Poor Economic Times = Full Churches


A recent article from the International Herald Tribune on the increase in church attendance that coincides with the economic troubles:

The sudden crush of worshipers packing the small evangelical Shelter Rock Church in Manhasset, New York – a Long Island town of yacht clubs and hedge fund managers – forced the pastor to set up an overflow room with closed-circuit TV and 100 folding chairs, which have been filled for six consecutive Sundays.

In Seattle, the Mars Hill Church, one of the fastest-growing evangelical churches in the country, grew to 7,000 members this fall, up 1,000 in a year. At the Life Christian Church in West Orange, New Jersey, prayer requests have doubled – almost all of them aimed at getting or keeping jobs.

This reminds me of the Pew survey which linked wealth to religiosity. We may be sliding up and to the left on that curve.

Can I get an Amen ?

Homosexuality: Blueprint or Recipe?

a-mans-jobWhile reading Richard Dawkins’ collection of essays in “The Devil’s Chaplain” I chanced on his essay about the potential for genes to determine homosexuality in humans and what implications that might have.

Since we had discussed this point before in The Challenge of Homosexuality, Dawkins take on things was rather surprising:

Imagine the following newspaper headline: ‘Scientists discover that homosexuality is caused.’ Obviously this is not news at all; it is trivial. Everything is caused. To say that homosexuality is caused by genes is more interesting, and it has the aesthetic merit of discomforting politically-inspired bores, but it doesn’t say more than my trivial headline does about the irrevocability of homosexuality.

You can read the whole essay here (it is only 3 pages).

Is an Unknowable God Logical?

This is the slideshow portion of a presentation titled: Is an Unknowable God Logical?

Since it doesn’t include the commentary and explanations of the presenter, one has to fill in the spots with some imagination. But it still is an interesting look at the question of the existence of God, miracles and other such issues.

Here is the supplementary material (software and such) that it refers to.

