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Evolutionary psychology: Explaining away religion for the 100th time…

This time, anthropologist Pascal Boyer, author of the ambitiously titled Religion Explained, takes an inept swipe at explaining religion in Nature – and I comment at MercatorNet:
From Part I:

In fairness, it is very difficult for a social scientist to write a book about religion that does not fundamentally distort its nature. Those who can write such a book usually have a background in the humanities — Peter Berger comes readily to mind. Most attempts sponsored by atheistic materialists do not explain, they merely explain away.
Boyer, for example, constantly compares humans to animals, ending in the swamp of the ridiculous. For example, 

Indeed, the extraordinary social skills of humans, compared with other primates, may be honed by constant practice with imagined or absent partners.

Hmmm. I don’t suppose lemurs have imaginary friends; they probably don’t have actual friends either. So something about humans is definitely different, ….

Tellingly, while natural scientists quite often regard social scientists with contempt (having the style of science without the substance), Nature gladly prints an article by a social scientist if it tries, however inadequately, to explain away religious belief. The journal’s editors would not likely print a similar article explaining away Darwinism as a mere “cognitive construct” whose “truths” about nature are no more valid than the “truths” of African mythology or medieval Catholicism. Darwinism is, after all, their cult.
From Part II:
In “Religion: Bound to Believe?” (Nature: Vol 455 23 October 2008), anthropologist Pascal Boyer does not even try to understand what drives a devoutly religious person; he is concerned only with finding explanations that suggest a cognitive kink or deficit. For example,

We now know that human brains have a set of security and precaution networks dedicated to preventing potential hazards such as predation or contamination. These networks trigger specific behaviours such as washing and checking one’s environment. When the systems go into overdrive they produce obsessive-compulsive pathology. Religious statements about purity, pollution, the hidden danger of lurking devils, may also activate these networks and make ritual precautions (cleansing, checking, delimiting a sacred space) intuitively appealing.

How does this help us understand why people spend their Friday night driving aged parishioners to holy hours or refuse to save their lives during a Rwandese massacre by abandoning fellow believers to their fate? Something is obviously missing from his explanation.

One thing missing is accuracy about obsessive-compulsive pathology. An obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) sufferer knows that her obsessive compulsions are nonsense. That is, she knows that her son will not die if she fails to count all the windows in her apartment building all over again. But due to bad brain wiring, she feels the fear. (See The Spiritual Brain, pp. 129-30.)

Indeed, encouraging the patient to substitute thinking for feeling is the basis of a successful non-materialist treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, pioneered by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. So OCD would explain religious ritual only if the typical worshipper felt an inner compulsion to engage in the activity while believing it useless – not a common scenario, and hardly a convincing basis for a theory of religion. That anyone would advance such an explanation in a science journal shows how limited the appetite for accuracy is in this area.

 Read all here:

See also at MercatorNet: The payoff for straining the brain – how focus and sleep really do improve your academic performance

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9 Responses to Evolutionary psychology: Explaining away religion for the 100th time…

  1. The problem with evolutionary psychologists’ explanation of religion (generally Christianity, because they don’t appear to regard the other religions as much of an obstacle to what they want) is that they begin with the unwarranted assumption that the events of the Bible didn’t really happen.

    This is merely a specific example of a more general problem with materialist reasoning: They start by assuming that atheism is proven. Which it isn’t.

  2. O’Leary, you said:

    “How does this help us understand why people spend their Friday night driving aged parishioners to holy hours or refuse to save their lives during a Rwandese massacre by abandoning fellow believers to their fate? Something is obviously missing from his explanation.”

    What would you say to the probable reply of an evolutionist that: “This person that stayed with the believers rather than save himself did so because he believed that God would throw him into Hell for such a cowardice act.” In such a case the evolutionist would suggest that, whether the person beliefs are based on reality or not, he believed he was saving himself.

    Not saying I agree that this is necessarily the case… but I could imagine an evolutionist making this assumption.

    And to EvilSnack:

    Very true statement! And it’s especially easy to suggest that Christianity, or any other religions, must be caused due to a brain-defect or a psychological-need, when as you said, atheism is assumed to be true.

    Reminds me of a lot of scientists reasoning behind not accepting design in nature too: “Well, science does not include the possibility of design, only naturalistic forces, therefore it have evolved.”

    To paraphrase Philip E. Johnson put it: this is like going to defend the accused in court but hearing that it is not legally possible to be declared “not guilty.” Obviously you can’t win, at least legally, in a situation like that.

  3. *EDIT*

    Reminds me of a lot of scientists reasoning behind not accepting design in nature too: “Well, science does not include the possibility of design, only naturalistic forces, therefore it must have evolved.”

  4. Denyse asks:

    How does this help us understand why people spend their Friday night driving aged parishioners to holy hours or refuse to save their lives during a Rwandese massacre by abandoning fellow believers to their fate?

    Generosity and altruism are exhibited by people whether or not they practice religious rituals, so of course Boyer’s explanation of the roots of religious ritual does not also explain the origins of generosity and altruism.

    Nor would he claim that it does.

  5. Why do humans rape and kill? Evolution.

    Why do humans perform acts of generosity and altruism? Evolution.

    There is no behavior that cannot be explained by evolutionary psychology, therefore evolutionary psychology is always true. It is always true because it cannot be falsified, and it cannot be falsified because it is science.

    :D

  6. Oh yeah, one more thing.

    Humans perform religious rituals because they evolved to do so.

    Humans who are not compelled to perform religious rituals neglect to do so because they evolved that way.

    Therefore, it is futile for non-religious humans to try and stop religious humans from performing religious rituals and/or believing in religion.

    The only way to make the religious humans stop performing their useless (possibly harmful) rituals is to make them extinct.

    Natural selection wins again! ;)

  7. Angryoldfatman,

    You said, “There is no behavior that cannot be explained by evolutionary psychology, therefore evolutionary psychology is always true. It is always true because it cannot be falsified, and it cannot be falsified because it is science.”

    So true! If you can think of a problem, evolution can solve it. Sounds like a cure-all drug. Problem with cure-all drugs is this: they don’t exist. So perhaps evolution doesn’t exist either.

  8. Natural selection reminds me of the Freudians and Marxists back in my tedious old English lit days.

    First, all three theories appeal to people who like having blanket explanations to trot out for just about everything (reductionists). The blanket explanation becomes their security blanket.

    Second, there seems to be a connection between the very simplicity of the theories and their popularity. All three theories are easily grasped and clear and vivid enough to be portable.

    Third, the theories are quite undemanding. They provide an opportunity to be saved without works–without exhibiting a great deal of imagination or creativity or even intelligence. (The just-so story seen in the post is a perfect example.)

    Finally, all three seem to appeal to people who have totalitarian enthusiasms. Neo-Darwinsim is no less intolerant of dissent than Marxism or than Freud was when some of his disciples went astray.

  9. The problem for Darwinists is that they state that social morals have evolved because these cooperative morals helped humans survive together. But this assumes an end (survival) for evolution, which by definition has no end since it’s a nonintelligent process.

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