Tanya Luhrmann tells us for the gazillionth time that faith is HARD (but useful)

Okay, I’ll confess some possible sour grapes here: a while back I had the bright idea of writing a New York Times op-ed on the old canard that “science, like religion, is based on faith”. That, after all, has been a misconception promulgated not infrequently in the Times‘s own columns, but one never answered in the same paper.  I wrote the op-ed editor with my idea. He wrote back asking for a precis of what I wanted to discuss, and I responded with what I thought was a pretty good (and detailed) proposal, including a rationale for why such a discussion was necessary, giving the list of NYT pieces that had previously argued that science was based on faith, and showing how my discussion would make new points not discussed by scientists or New Atheists.

I never heard back—not even a “no.”  When I inquired, after a few weeks, about what they had decided, I still got no response. How rude can you get?

But of course we know that the New York Times—unlike the Washington Post, which regularly publishes anti-religious op-eds—spends a lot of time osculating the rumps of the faithful.  One would think that strange in one of the few papers that still has a “science” section, but I suspect that there’s more sympathy for faith at the end of section A.

Well, there are other venues, some that even have more readers, and readers who might benefit from reading about the “faith” canard. Perhaps I’ll try those places.

But it’s especially galling to see, time after time, accommodationist Tanya Luhrmann publish columns on religion in the Times—all of them sympathetic and most of them trivial.  Today’s piece,  “Conjuring up our own gods“, is especially notable for saying virtually nothing new.  In essence, here’s its message:

1. Most Americans believe in supernatural or paranormal phenomena.

2. Such belief appears to be “hard-wired,” which I interpret as “instilled in our brains by natural selection.”

3. Pascal Boyer and others think that religious belief stems from an evolved adaptation to believe in agency (you’ll know this if you’ve read Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origin of Religious Thought).

4.  It may be in our brains to believe in agency, but a sustained religious belief, in which you walk and converse with God, takes work.

There is nothing here that hasn’t been said before.  And Luhrmann’s argument is neither dispositive nor coherent.

First, just because a belief is widespread does not mean that it’s “hard-wired”.  Many people, including most Scandinavians, have managed to shake off their belief in God.  Did they unwire themselves?  Or did they experence reversed natural selection? For millennia most people were xenophobic, and men thought women inferior. Were those ubiquitous beliefs hard-wired, too?  Ubiquity of belief is no evidence for genetics, and, in fact, the very topic of Steve Pinker’s last book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was how fast we’ve discarded our inimical beliefs over the last few centuries.  Change occurring that fast simply cannot reflect alterations in the frequencies of genes. Such change must be mediated by culture alone, and Pinker gives several explanations.

If religion is in any sense hard-wired, then in my view it’s a byproduct of other evolved aspects of our brain, and not necessarily the need to believe in agency.  It could, for instance, simply be an evolved credulity, so that kids tend to believe what their parents tell them. (That would be adaptive.) Start with some parents who believe in the supernatural for any reason at all (and there are, by the way, some religions, past and present, in which God wasn’t an active agent on Earth), and religious belief gets promulgated culturally. (I’d say as a “meme,” but I don’t like that concept.) When people ask me about Boyer’s theory, or another theory about why belief in God was adaptive, my response is always, “Well, maybe, but religion originated so long ago that we just don’t know. I have no idea where it comes from.”  I’m an evolutionist, but I don’t even have a strong opinion on the matter. There are, of course, many other theories about how religion came to pass.

Nevertheless, without mentioning alternative theories, Luhrmann presents Boyer’s (and Justin Barrett’s) as the best explanation:

One interpretation of these data is that belief in the supernatural is hard-wired. Scholars like the anthropologist Pascal Boyer, author of “Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origin of Religious Thought,” and the psychologist Justin L. Barrett, author of “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” argue that the fear that one would be eaten by a lion, or killed by a man who wanted your stuff, shaped the way our minds evolved. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were more likely to survive if they interpreted ambiguous noise as the sound of a predator. Most of the time it was the wind, of course, but if there really was danger, the people who worried about it were more likely to live.

That inclination to search for an agent has evolved into an intuition that an invisible agent, or god, may be there. (You can argue this theory from different theological positions. Mr. Boyer is an atheist, and treats religion as a mistake. Mr. Barrett is an evangelical Christian, who thinks that God’s hand steered evolution.)