Read this doc on Scribd: Is an Unknowable God Logical?
Dec 2005, Changing Times Understanding the Logic of Atheism Creating a Bridge of Understanding Hooman Katirai Table of Contents ? Part 1: The Analogies – We create analogies where humans play the role of creator ? Part 2: The Harvest – We use the analogies to learn about the creator-created relationship. ? Part 3: Proofs of God, we examine two proofs of God – one from Aristotle, the other from William Hatcher. Purpose ?If thou wishest the divine knowledge … purify thy heart … and apply thyself to rational and authoritative arguments … then the eye will be opened and will recognize the Sun through the Sun itself.? (Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 383) The complement of a statement is similar to what Faith we might call an opposite. Types of Faith Belief The complement of ?it’sin an Idea in the absence raining? is everything that’s of total not raining. This would proof include, sunny, cloudy, windy, etc .. Blind Faith (commitment to a belief regardless of evidence) Empiricism Belief in an idea because it’s more likely than its complement Some Definitions An Might say … God (or gods) do not exist The question ?does God exist?? cannot be proven (or disproven) and is therefore meaningless. Atheist Agnostic Undecided I’m not sure if God exists but I’m open to new evidence. Atheism is difficult to defend Belief: God (or gods) do not exist ? To make such a claim one must examine – every part of universe – in case one or more Gods were hiding there. ? But atheists have examined only a small part of the universe. ? Thus they do not have enough evidence to make the claim ?there is no God? TAKEAWAYS: ? Atheism is a belief founded on faith. It is not based on logic. Agnostics & Undecideds ? Both don’t know if God does or does not exist ? Agnostics believe the question can’t be answered ? These two groups will be the focus of our discussions! Common Objections to Religion & God ? ? Ideas in religion are too outrageous to be true We’ll show ideas like An unknowable creator, Manifestations, etc are all reasonable. Show that existence of God is more likely than non-existence I.e. it is not a fiction. Hatcher’s Proof. Acts of followers ? Teachings of religion Religion can be perfect while Followers are not. Precisely why God sends new messengers There can be perfect justice If there is a next world ? Religion is a fiction adopted by the weak or unhappy (to feel comforted and happy) Religion causes war, and suffering ? ? Too much suffering in world for there to be a God. Overcoming Obstacles ? ? I don’t believe in religion, which is based on faith I believe in Science We’ll show Science is based on Faith! But a special Kind of faith that can Also be applied in religion. Answering Objection 1: Objection: I don’t believe in religion, which is based on faith I believe in Science We’ll show science is based on a special kind of faith called empiricism that can be used in religion Science is based on Faith! ? How do Physicists – discover equations? F F =ma ? Simple example: – Newton’s Law (F=ma) Force (F) Mass (M) Frictionless Surface A Takeaway: Even fundamental equations in physics are based on Faith!! Science is based on Faith! (cont’d) ? F=ma – equation of a line ? Yet, according to math F – Infinite number of points between any two points on a line – Can’t measure Force and Acceleration at all points Takeaway: Science is based on Faith! This faith is differentiated – Yet we assume linear from Blind Faith, and is the act of the scientific rational person. transition holds A Answering Objection 2: Objection: Ideas in religion are too outrageous to be true How we’ll answer it: We’ll show that an unknowable creator, manifestations, etc are all reasonable. Part 1: The Analogies We’ll find situations where we play the role of Creator. These situations will be closely examined in the next part, to learn more about our relationship with God. Humans can create universes ? Inside a computer ? Like our universe, these universes have – Creatures – Laws ? lend insight to – Relationship between creator and created ? Case in point – Game of Life (Conway ’70) Game of Life (Conway ’70) ? Universe: – A Simple Grid ? Creatures: – Yellow cells ? Empty Space – Gray cells The Game of Life’s Universal Laws 1. Birth: dead cell with 3 live neighbors becomes alive 2. Survival: live cell with 2-3 live neighbors stays alive 3. Death: all other cases, cell dies or remains dead (loneliness or over-crowding). Game of Life Demo More sophisticated universes ? Creatures can learn ? Example: – Creature behavior governed by probability matrix – Probabilities updated with experience – Free will simulated by picking behavior according to probabilities ? Evolution – Survival of fittest ? Programmer does not explicitly write computer program ? Instead programmer creates evolutionary environment to evolve solutions. ? Process: – Create ?population? of randomly generated solutions – Allow solutions to ?mate? to yield offspring solutions – Better solutions have higher chance of mating (Darwinian Natural selection) ? Outcome of process said to be best solution after many Genetic Programming Link to Additional Slides On GP Genetic Programming Demo Genetic Programming Demo Takeaway: We can create universes in which the creatures can evolve over time! ? More than 20 US patents ? Several new patents – re-discovered using GP An Automatic Invention Machine? ? Genetic Programming has been called ? Who is the inventor? – an ?Automatic Invention Machine? – discovered using GP – outperform all existing humaninvented solutions – The human or the machine? – ?Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?? –Omar Khayyam Summary of Part 1 ? Humans can create universes – Inside a computer – With creatures that can: ? Mate ? Learn ? Evolve ? In these universes we play the role of God Part 2: The Harvest ` We’ll use the analogies we studied to draw deductions Suppose you wanted to communicate with your creatures Could you: – enter their world? – turn yourself into a square on the grid? Solution ? Since you cannot enter their universe – you must control something in their universe ? i.e. speaking to your creatures requires – an intermediary i.e. this man cannot be God Evidence from Christianity Christ is an intermediary who carries actions of God on earth: ?I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things.? -John 8:28 (King James Version) Further evidence of distinction between Christ & God: ?But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.? -Mark 13:32 And Islam ? Mohammed is an intermediary that delivers message of God to man: ?Even as We have sent unto you a messenger [Mohammed] from among you, who reciteth unto you Our revelations and causeth you to grow, and teacheth you the Scripture and wisdom …? -The Qur’an, 2:151 ? ?Muhammad is but a messenger, messengers (the like of whom) have passed away before him.? -The Qur’an 3:144 And Judaism ? Moses in an intermediary that delivered God’s message to Humankind: ? ?Remember ye the law of Moses My servant, which I [God] commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, even statutes and ordinances.? -Prophets And the Bah??’i Faith ? Confirms idea of human intermediary – “since there can be no tie of direct intercourse to bind the one true God with His creation … ” God ordains that “in every age … a pure and stainless Soul be made manifest in the kingdoms of earth and heaven” (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 232) The Holy Spirit ?we can understand that the Holy Spirit is the Intermediary between the Creator and the created.? -Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 59 ? Anything in between the Created and Created ? In our example includes – Computer – Software running universe – Keyboard If you were to speak to your creatures .. ? What Language: – English? – their language? ?All that I have revealed unto thee … hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.? -Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words ? Level of communication: – According to our capacity? – Or their capacity? On Miracles ? Should not constitute a ?proof?: – Except to observers – Even then there are often alternate explanations Miracles ? Nonetheless, we can see how – miracles could be easy for creator ? Example: Game of Life – can create life simply by flipping a bit from a 0 to a 1 in the grid. – a power creatures do not have So, why not have a miracle side-show to quell all doubts? ? If God performed miracles on demand Free Will vs. Miracles – forced to acknowledge him – lose autonomy to recognize (or reject) creator ? Suppose instantaneous {punishment, correction, guidance} for ?wrong’ acts. Puppet -controlled -little or no autonomy -brute -loss of self -no capacity for altruism vs. vs. vs. vs. vs. vs. Growing being guided free will & choice: noble being self capacity for altruism Takeaway: There seems to be a tradeoff between miracles and freewill Why A Human Intermediary? ? We discovered we needed – an intermediary to communicate with our creatures ? But the intermediary could have been – a talking tree, or a rock that glows in Morse code ? Why a human intermediary? Why a Human Intermediary? (cont’d) ? A talking tree, or glowing rock constitutes – a miracle – But we’ve established that miracles reduce free-will to accept or reject God. ? A human intermediary is ideal because it allows God to – communicate the message, while still providing us with – free will to accept (or deny) God. More on Miracles ?