The Origins of Morality really do Matter

March 23, 2010

Why do humans use such complex systems of moral rules and stern enforcements? We don't find that high degree of complexity, communication, and energy put into morality by any other species. 

Religions offer an origin story to explain our 'specialness'. A divine power was involved in our creation, caring enough for humans to give us the ability to know morality and serve the divine. Some religions add that this god sends messages about moral rules and delivers punishments. 

Most people around the world accept some religious story about morality. The conduct of religious people directly reflects this unthinking acceptance, and the evolution of their cultures has been deeply affected in turn. Today we see many cultures struggling with conservative religious legacies, unable to effectively deal with their modern problems, and unable to deal with neighboring cultures.

If religion is entirely wrong about why humans use complex moralities, then that changes everything. The origins of morality really do matter. If religion is not correct, then we desperately need to learn the truth.

The natural and social sciences have new accounts of human morality: why our species uses complex moralities to sustain communities (a largely biological/anthropological matter), and how moralities descend with modifications through generations (a largely sociological/political matter). These two issues are obviously linked: our anthropological 'natures' provide constraints on the diversity of cultural moralities, while our cultural 'ethics' selectively emphasize some of our anthropological needs. Nature and ethics are intimately linked in this general scientific account: our 'nature' and our 'ethics' are not independently aloof matters. Cultures and their ethics are natural because they are human, and they are naturalistically explainable. Ethics can't stray far from anthropology for very long, but ethics can make a big difference. Our cultures have invented different ways of organizing societies, but all societies more or less figure out some way to sustain food production, promote family reproduction, develop technologies, distribute political authority, etc. One's cultural ethics explains and justifies the local way of doing such important things. 

We have already mentioned how religious ethics may be seriously in error. Since it is, by now, our human nature to be cultural, the origins of morality really do matter once again. No god is responsible for our cultures, so we have been on our own all along. If morality is natural for us, we don't need any god, but we do have to intelligently manage our own moralities in this planetary age. The local is being replaced by the global. Most cultures can't afford anymore to rest content with traditional answers. Our ethical thinking must expand to take account of this novel planetary situation. Humanism is one prominent example of fresh ethical thinking that takes both our history and our present into account.

But humanism is crippled from the start if the origins of morality really don't matter. Over at The Guardian, commentators are discussing "What can Darwin teach us about morality?"   Imagine my surprise at reading Razib Khan’s response, "The Origins of morality do not matter." He says,

The origins of morality do not matter. The Danes believe in evolution, yes, but they understand it only marginally better than the Turks. Fewer still could define inclusive fitness. Turks believe in Islam, but most know Islamic theology or jurisprudence as well as a Dane. Sons cherish their mothers, and mothers will sacrifice for their children, whether they believe in a living God above, an eternal karmic cycle, or a mindless evolutionary process across the eons.

Actually, the natural origins of morality must matter, if Khan is right about such basic and universal moral intuitions. Khan goes on to describe cultural evolution, constrained by natural selection, and this too is an origin account. I have written about Marc Hauser's research showing that even religions can't easily override basic moral intuitions shared around the world. Hauser's explanation is an origin theory: basic morals are nearly universal because they are very old and embedded in the species, older and deeper than any religions of historical record. 

Two fallacies must be avoided at this stage. It is fallacious to think, "Anything humanly natural must be necessary for us." It is also fallacious to think, "No culture should try to adjust our deep moral intuitions." The social sciences expose both fallacies by taking the origins and functions of our moralities into account. 