Note how she a). elides from presenting one among many theories into the tacit assumption that that theory is right; and b). doesn’t present other theories for the origin of religion.

But then Luhrmann draws a distinction between “intuitive plausibility” and “sober faith”.  And, as always, she trots out her old Bucephalus, the idea that having “sober faith” is hard—very hard. That, of course, was the topic of her last book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. (See my note about that book here, and search the site for “Luhrmann” to see my many posts on her subsequent columns and talk shows.)

Luhrmann then relates the story of a man called Jack, who made up an imagined animal—a fox—as a “thought form” (“tulpa” in Buddhism) to help focus his meditation and calm him down.  But in order to keep that calming fox in mind, Jack had to concentrate. Otherwise the Meditative Fox would slip away, presumably hunting Meditative Hares.

And that brings us to Luhrmann’s tedious lesson: that having real faith—imagining God as walking by your side and communicating with you—is HARD. You have to work at it, but if you do, God will eventually show up. (Read God Talks Back to see this thesis in extenso.):

The mere fact that people like Jack find it intuitively possible to have invisible companions who talk back to them supports the claim that the idea of an invisible agent is basic to our psyche. But Jack’s story also makes it clear that experiencing an invisible companion as truly present — especially as an adult — takes work: constant concentration, a state that resembles prayer.

It may seem paradoxical, but this very difficulty may be why evangelical churches emphasize a personal, intimate God. While the idea of God may be intuitively plausible — just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are atheists who have prayed for parking spots — belief can be brittle. Indeed, churches that rely on a relatively impersonal God (like mainstream Protestant denominations) have seen their congregations dwindle over the last 50 years.

To experience God as walking by your side, in conversation with you, is hard. Evangelical pastors often preach as if they are teaching people how to keep God constantly in mind, because it is so easy not to pray, to let God’s presence slip away. But when it works, people experience God as alive.

Secular liberals sometimes take evolutionary psychology to mean that believing in God is the lazy option. But many churchgoers will tell you that keeping God real is what’s hard.

And many churchgoers will probably tell you the opposite!

Luhrmann’s conclusion is, I think, conditioned by her work with the Vineyard, an evangelical Christian sect. And in some cases those people do have to practice before they imagine that they hear God speaking to them. It’s not all that easy to adopt a delusion. But it’s not so clear that everyone who finds consolation in God has to work that hard. And, anyway, so what? And why does Luhrmann need to write a column saying exactly what she said in her book, but adding on unproven assertions about the origin of faith?

Some of Luhrmann’s defenders argue that she’s a nonbeliever and is merely an anthropologist reporting how faith works in America.  Maybe so, but then why call her book “When God Talks Back”?  And why write so many columns defending faith?

Lurhmann was, of course, funded by Templeton, and in their report on her work, Templeton elides from “reporting about people’s belief in God” to “reporting how people experience God.” The latter, of course, sort of assumes that God exists. Here’s a bit from the Templeton Foundation report on Luhrmann’s work:

As an anthropologist, Luhrmann is clear that her job is not to assess the veracity of people’s experiences, but she concludes that believers are genuinely changed. Further, the work it takes to experience God in this way enables people to hold onto their beliefs in the face of the skepticism of the secular world.

That’s how you put a Goddy spin on what purports to be pure anthropology.

94 Comments

  1. Cara
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    Subscribe.

    • gbjames
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 5:57 am | Permalink

      and me

  2. francis
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    //

  3. Posted October 15, 2013 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    “How rude can you get?”

    Well, at least this wasn’t Biology Online … 

    /@

  4. John K.
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    I’m confused. People are “hard wired” for belief in god, but it is a “hard thing to do”? I am “hard wired” not to hold my breath for too long, and I don’t find continued breathing all that difficult.

    I suppose if one works really hard, one can force a belief in all kinds of things. One has to wonder though, what is making things so difficult? Could it be the idea is not a good one and contradicted at every chance it can be put to the test? I would also like to know why the Jesus is more legitimate than the Fox.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      I thought this as well – Luhrmann says we are “hard wired” for religion then says that maintaining a delusion took work. If we’re hard wired, the delusion should come easy and dispelling the delusion should take work.