… Know that the Word of God … is sanctified from the known elements … It became manifest without an utterance made, or a voice breathed. It is the command of God …? Compilations, Baha’i Scriptures, p. 191, Emphasis added. How might our creatures perceive us? ? ?The world of our creator so vast that it’s composed of an infinite number of squares.? ? ?The creator is the source of all life? ? ?The creator is all-powerful.? ? ?The creator exists above time. Can see the future; knows the past.? ? ?The creator is omniscient (all-knowing).? TAKEAWAY: God is unknowable! Any conception we have of God is not God. On Praise: ?To have accepted any act or praise from Thy creatures is but an evidence of the wonders of Thy [God’s] grace and bountiful favors, and a manifestation of Thy generosity and providence.? -Baha’u’llah Parallels On Unknowability: ?… souls shall be perturbed as they make mention of Me [God]. For minds cannot grasp Me nor hearts contain Me.? -Baha’u’llah, The Arabic Hidden Words But isn’t God All-Powerful? ? Can’t God turn himself into a human? ? Equivalent question: – ?Couldn’t God turn himself into a square in Game of Life?? Power of the Creator (cont’d) ? What do we mean by All-Powerful? ? In Game of life we are All-Powerful because ? We can: – change game’s state to any state – alter universal laws ? No creature can stand in our way Meaning of All-Powerful (cont’d) ? Though ?All-Powerful? in Game of Life – Can we turn ourselves into a square? ? 1 bit needed to represent square – Bits required to represent a human? – Information loss Power of God (cont’d) ? If humans can’t be represented in 1 bit – Can God? God as Unknowable ?… God …can in no wise incarnate His infinite, His unknowable, … Reality in the concrete and limited frame of a mortal being.? -Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bah??’u’ll??h, p. 112 TAKEAWAY: It’s logically impossible for something to be limited and all-powerful at the same time! Power of God Takeaway: ? Even God’s power has limits ? All Powerful ? Ability to do anything ? Specifically God cannot be not God Further Questions Further Questions: ? Is humility an attribute of God? Why do we declare our powerlessness in the obligatory prayers everyday? ? Is God engaging in some kind of ego trip by requiring us to humble ourselves before him every day? One possible answer to the question: We tend to forget who’s in charge – – we think we are in control hence we need a daily reminder that we are in fact powerless ? ? ? Only when we are mindful of The Source of all power – can we turn unto It, seeking It’s help and guidance. ? In sum it seems that God requires us to declare our powerlessness – – for our own benefit To make us aware of reality (that we are powerless) so we can act in an educated manner. What if .. ? power withheld from computer for even a few seconds? ?.. if for one moment the tide of His mercy and grace were to be withheld from the world, it would completely perish? -Bah??’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Bah??’u’llah, p. 68 Is the universe an abandoned experiment? We are created of love: ?… I knew My love for thee; therefore I created thee ….? -Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words ? The loving creator guides us: ?… Were it not for the love of God the holy books would not have been revealed. Were it not for the love of God the divine prophets would not have been sent to the world … ? -Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 90 1. Prayer: the creator can communicate with us via inspiration ?A servant is drawn unto Me in prayer until I answer him; and when I have answered him, I become the ear wherewith he heareth….? -Quran 83:28 Can we develop a relationship with an ?unknowable God?? “For the core of religious faith is that mystical feeling which unites man with God. This state of spiritual communion can be brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer.? Baha’i Writings: Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 506 ? How do we develop a relationship with an ?unknowable God?? (cont’d) Reading – Sacred Scriptures (messages sent by creator) – On spiritual teachings (to understand messages from creator) ? Meditation ? Striving every day – to bring behavior more into accordance with high standards ? Selfless service – to humanity – in carrying on of our trade or profession. Summary of Part 2 ? Saw computer universes that have: – Creatures – laws. ? Creatures could: – Learn – Evolve ? If Computer Generated Universes are comparable to our universe then …. Summary of Part 2 ? God is unknowable ? You cannot: – fully comprehend or – directly interact with God. ? All Powerful ? Ability to do anything ? Holy Spirit – everything between the Creator and Created ? Communication with God – requires an intermediary ? Founders of World Religions – intermediaries (messengers) between humankind & God – are not God but are directed by God – hard to imagine another way God could communicate with humankind ? without loss of our choice to accept (or reject) God. Part 3: Proofs of God ` We’ll examine and critique two proofs of God ? ? Suppose you walked into the Amazon jungle and saw some pyramids You would probably immediately attribute these pyramids to an ancient civilization because – – You know the pyramids don’t just create themselves You know pyramids don’t appear out of thin air Cosmological Proof of God (Aristotle) ? ? In short, you know the pyramids must be preceded by a cause. In other words, in the domain of human created objects, every object is evidence of it’s creator. – – – A chair is evidence of a chair maker A painting is evidence of a painter And so on …. ? ? ? ? ? Applying this same reasoning to the universe, we ask the question. ?Can the existence of the Universe be taken as evidence for a Universe-maker (i.e. God?)? There is a leap of Faith in saying ?yes? because we are moving from the domain of human created objects to non-human created ones. Moreover we are moving from causes within the universes, to the cause of the universe itself. Yet at the same time, the answer ?yes? seems much more intuitive than the answer of ?no? because we have never seen non-causal systems. In fact, the basis of science is that there is a cause for everything and saying no would commit us to the existence of non-causal systems. Returning to our This proof only shows that there exists some kind of creator for the universe; but it doesn’t prove there is only one creator; or if another entity created that creator. Hatcher’s Proof of God ? William Hatcher (1935-2005) – Passed Away in Nov. 2005 – Produced the strongest proof of God – You can read more in Hatcher’s Book, Minimalism (ISBN ? Why hasn’t his proof been invented yet? – Some basic mathematical tools needed to produce it (Von Neumann Set Theory) hadn’t been invented until the 20th century. – Avicenna, a Muslim philosopher produced a very similar proof using mathematical concepts that were far ahead of their time, but his proof had some subtle errors. – Hatcher fixed Avincenna’s proof and reformulated in modern math. Hatcher’s Proof of God ? There are some minor differences between the proof you will find here, and the one presented in Hatcher’s book. ? In particular, I have done my best to avoid references to set theory while remaining faithful to Hatcher’s proof. ? You can get his original version of the proof which includes references to set theory in his book minimalism. ? Another version of the proof appears online here: – http://www.onecountry.org/e102/e10214xs.htm – But this is a book excerpt that may be difficult to understand without the background material provided by previous chapters. Hatcher’s Proof ? ? ? Let V represent all of reality. A phenomenon, is some portion of reality I.e. if the blue ellipse represents V, a phenomenon (illustrated in yellow), is some portion of it. Hatcher’s