Skip to main content

View Diary: New Paper Gives Insight Into How Religion Developed (165 comments)

Comment Preferences

  •  I disagree. I think the interesting thing is (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Philoguy, eru, Orinoco, kyril

    that religion is a group experience, for most of humanity. What goes on in terms of belief is individual but religion is nearly always a group thing, and there has to be a human and survival based reason for early modern humans to do something like that. They could not afford very many non-survival activities.

    Getting Democrats together and keeping them that way is like herding cats that are high on meth, through L.A., during an earthquake, in the rain -6.25, -6.10

    by Something the Dog Said on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 11:22:02 AM PST

    [ Parent ]

    •  It becomes a group thing (7+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      G2geek, eru, aaraujo, neroden, Orinoco, jlb1972, marykk

      precisely because the essence of the personal experience is one of interconnectedness.  So, the after-effect of the experience is to cause the experiencer to bond with the tribe.  To find others who have shared the experience.  

      •  Sex (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Orinoco

        and a closeness to relatives are what kept us together. The stars on a clear night brought the idea of a God. Still do.

        My mother was a moderate Jew. Does that mean I'm not really Jewish?

        by Hyman Stern on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 01:50:12 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  SW, I think you have things backwards here... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Orinoco

        Religion begins as a collective experience and then gets retrojected into the personal realm.  This is both historically true and true of current religion.  Religion has its hand in everything ranging from how kinship relations are structured to the branding of the body to mores governing a group to in-group/out-group relations.  These things are all collective, not private and a good deal of childhood development in a tribe consists in the internalization of these collective social and political structures.

        •  nope, you have it backward. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Orinoco

          It's not unreasonable to derive a deity from "sky phenomena" such as lightning and thunder, not to mention rain, snow, winds, clouds, and so on, and of course the Sun itself and the Moon and stars in the night sky.  

          But how else, aside from extraordinary experiences, would humans have come to the idea that some component of a person might continue its existence in a realm that's invisible to normal experience?  A dead person is a dead person: the causes of death in many cases include obvious and visible damage to the body; and after death the body is inert and rapidly decomposes.  Those elements, by themselves, would lead anyone to believe that the totality of the person's existence came to an end at that point.

          The only way you end up with any idea of a hereafter, is through subjective experiences of its elements (by which I also include hearing of such experiences from others).   For example dreams of being with one's deceased family and friends; NDEs where one also interacts with deceased family and friends; and the element of the NDE where one feels oneself to be in the presence of a deity.   These subjectively-accessed "worlds" or "realms" have a place-like quality to them, providing the impression of "persons in a place" that one has visited.

          (quoted from another posting of mine elsewhere in this diary)

          •  You're defining what counts as (0+ / 0-)

            "subjective" far too broadly here and therefore begging the question:

            The only way you end up with any idea of a hereafter, is through subjective experiences of its elements (by which I also include hearing of such experiences from others).

            What we learn from others is not the "subjective" but the social.  While I have no doubt that some portion of the population has ecstatic religious experiences, I don't see such experiences as being a necessary component for belief at all.  One can have them, one can just as easily not have them.  They are secondary to religious belief as such.  Rather, from the earliest years children are introduced to religious belief through what they hear from others, especially their parents, ritual, and a host of other social agencies.  Kids believe what they are told (why wouldn't they?) and parents tell kids things to either scare the daylights out of them so they'll be obedient or to shield them from uncomfortable things.  These stories take on a life of their own in history and come to be thought of as real rather than as just stories.

            Much of this teaching also leads to the genesis or production of forms of affectivity or emotional states that come to retroactively be codified as religious.  In other words, it's not that we first have the subjective religious experience and then come to find religious practices, narratives, myths, etc., as plausible.  Rather, it is that we are first exposed to a whole host of social rituals and practices that produce forms of emotional states that are then coded as religious.  