      If the obvious that I’ve stated is not the correct conclusion, then she ought to explain why that is.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      I’ll have to add The Argument from Hard Work to my list of apologist fallacies.

      • pulseteresa
        Posted October 16, 2013 at 3:32 am | Permalink

        Hahahaha!

    • tubby
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      I’m also confused about how just because it’s hard to maintain this kind of belief automatically makes it valid.

      • Marella
        Posted October 15, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        Work is a virtue, so doing something that’s hard work is a virtue, therefor believing in god is a virtue. That’s how it works.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

        I suppose it would be trivial to point out here that it would also be hard work to maintain a pure and robust islam, hinduism, ad infinitum. We should not allow Luhrmann to smuggle in the axiom “if any religion is correct, it’s christianity” simply because it is the dominant religion in the sub-culture into which she was born.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Well, part of the reason it’s so hard is that you have to keep battling your conscience (which they label “Doubt.)

  5. truthspeaker
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    “It may be in our brains to believe in agency, but a sustained religious belief, in which you walk and converse with God, takes work.”

    Does she offer any reason why that is work worth doing?

    • Sastra
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Presumably “it’s better to be happy than right.”

      The dear Little People can’t handle things the way we can. They don’t need truth so much as comfort.

      • pulseteresa
        Posted October 16, 2013 at 3:43 am | Permalink

        Except the studies showing that religion provides comfort and/or happiness are mixed. Still, I get your point.

        • Matt D
          Posted October 16, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

          Mixed for this life, yes, but they can dismiss such results by pointing out happiness is eternal in Heaven.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      I think truthspeaker nailed it. Why should I expend so much effort to try to talk myself into something that I know is not true?

      Very closely related to this, I think, is the fact that some religious people get so upset when you tell them you’re not (or, especially, no longer) religious. They are personally offended, hurt, shocked, or whatever. To which my response is, “why should I live my life in conformity with your psychological peculiarities?”

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

        In the previous post, please change “conformity with” to “subjection to”.

  6. Posted October 15, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    “Further, the work it takes to experience God in this way enables people to hold onto their beliefs in the face of the skepticism of the secular world.”

    Well, yeah, the more work you’ve put into believing, the more stubborn you’re going to be about changing your mind and writing off all that time and effort! Just an example of the “backlash effect”, perhaps.

    I wonder if there’s any correlation between religiosity in adults and having had an invisible friend as a child?

    /@

  7. uglicoyote
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Road.

  8. Posted October 15, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    I take particular umbrage with her equating the hard task of quelling cognitive dissonance with the self-empowerment of mindfulness.

    Keeping an imaginary being ‘real’ is difficult going because one has to trod along the rough terrain of the cognitive dissonance fissure: not all gods are true but all gods could be false.

    Mindfulness is when one uses thought substitution: when one wants to fix up, they think instead of an image that engenders positive emotions.

    She is beyond a sloppy thinker. I am guessing she is a self-appointed peacemaker, simply adores the Templeton Agenda, and believes she is doing good. And damn clear thinking and intellectual honesty.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      She is a very good example of how some of the tools commonly used in the sciences could greatly benefit a traditionally humanities based discipline.

      Such tools have already been adopted by anthropology to various extent, but she seems to have missed out on that.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

        Anthropology is actually a social science so she would have been exposed to the same tools, she just chooses not to use them.

        • Posted October 15, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

          Having been an anthropologist for 35 years I can say from long observatio, that when both sociologists and anthropologists are “exposed to” real science the most they get out of it is aversion. Few have the gumption to take science classes at the third and fourth year university levels and so are quite unaware of “scientific rigor.”

          Admittedly working with people is quite different from working with mice or molecules and replicability of very specific findings is more often than not difficult to impossible, but both sociologists and anthropologists assiduously avoid the methodologies of people who study animal behaviors. The anthropological reaction to Wilson’s “Sociobiology” bordered on hysteria and included an academic lynching session at an annual meeting. As one of my favorite sociologists told me as I attempted to explain sociobiology, “If their are any rules of human behavior I don’t want to know them.”

          Then came postmodernism, which doesn’t at all fit into what I’ll call “real science,” and in many respects that was the end of anthropology as a reasonably respected discipline. Name one anthropologist other than the one being discussed here. Most people can come up with Margaret Mead who has been dead for decades.