Proof Continued ? We differentiate between two types of phenomena. ? Composite phenomena have parts. ? Non-composite phenomena have no parts (i.e. they are not divisible). Hatcher’s 3 Principles ? P1. All existing phenomena are either self-caused (i.e. A?A) or other caused (B ?A where A?B) but not both. ? P2. If A?B, then A?E where E is any part of B. ? P3. A?E cannot hold if E is a component of A. P1 ? P1 says there is a reason – for everything ? When we write A?B we mean ?a contains sufficient reason for B? ? ? There are numerous definitions of causality P2 is Hatcher’s definition of causality. One is the efficient cause in which it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back? – Hatcher does NOT use this definition ? Instead he uses what’s called total causality – Under this notion of causality it’s the 1000 previous straws, the camel, plus the last straw, plus gravity, plus the ground the camel is standing on – and all the other things that would be required to produce the breaking of the camel’s back – that causes the camel to break it’s back. – Put another way to cause a phenomenon, you need to supply everything required to create it to satisfy the definition of causality provided in P2. – That is why when we write A?B we say ?A contains sufficient reason for B? P3: The Principle of Limitation ? P3 is a logical principle. ? It says that a composite phenomena cannot be the cause of it’s own components. ? A car for example cannot be the cause of it’s steering wheel. ? We illustrate P3 in the next slide P3 (Continued) ? Every composite phenomena has – parts and – A relationship or structure between these parts Relationship of Parts of Parts to each other Car ? A car’s parts laid out on one’s front lawn is not a car ? To be considered a car, the parts need to be put together in certain way ? This is illustrated in the diagram CAR P3 (Continued) ? What P3 is saying is that there is a logical succession from the parts and structure to the car. ? I.e. once you have the structure AND parts, you have the car. ? This succession is a logical one not a temporal one. I.e. it is not the consequence of the passage of time. – For example the integer 2 following after 1 – but this does not involve the passage of time. Relationship of Parts of Parts to each other Car (Structure) CAR P3 (Continued) ? The car can’t cause the steering wheel (a part), because the car doesn’t exist until all the parts (including the steering wheel exist) and until such parts are put in the right form. ? Put another way, the parts and structure logically precede the car. ? It is possible that the car and it’s parts come into being simultaneously BUT it’s not possible for the car to cause it’s own component. Relationship of Parts of Parts to each other Car (Structure) CAR Proof of a Universal Cause ? Now that we’ve established the 3 principles, the proof follows. ? With respect to V, we know (from P1) that ONLY ONE of the following two statements is true: a) That V is self caused (i.e. V?V) I.e. that reality contains sufficient reason for it’s own existence b) That V is other-caused (i.e. there exists some G?V) That is some portion of reality, which we call G, is the ultimate cause of everything. Proof of a Universal Cause ? Suppose Statement (a) is true i.e. V?V ? By P2, the statement V?V implies that V?A for every A which is a component of V – but this contradicts P3 which says a composite phenomena cannot be a cause of one of it’s components. ? From the above contradiction we know statement (a) must be false ? But according to P1 if (a) is false, then (b) must be true. ? Thus there exists a G, which is the ultimate cause of everything (i.e. G?V) Proof that G has no components ? ? ? – – We know that G?V According to P2, this means G?G (since G is a part of V). Either one of the following two statements must hold: G1. G has components G2. G has no components ? ? G1 cannot hold for the same reasons that V?V does not hold (i.e. it would violate P3). This means G has no components. Proof of G’s Uniqueness ? Here we will prove that there can only be one universal cause. ? We already showed there exists a universal cause, G but lets suppose there exists another universal cause, which we’ll call G’ ? Because G’ is a universal cause, we know G’?V ? By P2, this implies that G’ causes everything including G’ itself; i.e. G’?G’ (i.e. G’ is self-caused) (1) ? But we also know that the other universal cause, G, causes V i.e. G ?V. But according to P2, this means G causes everything in V including G’; i.e. G?G’ (which means G’ is other caused) (2) ? According to statement (1), G’ is self-caused, but according to statement (2), G’ is also other caused. ? But this violates P1, which says that G’ must be either self caused, or other caused but not both. ? The only way to avoid a contradiction is for G’=G ? Thus there is only one universal cause. Hatcher’s Proof ? Put together, we have shown that there exists a unique (i.e. there’s only one), universal (i.e. the cause of everything), self-caused (i.e. it contains sufficient reason for it’s own existence) cause. This cause is distinct from the universe, but is the cause of everything within it. ? The proof doesn’t require this G to be the immediate cause of everything; but it does say that God is the ultimate cause of everything. ? The proof does not tell you if this G, is the same as the God of Christianity, Islam, or the Baha’i Faith – but the findings of the proof are consistent with the God of those religions. Critique of Hatcher’s Proof ? – Hatcher used first order logic most well understood and accepted form of logic ? As a result there are only three possible ways to attack his proof all of which are very difficult to defend. These attacks are: – – To attack logic itself (not the act of a reasonable person) To show that one or more principles do not hold (this approach is also very difficult to defend – see next slide) Critiquing Hatcher’s Proof If you accept logic, you can only use attack 2. Attack 2 requires one to negate one or more of the 3 principles, but in practice this very difficult to defend; lets go over each principle: – P1 says there is a cause for everything, and that the question ?why?? is always meaningful. Negating this principle is difficult because P1 – which says that there is an explanation for everything – is one of the core ideas in Science. ; i.e. that every phenomena is preceded by a cause. Further, those who deny P1, commit themselves to the existence of non-causal systems – something humanity has never observed. – P2 is just a definition of causality – P3 is simply a logical idea. It too is difficult to attack. ? ? ? As introduced at the beginning of this presentation, Science picks as true, statements that are more probable than their complement. It would seem that all 3 of Hatcher’s principles pass this test Thus this proof shifts the burden of proof to people to show there isn’t a God. Dec 2005, Changing Times Understanding the Logic of Atheism QUESTIONS Hooman Katirai (hooman@alumni.mit.edu in 2006) Backup Slides ` More details on Genetic Programming Final Questions ? What could we possibly offer our creator that it doesn’t already have? – Thankfulness Nature Vs. Genetic Programming ? Survival of Fittest ? A Fitness function tells you how well any given solution solves the problem A technique called Tournament selection mimics this phenomenon Parents mate to produce fratenal twins, with genetic code from the parents BUT parent’s immediately die after doing so. Mutation operator Genetic Code = Parse Trees ? Several Males will compete to mate with one female or viceversa Parents mate to produce offspring whose genetic makeup a combination of parents ? ? ? ? ? Offspring contain some genetic code independent of parents Genetic Code = DNA ? ? Parse Trees: The DNA of Solutions A Simple Example + 2 5 + 5 4 2 7 A More Complicated Example + / 8 7 5 Parse Trees: The DNA of Solutions + A More Complicated Example / Freq(?Huge Savings?) Freq(?Credit Card?) 4 ? The parse trees shown in previous slides are somewhat boring – – They always reduced to the same answer More interesting is when we add feature detectors which allow the result to change according to some input. For example the parse tree above will give you a different answer according to how many times the phrases ?credit card? and ?huge savings appears in a document. Indeed, parse trees using feature detectors have been used to filter junk e-mail with greater than 90% accuracy (See Katirai, ?Filtering Junk Email,? 1999). – How two solutions can be mated to produce ?children? solutions * + / 8 4 + Gives 5 Mated with 2 2 * + 7 7 5 And 2 2 + / 8 4 To Mate two solutions We swap two randomly selected