            There is little difference, for example, between the sort of merging with the crowd one feels at a rock concert when dancing wildly and a sort of mystical union one feels with god in a very animated and fervent religious celebration.  Someone else made exactly this point with respect to their born again experiences in their fundamentalist church as they were growing up.  She noted that when she was among the flock she felt these things but when she was apart she did not.  This speaks to the social nature of these experiences.  Additionally, there is a coercive nature to these things as well.  People are encouraged to experience certain things and gain status within their religious community if they do.  A firm grounding in the social sciences and in psychology leads one to a very different understanding of what's going on in these settings.

            •  social and subjective (0+ / 0-)

              What one hears from others is social, but if one hears from someone else that they have had an experience of some kind, then for the latter person the experience is subjective.  The origin of what one hears from the other person is a subjective experience.

              One can acquire religious belief purely as a social phenomenon, just as with any other belief, but there needs to be some internal template (regardless of its source) that either matches or at least does not differ radically from what one is being told; otherwise one or the other will tend to be discarded.

              As for what "we" are exposed to, that varies from one person to another.  Someone who is not exposed to a given belief system or worldview in childhood may acquire it later in life.  Think of college students and Marxism for example.

              The ecstatic experience at the concert, and the ecstatic experience in a religious celebration, are both socially reinforced forms of "deeply felt meaning in relation to something larger than self," which in turn appears to be mediated by the temporal lobes (Persinger, numerous papers in Perception and Motor Skills) (BTW, I have quite a firm grounding in cog sci and related areas).   One can have similar experiences wholly in solitude, that may be more or less filtered through one's learned (social) beliefs and expectations.

              The member of the religious group to whom you refer (I read her posting too) is one type of example.  Personally I'm quite the opposite: I tend to experience things in solitude that are not accessible to me in group contexts.  Huxley describes these characteristics in The Perennial Philosophy, where he differentiates between devotional and contemplative personalities.  

              Though, I will certainly admit to a degree of bias here, from the perspective of a contemplative type for whom the idea of believing anything just because others happen to believe it (and not being aware that this is going on), is almost unfathomable except in the abstract.  

        •  I'd agree with SW and G2geek (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Philoguy

          Religion in modern day begins in an individual as a collective experience to be sure, but religion is part of the culture individuals are brought into now. This is about the genesis of religion itself.

          Where I part company with G2geek's analysis is his emphasis on an afterlife. I don't see this as a necessary component to religion. Some religions posited reincarnation or rebirth of the soul back in the world, some pagan philosophers argued for the merging of the soul with a universal all (which I guess could be considered an afterlife of sorts, without the survival of the individual's personality), some simply posited a separate world of gods and goblins interacting with this one, and the question of "life after death" was subsumed by the question of immortality.

          "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

          by Orinoco on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 05:56:27 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I think any story (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Orinoco, jlb1972

            about the genesis of religion from the individual is ultimately going to be mythological.  This is for a very simple reason:  We are not individual beings but social beings and could not survive without a social framework to support us.  What you're proposing here is the idea of an individual that somehow raises themselves from birth and then stumbles on these ideas on their own.  But such an idea is nonsense because of the long developmental period we have to go through to mature unlike other animals.  This entails that the social always precedes the individual.  Individuals are something we become, not something we start out being.  And our psychological is pervaded with social dimensions through and through because of how we develop.  This is a pretty basic and fundamental principle in most of psychology.  

            What makes this diary so interesting (and the article) is the way it examines what are more or less evolutionary selection pressures that led to the genesis of widespread religious belief.  In a nutshell, those that had neuro-cognitive structures that made them think in terms of a sort of "abstract other" were selected for because it generated greater group cohesion.  Psychologically we then confuse this abstract other with an actual being, i.e., God, gods, ancestors, etc.  But the process by which this selection took place was social or intersubjective in character.  It was a social process that generated a particular form of individual psychology.