          Luhrmann is not the worst by any means, but the NYT giving her space time and time again (I have protested to them) simply confirms that anthropology consists of a whole lot of idiots. Check their journal “American Anthropologist” for confirmation.

          • gbjames
            Posted October 15, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

            As someone who left the field some 30-some years ago I can attest to this, too. However I’d want to note that Anthropology is a broader field than just Cultural Anthropology, at least here in the US. Those who incline to Physical Anthro and Archaeology are usually much more scientifically literate. The discipline is schizophrenic in this regard.

            • Diane G.
              Posted October 15, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

              From what I’ve seen there’s a spectrum of scientific rigor in the other soft sciences as well. Think lab rat studies vs. human self-reported data studies in psych.

              • Mark Joseph
                Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

                Here’s what you’re looking for:
                http://xkcd.com/435/

              • Diane G.
                Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

                “Here’s what you’re looking for:
                http://xkcd.com/435/

                Oh, I’d forgotten all about that one! Yes, perfect! :D

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 15, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

              Yes, I had the physical anthropologists in mind when I said that. Still, you’d think there would be some rigour….heck I’m pretty sure I was exposed to it at the undergrad level.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted October 15, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

            Studying people is messy and it could mean having prolonged contact with them. This is why I preferred physical anthropology. :)

    • Sastra
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      She is beyond a sloppy thinker. I am guessing she is a self-appointed peacemaker, simply adores the Templeton Agenda, and believes she is doing good. And damn clear thinking and intellectual honesty.

      I think your guess is spot on. She’s not only going into Anthropologist Mode (which, as an anthropologist, is fine) — she’s going into Therapist Mode and urging everyone else to do so as well: ignore the issuer and focus on the person.

      The religious love it when atheists agree to leave off the contentious issues about whether God exists and just celebrate them for who they are. If I believed in a lot of bullshit I would also be eager for peace on those terms.

  9. sailor1031
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    “1. Most Americans believe in supernatural or paranormal phenomena.”

    Despite never having seen any. She’s right – believing is hard.

  10. Posted October 15, 2013 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    ask a child if it’s hard to believe in Santa Claus. It’s not at all if people you trust keep telling you a lie that this being is real, and praise you and give presents when you accept their nonsense.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      Exactly. It takes no effort at all. What takes effort is educating yourself to be able to grade and assess evidence and claims rationally, and then to actually apply those skills. Even when they don’t lead to where you would like them to.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 15, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        ” Even when they don’t lead to where you would like them to.”

        The most difficult part, IMO. And the bar on which many a ship founders. (Or more aptly, reverses course back to safe harbor.)

        • darrelle
          Posted October 15, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

          “Or more aptly, reverses course back to safe harbor.”

          Nice analogy. My daughter wants to know why I am laughing.

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

            :-)

    • Posted October 16, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      Yes, but most children outgrow belief in many imaginary things: the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus. (I used that order because it was the one I observed in my children). But quite a number of people never seem to take the next logical step of dropping the sky fairy.

      • Posted October 17, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

        children grow out of their belief because society says “this one is childish”. people still support believing in a sky fairy because it makes a great way to control people and make money.

  11. Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Wouldn’t it be possible to have a genetic propensity for certain behaviors or tendencies but override those tendencies because of things we learn? IE, change over a short period of time may indicate cultural mediation, but does it necessarily mean the original (proposed) propensity couldn’t be genetic? I’m thinking of my propensity to over-indulge in fats and sweets, which I override (almost) daily.

    • Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      (…because of things I’ve learned from our culture’s development of medical and physiological understanding.)

    • Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      I was thinking the same myself.

      I think we can be hard-wired to see agency without being hard-wired for religion: Religion is just a social construct that builds upon that foundation. Critical thinking and social change can erode religiosity, even though we’re still hard-wired to see agency.

      /@

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      Exactly what I was thinking (and no doubt many of us).

      Our thinking brains are an evolved trait too, and it would be far more adaptive to be able to use them to address “hard-wiring” (that may have been adaptive in the Stone Age) culturally than to wait for it to die out via selection.

  12. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    I don’t like how Luhrmann mentions atheists. She mentions them three times and each mention is either unnecessary, inaccurate, offensive or all of the above.

