May 9, 2009

Evolutionary Psychology and Early Religious Indoctrination

Something that has always fascinated me is how pervasive religious belief is amongst people who are intelligent or educated enough to know better. Why are the thoughts of an afterlife and a divine controller so addictive? Why is the concept of God so easily acquired at youth? I believe that these questions can be addressed from a lot of different angles. On this post, however, I'll try to cover the evolutionary aspect of it.

I’d say that propensity towards belief is a byproduct of the evolution of our mind that can be triggered by certain environmental factors. It would make sense to assume that the degree of pervasiveness of his/her belief would be linked to the subject’s environment and particular psyche.

Let’s start with the psyche.

Humans are, in theory, the only species capable of long-term thinking. Long-term awareness, although very convenient for the survival of our species, is also a frequent source of psychological stress, particularly in cases with high uncertainty about future food provision or environmental threats in detriment of the well-being of us and our loved ones. It could be argued that, upon conditions of high uncertainty and therefore high stress, the idea of certainty could be extremely tempting.

Another psychological trait in humans for the survival of the species is the ability to learn quickly. This becomes evident if we picture early humans with children living in dangerous unpredictable environments. The chances of these children to die are very high, and their survival will depend in part on the ability of the children to learn and follow orders: “if you see a predator, run”, “don’t touch these types of insects”, etc. Doubt and disobedience at early stages would very likely result in death.

Therefore, ideally, children would remember and follow orders without any question or doubt, thus efficiently capitalizing on the lessons learned by their parents and their ancestors. These lessons would be strongly fixated in the child’s permeable psyche through adulthood, and then passed to the next generation.

A third psychological trait present in humans is the ability to make associations. It is easy to understand the great survival benefits from associating snakes with danger, cliffs with falling, or fire with burning. What is interesting is that we seem to be hardwired to make *positive* associations.

Let’s imagine someone watching a group of people walking along a cliff. The group then gets too close to the border and half of them die. The spectator will then very probably make the following association: “if you get close to a cliff, you might die”, a positive association. The spectator, however, could have also made a negative association such as: “if you get close to a cliff, you might not die”, which is also logical and valid.

The survival advantages of using positive associations over negative ones seem clear. If this is the case, it could be argued that hard-wired positive associations have been positively selected on humans.

So, up to now, we have the following:
  • Uncertainty can trigger strong stress as a byproduct
  • Children are particularly susceptible to incorporate borrowed information as absolute truths
  • Humans are hardwired to privilege positive over negative associations when interpreting reality

Now let’s talk about the environment.

Humans, in their struggle to survive on dangerous and unpredictable environments, developed hardwired behaviors that persist today. In many respects, our environment is much more benign than the one experienced by our very early ancestors. However, it could be argued that some modern environmental stressors could trigger the aforementioned behaviors. We can still experience uncertainty, danger.

Now, let’s picture the environment of an 8 year old girl in a strict religious school (let’s say Catholic) where:
  • She is being taught absolute “truths” about the origin of the universe
  • She is given a set of absolute rules to follow (commandments) and be a good person
  • She is threatened with eternal damnation if she breaks the rules
  • She is told that what happens to us is the will of god, that he has a plan for us.
  • She is told that questioning is a sin.
  • She is taught that faith (belief with no evidence) is a good thing.

The above environment exposes a young human to threats of great danger (hell) and rules to avoid it in a period when her brain is like a blank canvas and the information given is adopted as absolute truths.

This girl will probably experience the same environment at home, and these sets of absolute rules and certain long-term scenarios will be constantly fed to her through adolescence and maybe adulthood.

I think it could be argued that, after years or indoctrination starting at such a cognitively vulnerable stage, the person would learn to cope with sources of uncertainty and stress such as death and future scenarios by adopting the absolute certainties previously taught to her. Additionally, her critical thinking skills will very likely be affected as a result of the threat to punishment upon doubt.

On top of the above, we have prayer, which feeds from the inherent predisposition of humans to make positive associations. If we pray 20 times to get something, and the prayer “works” one time only, the person would associate “one prayer produces the result” as opposed to “19 prayers produce no result”. Every one of these “effective” prayers will then continue to feed the belief system inherited by this person since her youth.

Now, let’s picture this person at 40 years of age, and let’s expose her to the possibility of no god. No certainty. No after life. No absolute rules to follow.

Let’s ask her to unlearn what she was taught since these very early stages, when she was (in ancient times, very conveniently) hardwired to be extremely gullible.

Now, let's ask ourselves: what should we expect?

May 1, 2009

Muslim Demographics and the Future of Western Secular Humanism

source: virgorama

I watched this disturbing video today, and many things came to my mind. Granted, the video is sensationalist and biased towards Christianity, and basically states that western civilization is irreversibly disappearing and being replaced by a predominantly Muslim population. But what worries me is not the decline of Christianity, but the potential disappearance of western secular humanism.

