangers. Ara Norenzayan has argued that religion with "Big Gods" was a major factor in enabling the large scale cooperation implied by civilisation. Large groups mean that keeping track of each group member becomes more difficult. Monitoring compliance with behavioural norms starts to break down. 

Social groups which perceive an active halo of supernatural beings incorporated into their daily lives may rely on these supernatural agents as monitors of group norms (Norenzayan). In which case the role of the shaman is also expanded. The beings involved in monitoring are likely to become more active and present. They may begin to play an active role, for example punishing transgressive behaviour. Because supernatural agents are already counter-intuitive in lacking physical bodies, they can easily evolve in this direction. Those involved in monitoring the social sphere have a tendency to become omnipresent (the better to see you) and, as a result, omniscient. Once they start dishing our punishments they can become omnipotent as well. Thus ordinary supernatural agents can become gods.

Once gods emerge they typically require more elaborate acknowledgement, rather like a dominant member of the tribe gets first preference in food and mates. A group may enact elaborate and costly rituals aimed at securing the cooperation of spirits and gods. Making sacrifices (in the sense of giving scarce resources) helps to encourage participation in group norms (see also Martyrs Maketh the Religion). Costly sacrifices bolster the faith of followers. Those who officiate at such ceremonies are likely shaman initially, but become focussed on interpreting and enacting the will of the gods rather than spirits in general. In other words they become priests. The prestige of priests rises with the prestige of the gods they serve. Along with sacrifice, priests may introduce arbitrary taboos that help define group identity. As Foucault noted, the power of the group or leaders to shape the subject is matched by the desire of the subject to be shaped. As members of a social species we make ourselves into subjects of power; or even into the kind of subjects (selves) that accept the compromises of social lifestyles. As social primates we evolved to participate in social groups with hierarchies. On the other hand evolution no longer entirely defines us - we did not evolve to use written communication for example (which is why writing is so much more difficult than talking).

We have a tendency to think in terms of reasons and purposes - teleology. In teleological thinking, things happen for a reason. We exist for a reason. The world exists for a reason. Things happen for a reason. In modern life we often seek reasons in individual psychology. In the past other types of reasons included supernatural interference and magic. The stories we tell about these reasons for events become our mythology. Even so we are left with questions. If we are here for a reason, we want to know what it is (because it is far from obvious to most people). If following the group norms or the prescriptions of gods is supposed to make everything run smoothly, then why does it not? If gods are members of our tribe and can intervene to help us, why do they not?

Despite the emphasis on keeping group norms and associating this with the success of the group, life is patently unfair. We can be the very best group member, keep all the rules, and yet we still suffer misfortune, illness, and death. The world is unjust. But we tend to believe the opposite, i.e. that the world is just, that reasons make it so. If everything happens for a reason, then bad things also happen for a reason. But what could that reason possibly be? The meeting of injustice and teleology is extremely fruitful for religion, but before getting further into it we need to consider the afterlife.

The matter/spirit dichotomy seems to emerge naturally from generalising about human experience. Some people have vivid experiences of leaving their body for example which, on face value, would only be possible if the locus of experiencing is separate from the physical body. The very metaphors that we use to talk about aspects of lived experience tend to frame the matter/spirit dichotomy in a particular way. Matter is dull, lifeless, rigid. Spirit is light, lively, and infinitely flexible. Matter is low, spirit high. And so on (see Metaphors and Materialism). We understand life through Vitalism: living beings are matter made flexible by an inspiration of spirit. Spirit in many languages is closely associated with the breath—spiritus, qi, prāṇa, ātman, pneuma—perhaps the most important characteristic of living beings in the pre-scientific world.

The greatest injustice seems to be that our breath leaves us, i.e. we die. All living beings act to sustain and maintain their own existence, their own life. Self-consciousness gives us the knowledge of the certainty of our own death. In a dualistic worldview, death occurs when the spirit leaves the body. The body returns to being inanimate matter (dust to dust). In this worldview, spirit is not affected by death in the same way as matter. Indeed spirit is not affected by death at all. Once the spirit leaves the body a number of post-mortem possibilities exist: hanging around as a supernatural agent; travelling to another world (to the realm of the ancestors for example, or to paradise); or taking another human form. The precise workings are specific to cultures, but all cultures seem to have an afterlife and the variations are limited to one or other of these possibilities.