Correlation of Religiosity & Wealth: Pew Study

This Pew report is getting a lot of people’s attention. It includes some surprising data. The most important is that people are not staying in the religion that they were brought up in. Also, there is an alarming drop in the number of Catholics. As usual, the Baha’i Faith’s miniscule numbers didn’t even place it on the radar.

This is the most widely seen excerpt from the study (click to see full view):

Pew Study: Religions in America

But for me, the most interesting piece of data was elsewhere. Take a look at this chart comparing the “religiosity” of people to their economic standing:

The survey finds a strong relationship between a country’s religiosity and its economic status. In poorer nations, religion remains central to the lives of individuals, while secular perspectives are more common in richer nations.


Of course, this isn’t really shocking nor news. Most of us have an innate sense that this is true from our own experiences. Have you heard the expression “There are no atheists in a foxhole”?

I know from the efforts of the Baha’i Faith that Western Europe has been impregnable for the past 4 decades. The same with North America. The only place the Baha’i Faith has made any headway has been in poorer countries like India where the vast percentage of Baha’is in the world reside. Even that is contested due to the fluid nature of religious affiliation on that continent.

Needless to say, there are exceptions to the general data. There are many extremely wealthy people who are also extremely religious. And Mark Twain did say there are lies, damned lies and statistics ;-)

But that’s not the point. My only contention is that the sample size of 35,000 is too small (for a global study). But if the data is correct, then there is definitely a relationship between money and religious belief. That can be interpreted two ways:

For those who are of an atheist inclination, it is confirmation that religion is merely a sophisticated vestigial instinct born of ignorance. Once human life is elevated through the use of science it is apt to disappear.