Religious ethics should not be replaced by a Darwinian ethics, as if we should just replace a divine master with a genetic master. Morality is Darwinian; cultural ethics need not be, in the shorter term. Indeed, the point of thoughtful culture is to manage moral intuitions, enhancing some and de-emphasizing others. Few moral intuitions can be entirely overridden (biological evolution/cultural failure tends to weed out severe deviations), as Hauser suggests, but cultures design and teach ethical systems to dramatically promote things like trust, cooperation, and compassion (to a point -- many cultures retain a local bias). Furthermore, many cultures use ethical thinking to make fast generational adjustments to moralities to deal with changed cultural conditions (new technologies, shifting divisions of labor, urban populations, genocides and empire wars, etc.). Robert Wright's intriguing book "The Evolution of God" traces religious ethics around the world and highlights how civilizations have developed some common ethics, over and above basic morality. Again, since human intelligence is quite natural, no real god must be inserted to account for humans managing their moralities when faced with similar problems, and humans sometimes doing ethics in similar ways as a result. (Even the way that humans invent gods to help adjust moralities can be naturalistically explained.) Humanism, again, is a thoughtful ethics that relies on this natural perspective on our capacities for managing moralities. 

Yes, humans have natural capacities for morality, and that is why cultures can selectively emphasize moral intuitions to a higher degree through the training of youth and enforcement on adults. Morality and culture are real, and powerful. This is why Michael Ruse's otherwise sound commentary "God is Dead. Long live Morality" should not apply a false dichotomy for morality as either 'objective' or 'subjective' so that Ruse could prefer 'subjective'. We are used to getting that simplistic dichotomy thrown at nonbelievers by religion’s defenders so that religion can claim to be 'objective'. However, if naturalism is better than religion, then morality is far more objective: morality really is based in our genes and in our ethical cultures (both natural entities) and not merely in some subjective inner realm. Since religion is in error about the origin and function of morality, it is religion which is quite subjective. Religious ethics can try, as Wright discusses, to revise traditional moralities to reach for better objectivity. However, religious ethics is slowed by relying on some god that tempts absolute certainty. Humanism sheds that dependence to reach a higher potential for (revisable) objectivity. We learn as we go, but like science, we do learn if we try intelligence. Ruse locates morality in subjective emotion while Khan dismisses philosophy entirely, but I prefer adding some philosophical ethics to moral intuition or religious ethics.

Humanists must carefully consider naturalism's offer of assistance with understanding morality and ethics. Too often religious people accuse the nonreligious of having only 'subjective' morality, leaving religion as the only sound alternative. But I think that naturalism can do better than to confirm that hasty verdict upon us humanists. The biological/social sciences offer a more complicated theory, and this theory can additionally help humanism. If morality were so personally subjective or merely culturally relative, no one could never have any justification (besides cultural prejudice) for criticizing other cultures, such as fundamentalist regimes. Nor could humanism supply ethical guidance on a planetary scale for the emerging global community. Yet humanism is a justifiable "wisdom tradition" worthy to stand among older alternatives, and humanism can be even better by allying with naturalism. 

Once again, the origins of morality really do matter to sound ethical judgment. As Sam Harris has recently explained in "Science can answer moral questions" (his video concludes this essay), a natural perspective on morality can help us evaluate some conditions for human wellbeing. Ethics can attain a level of respectable objectivity by taking into account the origin and proper functioning of morality. Humanism, I believe, offers the best opportunity for this important effort.


#1 Philippe Blanchard (Guest) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 9:17am

Now THIS is becoming interesting.

Let’s imagine for a second that ethics really is a naturalistic / genetic instinct… Now, why the hell was religion ever needed to be invented then, as a vehicle to codifies ethics?

I mean, arguably, if genetical ethics had been overwhelmingly present from the get-go, wouldn’t humanity NOT ever needed to invent religion at all to begin with?

The very fact that religion was historically invented points to a necessary human “need” to better “arrange” ethical guidelines in the face of….........yes, INADEQUATE naturalistic & genetical ethics implementation.

That’s my theory.  Genetical ethics was NOT ENOUGH to permit the race to thrive, and so religion was invented as a mean to codifies ethics, and thus as a vehicle to eliminate the IMPERFECTIONS contained in naturalistic / genetical ethical behaviors.

THAT in turn, allowed for the race to survive and thrive.

#2 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 4:29pm

Religion as group selection, Philippe?

