The Evolution of Religion: God or the Group

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vlad-chituc/the-evolution-of-religion-god-or-the-group_b_2428869.html?utm_hp_ref=science&ir=Science

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The Evolution of Religion: God or the Group

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In the New York Times Opinion Pages shortly before Christmas, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about the evolution of religion. This is of particular interest to me, and I encourage readers to explore work by psychologist Jesse Bering, such as his book “The Belief Instinct” or this controversial Salon essay.

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Sacks, though, misrepresents some science and draws a few bad conclusions from data I like. Misusing science to forward an agenda irks me quite a bit, so while I think there’s a lot of good to glean from Sack’s writing, allow me a few quibbles.

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In the first half of the piece, Sacks seems to endorse the idea that competition between social groups influenced our evolution, particularly of religious beliefs. He writes:

The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.

Other than the last sentence (unfortunately, we may be bested by ants and naked mole rats), it’s a bit off to suggest that individual and group selection resulted somehow in two competing brain processes. It might be a nice metaphor, but it isn’t really true. We can explain human behavior just fine without group selection.

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That aside, Sacks points to research by sociologist Robert Putnam to explain why religion is valuable. He writes:

Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.

This is completely true, and I love these data. They speak not to the importance of religion but to the importance of communities. We’re social animals, and we’re at our best in social groups. Religion just happens to be a really accessible group.

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Chris Stedman, my friend and fellow blogger, pointed to this in a recent interview on MSNBC to justify the importance of humanist communities. James Croft pointed to these same findings in a recent article in The Humanist. And in a similar vein Paul Bloom, one of my professors while I was an undergraduate at Yale, wrote in a Slate article a few years ago:

The positive effect of religion in the real world, to my mind, is tied to this last, community component — rather than a belief in constant surveillance by a higher power. Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others. This is the moral of sociologist Robert Putnam’s work on American life. In Bowling Alone, he argues that voluntary association with other people is integral to a fulfilled and productive existence — it makes us “smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.” 

The Danes and the Swedes, despite being godless, have strong communities. In fact, Zuckerman points out that most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the church, and feel attached to their religious community — they just don’t believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.

But Sacks seems to take these findings and come to the exact opposite conclusion. It’s not community that matters, but religion. He writes:

Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.

But, as Bloom noted, that’s not what any of this shows at all. Losing their sense of God is what happened with the Danes and the Swedes. That’s what has happened with many secular Jews in the United States. That’s what happens to nonbelievers who go to church because of their spouses and are just as civically engaged as the believers in the community. Communities are important, not their theological commitments. And there’s no reason that humanists can’t create just as successful moral communities themselves.

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So I encourage readers to join communities and be civically engaged. It doesn’t necessarily mean join the Unitarian Universalists or even a local humanist group. Bowling leagues and charities and clubs all seem to work just fine. But just because religion has been the largest source of our social capital doesn’t mean it has to be the only one. And it doesn’t mean we can’t do without it.

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A reason for God in our lives??     —-

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wray-herbert/mourning-and-memory-a-par_b_2456903.html

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Mourning and Memory: A Paradoxical Grief

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I once witnessed, up close and painfully, the grief of a man who had lost his wife of 50 years. A period of emotional disruption is normal in such circumstances, but this widower’s suffering just went on and on for years. The present was joyless for him, and the future was hopeless — non-existent, really. He seemed stuck in the past, among his memories of his departed wife and his yearning was agonizing to watch. This endless bereavement eventually took his life.

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I didn’t know the clinical terminology at the time, but I’ve since learned that there is a name for such disordered mourning. It’s called complicated grief, and the abnormal traits (such as I’ve described) may be rooted in a paradox of memory. It appears that people who suffer from complicated grief have lost many of the rich and detailed memories of the past. They have only vague and general recollections of their lives — with one notable exception: They often have vivid memories of any event that included the deceased.

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Harvard University psychological scientists Donald Robinaugh and Richard McNally have been exploring this cognitive paradox to see if it might shed light on the disabling symptoms of complicated grief. They wanted to verify that memories of the beloved partner are indeed spared in this kind of bereavement, but they also added a twist: They also wanted to examine the richness of future, imaginary events as well. Since the same brain mechanism that controls autobiographical memory also controls visions of the future, the scientists wondered if these mourners’ imaginations might be similarly and selectively impaired.