    The first mention is here where she implies that the theories she quotes must be true because atheists and evangelicals both espouse them:

    Mr. Boyer is an atheist, and treats religion as a mistake. Mr. Barrett is an evangelical Christian, who thinks that God’s hand steered evolution.

    I see this as unnecessary. If these two people are putting forth theories based on evidence, it shouldn’t matter what their personal beliefs are. Instead, by mentioning it, I think she is trying to say “look how the religious and atheist are really just one in the same and therefore we can accommodate faith and lack of faith”.

    But the next mention I find offensive:

    It may seem paradoxical, but this very difficulty may be why evangelical churches emphasize a personal, intimate God. While the idea of God may be intuitively plausible — just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are atheists who have prayed for parking spots — belief can be brittle. Indeed, churches that rely on a relatively impersonal God (like mainstream Protestant denominations) have seen their congregations dwindle over the last 50 years.

    Um, your evidence? For one, there are atheists in foxholes and that’s really offensive to suggest otherwise. Also, where are your data that prove atheists pray for parking spots? And really, they really pray? They really think there is an invisible sky god allowing them to find a parking spot?

    • Kurt Lewis Helf
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      To whom is the idea of of god “intuitively plausible”? It’s only plausible to those who’ve had it drilled into their brains for decades; otherwise, the idea is ridiculously implausible.

      • Sastra
        Posted October 15, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        I think the general idea that there is a big, wise, powerful person intently watching what you do and rewarding and punishing you accordingly is intuitively plausible because for the first 3 years of your life or so it was more or less TRUE. You were a baby; you lived it and formed your understanding of the world inside it.

        Just about the time you begin to figure out that Mommy and Daddy aren’t really inside your head and aware of all your thoughts is usually the time when Invisible Parent is introduced — Who is reading your thoughts. So you slip from experience to concept. God feels familiar because it resembles a toddler’s idea of Authority.

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      I find it hard to see what she is saying offensive. Her ideas are based on ignorance. There is a little bit of offence with her lack of curiosity, she’s never bothered to try to understand us or question us, but she has a lot of opinion. I’ve met lots of taxi drivers like her (my dad and his friends). That could just be my ego being offended. I like being questioned, it shows they are interested.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 15, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        It’s offensive to atheist to suggest that our little atheist minds are really little theist minds because when push comes to shove we always pray. That’s what Luhrmann is suggesting when she says there are no atheists in foxholes and atheists will pray if they need a parking spot.

        It’s also piss poor scholarship to suggest something with no evidence and to connect dots the way she does. Piss poor scholarship is also offensive because she becomes a blight on other anthropologists and social scientists doing good work.

        • Alex Shuffell
          Posted October 15, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

          I apologise, I forgot she’s meant to be serious scholar, not a journalist. Her ignorance is inexcusable and not as funny as I thought. The cabbie analogy was bad, they’re not usually Cambridge educated with academic awards.

        • Diane G.
          Posted October 15, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

          Exactly, and its also an indication of willful ignorance (the worst kind). There have been numerous public protestations of the old foxhole canard, from MSM articles to veterans marches.

          I don’t know which false-ism infuriates me more–the atheist/foxhole shit or the idea that you can boil a frog without its noticing it if you just do it slowly enough.

          • Posted October 15, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

            Indeed, there are only atheists in foxholes.

            True believers wouldn’t need to rely upon mere dirt to protect them from enemy bullets. If they actually, really believed, they’d armor themselves in the glory of their favored deity, rise up, stride into the midst of the enemy, and smite them with great righteousness.

            That that such things regularly happen in certain popular books yet never happen in the real world should be all one needs to know just exactly what type of literature those books are best classified as.

            Cheers,

            b&

    • Posted October 16, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Indeed. Luhrmann is simply a liar, and a completely intentional one, when it comes to her claims that there are no atheists in foxholes and that atheist pray.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 16, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Examples of atheists in foxholes.

