What Is This Guy Up To?

Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.

Sigmund Freud

All religions, with their gods, their demigods, and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties.

Mikhail Bakunin

If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature [as religion], thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests.

Roger Trigg

It seems Roger Trigg wants you to believe some things about human religiosity.  Only one of those things is that opposing religion is bad because it deprives people of the ability to “fulfill their basic interests“.  Apparently, he also wants you to believe:

But, perhaps most of all, Roger Trigg wants you to believe that a recent series of 40 different studies conducted in association with the University of Oxford support his convictions.  Trigg is the Co-Director of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, which is the outfit that conducted the 40 studies.  The Project’s other Co-Director is Justin Barrett.

Trig and Barrett quite recently released to a very select three or four journalists the merest whiff of concrete information about their Project’s findings.  And it now appears that whiff of information was simply an excuse — a mere vehicle — to allow the two of them (but especially Trigg) to place a spin on the Project’s findings well before the findings themselves are to be released. So, I would like to take a much closer look at Trigg’s claims.

Let’s begin by looking first at his notion that, “If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature [as religion], thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests.”  Is Trigg trying to suggest it is somehow wrong to oppose religion?  I suspect he is.

If so, Trigg’s argument is probably a variation of the naturalistic fallacy.  But merely because some trait is deep-rooted in human nature does not make it right, or all wars — without exception — would be right because war is obviously deeply rooted in human nature.  Again, rape occurs in all known societies and in all periods of recorded history.  It is as obviously deeply rooted in human nature as war.  But does that mean thwarting rape is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests — and therefore wrong to do?

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised anyone would ever argue that opposing religion was wrong simply because religion is deeply rooted in human nature.

Again, we have Trigg’s notion that, “…attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived….”  If Trigg means to suggest that people should not oppose religion merely because such efforts will prove to be largely futile, then he is on shaky ground for at least two reasons.

First, there are all sorts of things people oppose even though their efforts are some extent — or even largely — futile.  People routinely oppose robberies, murders, and political corruption even though their efforts are to varying degrees unsuccessful.  Should they cease to do so?

Second, the prevalence of religion varies from one place and time to another.  Some countries, such as Norway, are significantly less religious than other countries, such as the US.  And Norway was once more religious than it is today.  Both those facts suggest there might be practical means of reducing human religiosity.

Last, we have Trigg’s point that, “…human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods…”.  But does that provide adequate grounds for not opposing religion?

I’m pretty sure it does not.  Human thought also seems to be rooted in a number of various cognitive biases.  Does the fact human thought is rooted in a number of cognitive biases mean that we should not oppose them?  It seems Trigg might might once again be falling victim to the naturalistic fallacy.

I think it is safe to say that, to the extent Trigg’s comments can be taken as arguments against opposing religion, they fail.

Unfortunately, I think Trigg intends more by his comments than merely to argue it is somehow wrong to oppose religion.  He also seems to be making at least two more points — and getting these points across might be his real agenda.  First, that we humans have an innate predisposition to belief or faith in deity.   Second, that today’s dominant forms of human religiosity are the natural or default forms of human religiosity.  Assuming Trigg is indeed trying to assert those claims, I believe he is factually wrong about both of them.

That is, I do not think it is the case that belief in god is natural nor the case that today’s religions are natural.

So far as I understand it, scientists nowadays generally agree that religion evolved very early in human history, and many scientists even suggest there is evidence religion predates the origin of our own species.  The earliest religions, however, are not thought to be much like the many ideologically elaborate, hierarchical religions that are so common today. Instead, they were most likely ideologically simple, and more or less egalitarian.  Their core beliefs might have amounted to little more than the notion that most things — including inanimate things — have a spirit or life force, and that those spirits live on after death.  It is entirely possible those ancestral religions contained no god concepts.

A few years ago, PZ Meyers nicely summed up a few of the cognitive processes that most likely provided the psychological foundation for the ancestral religiosity of our species:

There are human universals. We are curious or concerned about the world around us; we look for causal explanations for events; we like explanatory narratives that link sequences of events together; we tend to anthropomorphize and project our motivations and our expectation of agency on objects in our environment.

Meyers then added, “That’s human nature, and religion isn’t at all intrinsic to it.”  Today’s religions have roughly about the same relationship to our ancestral religiosity as a automobile has to walking.