    •  I don't think the personal experience (6+ / 0-)

      SW refers to is a choice an individual makes. It is something that comes over him or her at some random moment. It isn't something sought for that is done to the exclusion of doing something else more survival related.

      It can be induced, of course, by: group rituals; eating, drinking or inhaling certain things; or individual mental practices, but even if none of these things are done, some or most individuals will have oneness-with-everything experiences from time to time.

      Religion may arise as the group interpretation of those experiences, since they occur, I think, more frequently to the young, who would then go to their elders for an explanation. Shamans may discover how to induce these experiences in people, both to recruit newcomers and to cement existing members' loyalty.

      "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

      by Orinoco on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 11:45:56 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  exactly correct. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Orinoco

        It starts with extraordinary experiences on the part of individuals, and then proceeds via group interpretation of those experiences.  

        The founders of new religions* tend to be individuals whose experiences of this kind are sufficiently powerful and ongoing as to lead them to go beyond the interpretations given by their social groups.

        ---

        *New religions:  Technically the term "cult" refers to a new religion that has not gained established status.  But as the term "cult" is used today, it refers to a religious group that uses various means to manipulate its members and circumvent their free will.  

        •  Possibly true in some cases (0+ / 0-)

          The founders of new religions* tend to be individuals whose experiences of this kind are sufficiently powerful and ongoing as to lead them to go beyond the interpretations given by their social groups.

          But the whole story of Moses could be seen as a metaphor for a religious leader who ultimately could not go where he led his followers.

          Imagine someone who accidentally induced this experience in himself by eating a certain kind of mushroom or gnawing on some plant stem. He brings the mushroom back to the tribe and tells them it is a gift of the gods. They imbibe, they believe, but the original shaman may still doubt, privately, because he knows it is "just a mushroom."

          He never admits it, because he finds he can do good for his people: casting out demons, curing illness, comforting the bereaved, rallying them in times of crisis and focusing their investment of surplus time and energy into public benefits. He probably also finds the perks hard to give up, as well.

          In more modern times, L Ron Hubbard created stories and rituals to indoctrinate people into Scientology. Do you really think he believed in Thetans himself? He knows he made them up. But the rituals and ceremonies he designed turned many of his followers into true believers.

          "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

          by Orinoco on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 06:18:16 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  difference between honest belief and.... (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Orinoco, jlb1972

            ...manipulation.

            The hypothetical shaman who eats the mushroom and has a first-hand mystical experience, is a totally different category than LRon Hubbard or even Sun Myung Moon.  

            The fact that a shaman may have doubts, is part of what makes for a good shaman.  The mindset of being able to simultaneously hold a belief and yet doubt that belief, is common to mystics as well as scientists, and this is sufficient common ground that mystics & scientists tend to get along well.  

            In contrast, belief without doubt, or the sense of absolute certainty, is alien to mystics and is more the territory of fundamentalists, who, as we often see around here, don't much get along with scientists.  

            Now on the other hand, LRon Hubbard deliberately created Scientology with the intent of gaining power and wealth from it:  he was a faker through and through, despite the fact that his believers actually believe.  

            Sun Myung Moon (founder of the Unification Church aka the Moonies) is a different type entirely.  He appears to be a cross between an honest founder of a new religion, and a disturbed personality motivated by power.  His beliefs, and the stuff the Moonies believe, is in part Korean folk religion, and in part Moon megalomania.  This is complicated further by the fact that the Moonies are notorious for using coercive means to gain and keep members (brainwashing), and the fact that Moon gained extreme wealth and power from his activities (look up his connections to politicians).  

            There are other cases of founders of new religions ("cults" in the technical sense) who have become subverted by sex, money, power, etc.  This becomes a complication when studying what they did and how their groups evolved over time.  

            The shaman's place in a society is as likely to be "off to the side" of the hierarchy (more or less independent of it), as it is to be within the power structure of the hierarchy.  The shaman may very well say "I don't know how this works; on one hand it's just a mushroom," but most of his "followers" won't hear that part of his message, because their own zeal will overcome their ability to perceive doubt.  