For those who are of a theist inclination, it is confirmation that materialism is a great barrier to spirituality. Once physical needs such as health, well-being, shelter, etc. are fulfilled, humanity revels in decadence and drifts away from the non-physical needs which religion addresses.

Which one are you?

Is there a third way to interpret the data (assuming the study methodology is sound)?

Read the full report here: The Pews Global Attitudes Project (pdf format).

The report covers much more ground than people’s views of religion so it is worth a read. If you don’t have the time, here is a concise version.

There is a lot of fascinating stuff in there so look around. For example, here is a visual map of the United States showing the various faiths and traditions.

Darwin’s God (part 2)

This is part two of the intriguing article from the New York Times Magazine called “Darwin’s God” (for part one, click here please). As the title suggests, it is about the scientific attempts to explain the existence of God, or rather our need for the existence of God.

darwins god NYT.png

And what would God say? No matter what their age, the children, who were all Protestants, told Barrett that God would answer, ?Rocks.? This was true even for the older children, who, as Barrett understood it, had developed folkpsychology and had used it when predicting a wrong response for Mother. They had learned that, in certain situations, people could be fooled — but they had also learned that there is no fooling God.

The bottom line, according to byproduct theorists, is that children are born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible minds, immaterial souls — and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition, Paul Bloom says, with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way, he says, we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing — whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death — are culturally shaped.

Whatever the specifics, certain beliefs can be found in all religions. Those that prevail, according to the byproduct theorists, are those that fit most comfortably with our mental architecture. Psychologists have shown, for instance, that people attend to, and remember, things that are unfamiliar and strange, but not so strange as to be impossible to assimilate. Ideas about God or other supernatural agents tend to fit these criteria. They are what Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and psychologist, called ?minimally counterintuitive?: weird enough to get your attention and lodge in your memory but not so weird that you reject them altogether. A tree that talks is minimally counterintuitive, and you might believe it as a supernatural agent. A tree that talks and flies and time-travels is maximally counterintuitive, and you are more likely to reject it.

Atran, along with Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, studied the idea of minimally counterintuitive agents earlier this decade. They presented college students with lists of fantastical creatures and asked them to choose the ones that seemed most ?religious.? The convincingly religious agents, the students said, were not the most outlandish — not the turtle that chatters and climbs or the squealing, flowering marble — but those that were just outlandish enough: giggling seaweed, a sobbing oak, a talking horse. Giggling seaweed meets the requirement of being minimally counterintuitive, Atran wrote. So does a God who has a human personality except that he knows everything or a God who has a mind but has no body.

It is not enough for an agent to be minimally counterintuitive for it to earn a spot in people’s belief systems. An emotional component is often needed, too, if belief is to take hold. ?If your emotions are involved, then that’s the time when you’re most likely to believe whatever the religion tells you to believe,? Atran says. Religions stir up emotions through their rituals — swaying, singing, bowing in unison during group prayer, sometimes working people up to a state of physical arousal that can border on frenzy. And religions gain strength during the natural heightening of emotions that occurs in times of personal crisis, when the faithful often turn to shamans or priests. The most intense personal crisis, for which religion can offer powerfully comforting answers, is when someone comes face to face with mortality.

In John Updike’s celebrated early short story ?Pigeon Feathers,? 14-year-old David spends a lot of time thinking about death. He suspects that adults are lying when they say his spirit will live on after he dies. He keeps catching them in inconsistencies when he asks where exactly his soul will spend eternity. ?Don’t you see,? he cries to his mother, ?if when we die there’s nothing, all your sun and fields and what not are all, ah, horror? It’s just an ocean of horror.?

The story ends with David’s tiny revelation and his boundless relief. The boy gets a gun for his 15th birthday, which he uses to shoot down some pigeons that have been nesting in his grandmother’s barn. Before he buries them, he studies the dead birds’ feathers. He is amazed by their swirls of color, ?designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture.? And suddenly the fears that have plagued him are lifted, and with a ?slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.?

Fear of death is an undercurrent of belief. The spirits of dead ancestors, ghosts, immortal deities, heaven and hell, the everlasting soul: the notion of spiritual existence after death is at the heart of almost every religion. According to some adaptationists, this is part of religion’s role, to help humans deal with the grim certainty of death. Believing in God and the afterlife, they say, is how we make sense of the brevity of our time on earth, how we give meaning to this brutish and short existence. Religion can offer solace to the bereaved and comfort to the frightened.

But the spandrelists counter that saying these beliefs are consolation does not mean they offered an adaptive advantage to our ancestors. ?The human mind does not produce adequate comforting delusions against all situations of stress or fear,? wrote Pascal Boyer, a leading byproduct theorist, in ?Religion Explained,? which came out a year before Atran’s book. ?Indeed, any organism that was prone to such delusions would not survive long.?

Whether or not it is adaptive, belief in the afterlife gains power in two ways: from the intensity with which people wish it to be true and from the confirmation it seems to get from the real world. This brings us back to folkpsychology. We try to make sense of other people partly by imagining what it is like to be them, an adaptive trait that allowed our ancestors to outwit potential enemies. But when we think about being dead, we run into a cognitive wall. How can we possibly think about not thinking? ?Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it,? the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote in ?Tragic Sense of Life.? ?The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing.?