It seems to me — and I could be very wrong about this — that Roger Trigg’s recent statements about the findings of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project are to a meaningful extent attempts to frame those findings as providing grounds to believe that today’s elaborate, organized religions and their ideologies are natural expressions of human religiosity.  And if that is his message, then frankly, I don’t think he’s got it right.

Our species has been around for about 260,000 years.  For only a tiny fraction of that time have we had ideologically elaborate, hierarchical religions.  And no matter how fond we might be of those newfangled religions, they do not seem to represent humanity’s natural or default religiosity.

It is almost certainly true that humans have a natural predisposition to certain cognitive processes that, taken together, usually result in something we call “religiosity”.  But — and it’s a huge “but” — that religiosity is not the religiosity of, say, Christianity, most Hinduism, or Islam, but rather the religiosity of our ancestral hunting/gatherers.  And their religiosity was most likely ideologically simple — perhaps even to the point of being godless — and more or less egalitarian.


Other bloggers are discussing this same issue.  Here are four:

The Cognitive Dissenter:  New Oxford Study: Belief in god is natural.  Thinking takes more work.

Paradise Preoccupied: God in Genes?

Why Evolution Is True: New Oxford Study: Religion pervasive, ergo impossible to eradicate.

Friendly Atheist: Is Religious Belief Part of Human Nature?


I also have earlier posts on this issue here and here.


13 thoughts on “What Is This Guy Up To?

  1. Wow, and doubly ironic since the faithful often accuse godless science of claiming that we should allow/encourage any behavior that’s “natural”.

  2. “Both those facts suggest there might be practical means of reducing human religiosity.”
    Whoa there, Paul. By defining your target as modern “ideologically elaborate, hierarchical religions, You’ve set up a straw man argument.
    I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start with the fact that religions, like individual men or women and society, have evolved. By joining a religion, a person is joining an evolved historical group. Example, Catholicism evolved from a mystery religion to what it is today. Your straw man leaves out the evolutionary factor.
    Worse, your assumption that “religiosity” can be reduced rests on assumptions and selective reasoning. As Karl Popper, Arthur Koestler and many others have observed, spirituality takes many forms. The almost harmless alternative is your evangelical atheism.
    Unfortunately, there is a harmful form. Traditional religions, with their historical, familial and social ties, are replaced by deadly ideologies, be they the murderous communism of Stalin, the genocidal Nazism of Hitler, or the depleted-uranium-bomb-crazy liberal interventionism of the Clintons and Obama.

  3. I enjoyed reading this, also your comments to the cognitive dissenter. I’ll have to check out those other blog links you put up.

    I echo chanson’s remark. I couldn’t help but think that Trigg was twisting the argument to suit his purpose. If the subject had been sexuality, for example, he would have argued in the opposite direction.

    • Thanks, Donna! I think you could be right about Trigg. After all, the “opposite direction” on the topic of sexuality would be to argue that at least certain forms of human sexuality, despite being natural to our species, are in some sense wrong. Rape comes to mind as one example of a form of sexuality that is (all too) common to our species, but which most of us — and most likely “most of us” includes Trigg — would argue is wrong. That is, like you, I don’t see him arguing that rape is right because rape is natural.

  4. Excellent analysis, Paul. The fatal flaw behind the study is the agenda and concomitant need for validation of those who both sponsored and are now interpreting it for us.

    On a related note, can I tell you what I really really hate about spending time with my Mormon family? Be it Thanksgiving, a summer barbecue, etc., the conversation ALWAYS and WITHOUT FAIL becomes a validation fest of their faith. Seriously, they do not know how to have a normal conversation. Their religion is all they talk about when they get together. And this behavior is very typical of all devout Mormons.

    So I have to ask myself: Why do they feel compelled to constantly reaffirm their beliefs to each other? Maybe because it offsets or, really, overcomes the discomfort created by all the cognitive dissonance?

    Yeah. My father has a scientific background in medicine. It’s unbelievable and almost funny sometimes the way his otherwise brilliant mind pushes him to create scientific validation for his whacko religious beliefs. Crazy.

    So of course Trigg will jump on every opportunity to manipulate science to suit his own agenda. THAT is human nature.

    • I’m sorry to hear about the self-validating conversations of your Mormon family, CD. I can imagine they must be simultaneously both irritating and boring. Is that the very definition of “frustrating”?

      You say: “Why do they feel compelled to constantly reaffirm their beliefs to each other? Maybe because it offsets or, really, overcomes the discomfort created by all the cognitive dissonance?”