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To test this, Robinaugh and McNally recruited adults who had lost their partner from one to three years before. Clinical assessment revealed that some were suffering from complicated grief, while the others were going through the normal bereavement process. All of the volunteers took a battery of tests, including probes of autobiographical memory and imagination of the future. They asked the mourners to recall past events, both with and without the deceased, and did the same for future events. At different times, the volunteers were cued with positive words — safe, happy, loved — or with negative words — sad, afraid, sorry. The scientists were interested in how rich and detailed these events, past and yet to come, were in their bereaved minds.

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The results, described in a forthcoming issue of the new journal Clinical Psychological Science, were provocative. Compared to those who were experiencing normal grief, those with complicated grief had clear defects of both memory and imagination. They were unable to recall specific events from the past, nor could they conjure up detailed future scenarios. But here’s the most intriguing finding: This cognitive deficit was apparent only when the events did not include the deceased. When recalling past events with their partner — or projecting future events — these extreme mourners were no different than the normal controls.

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Robinaugh and McNally believe that these findings, especially those regarding the future, might illuminate the tragic nature of extreme grieving. Difficulty imagining a future without one’s beloved could explain the sense of lost identity and hopelessness that characterizes complicated grief, while the relative ease of envisioning an impossible future with the deceased could be the cognitive foundation of persistent yearning.

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Jealousy — no God needed       —

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/youth-radio-youth-media-international/the-evolutionary-role-of_b_2435283.html

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To evolutionary psychologists like Buss, emotions are adaptive traits that are passed down through human history in the same way as physical traits, like eye color and disease resistance. According to Buss, that extra wariness that comes with jealousy gives you a better shot at reproductive success. “Jealousy is usually explained as an immature emotion, as a character defect,” Buss said. “But in fact it is an emotion that evolves primarily to protect a valued romantic relationship, and that is highly functional in most cases.”

Except, perhaps, in the case of poly relationships, when jealousy would seem to cause only dysfunction. According to Buss, it’s what makes polyamorous relationships inherently unstable and much more likely to result in breakup than monogamous ones.

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Of course, evolutionarily speaking, jealousy doesn’t work by making you happy. It works instead by creating an unhappy feeling, a feeling that your partner is threatening to reproduce and raise offspring with someone else. And once you have that feeling, you need to do something about it, whether it’s something immature, like attacking the person flirting with your partner, or mature, like talking to your partner about it.

In Kina’s case, she found ways to get rid of her jealous feelings, and that’s made her feel happy. In the end, evolution aside, that’s the question that mattered most to me.

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/clay-naff/the-top-5-reasons-you-arent-going-to-heaven-but-shouldnt-lose-hope_b_2443074.html?utm_hp_ref=science

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The Top 5 Reasons You Aren’t Going to Heaven But Shouldn’t Lose Hope

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Oh, what a heavenly year was 2012. I don’t mean to say that it was especially pleasant, ending as it did in a series of gruesome massacres and a tiresome political quadrille over taxes. Yet, late in the year “heaven” rose by 29 percent on Google Trends to a five-year high.

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The chief reason for the renewed interest is a scurrilous book by Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who bumped poor little Colton Burpo off the front of the bus as America’s leading tourguide to heaven. Like dozens before them, both claim to have been through the pearly gates and back, and both are profiting immensely from that claim. The difference is that, while Burpo is a child whose dad happens to be a minister, Alexander is a self-styled “man of science” who ought to know better — and perhaps would if there were not a fortune to be made from the credulous.

Of course, it is possible that each of these bestselling authors actually has made a round-trip to heaven, expressly arranged so that they could take in the sights and let us all know what we have to look forward to. But it is also possible, and far more likely, that each of them experienced a culturally fostered hallucination of heaven.

