[Sequence] Demystifying Religion

Most of my efforts focus on various aspects of science and mathematics. Why write about religion?

I am not particularly interested in evaluating theological claims. But this blog is very interested in the computational and biological bases of primate sociality. And religion plays a key role in our evolved social capacities.

This post is meant as an executive summary of various positions I have come to accept over the years. As with my other overview posts, the positions laid out here are a moving target. I’m hoping to eventually motivate each topic; to give you the evidence rather than summarizing the belief. If you want to hear more about a particular topic, don’t hesitate to let me know!

Social Theses

At a social level, religious belief brings communities together. This explains the special attention many faiths place on ethics: ethical norms are the frame on which social institutions rest. It also explains why most conversion experiences tends to occur at a deeper, more emotional place of the mind (not so much in the cold light of reason).

  1. The Relational Sphere Hypothesis. Social institutions come in three flavors. There is the political sphere, economic sphere, and social sphere. Religious institutions are an extension of (a buttressing of) the social sphere.
  2. Generator of Social Capital. The reason why religion became institutionalized is that, with the triumph of market economies over gift economies, religious structure provided an alternative mode for promoting social bonds within a community.
  3. Monotheistic Cohesion Hypothesis. Monotheistic cultures tend to treat strangers more fairly than polytheistic ones. Monotheism was successful in part because it facilitated larger group size (strangers could identify as the same team).

Cognitive Theses

At a cognitive level, religious experience meets at been the nexus of animism, mythology, and ritual. Occasionally it is accentuated by numinous (altered) states of consciousness. Only very recently has belief played a role in some forms of religious participation. Here, I survey the cognitive machinery that drives these aspects of religiosity.

  1. Animism as Hyperactive Agency Detection. Mammals are good at differentiating events caused by inanimate nature, versus those caused by animate events. Due to the asymmetry of false positives vs false negatives, our Agency Detectors are built on a hair trigger: we are often too quick to attribute agency. Humans are susceptible to invoke supernatural agents whenever emotionally eruptive events arise that have superficial characteristics of agency in the absence of a corresponding agent.
  2. Mythology as Counterintuitive Narratives
  3. Ritual as Paradox-Based Social Bonding
  4. The Numinous as Altered States of Consciousness
  5. Two Faces of Meaning. Beliefs are like clothes; they serve two purposes. The first purpose is functional: beliefs can constrain expectations of physical experience. The second purpose is signaling: beliefs can signal group membership, ethical values, and personality. Most beliefs serve both purposes, at least to some extent. Religious belief is notable in that its content is mostly the latter. That is, religious belief typically does not constrain expectation of physical experience.

Historical Theses

It is admittedly strange to discuss 1st century Palestine in depth. Why pay so much attention here, as opposed to 7th century Saudi Arabia, or 19th century US state of Utah?

To this I must disclose that, most of my friends and family self-describe as evangelical Christian. 1st century Palestine is brought to my attention literally once a week. I am hoping these conversations become more interesting after I construct positive theories that go beyond “I don’t know”.

Thus, the following historical theses are rightly viewed as less interesting than more universal topics on my blog. That said, perhaps you will find value in them.

Judaism subsequence

  • A Secret In The Ark. Presents the linguistic evidence that the story of Noah was not authored by Moses, but was instead produced by the interweaving of two (surprisingly divergent) narratives.
  • Who Wrote The Bible? Introduces the theory as a generalization of observations such as the above.

Christianity subsequence

  • Jesus as Apocalyptic Prophet.
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