I respectfully disagree with your argument that religion was invented to address a human need for better arrangement of ethical guidelines… Or at least, I’d like to, but I suppose it depends on how we define ‘ethical guidelines’.

I’ve always held that ‘morality’ refers to a list of assertions as to correct and incorrect behavior. ‘Ethics’ on the other hand is to do with both justifying and persuading others to adopt a given set of moral assertions.

I’ll assume you’re fine with these rather loose definitions of these terms and move on - feel free to object if you don’t like them.

I doubt that religion was invented to fulfill a need for a better system of ethics, because religion doesn’t typically possess any ethics beyond because-God-said-so.

Neither do I think that religion was invented to fulfill a need for morality - because anyone can propose a list of moral assertions. We hardly need religion for that.

No. I think the origins of religion are far more complex than that.

Granted, I have no more direct evidence on my side than you’ve presented here (read: none). But here’s what I think.

There seems to be an emotional need in most people for a sense of personal sanctity. Most arguments about evolutionary psychology are annoying vague ‘just-so’ stories. I do find some of them plausible, such as the proposition that the emotional need for a sense of personal sanctity is neurologically related to our intuitions towards of fresh or rotten food, or clean or unclean environments in which to live. Take these same emotions and apply them to our sociability as a species, and I think that explains very neatly the emotional desire towards feelings of sanctity. This wouldn’t even have to be specifically selected for - it could just be a (fortunate) side-effect from our emerging sociability as a species.

I’m not aware of any research on this topic in neuroscience, but I’d love to read up on the subject if anyone knows of any.

So if we grant that there is an evolved emotional need for the perception of moral sanctity, that’s one half of the puzzle. The other half is the nature of organization, hierarchy, power, and persuasion.

It is in the nature of human societies that we are more powerful in groups and organizations. But it is in the nature of organizations that some kind of a hierarchy will usually be needed for co-ordinating large numbers of people. Since the decision makers at the top of the hierarchy control the entire group, they have greater power over those lower members. But in order to maintain that power, the lower members need to be persuaded into obedience.

This isn’t always a harsh and negative thing. Most companies follow a similar structures, and could use a fair system of pay rises linked to performance, cost-saving perks, and general attention to company culture in order to entice low-level members into working for the company and to persuade them to remain and perform their duties to the best of their abilities.

However, there can be a slightly ugly side, and I’ve always perceived that that’s where religion comes in. Since organization, hierarchy and power will always be with us, there will always be the need of those at the top to persuade those at the bottom. Appeals to emotion are a particularly effective mode of persuasion, particularly if they can hotwire our brains into rejecting logic, and particularly if the audience isn’t particularly well-versed in the mechanisms of logic in the first place.

So I don’t see that the invention of religion needs to be justified as meeting a general human need. It is sufficient to suppose that religion is a tool of the specific needs of powerful individuals within human societies for persuading lower ranking (and typically less educated) members of those societies into obedience by appealing to the more generalized emotional need for a sense of personal sanctity.

Note that this conception doesn’t need to be an entirely cynical and manipulative affair - religion can plod along very nicely and serve this purpose even if the majority of the people involved are completely sincere.

This has long been my view of religion - that it was not created to fulfill the needs of general human beings, but instead that it was created to fulfill the specific needs of powerful individuals within human societies. That religion is not an element of our biological evolution, but is instead an emergent side effect from both our biologically evolved sociability and the quirks of our biologically evolved emotional needs.

It’s an opposing view to your own - and I don’t necessarily have a large list of evidence to back it up. But I think it’s a more plausible and nuanced conjecture (not a theory) than the one you’ve supplied above.

I’m interested to know what you think. Any thoughts?

#3 Sam H. (Guest) on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 6:41pm

Scientifically, while there is a fairly concrete model for the evolution of moral behavior, the model for the evolution of religion is still being formed.

There is, however, a growing body of evidence that religious beliefs are the atypical use of ordinary cognitions – that religious propensity is an extension or by-product of pre-existing cognitive systems (many of them evolved moral faculties) originally selected for other purposes.

