Month: July 2011

Humans ‘Predisposed’ to Believe in Gods and the Afterlife

(h/t: John Sanidopoulos at MYSTAGOGY)

John’s very intriguing and insightful comments: Does this study show we need to be reprogrammed to think “rationally”, or that we are deliberately created to worship? If the former is true, then “rational thinking” is dangerous with no “selective advantage”, which in turn would cast doubt on the evolution of the mind.

From ScienceDaily:

A three-year international research project, directed by two academics at the University of Oxford, finds that humans have natural tendencies to believe in gods and an afterlife.

The £1.9 million project involved 57 researchers who conducted over 40 separate studies in 20 countries representing a diverse range of cultures. The studies (both analytical and empirical) conclude that humans are predisposed to believe in gods and an afterlife, and that both theology and atheism are reasoned responses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind.

The researchers point out that the project was not setting out to prove the existence of god or otherwise, but sought to find out whether concepts such as gods and an afterlife appear to be entirely taught or basic expressions of human nature.

‘The Cognition, Religion and Theology Project’ led by Dr Justin Barrett, from the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at Oxford University, drew on research from a range of disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and theology. They directed an international body of researchers conducting studies in 20 different countries that represented both traditionally religious and atheist societies.

The findings are due to be published in two separate books by psychologist Dr Barrett in Cognitive Science, Religion and Theology and Born Believers: The Science of Childhood Religion.

Project Co-director Professor Roger Trigg, from the Ian Ramsey Centre in the Theology Faculty at Oxford University, has also written a forthcoming book, applying the wider implications of the research to issues about freedom of religion in Equality, Freedom and Religion (OUP).

Some findings of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project:

– Studies by Emily Reed Burdett and Justin Barrett, from the University of Oxford, suggest that children below the age of five find it easier to believe in some superhuman properties than to understand similar human limitations. Children were asked whether their mother would know the contents of a box in which she could not see. Children aged three believed that their mother and God would always know the contents, but by the age of four, children start to understand that their mothers are not all-seeing and all knowing. However, children may continue to believe in all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agents, such as a god or gods.

– Experiments involving adults, conducted by Jing Zhu from Tsinghua University (China), and Natalie Emmons and Jesse Bering from The Queen’s University, Belfast, suggest that people across many different cultures instinctively believe that some part of their mind, soul or spirit lives on after-death. The studies demonstrate that people are natural ‘dualists’ finding it easy to conceive of the separation of the mind and the body.

Project Director Dr Justin Barrett, from the University of Oxford’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind, said: ‘This project does not set out to prove god or gods exist. Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact. If we look at why religious beliefs and practices persist in societies across the world, we conclude that individuals bound by religious ties might be more likely to cooperate as societies. Interestingly, we found that religion is less likely to thrive in populations living in cities in developed nations where there is already a strong social support network.’

Project Co-Director Professor Roger Trigg, from the University of Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre, said: ‘This project suggests that religion is not just something for a peculiar few to do on Sundays instead of playing golf. We have gathered a body of evidence that suggests that religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies. This suggests that attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods, and the possibility of an afterlife or pre-life.’

The symboling animal

What we learn is not simply knowledge. An important component is the use of our own language, and often the capacity to read it and to write it. A further crucial component is how to do things: the social skills of daily life as well as the skills of the workplace and sometimes the skills of the specialist.

Of course other animals learn while young, and in doing so are in some cases led by their parents to undergo life experiences that they will need to repeat when they are on their own. But human experience goes well beyond that. The philosopher Ernst Cassirer wrote that “instead of defining man as an animal rationale we should define him as an animal symbolicum.” Leslie White, the American anthropologist, suggested taht humans are “symboling animals,” and that the capacity to use symbols is a defining quality of humankind. Words in a language are of course symbols, but material things also serve in symbolic roles. Humans, it is said, live in a forest of symbols, and to understand what makes humans tick, it is necessary to consider how those symbols work.

Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, pg. 91

Short book review: Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart

Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, has too long been a whipping boy of nearly anyone who needed a scapegoat to pin their misgivings about Christian history on — from John Howard Yoder, to whose theories Leithart dedicates a good part of this book to refuting, to Dan Brown, with his godawful “Da Vinci Code,” to the extreme conspiracy nuts like Acharya S and Peter Joseph, maker of “Zeitgeist, the Movie.” Constantine has been the boogeyman of those with a historical bone to pick — or who think they have such a bone to pick — for a very long time. Ask the average person about Constantine and chances are you’ll hear about a cynical politician who manipulated the Church to serve his own ends and fabricated the New Testament and the divinity of Christ. Finally, with this wonderful book, all of those myths, from the extreme left to the extreme right, have been laid to rest in one fell swoop. This book is a must-read in the study of Christian history.