Why do I say hallucination is more likely? Apart from a scientific inclination to adopt the simplest explanation that fits the facts, it seems to me that the whole idea of heaven is an incoherent hodgepodge of false comfort and delusion. I have no wish to hurt anyone’s feelings, but in my observation those who believe in heaven grieve just as much at the loss of a loved one as those who do not. What’s more, worry over who will or won’t go to heaven creates needless anguish.

With that in mind, here is my top five list of reasons why you won’t go to heaven:

5. You don’t know how to get there.

The majority of the world’s believers are either Christian or Muslim. However, the doctrines of each claim privileged access to the afterlife for followers. Worse yet, within each religion there are deep divisions over how to punch your ticket to heaven. Some Sunnis believe that Shiites are damned heretics. Within Christianity, there are numerous splits over the one true path to heaven: Is it grace? Is it acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savior? Good works?  Membership in the correct denomination? Predestination? All of these and more are claimed as unique solutions.

4. It will take too long to get there.

People habitually point straight up to heaven. It’s a carryover from ancient times, when folk naively assumed a flat earth under their feet. Now that we know we live on a sphere, we must realize that each of us points up in a slightly different direction. What’s more, each of us points toward a horizon that is at least 13.7 billion light-years away. Mark Twain mocked the idea of a distant heaven, figuring that it would take 30 years to get there. He would be shocked to learn how far short of the mark his reckoning fell.

3. You wouldn’t like the people there.

Estimates of the number of people who get to heaven vary. At one end of the range, the Jehovah’s Witnesses tell us that only 144,000 people will be admitted. If you happen to be among the fortunate few, you’ll find that the majority are first-century Christians whose language and culture are completely alien to your own. But not to worry: the odds are at least 1,000,000-to-1 against. At the other end of the range, Universalists tell us that everyone will be admitted. If that’s true, then unless St. Peter practices rampant housing discrimination once again the odds are that you’ll find yourself among strangers with whom you have almost nothing in common. Even worse, you just might run into Stalin or Hitler. Who wants to spend eternity with them?

2. The very idea of eternal life is incoherent.

OK, let’s get serious. Conscious life is memory plus experience on a journey of continual change; eternity is infinite time. The two cannot meaningfully combine. In the first place, what unchanging version of you enters eternal life? Is it the you at the moment of death? For infants, Alzheimer’s patients, and many others that would be absurd. But even assuming an idealized you, an eternity of experience inevitably leads to infinite loops. Think of the movie “Groundhog Day.” Now, imagine watching it nonstop a million times in a row — and you’re only beginning to grasp eternity. That’s not heaven, it’s hell.

1. A just God would never create such a system.

The main reason you are not going to heaven is that the idea makes no sense. A God capable of making creatures deserving of life in paradise would never, if He were just, make any other kind. (An unjust God may exist but is not worth believing in. It’s a no-win proposition.) Some theologians attempt to explain it all away with free will. But that’s no solution: a just God who wished to endow his creatures with free will would never make them so liable to temptation. In any case, why not put creatures with free will directly into heaven? Unless you think that evil and free will are inseparable, there is no justification for the painful prelude on Earth. But to claim that is to claim God created evil, which is to contradict his perfect nature. Heaven makes no sense.

This is a good thing to recognize. All too many people worry needlessly about the fate of those they love. Parents of a young person who has committed suicide have plenty of cause for grief without the added agony of whispers that their child is now in hell.

Does this leave us without any hope? No. While I firmly believe we should live our lives as if every day is precious, I cannot say with any certainty what happens to consciousness after death. Science is full of surprises, and speculations about the universe as a simulation or a holograph leave open almost unimaginable possibilities. But this much I know: if some sort of justice follows death, it cannot punish anyone who does their best to live kindly and ethically simply because they failed to subscribe to the “correct” set of beliefs. So, relax, do good and live well.

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Percussion instruments aided group solidarity

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wray-herbert/clap-clap-boom-boom-slam_b_2773532.html?utm_hp_ref=science

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The Washington Post, my local newspaper, ran a fascinating and unusual front page story this morning. The article focused on a recent phenomenon at Alice Deal Middle School called “Cups.” “Cups” is a clapping game, in which children — mostly girls — beat out a rhythm on upturned cups, then turn them over and slam then on the table, over and over. The interesting thing about “Cups” is that nobody seems to know where it originated. It just appeared and spread through the student body in a week’s time, taking over the playground and cafeteria.