Religious behavior evolved before the Agricultural Revolution 15,000 years ago in hunter-gatherer societies (most likely around the time the modern human brain evolved).  Calculations of cross-species comparisons of neo-cortex size have estimated that human groups divide or collapse after group size exceeds about 150 individuals, and though kin-based and reciprocal-based altruism can maintain order and equality in small group sizes (where those behaviors developed), the group sizes that existed at the end of the Pleistocene far exceeded the restraints placed on group size by those behaviors.  Large groups were favored in competition for resources and habitats, but, until recently, these groups lacked institutionalized social-monitoring mechanisms.  Groups would have been susceptible to “free-loading” (cheating of the altruistic system) by individuals in the anonymity that larger group sizes would have allowed.  Religion evolved as a higher level of social cohesion, acting as an early equivalent to law and government.

In conditions where reputational and reciprocity incentives would be insufficient promoters of stable levels of cooperation, evidence is gathering to show that religious prosociality would have met the need of large human groups to maintain social order and cohesion.  Studies show that experimentally induced religious thoughts increase rates of altruism and decrease rates of cheating.  The heightened human sensitivity to prosocial reputation (a psychological mechanism) can be triggered by experimentally exposing individuals to photographic or schematic representations of eyes or by reducing anonymity during economic games – in these situations, individuals are less likely to cheat and more likely to exhibit prosocial behavior.  Likewise, cognitive awareness of supernatural beings heightens an individual’s concern over prosocial reputation.  Where humans themselves increase prosocial behavior by means of social monitoring (as allowed by small group sizes), supernatural monitoring would increase prosocial behavior even in the absence of social monitoring – a significant advantage to a large society.  Social cohesion in growing group sizes would have been made possible by religion. 

Also interested in any thoughts.

#4 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 7:18pm


Clearly, I agree with the quote below:

There is, however, a growing body of evidence that religious beliefs are the atypical use of ordinary cognitions – that religious propensity is an extension or by-product of pre-existing cognitive systems (many of them evolved moral faculties) originally selected for other purposes.

I’m always keen to pick up on this, so I’m asking out of genuine curiosity: Have you got some examples of such evidence? Up until now, all I’ve come across along these lines are the (debatably) just-so stories offered up by evolutionary psychology. I’m keen to get my hands on some good solid research to back this claim up.

In general, I’m inclined to agree with your assessment of the information available on the subject…

To really nit-pick, it does bother me a little that this line of reasoning seems to imply that religion came to exist because it is was beneficial to groups.  I think that this is incorrect in two different ways.

Firstly, I think that the answer to the question “Why did X come to be?” doesn’t have to take the form “Because X was beneficial to all humans for the following reasons…”

Even if we grant for the sake of argument that religion turned out to be beneficial to early human societies for the plausible reasons you have given, this of itself does not of itself imply that religion was brought into being for that particular reason.

To use an analogy: It is beneficial to us that it rains; but it does not follow from this that it rains because it is beneficial to us.

So to phrase my quibble a different way: Religion (maybe) was beneficial to early human society; but it does not follow from this that religion arose because it (perhaps) was beneficial to early human society.

I suspect the true cause of religion lies more in the kind of reasoning I gave in my post above.

But of course, that really is me being all nit-picky. In general terms, I’m inclined to agree that most of your reasoning is plausible. And I like very much that you granted up front that religion itself isn’t the kind of thing that would have been selected for during human evolution.

#5 Daniel Schealler on Wednesday March 24, 2010 at 7:27pm

Oh, I left out the second point I originally made. I think that this is incorrect in two different ways…

Secondly, I don’t think it is necessarily obvious that religion really was entirely beneficial to early societies. Now, I grant that there would have been the kind of beneficial consequences you’re describing so plausibly… But I also consider that early religion may have brought its own range of ills to early society as well, such as religiously inspired conflicts or human sacrifice.