      “Joe Simpson, author of Touching the Void, addresses the issue in the film adaptation of his nearly fatal climb up the Siula Grande mountain. Referring to the moment when he lay at the bottom of a deep crevasse, dehydrated, alone, and with a broken leg, he states: ‘”I was totally convinced I was on my own, that no one was coming to get me. I was brought up as a devout Catholic. I’d long since stopped believing in God. I always wondered if things really hit the fan, whether I would, under pressure, turn round and say a few Hail Marys and say ‘Get me out of here’. It never once occurred to me. It meant that I really don’t believe and I really do think that when you die, you die, that’s it, there’s no afterlife.” [17]”

      Another example.

  13. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Now here’s another question: Why should faith be hard?

    Why should an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god (who in the Christian tradition sent his son, or himself, to earth to ‘rescue’ us) who wants us to have a loving relationship with him make faith hard? Does not compute.

    Believing in made up stuff with no real evidence being hard? That computes.

  14. TJR
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Accommodationists are so shrill and dogmatic.

    Accommodationism is a religion, too.

    • Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      ++

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Nice ‘framing.’

    • Richard Olson
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      If you don’t mind I will borrow this observation from you, TJR, and use it from time to time. I’ll attribute it to you when I do so, providing I’m able to recall your initials.

  15. sam
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    On Tue, 15 Oct 2013 12:45:11 +0000
    Why Evolution Is True wrote:

    > 2. Such belief appears to be “hard-wired,” which I interpret as
    > “instilled in our brains by natural selection.”

    Religion – is a rote-learned phantasy,
    touted by parasitic-hierarchy.

    Atheist – is Human mind’s default state,
    ere programming by kin, kith, first-estate.

  16. Brygida Berse
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    First, just because a belief is widespread does not mean that it’s “hard-wired”. Many people, including most Scandinavians, have managed to shake off their belief in God. Did they unwire themselves?

    Isn’t it just like an optical illusion? We are “hard wired” (for lack of a better phrase) for believing it, but we can “unwire” ourselves mentally if experiment and logic tells us that it is just an illusion. And optical illusions are a byproduct of evolutionary adaptive properties of our brain (just what Boyer speculates about religion).

    Luhrmann is a sloppy thinker for sure and I frankly don’t see how Boyer’s proposition helps her claim that religious faith is difficult (or useful). The two lines of reasoning in her article do not support each other. It looks more like a collection of loose thoughts meant to glorify religious experience. Follow the (Templeton’s) money.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      I’m hard-wired for violence.

      I work on it. And have the advantage of living in a culture which has already worked on it so that violence wasn’t encouraged and fostered into being a private or public virtue.

      There seems to be a sort of Naturalistic Fallacy lurking in Luhrmann’s writings. If it’s natural then it has to be good — or at least okay. Evolved instincts are “normal” for us; Nature gave us what we need. No reason to inhibit them.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 15, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        Exactly!

  17. Hempenstein
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    there are atheists who have prayed for parking spots

    Lady, I may have prayed for stuff when I was a kid, but I assure you I have never prayed for a parking spot.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      Just because we might find ourselves thinking “oh, please, let there be a parking space/let me ace this test/let me get there before the plane leaves,” etc., doesn’t mean we’re praying. Sounds like just human nature to me–probably a byproduct of having language.

      • Posted October 15, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        Hasn’t it been shown that we more easily find what we are looking for if we say what it is? That verbalising the idea improves our ability to recognised what we’re looking. So, “praying” could actually work! :-o

        /@

  18. Notagod
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    She is promoting what I consider often to be the worst part of physical abuse, the mental abuse that accompanies it. The physical aspects of abuse often heal but the remaining cognitive problems can linger for a lifetime. Luhrmann is advocating brainwashing and she would like it to be self imposed.

    It’s also wildly inconsistent that someone trained in a scientific field would gleam data from a portion of the american population and then with the wave of a hand apply her handiwork to the whole of the human species.

    If I had a New York Times subscription I would drop it due to disgust in thinking that even a penny of my contribution might go to supporting Luhrmann’s confusion. And the way they have dismissed Dr. Coyne after asking him to put in the effort for the precis is unconscionable.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      You’re dead on right: she’s advocating a form of brainwashing.

      I once picked up a book about the 12-Step Program when I was waiting in a doctor’s office. There was a section there on “What if I don’t believe in God/a Higher Power?” The authors then gave the reader some helpful advice on how to make yourself Believe.

