A World of Religions that Naturalism Might Indeed Be Able to Explain

Cognitive scientist[1] Steven Pinker recently told[2] CNN, “We don’t throw virgins into volcanoes anymore.”

No? Why not?

Regarding the phenomenon of religion, there are two curious things: When naturalists (materialists) discuss religion, they get so many basic facts wrong, I wonder why they bother, except to bolster their own distorted point of view. They seem to believe that religion is fairy tales and mystical and magical.

In any event, religious affiliation tends to grow, not shrink, with education level. Joel Slotkin notes, “A new University of Nebraska study finds that with each additional year of education, the odds of attending religious services increased by 15%.” This finding accords with Charles Murray’s review of research in Coming Apart (2012).[3] Despite well-publicized claims, there is no significant relationship between religion and the likelihood of ignorance of or indifference to science.


Another claim we hear, from celebrity skeptic Michael Shermer[4] for example, is that science — and he of course includes Darwinian mechanisms for evolution in that category — is objective knowledge that will save us from superstition. But in the United States, a 2007-2008 Baylor University survey reported that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams, Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead and astrology.

They found that self-identified theological liberals and irreligious people were far more likely to believe in such things than other Americans. In other surveys, non-religious people are more likely to see UFOs and religious liberals are more likely to believe in astrology[5]. In short, religion as such may not suppress superstition but orthodoxy clearly does.

Second, they mainly study “revealed” religion, where the world is interpreted through a divine message (or some would say, an acute insight), revealing a higher order of reality. The recognized principal purpose of religion in that case is understanding of reality, not control over it. Atheists fail to distinguish between ‘natural revelation’ and ‘special revelation’ but they are not entirely to blame.  Arguments for the existence of God tend to be in the realm of ‘natural’ theology.  Then, Christians speak of the Bible as revelation without qualification.  Unfortunately, atheists almost uniformly believe they are smarter and more well informed than every other person on the globe, so we would expect that they would be able to see past these factors to Christianity’s toughest arguments instead of attacking the weakest links[6]. But as usual, individuals try to find the easiest way out. One wonders, somewhat impatiently, then what is a valid indicator of scientific illiteracy? Questioning vast, poorly sourced claims for Darwinian evolution? Doubting vast claims for habitable planets, space aliens, origin of life soup recipes, or material components to consciousness?

But it was not always so. Let us travel back to the Stone Age, when our ancestors’ perceptions of how the world works were very different from ours today. British anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941), author of The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion[7] (1890). Frazer collected, organized, and published a vast amount of information about pre-modern ways of thinking. He was tactful in expressing his own “scientific” agnosticism, a fact that enabled him to gain much information from missionaries. His major achievement was to open up for us a way of thinking about life that has now largely vanished, except for the glimpses we get in various superstitions.

From what we can tell by analyzing surviving customs and artifacts, ancient religious beliefs were chiefly focused on magical thinking. Magic is an exploded form of physics (Frazer calls it “a spurious system of natural law”):

If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, it can end up in two areas: 1) that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, 2), that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.

One can cause good or harm by imitating a desired result. The voodoo doll survives in popular culture but originally was probably intended to produce good, in the form of health or prosperity. Since things once joined continue to exert an influence on each other (some believe), one would put salve on the tool that caused a cut as well as on the wound itself, to speed healing. Some of these folk beliefs persisted into the modern period. Frazer notes: “If a horse wounds its foot by treading on a nail, a Suffolk groom will invariably preserve the nail, clean it, and grease it every day, to prevent the foot from festering.”

These sorts of beliefs somehow came to regulate all life and all nature. Our ancestors do appear to have been naturalists. They believed in gods, but gods were merely beings with considerable powers over nature- sun gods, thunder gods, rain gods, etc. The ‘gods’ were usually placated by simple ceremonies. They could be promoted or demoted, flogged or booted from the community, if they failed to provide their purpose- rain, for example. The same fate could befall ancient rulers, who were often thought to have semi-divine powers.