            For a fairly recent example, look at the writings of Aldous Huxley in relation to psychedelics: one could consider him a first-order shaman, and he was a highly capable intellectual who didn't hesitate to express his doubts and reservations.   But there arose others who did not express doubts, and the degree of zeal appeared to increase as they got further afield:  from Timothy Leary (more zeal, less doubt) to Terrence McKenna (very much more zeal, very much less doubt; keyphrase "heroic doses").  

            On the other hand, you have people such as Alexander Shulgin, who is the intellectual peer of Huxley in every way, who is also very very cautious and reserved in his approach (Shulgin is first and foremost a trained & accomplished scientist).  And then you have Shulgin's "second generation" of students who vary from being cautious & reserved, to being zealous.  

            I am starting to wonder if there is not a cyclical dynamic at work here:-)

    •  And this is a tremendously (0+ / 0-)

      important political point:  There is nothing personal about religion.  Religion is and has always been a way of organizing groups and the political sphere.  Anyone who suggests that religion is a "personal matter" (and therefore should be immune from critical scrutiny) is not arguing in, pardon the pun, good faith.

      •  blatant nonsense. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Orinoco

        Are you arguing that there is no subjective religious experience other than as mediated by the institutional structure of the religious hierarchy via its influence on the culture?

        To quote the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, that's not right and it's not even wrong.  

        It's obviously, blatantly, and provably false.  Ultimately it's based on what could be called the "social monist theory of mind," that the individual mind (and hence, subjective experience) only exists as an outcome of social interaction.  The entire history of neurophysiology and cognitive science disprove that idea conclusively.  

        The only way to sustain the "social monist theory of mind" is with recourse to a kind of "god of the gaps" arguement that is ultimately unfalsifiable and hence unscientific in itself.  

        Your statement is a paradigm case example of how political theory is very often wholly ignorant of psychology and cognitive science, not to mention the physical sciences that are related.  

        Pardon me for being a hardass about this, but blatant nonsense needs to be rebutted in the strongest terms.  If you phrased your posting in terms of speculation and hypotheses and "what-ifs", it would not be unreasonable; but stating it in terms of declarative sentences as if established fact, is equivalent to stating that all UFOs are interstellar space ships.  

        •  No, I am not arguing that there (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          G2geek

          is no subjective component to religion, though I do think that the percentage of those that have such experience are pretty small.  I am arguing that religion is deeply connected to our social and political fabric and is not simply a private affair.  Religion is one of the basic institutions by which social relations re-produce themselves and by which the political is organized.  It is not uncommon to hear people say "religion is merely a matter of the heart."  Far from it.  Religion is institutional, social, political and is one of the ways in which large bodies of people are organized.  Anyone who has studied ethnography or anthropology knows this.  Why you would infer, from my statement, that I deny that people have subjective experiences in relation to religion is beyond me and speaks, I believe, to your own simplistic view of these issues.  You seem to have the rather facile belief that if something is collective, political, and social it has no psychological component to it.  One need only glance at one of Hitler's rallies to see how idiotic such an opposition is.  There we witness both intense psychological experiences and a collective, social, and political phenomenon.  Incidentally, I happen to be a psychotherapist, so I know a thing or two about these issues.

          •  OK, that's entirely reasonable. (0+ / 0-)

            Though, as to "why (I) would infer, from (your) statement, that (you) deny that people have experiences in relation to religion...", the answer is that this is what the actual words of your statement said.

            For example, "There is nothing personal about religion."   That and the rest of your earlier statement are entirely unequivocal.  

            --

            Re. the percentage of people who have such experiences:  

            It probably follows something like a skewed normal curve, where a small number have highly intense and more frequent religious experiences, and an increasing number have less intense and less frequent religious experiences, and so on.  The peak of that curve would describe the central tendency of mainstream religion.  