Much easier, then, to imagine that the thinking somehow continues. This is what young children seem to do, as a study at the Florida Atlantic University demonstrated a few years ago. Jesse Bering and David Bjorklund, the psychologists who conducted the study, used finger puppets to act out the story of a mouse, hungry and lost, who is spotted by an alligator. ?Well, it looks like Brown Mouse got eaten by Mr. Alligator,? the narrator says at the end. ?Brown Mouse is not alive anymore.?

Afterward, Bering and Bjorklund asked their subjects, ages 4 to 12, what it meant for Brown Mouse to be ?not alive anymore.? Is he still hungry? Is he still sleepy? Does he still want to go home? Most said the mouse no longer needed to eat or drink. But a large proportion, especially the younger ones, said that he still had thoughts, still loved his mother and still liked cheese. The children understood what it meant for the mouse’s body to cease to function, but many believed that something about the mouse was still alive.

?Our psychological architecture makes us think in particular ways,? says Bering, now at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. ?In this study, it seems, the reason afterlife beliefs are so prevalent is that underlying them is our inability to simulate our nonexistence.?

It might be just as impossible to simulate the nonexistence of loved ones. A large part of any relationship takes place in our minds, Bering said, so it’s natural for it to continue much as before after the other person’s death. It is easy to forget that your sister is dead when you reach for the phone to call her, since your relationship was based so much on memory and imagined conversations even when she was alive. In addition, our agent-detection device sometimes confirms the sensation that the dead are still with us. The wind brushes our cheek, a spectral shape somehow looks familiar and our agent detection goes into overdrive. Dreams, too, have a way of confirming belief in the afterlife, with dead relatives appearing in dreams as if from beyond the grave, seeming very much alive.

Belief is our fallback position, according to Bering; it is our reflexive style of thought. ?We have a basic psychological capacity that allows anyone to reason about unexpected natural events, to see deeper meaning where there is none,? he says. ?It’s natural; it’s how our minds work.?

Intriguing as the spandrel logic might be, there is another way to think about the evolution of religion: that religion evolved because it offered survival advantages to our distant ancestors. This is where the action is in the science of God debate, with a coterie of adaptationists arguing on behalf of the primary benefits, in terms of survival advantages, of religious belief.

The trick in thinking about adaptation is that even if a trait offers no survival advantage today, it might have had one long ago. This is how Darwinians explain how certain physical characteristics persist even if they do not currently seem adaptive — by asking whether they might have helped our distant ancestors form social groups, feed themselves, find suitable mates or keep from getting killed. A facility for storing calories as fat, for instance, which is a detriment in today’s food-rich society, probably helped our ancestors survive cyclical famines.

So trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves. As William James put it, religion filled people with ?a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life . . . an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.?

Such sentiments, some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living. The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.

One of the most vocal adaptationists is David Sloan Wilson, an occasional thorn in the side of both Scott Atran and Richard Dawkins. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, focuses much of his argument at the group level. ?Organisms are a product of natural selection,? he wrote in ?Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society,? which came out in 2002, the same year as Atran’s book, and staked out the adaptationist view. ?Through countless generations of variation and selection, [organisms] acquire properties that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. My purpose is to see if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify as organismic in this sense.?

Wilson’s father was Sloan Wilson, author of ?The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,? an emblem of mid-’50s suburban anomie that was turned into a film starring Gregory Peck. Sloan Wilson became a celebrity, with young women asking for his autograph, especially after his next novel, ?A Summer Place,? became another blockbuster movie. The son grew up wanting to do something to make his famous father proud.

?I knew I couldn’t be a novelist,? said Wilson, who crackled with intensity during a telephone interview, ?so I chose something as far as possible from literature — I chose science.? He is disarmingly honest about what motivated him: ?I was very ambitious, and I wanted to make a mark.? He chose to study human evolution, he said, in part because he had some of his father’s literary leanings and the field required a novelist’s attention to human motivations, struggles and alliances — as well as a novelist’s flair for narrative.

Wilson eventually chose to study religion not because religion mattered to him personally — he was raised in a secular Protestant household and says he has long been an atheist — but because it was a lens through which to look at and revivify a branch of evolution that had fallen into disrepute. When Wilson was a graduate student at Michigan State University in the 1970s, Darwinians were critical of group selection, the idea that human groups can function as single organisms the way beehives or anthills do. So he decided to become the man who rescued this discredited idea. ?I thought, Wow, defending group selection — now, that would be big,? he recalled. It wasn’t until the 1990s, he said, that he realized that ?religion offered an opportunity to show that group selection was right after all.?

Dawkins once called Wilson’s defense of group selection ?sheer, wanton, head-in-bag perversity.? Atran, too, has been dismissive of this approach, calling it ?mind blind? for essentially ignoring the role of the brain’s mental machinery. The adaptationists ?cannot in principle distinguish Marxism from monotheism, ideology from religious belief,? Atran wrote. ?They cannot explain why people can be more steadfast in their commitment to admittedly counterfactual and counterintuitive beliefs — that Mary is both a mother and a virgin, and God is sentient but bodiless — than to the most politically, economically or scientifically persuasive account of the way things are or should be.?