I’m not knowledgeable enough about early human society to carry this argument through all the way… But I don’t think it’s entirely obvious that the presence of religion on early human society was on balance more beneficial than it was harmful.

I’m a confrontational atheist, so obviously I may be letting my horse in a different race obscure my view of this question… Taking my bias into account, I can’t necessarily say with confidence that early religion did more harm that good given my limited knowledge.

But at the same time, and even after I balance this against my bias, I still can’t see how anyone can make the reverse claim that early religion definitely did more good than harm.

Sorry to leave that out - I think it’s an important point.

#6 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 5:52pm

Quite literally, nothing is known about the presence and nature of a belief or non-belief in gods or morality in the period before a WRITTEN record is available.  There are manufactured objects that are suggestive of belief, we don’t have any real idea of what those might have been except conjecture. 

Going back farther, into the periods during which a presumed genetically based “behavior” of “belief” assumed to confer some kind of adaptive advantage, nothing is known.  Everything that is said about morality or religion or belief in gods or spirits, etc. is 100% conjecture, it’s not science, it’s not even near science it is more akin to fiction. 

As Richard Lewontin has said, making up a story doesn’t tell you anything reliable about the universe, it tells you about yourself.  I think the current line of caveman cult myths tell us a lot about the folk that make them up.  They tell us nothing reliable about early and pre-humans.  The popularity of those explanatory myths among late 20th century-early 21st century atheists is pretty funny.  Even to some atheists.

#7 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 7:08pm

Coming back to read more of this thread, if there is some genetic basis for a belief in God (which I doubt very much) there is no reason that a religious believer couldn’t take that as evidence that there is a God who wants to be known to us and so introduced a mechanism which makes that a possibility for that into our very molecules.  In fact, I’ll bet you that the strictest fundamentalists would make exactly that argument and also that its variability would dovetail rather well with the idea of predestination (which is another faith holding I don’t hold with). 

And this is supposed to be science in the service of rational atheism.  It really is.

#8 Sam H (Guest) on Thursday March 25, 2010 at 8:14pm


My evidence, too, is primarily based on evolutionary psychology.  There are many case studies (such as “The Origin of Religious Prosociality” by Shariff and Norenzayan) that pertain to different aspects of religious origin, however I think because of the relatively new interest in this field not enough quantifying research has been done to make this a concrete model just yet.  I am basing my position off of the work of people such as Boyer, Wade, Dennet, Dawkins, etc, so I guess my information could be considered secondhand when it comes to evidence.

As for your points of disagreement, I allow the possibility that religion may not have arisen due to the benefit it conferred to early societies, and that it might not have been beneficial at all.  Another uncertainty regarding the idea I proposed is the overall concept of group selection, which, too, is debated. 

I would love to hear any sources you have, only because what I’ve been reading hasn’t discussed the possibility of religion being detrimental to early societies and I’d like to be able to consider all sides of this matter.

#9 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Friday March 26, 2010 at 3:37am

Sam H you say that “My evidence, too, is primarily based on evolutionary psychology.”  Which isn’t evidence, it’s a created lore in support of theories which have no evidence to base them on.  You can’t study behaviors without observing them and there is no possibility to observe behaviors in the distant past.  And that’s not going into the numbers of closely observed acts it would take in order to come up with a valid statistical analysis of those individual acts in order to come up with some kind of reliable idea about them. 

Nothing is known about what someone believes without them telling you about it and even then what they tell you is of unknowable reliability.  Beliefs change during a life time.  A “belief” isn’t a fixed object, it isn’t a static entity, it isn’t something that is uniform even within a group that professes to the same belief. 

Someday someone should really do a serious and rigorous study of the well documented propensity and, I believe, will to believe on the part of people who purport to be devotees of science.  Because the evidence that this is completely the product of belief couldn’t be clearer.