            "Not simply a private affair," sure that's entirely reasonable.  Religious experience as with other subjective experience, is partially a result of wholly individual factors (such as the characteristics of the individual's brain) and partially the result of social factors (such as learned interpretations of experiences).  Though from time to time there are interesting counterexamples, such as pediatric NDEs that often include elements from other cultures not known to the children (e.g. a child raised in an American Christian family, having an NDE with strongly Muslim elements).  

            Sure, religion is largely a social organizing mechanism, and intense experiences can be shaped to serve social goals.  Megachurches are obvious cases in point.  

            'Twas your own statements that indicated an either/or, rather than an and/both.  

            •  The charitable interpretation (0+ / 0-)

              on your part would  have been that I was treating the "personal" as equivalent to the "private" and opposing it to the social; not that I was making the absurd claim that people don't experience various emotional and psychological states when something is social.  Such would be a completely bizarre claim that no reasonable person would make and I can't say I care much for your tone in the post of mine you were responding to.  The point is that people often talk about religion as if it were outside the social and political and it decidedly is not.  I will say that I just don't think the psychological realm can be separated from the social realm in the way so many of your comments seem to presuppose.  From birth on our emotions, desires, and reactions to the world are being molded by the social world in so many ways that there's no way to completely separate what is collective and social from what is purely psychological.  And if you investigate actual religious rituals, as I have done, you discover how they actively form and promote various psychological states, constantly suggesting how they are being interpreted, coercing the lay to have certain experiences in relation to certain rituals, and structuring rituals in such a way as to produce certain affective states.  

              •  there wasn't much room to interpret... (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                jlb1972

                ...statements that were unequivocal.  I very frequently give benefit of the doubt in cases where there is any room for equivocation or alternative interpretation.  But I wouldn't call that "charitable," so much as just assuming that the zone of possible interpretation is wider.  That's difficult to do with regard to blunt declarative sentences.  

                There are people around who claim that subjective experience is either outside the realm of science or is irrelevant.  It wasn't too long ago that strict behaviorism was the dominant paradigm in Western psychology, and some still adhere to it.

                Agreed, people talk about religion as if it's entirely outside the social realm, which is also clearly absurd.  Some of that may come from the idea that the deity is the a-priori creator and thus stands above its creation to the degree that all beliefs about the deity have the same status.  

                Agreed, difficult to parse the innate from the learned.  And admittedly I ran into this a couple of times when writing comments in this diary, where I could easily enough operationalize the variables for hypotheses about the present state of an individual's beliefs and experience (e.g. religious/atheistic as the independent variable, degree and depth of self-reported mundane trance states as the dependent variable), but I couldn't see a way to parse the innate from the learned in terms of scoping out a causal relationship one way or another.  

                And agreed, religious rituals produce various states of consciousness that are positively reinforcing of religious belief (otherwise those rituals would be replaced by others that do).  

                Though I wouldn't necessarily agree with "coercing" except in so far as that certain religions (admittedly most) depend on obtaining a degree of uniformity of belief among their members.  I find it truly odd that large numbers of people can in some way deny the reality of their own experience in order to conform to a social expectation.  It's one thing to deliberately and consciously set aside an opinion in order to get along with others, but another entirely to deny that one ever thought or felt something.  

                --

                I have never found a way to just accept religious teachings of any sort as a-priori truth without exception.  For example Buddhism figures heavily in my overall scheme of things, and yet the statement that "all suffering is caused by desire" runs into trouble where primary physical pain is concerned: pain is suffering, and is also an innate response to a physical injury. "Desire" is not needed as an explanation for physical pain, so pain would appear to be a counterexample.  In this case, suffering (pain) causes desire (to be free of pain).  So I would say that "suffering is caused by desire, and the reverse is also true."  (I engage in similar heresies with respect to the other threads of religion that are involved in my overall worldview.)

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site