      Get into the habit of talking to someone you can’t see. Get into the habit of telling that invisible person “thank you” whenever good things happen. Ask questions; think of answers that this Power might give. Practice, practice, practice. Behave AS IF you believe in an Higher Power God … and soon you really WILL.

      It works.

      And it’s like they turn the part of their brain that gives a shit about being honest to “off.”

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 15, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        And don’t forget the power of peer pressure.

  19. Alex Shuffell
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    This is all irrelevant as it says nothing of whether the religious or supernatural beliefs are based in reality.

    The hard-wired idea is really confusing to me. I grew up in England, went to Church of England schools, so did a lot of my friends (most are other students studying science or engineering) and none of us are religious, none of us ever were religious. If religious beliefs are hard-wired we may have some broken dysfunctional genes. Maybe that’s why atheism spreads in countries with better education systems, we don’t have the religious genes so we get on with other studies. Dysfunctional religious genes evolved first and spread somewhere in Northern Europe and separately in Japan. I can make up stuff too!

    As for faith being “hard”, no, it’s easy. It plays straight to our vanity and gives us comfort, we don’t have to answer lots of awkward questions, we can still be amused by the shiny stuff without struggling too much with curiosity.

  20. Gordon Hill
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    It’s all about comprehend the comprehensive… ;-)

  21. Sastra
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    First, just because a belief is widespread does not mean that it’s “hard-wired”. Many people, including most Scandinavians, have managed to shake off their belief in God. Did they unwire themselves?

    I’m still “wired” for a tendency to anthropomorphise and see agency in inanimate things. But I translate it into “whimsy” because I know better. My guess is that the Scandinavians do too.

    People who shake off their belief in God will still yell at their computer when it doesn’t do what they want. They will talk to their pets as if the animals can understand complex thoughts. They will get angry at the weather and beg the rain to stop.

    Those are the ‘bones’ of the natural human tendency to think in terms of supernatural essences.

    If you are self-aware and the rational product of an enlightenment background, then you consider this stuff to be a way of playing around. It’s whimsy. If you are religious, though, it’s all deep hints that God is real.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Yes, my car is named Zoomy and we go out for rides together. :)

    • Posted October 16, 2013 at 4:03 am | Permalink

      Remember the episode of Faulty Towers where Basil’s car breaks down and he lashes it with a stick?
      I have never ‘anthropomorphised’ in any way. But I do talk to cats because they seem to understand the essence of what I am saying.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 16, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        That episode of Fawlty Towers is one of my favourites because you see Basil threaten the car then go out if frame to retrieve the stick. With the camera focused on the car the whole time, it makes it that much funnier when he returns to give his cat the thrashing.

  22. Posted October 15, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    This sounds a lot like a person who has struggled to come up with rational reasons to believe in an invisible person. But rather than viewing this lack of evidence and logic as excellent reasons to conclude that said being probably does NOT exist, a concept that she is apparently not capable of even considering, she tries to make a virtue out of an obtuse refusal to think critically.

    And in the process, she can’t get out of her own way as others have pointed out. We are hardwired for belief in God yet belief is hard for us. If faith was easy, that would no doubt be used as positive evidence for God too. There seems to be no set of circumstances that would lead her to doubt the existence of God, but her hostility towards atheists, particularly those who don’t keep quiet about their atheism, is explained by the fact that we make the process of self-delusion, I mean belief, that much harder.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Tanya Luhrmann is iirc an atheist. Or, perhaps, a “faitheist” — an atheist with a deep emotional admiration for faith in others.

      I don’t think she’s struggling to come up with rational reasons to believe in an invisible person for her own sake. She’s struggling to come up with rational reasons to absolve others of being irrational.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 15, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        Or she’s not struggling at all. She’s hit upon a vein that’s popular with the NYT so why not keep milking it? What author wouldn’t kill for that sort of promotion opportunity?

        (Pardon the mixed metaphor; I’m also listening to the Tigers game…)

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

          The Dodgers and the Tigers are both doing poorly :-(

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 15, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

            So true. :(

            More people must be praying for Boston & St. Louis…

            *ducks*

            • Mark Joseph
              Posted October 16, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

              A great improvement in the situation today. I guess god (which one?) changed his/her mind.

              • Diane G.
                Posted October 16, 2013 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

                Hallelujah!