No necessary distinction existed between gods, ghosts, rulers, magicians, plain folks, animals, plants, and inanimate objects. Gods could die like anyone else. Gods could argue and even fight among each other. Meanwhile, men could be gods and gods could be men, the hierarchy sometimes inverted. Either men or god could become any animate or inanimate entity as well. Although, strictly speaking, there were no inanimate entities; anything might have a soul.

It’s not clear that the soul was strictly regarded as immaterial. Souls could do things on their travels that one might expect of a whole human, such as quarrel and thus create pain for the bodies to which they returned. Perhaps the distinction we make between material and immaterial was simply not made eons ago.

These ancient magical systems or religions were not systematically interwoven with ethics. In many cultures, sacredness and uncleanness were equivalent. Both were sources of power, to be handled, like fire, with care. Similarly, there was little distinction between natural and moral evil. Sickness, sin, and bad luck could all be transferred as if they were material things, possibly to a tree. Sickness could be bribed to stay away. One could hire someone to bear sin and sickness, in some cultures. Life was largely governed by ritual and taboo, the correct observance of which was thought to ward off evils of all classes.

Darwinian “explanations” of religion have focused comparatively little on these more ancient belief systems. They focus rather on modern ones that may not have “evolved” at all but are the outcome of sudden insights or revelations.

By the time records began to be made, this widespread ancient worldview, in its myriad forms, was beginning very slowly to disappear. The habit of writing things down may have speeded its decline. Keeping records greatly aids the evidence-based thinking that, with many setbacks, eventually supplanted the old way. The old worldview survives submerged within modern superstitions. For example, breaking a mirror is bad luck for some unknown reason. Anciently, it was because one’s soul might be the image in the mirror.

Strictly speaking, superstition is irrational because we do not accept or even understand the worldview it echoes. When people honestly believed that their soul might be in the mirror, then risking breaking it would be irrational. Frazer puts the matter thus: “The views of natural causation embraced by the savage magician no doubt appear to us manifestly false and absurd; yet in their day they were legitimate hypotheses, though they have not stood the test of experience. Ridicule and blame are the just reward, not of those who devised these crude theories, but of those who obstinately adhered to them after they had been discredited.

In other words, believing that breaking a mirror is bad luck against the evidence today is worthy of ridicule. An acknowledged weakness of Frazer’s work was the use of concepts drawn from Darwinian evolution to trace a sort of natural development from magical to religious to scientific thinking. No such development exists; indeed, in many settings today, lack of religion promotes superstition even among the science-minded.

There is a delicate irony in the fact that the oldest way of trying to understand the world (magical thinking) is in certain ways similar to the beliefs of metaphysical naturalists today. And different from those of the adherents of any “revealed” religion, whether they be, say, Christians, Mormons, Buddhists, Hare Krishna, etc.

Granted, these religions are disparate. No science-based reason has been found for thinking that none offer insight or that all can be fully accounted for by naturalist claims. Naturalist claims can more easily account for the magical thinking they replaced, a world where everything, even the gods, was just nature. And as the naturalist will tell you, nature is all there is.

Consciousness is immaterial, as the great physicists have said[8]. If it is indeed natural, then nature is far beyond what we now think it is. Perhaps informational realism can help, by exploring the problem in a way that respects the nature of the human mind and does not simply try to jam it into material categories.

[1] Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes such as “attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity, and thinking.”

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/05/world/steven-pinker-interview/

[3] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Crown Forum, 2012, p. 204. Murray found that it was the working class, not the upper middle class, that was losing its religion.

[4] Shermer is an American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims

[5] Thomas Hargrove and Guido H. Stempel III, “Poll probes Americans’ belief in UFOs, life on other planets,” Scripps News, July 15, 2008

[6] http://sntjohnny.com/front/natural-versus-revealed-religion-how-atheists-drop-the-ball/349.html

[7] http://www.bartleby.com/196/5.html

[8] http://www.uncommondescent.com/physics/what-great-physicists-have-said-about-immateriality-and-consciousness/


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