#10 Sam H (Guest) on Friday March 26, 2010 at 8:09pm

I wouldn’t call evolutionary psychology “lore” at all…  Obviously I’m no expert, but I’m certainly not basing these comments off of nothing - both Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal and Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds are filled with studies that support the movement of evolutionary psychology towards a comprehensive model of the evolution of many (if not all) human behaviors.

#11 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Saturday March 27, 2010 at 6:48am

The purported descriptions of presumed behavior in the past, which was never observed or recorded is lore in exactly the same way that purported happenings in the distant and unrecorded past built on by any other faith tradition is the lore of that tradition. That the people who promulgate that lore have advanced degrees doesn’t make that lore any more real than any other lore.

I strongly suspect that the “comprehensive model” of the presumed “evolution of many (if not all) human behaviors” is nothing but the product of a belief system since it’s founded on a theoretical model and supported by “behavior” invented to support that model.  I don’t think there’s even as much of a reason to believe that “behavior” really happened as there was to believe in the “ether” of discontinued physics.

If you want to believe it, go right ahead, just don’t pretend it’s knowledge when it’s really faith.

#12 Daniel Schealler on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 2:17pm


My evidence, too, is primarily based on evolutionary psychology… I am basing my position off of the work of people such as Boyer, Wade, Dennet, Dawkins, etc, so I guess my information could be considered secondhand when it comes to evidence…

I would love to hear any sources you have, only because what I’ve been reading hasn’t discussed the possibility of religion being detrimental to early societies and I’d like to be able to consider all sides of this matter.

In terms of evidence, I’m not in much of a stronger position than yourself. I can’t think off the top of my head of where I’ve read the argument that early religion may have done more harm than good… I’d almost like to claim I thought it up for myself, but the chances are that I’ve absorbed it from somewhere and forgotten it.

That said, I can’t assert with confidence that early religion did more harm than good… But we only have to consider the question “On balance, was early religion helpful or harmful to early humans?”

Until we have actual evidence to tip the scale either way, I think this question itself reveals that an interesting flavor of the naturalistic fallacy is a bedrock assumption to much of the discourse in evolutionary psychology - particularly when it is applied to religion.

So although I don’t have much evidence to back my criticism up, that doesn’t make that criticism any less valid because my criticism is based on the absence of evidence and what I view as a lapse in logic. The core of my critique is twofold. Firstly, the assumptions behind the mainstream thinking of evolutionary psychology as applied to religion are not justified. Secondly, the prior plausibility of those arguments depend on a version of the naturalistic fallacy - and when that fallacy is removed from the reasoning, the justified prior plausibility of these ideas turns out to be low.

These ideas are fine as speculative conjecture, but they should be provisionally rejected as sound theories until such a time that there is sufficient evidence to support them.

I re-read this comment before posting - the section below is just a justification of the points I’ve made above, so if you accept them you can stop reading now. I’m too wordy. ^_^

I’ve already written them, though - so I’ll leave it in just in case.


I find that the arguments from evolutionary psychology regarding evolution go something like this:

1) Early religion occurred during our evolutionary history
[2) Only fitness-enhancing changes occur during our evolutionary history]
Therefore (1 + 2):
[3) Early religion can only have arisen if it was fitness-enhancing]
Therefore (1 + 3):
4) Early religion must have been fitness-enhancing

Square brackets [] indicate an unstated premise. I find that these points are rarely clearly enunciated when reading evolutionary psychology, because the authors typically jump straight in to justifying item 4) without concern for how they got there.

This theme is a common problem in the mainstream thinking on this topic.

In objection to point 3): The hypothesis that religion is or was linked to our genetic fitness should be provisionally rejected until evidence comes in to support it.

Religion doesn’t replicate through genetic variation in our DNA. Instead, it proliferates through cultural repetition. For religion to propagate in this way only requires that it is good at replicating - it doesn’t have to be beneficial to us, it just has to be a good cultural replicator. For this point, we can site Dennett in Breaking the Spell and Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine. (Unfortunately, I haven’t read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea yet, but I understand from seeing it cited elsewhere that Dennett investigates these themes in that text as well).