Something interesting happens when we combine normative morality, teleological thinking, and the afterlife. If things happen for a reason and one of the main reasons is our own behaviour and there is injustice, then it stands to reason, that our own behaviour is (potentially) a cause of injustice. We link behaviour to outcomes. And if everything happens to a reason it's hard to imagine the morally good not being rewarded and the morally wicked not being punished. And if something bad happens, then maybe we have transgressed in some way. In which case a shaman or priest must consult the unseen, but all seeing supernatural monitors (this is incidentally why the Buddha had to have access to this knowledge). This world, the material world composed primarily of matter, is manifestly unjust. By contrast, an afterlife is very much a world of spirit and as the basic metaphors show, the world of spirit is the polar opposite of the world of matter. If the world of matter is unjust (and it is) then the world of spirit is by necessity just. The rules of the afterlife must be very different. Gods hold sway there for example. Gods whose reason for being is to supervise the behaviour of humans. So it is entirely unsurprising that the function of an afterlife, in those communities which practice morality, is judgement of the dead. This happens in all the major religions, and dates back at least to the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Here we have, I think, all the major components of religion. And they emerge from lower-level, relatively simple properties of the (social) human mind at work. Thus religion is a natural phenomenon. It is not, as opponents of religion like to assert, something artificial that is superimposed on societies, but something that naturally emerges out of anatomically modern humans with a pre-scientific worldview living together. If chimps were only a little more like us, they too would develop like this. Neanderthals almost certainly had religion of a sort. The naturalness of religion predicts that every society of humans ought to have religion or something like it. And they do, except where people are WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRD people are psychological outliers from the rest of humanity. But WEIRD culture is build upon layers of religious culture, with Christianity superimposed on early forms of religion (and perhaps several layers of this). Again, for emphasis, the naturalness of religion does not mean that a religious account of the world is either accurate or precise. It is certainly successful, depending on how one measures success, but as a description of the world the religious view tends to be flawed making it both inaccurate and imprecise. 

Religious communities have some distinct advantages over non-religious communities in terms of sustaining group identity and encouraging cooperation.  The Abrahamic religions certainly have many millions of followers, and the followers of these religions have established a vast hegemony over most of the planet. On the other hand Christianity seems to be waning. Religious ideologies are giving way to political ideologies. Communism was one such that is also on the wane. Neoliberalism seems to have survived the near collapse of the world's economies to continue to dominate public discourse on politics and economics. Liberal Humanism seems to be a potent force for good still, though as we have seen it cannot be successfully linked to Neoliberal economics. 


There are those who argue that Buddhism is not a religion. This is naive at best, and probably disingenuous. Buddhism has all the same kinds of concerns as other religions, all of the main components outlined above—supernatural agents, morality, and an afterlife—and many of the secondary components as well. In many ways, Buddhism is simply another manifestation of the same dynamic that produces religious ideas and practices in other groups. Sure we have an abstract supernatural monitor, but karma does exactly the same job as Anubis, Varuṇa, Mazda, or Jehovah in monitoring behaviour. It's merely a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one. WEIRD Buddhists play down the halo of supernatural beings, but traditional Buddhist societies in Asia all have folk beliefs which involve spirits (e.g. Burmese nat) and many similar animistic beliefs, such as tree spirits (rukkhadevatā) are Canonical. 

David Chapman (@meaningness) and I had a very interesting exchange on Twitter a few days ago (storified). DC noted that some of those who are opposed to secularisation of mindfulness training, are concerned about disconnecting mindfulness from "Buddhist ethics". They seem to argue that the problem is that mindfulness without ethics is either meaningless or dangerous, or both. DC's point was that there was nothing distinctive about Buddhist ethics and that, in the USA at least, what masquerades as "Buddhist" ethics is simply the prevailing ethics of WEIRD North America. So to argue against mindfulness being taught separately from Buddhist ethics is meaningless. For example Tricycle Magazine has run positive stories on Buddhists in the US military. If soldiers can be Buddhists, then Buddhist ethics really do have no meaning. Indeed there is nothing very distinctive about Buddhist ethics more generally, nothing that distinguishes Buddhist ethics from, say, Christian ethics. Sure, the stated rationale for being ethical is different, but the outcome is the same: love thy neighbour. (David has started his blog series on this: “Buddhist ethics” is a fraud).