      I have known a few people much like you describe your Mormon family and that is certainly one impression I’ve formed of why they behave as they do — they are trying to overcome some kind of cognitive dissonance.

      I would like to suggest the behavior of such folks might also be fueled by a closely related reason: It’s not like they know they are right. At best, they can only believe they are right. And one of the best ways to alleviate the painful uncertainty of mere belief is to go find another person who shares your belief and then cheer each other along. Sports fans, political groups, and congregations do it all the time.

  5. “So I have to ask myself: Why do they feel compelled to constantly reaffirm their beliefs to each other? Maybe because it offsets or, really, overcomes the discomfort created by all the cognitive dissonance?” ~ CD

    If I hadn’t already overdone the quote thang on FB this morning, I’d have posted this just to see/read the fireworks. Well put me thinks.

  6. Since the caves at Lascaux, we’ve been aware of man’s quest for beauty and possibly his quest for spirituality. Though his universally observed quest for beauty is not a hot bottom issue, for political reasons, his universally quest for spirituality is by “rationalists,” those deluded know-it-alls who think that science is the only way to grasp the world.
    Wrong. Science is the only way to know things that can be measured and catalogued in descriptive sciences or that can be tested and predicted. It uses the rigid scientific method.
    Art is another way of knowing, a way of knowing beauty, using loose creative methods. That is why Einstein, an amateur violinist, spent so much time trying figure out how Mozart composed “Don Giovanni,” which, in parts, sounds like Mozart somehow transcribed, rather than composed, the universe’s essential beauty.
    Spiritualism is another way of gaining insights into questions about the universe that they see or feel or hear but cannot measure or test or grasp by logical thought. It’s methods include prayers, rituals, dreams or, in a civilized society, taking the family to see the Christmas manger in the town square.
    While many seek spiritualism by joining a church, others seek it by becoming secular humanists or volunteering to do humanitarian work.
    There is no less indication of a universal need to seek spirituality than there is to seek beauty or scientific knowledge. Regrettably, humans have other universal urges that muddy the waters with partisan fights fought by closed-minded partisans. Better to just learn about our world, using all methods, including spirituality, in their proper place — creationism in the church, evolution in the biology classroom and Mozart in the opera house.

    • “In their proper place- creationism in the church…” Thank you. My religious beliefs don’t involve creationism, neither do my children’s. Why should it be imposed on them in their classrooms when the public school classroom is not the place.

      If your children’s religious beliefs involve creationism, then you can remove them from public school (and public life entirely?) or you can teach them the notion of “proper place.”

      I am fed up with people who think their version of Christianity is the only true religion trying to decide for the rest of us that *our lives* are the proper places for *their beliefs*. I grew up in a part of the world where one only talked about religion with one’s friends of other faiths after knowing them for many years. This was a recognition of the private sphere of human rights and an acknowledgment that it is easy to unkowingly offend another person when discussing such a sensitive topic. Hence, the idea that one should know one’s friend very well indeed before broaching the subject.

      Common courtesy to the sensitivities of the “other” is necessary to a healthy society. It may seem “uptight” to treat religion or any other subject as off-limits with people one doesn’t know well, but there’s a lot to be said for that sort of uptightness. There is also much to be said for the idea that one grows one’s friendship without any urge to mold the friend. Otherwise, you would be working against the uniqueness of your friend, presumably something that attracted you to him.

      I can recall numerous occasions when individuals have become friendly with me, only to attempt to bring the prize unbeliever into their church. I always felt insulted. It didn’t seem very different from a man pretending interesting in me when his only interest was sex. Similarly, these people were not interested in me as I existed, but in a version of me that would be more like them.

      • You make some very good points, Audrey, but I wouldn’t waste too much time on “Tray” — if that’s his real name.

        I ran down some information about “Tray”. “Tray” calls himself an “internet marketer”. And he appears to be someone hired by a certain company (that I will not name) to spam websites around the net.

        I’m not yet totally sure that’s what he’s doing, Audrey. Which is the only reason I have not yet deleted his posts on my blog. (I have, however, been deleting the commercial links — the spam — that he puts in his posts.) But at this point, I’m about 85% sure that’s what he’s doing — and I’m seriously considering blogging about “Tray” so that anyone who googles him will know his game.

        To put “Tray” in context, Audrey. Honest people doing what he’s doing offer you money to insert their commercial links on your blog. I never accept their offers, but their offers range from $100 to $500 dollars for a link. Apparently, “Tray” is trying to free load.

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