The Post reporter, Robert Samuels, did an admirable job of trying to track down the source of “Cups” — though in the end it remains somewhat of a mystery. It’s apparently akin to other rhythmic games — “Miss Mary Mack” and “Slide” — enduring products of an oral culture based on clapping and chanting, which today spread from child to child, playground to playground, town to town, state to state.

There is actually some intriguing psychological science that illuminates “Cups” and other rhythmic traditions. They have the same basic appeal as military formations, high school marching bands, church choirs, and synchronized swimming. Anthropologists and cultural historians have offered up a variety of theories about synchrony over the years, mostly having to do with group coherence. One theory, for example, holds that various communities benefit from the actual physical synchrony — or “muscular bonding” — which builds group cohesiveness. Another idea is that synchronous activities lead to “collective effervescence” — positive emotions that break down the boundaries between self and group.

But neither of these theories has been proven, and what’s more, neither is complete. Muscle bonding may explain the coherence of the 14th Infantry Regiment, but those guys don’t seem very effervescent — not in the way that, say, carnival revelers are. And gross motor coordination doesn’t explain the almost motionless chanting of Tibetan monks. Psychologists have been looking for a unifying theory for the appeal of synchrony.

One idea, put forth by psychological scientists Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath of Stanford University a couple years ago, is that all synchrony — movement and sound and both together — is an ancient ritual that evolved for the economic benefit of the group. The primary goal of rhythmic dancing and marching and chanting is to solve the problem of the freeloader — the community member who hurts the collective good by taking but not contributing. Muscular bonding and collective joy are mere byproducts of this more fundamental economic ritual.

Wiltermuth and Heath ran a series of lab experiments to test this idea. In the simplest version, the researchers simply took groups of Stanford students on walks around campus; some walked in step — marching basically — while others just strolled the way students usually stroll. Later, after the students thought the experiment was over, the psychologists gave them all what’s called the “Weak Link” test. In this test, each volunteer chooses to act either self-interestedly or cooperatively, depending on what he anticipates others will do. The test basically measures the expectation that others will value the group over themselves.

The marchers acted more cooperatively than the strollers. They also said that they felt more “connected” than did the strollers. Notably, they did not report feeling any happier, suggesting that positive emotions were not necessary for the achieving the boost in group cohesiveness.

The scientists wanted to do a more fine-grained test of their idea. It’s well known that a sense of common identity and shared fate boosts group cohesiveness, but the researchers wanted to see if synchrony contributes to group cohesiveness above and beyond this. They did a rather elaborate test to sort this out. They had students perform tasks — moving plastic cups — that required differing degrees of coordination with others. While doing this, they listened to “O Canada” through headphones. Remember that these were Stanford students, so the Canadian national anthem presumably had no emotional resonance for them; it was merely a synchronous act.

So some of the students sang and moved the cups in rhythm, while others just sang in unison and others merely read the lyrics silently. Still others sang and moved to different tempos — sort of like a really bad dancer moving at odds with the music. Then they did the same “Weak Link” test on all of them, only this time there was real money involved. As before, those who had experienced synchrony were more economically cooperative than those who had not. The bad dancers were bad citizens, but the physical movement otherwise made no difference; choral singers were selfless with or without the swaying, suggesting that muscle bonding is (like joy) unnecessary to get the desired group coherence. The swaying may be enjoyable, but the group singing was sufficient.

The choral singers also said they felt more part of the team. They felt they had more in common with the others, and they trusted them somewhat more. Interestingly, as they reported a couple years ago in the journal Psychological Science, they also made more money in the end, because they shared in the group bounty.

Synchrony rituals are powerful — so powerful that they may have endowed certain groups with a competitive advantage over the eons, perhaps even causing some cultures to flourish while others perished. It’s no wonder then that such potent impulses remain entrenched in today’s churches and armies — and even in middle school cafeterias.

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8 Responses to The Evolution of Religion: God or the Group

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