Certainly Buddhism is not the only religion to use a variety of religious techniques for working with the mind, including concentration and reflection exercises. Mediation was a word in English long before Buddhism came on the scene (noted ca. 1200 CE). Arguably all the practices that we associate with Buddhism were in fact borrowed from other religions anyway (particularly Brahmanism and Jainism). According to Buddhism's own mythology, meditation was already being practised to a very high degree before Buddhism came into being. The Buddha simply adapted procedures he had already learned.

So is there anything about Buddhism as a religion that is distinctive? Some would argue that pratītya-samutpāda is distinctively Buddhist. However too many of us portray conditioned arising as a theory of cause and effect, or worse, a Theory of Everything. It is certainly a failure as the latter, and far from being very useful in the former role (the words involved don't even mean caused). Since almost everyone seems confused about the domain of application of this idea, one wonders whether Buddhists can lay claim to the theory at all. If Buddhists make pratītyasamutpāda into an ontology then pratītyasamutpāda would hardly seem to be Buddhist any longer. Nowadays, Buddhists all seem to think that having read about nirvāṇa or śūnyatā in a book makes one an expert on "reality".

DC and I tentatively agreed that any distinction that Buddhism might have is probably in the area of cultivating states in which sense-experience and ordinary mental-experience cease, what I would call nirodha-samāpatti or śūnyatā-vimokṣa etc. It is these states in particular that seem to promote the transformation of the mind that makes Buddhism distinctive. It's just unfortunate that we have so many books about these states, and so many people talking about them from having read the books (and writing books on the basis of having read the books), and so few people who experience such states. The thing that distinguishes Buddhism is something that only a tiny minority are realistically ever going to seriously cultivate, and probably a minority of them are going to succeed in experiencing. So Buddhism in practice, for the vast majority consists in beliefs and activities that are not distinctively Buddhist at all - loving your neighbours, communal singing, relaxation techniques, philosophical speculation, propitiation of supernatural agents, and so on.

And while some people are having awakenings, the level of noise through which they have to communicate is overwhelming. Buddhists have adopted so much psychological and psycho-analytic jargon that Buddhism as presented can seem indistinguishable from either at times. One gets the sense that today's "lay" Buddhism is closely aligned with the goals of psychologists. Not only this but we also get a lot of interference from pseudo-science, Advaita Vedanta, and home grown philosophies.

So, to sum up, religion is a natural phenomenon. It emerges from, is an emergent property of, a brain evolved for living in large social groups. A religious worldview makes sense to so many people, even WEIRD people, because it fits with our non-reflective beliefs about the world. Buddhism sits squarely in the middle of this as another religious worldview. But this does not mean that a religious worldview is accurate or precise, or that a secularised version of religion is an improvement on religion per se. Secularised versions of Buddhism are simply religion tailored for WEIRD people. It is more appealing to secularists who none the less feel that something is missing from their lives (because they are evolved to be religious). If Buddhism is distinctive, it is distinctive in ways that the vast majority of people will never have access to.

The main point I take from this is that religion is comprehensible. People who hold to religious views are comprehensible. While I think religious views are erroneous, I can see why so many people disagree, why religion remains so compelling for so many people. I can sympathise with them. And while I'm not an evangelist, it does make it easier for me to stay in dialogue with, for examples, members of my family who are committed Christians. As with the problem of communicating evolution, part of the problem with religion remaining plausible is the sheer ineptitude of scientists as communicators - their remarkable ability to understand string theory, or whatever, seems to be matched by an astounding lack of insight into their own species. And philosophers, whose job to is make the world comprehensible, have also largely failed. They both fail on the level of making new discoveries comprehensible and on the level of communicating why new discoveries are important. And when they fail, priests and other charlatans step into the gap, and that too is understandable. 


References to particular works or thinkers that are not linked to directly can be checked in the bibliography tab of the blog. 
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