But what is secular humanism and why is it important? The Council for Secular Humanism describes it as a world view with the following elements and principles:

  • A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
  • Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
  • A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
  • A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
  • A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
  • A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
  • A conviction that with reason, an open marketplace of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.

Secular Humanism has played a very important role in the advancement of science and the separation of church and state in many western societies. Keeping absolute morals and superstition away from legislation ensures equal rights for people regardless of how accepting the general population might be about their lifestyles and sexual orientation. It also keeps the more fundamentalist factions of society from imposing their views on others who might not share them.

So, and back to the issue, could we be moving towards some sort of apocalyptic post-secular western theocracy? It would appear so. Richard Dawkins made the very good analogy of comparing faith to a virus, and this seems to be the case today. Muslim families are reproducing much faster than western secular families, and they are indoctrinating their children into one of the most virulent dogmas today, a religion where doubt is forbidden, every non-Muslim is a heretic, and where apostasy is traditionally punished with death.

And if it wasn't bad enough, Muslim groups are pushing to include the Sharia Law in secular democracies and to forbid any criticism to their faith via lobbying in the United Nations. But can this be stopped? How did we even get to this stage? Both questions deserve to be addressed individually in separate posts.


A friend of mine sent me a good article that helps keep the issue in perspective: Do Muslims Have More Children Than Other Women in Western Europe?. Things might not be that bad after all.

March 26, 2009

"The Amazing Randi" talks about the Persistence of Belief

The Amazing Randi is a professional magician, famous debunker of Paranormal Claims and founder of The James Randi Educational Foundation. In this video he talks about belief, his new book “A Magician in the Laboratory” and the persistent gullibility of society in modern times.

March 14, 2009

Should Atheists be More Politically Correct?

It seems that since 9/11, it has become increasingly common to see atheists addressing religion online or in public debates, resulting in diverse reactions from the audiences. Depending on the setting, it is common to see an important part of the audience enthusiastically supporting the atheist speaker. On the other hand, it is also common to see a part of the crowd looking uncomfortable, and even cringing, at the mention of some sensitive topics or attitudes exhibited by the speaker. This is usually the case with regard to public debates involving people like Christopher Hitchens, or online videos featuring Pat Condell.

Interestingly, I realize that an increasing number of secular people I know actually belong to the aforementioned “cringing” group. And it does make sense. In my experience, mature rational people tend to be judicious, tolerant and neutral. It is therefore expected to see many of them distance themselves from the more passionate advocates of secularism. However, some secularists who do frown upon the very passionate ones, still support them.

Many of us who support a secular world over a theocratic one all wonder if so much beauty is actually possible. Although there is still a lot of work to be done with regard to issues like abortion, stem-cell research and the teaching of science in public schools we are making tangible progress. But what about the Middle East?

Today it is not uncommon to hear about countries where it is legal to stone a (married) 13 y/o girl to death, in a stadium full of people, accused of being raped by two men and therefore committing adultery. Or cases of societies where it is accepted to condemn an elderly woman to 40 lashes because her bread was delivered by an unrelated male. And what about governments availing international jihad against cartoonists ? Do the same "rules of interaction" apply to these cases as well?

Politically correct or gentle debate about faith is desirable in many contexts. But when it comes to addressing religion globally, I think a more aggressive approach starts to make more sense, because:
  • It publicly strips religion from the right of not being criticized it has unfairly assumed through history.
  • Low-key secularists could be motivated to act after realizing they are not only far from being alone, but also part of a big and increasingly organized community.
  • Secular leaders could adventure themselves into more influential positions if a significant number of secularists awaken and are willing to support secular causes.
  • Scandal sells and spreads rapidly though both physical and digital media.
  • Leaders would be more prone to draw clear lines and stand behind them if they sense the support of an active and “passionate” sector of the population.

Sarcasm and ridiculing by secularists might very well be frowned upon amongst western groups of politically-correct intellectuals. But let’s not forget that:
  • We usually belong to a privileged global minority.
  • Religion is a complex problem that needs to be simultaneously attacked from different angles.
  • Whilst we talk about this over coffee, children are legally being physically and mentally abused in the name of god.
  • Islamic fundamentalists are currently orchestrating attacks on infidels under the promise of 72 virgins upon death.
  • Catholic fundamentalists await the rapture and are reluctant to be held responsible for the consequences of their actions (what ever happens is the result of god's will)
  • Fundamentalists today are successfully pushing their medieval codes of conduct into western societies by arguing that their faith "deserves" respect.
  • As opposed to the crusades and the inquisition, modern religious fanatics have or will have access to weapons of mass destruction.
  • Lack of management is a form of management itself. Which also applies to the western intellectual community.

Finally, couldn't moderation and political correctness be considered fundamentalist approaches if pursued regardless of the context? Are good manners always that important?

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