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted October 15, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

        “Faith is believing things without evidence. In some circles, this is considered praiseworthy.”

  23. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Believing in impossible things might be really, really hard but with practice you can become good enough at it to get paid to write NYT articles bragging about what a pro you are.

    “Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
    “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
    – Lewis Carroll

  24. Posted October 15, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I can’t believe this — she’s literally offered up a textbook example of cognitive dissonance, and then she cites it as a good thing!

    Believing in your imaginary friends is difficult. You wouldn’t do difficult things unless there was a very good reason to do so. A very good reason to believe in imaginary friends is because they’re really real. Therefore, your imaginary friends are really real and you’re fully justified in believing in them.

    What Luhrmann has done here is every bit a full-on assault on the mental health of the public as Wakefield’s anti-vaccination campaign was against the immunological health of the public.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      What Luhrmann has done here is every bit a full-on assault on the mental health of the public as Wakefield’s anti-vaccination campaign was against the immunological health of the public.

      Damn, there’s more great exposition in this discussion thread than in the sum total of Luhrmann’s output. (I feel pretty confident of that without having actually read it all.)

  25. DrBrydon
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I am not a fan of the term “hard-wired” as a metaphor for human behaviour. It implies that, as with a machine that is hard-wired, there is no other way it can work. What we really have — if Boyer is right — is a propensity for belief. As we know, human history, and individual growth, is a story of our overcoming some (forgive me) animalistic propensities. We learn not to kill, we learn not to shit ourselves. We can learn that gods are an unnecessary explanation for how the universe works.

  26. RFW
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Actually, being a believer isn’t hard at all if you believe in the right religion.

    There are some systems of religious belief nearly impervious to the blandishments of xtianist missionaries, if the missionaries’ lack of success is any indication. Two examples:

    1. The hybrid belief system of the Nakhi people who inhabit far western Yunnan province. As described by Peter Goullart in his book “Forgotten Kingdom”, with respect to the failure of xtianist missionaries, it comprises elements of Buddhism, shamanism, animism, Confucianism, possibly Taoism, and Bon, different elements being relevant to different aspects of life.

    2. Traditional Japanese religion, which combines Buddhism and Shinto, the latter being a developed form of animism. While there certainly are xtianists in Japan, there sure aren’t many if the paucity of churches is any clue.

    Both of these hybrid systems conceive of the dead being reachable and interested (sometimes) in the affairs of the living.

    A different kind of example is Islam. Entirely aside from the draconian penalties Islam imposes on apostates, Muslims simply aren’t very interested in the xtianist system. Indeed, Islam can be described as a simple religion; not simple minded, but simple in terms of what one must think and do as a believer.

    The interesting question then arises: would it be possible to infect the more fundamentalist parts of the US with a synthetic belief system along the lines of the Nakhi or Japanese systems? I suspect not, but the idea is worth contemplating.

    PS: Goullart’s book is one of the few I’ll insist on keeping with me when I’m finally warehoused in some home for the aged. It’s one of very few books that describes the pre-revolutionary Nakhi life style in any detail, though first published in the mid nineteen-fifties.

  27. Daniel Engblom
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m confused Jerry, isn’t Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained (& Justin Barrett’s) exactly the byproduct take on religion? Whilst others, such as the group-selectionist David Sloan Wilson, and slightly sympathetic to religionists Jesse Bering, the ones touting adaptationist theories of religion? (Jesse Bering agrees with Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran and others on many of the possible byproduct elements, but goes one step further in his book The Faith Instinct, and argues that religious people are more moral because they think they are being watched all the time.)

    Could you help me out here? Is it Luhrmann who is twisting the byproduct explanations to fit her accommodationist take, or did I read you wrongly in what you wrote about Pascal Boyer?

    • Daniel Engblom
      Posted October 15, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      *Correction: The name of Jesse Bering’s book is The Belief Instinct.

  28. BilBy
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    If you wish REALLY hard…Masfield had it right

    “Once the tribe did thus on the downs, on these downs burning
    Men in the frame,
    Crying to the gods of the downs till their brains were turning
    And the gods came.”

  29. Dale
    Posted October 21, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Yep how could belief in god be genetically hard wired. Prople raised in Secular households don’t believe!

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 21, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

      That’s not always true.


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