Now, it might be true that early religion was linked to our genetic fitness. But in the absence of evidence, it is a conjecture only - not a justifiable bedrock assumption. Note that I’m not an expert, so such evidence may in fact exist without my knowledge. If it is ever forthcoming I am completely prepared to revise my position accordingly.

Given that there doesn’t need to be a link between religion and genetic fitness in the first place and that no evidence has been presented thus far that such a link is probable, the prior plausibility for such a link should be regarded as very low. As such, the hypothesis that religion is or was linked to our genetic fitness should be provisionally rejected until evidence comes in to support it.

So that’s the first and most important objection to the common line of thinking about the early development of religion.

The second objection is in regard to point 2). It simply isn’t true that everything in our evolutionary history had to have been fitness-enhancing.

This is a variation of the naturalistic fallacy - the idea that everything that nature is good. Waiving the usual I’m-not-an-expert disclaimer, evolution is perfectly capable of tolerating a certain amount of neutral genetic drift. Even some mutations that are harmful to fitness can survive in a population so long as they’re not completely deleterious. This is un-cited, because it is (to my knowledge) generally accepted in the readily available literature on the subject of evolution.

Given that these two objections cut at the (typically unstated) logical link between “Religion happened” and “Therefore, religion happened because it was good for us”, and given that these objections are founded upon the absence of evidence and unsupportable logic, these objections remain valid so long as there is an absence of evidence to refute them.

#13 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Sunday March 28, 2010 at 3:15pm

—-1) Early religion occurred during our evolutionary history DS

We have no idea if this is true.  There is no evidence to support it, there are certain artifacts that make some speculate that this is true.  That’s not the same thing as knowing if it was there and what it consisted of.

——Religion doesn’t replicate through genetic variation in our DNA. Instead, it proliferates through cultural repetition. For religion to propagate in this way only requires that it is good at replicating - it doesn’t have to be beneficial to us, it just has to be a good cultural replicator.  DS

First, the idea of memes is hardly established science, I’d guess that most scientists dismiss the theory. 

You talk about “religion” as if there was a real something that constitutes “religion”, as if it was one thing when, if anything is obvious about religion, it is that it is the farthest thing in the world from a single entity.  What we call “religion” consists of beliefs and actions allegedly resulting from those beliefs.  Well, beliefs change within an individual, sometimes quite often within a very short period of time. 

Actions resulting from any professed belief might be obviously consonant with those professions or it might be entirely contradictory to it.  People professing what is considered the same belief,  say, the truth of the teachings attributed to Jesus, can go from radically pacifistic to pathologically homicidal.  And sometimes both pacifism and violence are displayed by the same person. 

I could go on for pages about how “religion” is an invisible and moving, metamorphosing entity within an individual, never mind a broader society and the world.  Trying to pin it down might give you something to talk about, trying to catch it in your theoretical sieve might catch something but it isn’t going to be more than a fleeting part of the range of peoples’ beliefs that are held for the moment. 

You can do it if you want to, but there’s no reason for anyone to assume your findings are valid.

#14 Daniel Schealler on Sunday April 11, 2010 at 11:18pm

@Anthony McCarthy

Hey Anthony. Sorry about my late reply - I wanted to mull your objections over a while.

Now, sit down. Prepare yourself. This doesn’t happen on the internet very often, so you may want to mark today’s date on your calendar.

You’ve persuaded me. I accept most of your objections, and grant that several of the premises I’ve presented to form my argument are untrue.

So I stand corrected: I was wrong.

The objections of yours I don’t accept (for example, your casual dismissal of part of my argument because ‘memes aren’t scientific’ - this is true, but I don’t consider it sound grounds for dismissal) are pretty much beside the point, so I won’t bother laboring them.

Mind you - I still think my argument works as an objection if you grant the premises as true for the sake of argument… But again, that’s also beside the point.

Heh. I need to learn how to do this more graciously. ^_^

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.