Still, for all its controversial elements, the narrative Wilson devised about group selection and the evolution of religion is clear, perhaps a legacy of his novelist father. Begin, he says, with an imaginary flock of birds. Some birds serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which is doubly harmed: by keeping watch, the sentry has less time to gather food, and by issuing a warning call, it is more likely to be spotted by the predator. So in the Darwinian struggle, the birds most likely to pass on their genes are the nonsentries. How, then, could the sentry gene survive for more than a generation or two?

To explain how a self-sacrificing gene can persist, Wilson looks to the level of the group. If there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.

There are costs to any individual of being religious: the time and resources spent on rituals, the psychic energy devoted to following certain injunctions, the pain of some initiation rites. But in terms of intergroup struggle, according to Wilson, the costs can be outweighed by the benefits of being in a cohesive group that out-competes the others.

There is another element here too, unique to humans because it depends on language. A person’s behavior is observed not only by those in his immediate surroundings but also by anyone who can hear about it. There might be clear costs to taking on a role analogous to the sentry bird — a person who stands up to authority, for instance, risks losing his job, going to jail or getting beaten by the police — but in humans, these local costs might be outweighed by long-distance benefits. If a particular selfless trait enhances a person’s reputation, spread through the written and spoken word, it might give him an advantage in many of life’s challenges, like finding a mate. One way that reputation is enhanced is by being ostentatiously religious.

?The study of evolution is largely the study of trade-offs,? Wilson wrote in ?Darwin’s Cathedral.? It might seem disadvantageous, in terms of foraging for sustenance and safety, for someone to favor religious over rationalistic explanations that would point to where the food and danger are. But in some circumstances, he wrote, ?a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better.? For the individual, it might be more adaptive to have ?highly sophisticated mental modules for acquiring factual knowledge and for building symbolic belief systems? than to have only one or the other, according to Wilson. For the group, it might be that a mixture of hardheaded realists and symbolically minded visionaries is most adaptive and that ?what seems to be an adversarial relationship? between theists and atheists within a community is really a division of cognitive labor that ?keeps social groups as a whole on an even keel.?

Even if Wilson is right that religion enhances group fitness, the question remains: Where does God come in? Why is a religious group any different from groups for which a fitness argument is never even offered — a group of fraternity brothers, say, or Yankees fans?

Richard Sosis, an anthropologist with positions at the University of Connecticut and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has suggested a partial answer. Like many adaptationists, Sosis focuses on the way religion might be adaptive at the individual level. But even adaptations that help an individual survive can sometimes play themselves out through the group. Consider religious rituals.

?Religious and secular rituals can both promote cooperation,? Sosis wrote in American Scientist in 2004. But religious rituals ?generate greater belief and commitment? because they depend on belief rather than on proof. The rituals are ?beyond the possibility of examination,? he wrote, and a commitment to them is therefore emotional rather than logical — a commitment that is, in Sosis’s view, deeper and more long-lasting.

Rituals are a way of signaling a sincere commitment to the religion’s core beliefs, thereby earning loyalty from others in the group. ?By donning several layers of clothing and standing out in the midday sun,? Sosis wrote, ?ultraorthodox Jewish men are signaling to others: ?Hey! Look, I’m a haredi’ — or extremely pious — ?Jew. If you are also a member of this group, you can trust me because why else would I be dressed like this?’ ? These ?signaling? rituals can grant the individual a sense of belonging and grant the group some freedom from constant and costly monitoring to ensure that their members are loyal and committed. The rituals are harsh enough to weed out the infidels, and both the group and the individual believers benefit.

In 2003, Sosis and Bradley Ruffle of Ben Gurion University in Israel sought an explanation for why Israel’s religious communes did better on average than secular communes in the wake of the economic crash of most of the country’s kibbutzim. They based their study on a standard economic game that measures cooperation. Individuals from religious communes played the game more cooperatively, while those from secular communes tended to be more selfish. It was the men who attended synagogue daily, not the religious women or the less observant men, who showed the biggest differences. To Sosis, this suggested that what mattered most was the frequent public display of devotion. These rituals, he wrote, led to greater cooperation in the religious communes, which helped them maintain their communal structure during economic hard times.

In 1997, Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay in Natural History that called for a truce between religion and science. ?The net of science covers the empirical universe,? he wrote. ?The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.? Gould was emphatic about keeping the domains separate, urging ?respectful discourse? and ?mutual humility.? He called the demarcation ?nonoverlapping magisteria? from the Latin magister, meaning ?canon.?

Richard Dawkins had a history of spirited arguments with Gould, with whom he disagreed about almost everything related to the timing and focus of evolution. But he reserved some of his most venomous words for nonoverlapping magisteria. ?Gould carried the art of bending over backward to positively supine lengths,? he wrote in ?The God Delusion.? ?Why shouldn’t we comment on God, as scientists? . . . A universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter??

The separation, other critics said, left untapped the potential richness of letting one worldview inform the other. ?Even if Gould was right that there were two domains, what religion does and what science does,? says Daniel Dennett (who, despite his neo-atheist label, is not as bluntly antireligious as Dawkins and Harris are), ?that doesn’t mean science can’t study what religion does. It just means science can’t do what religion does.?

The idea that religion can be studied as a natural phenomenon might seem to require an atheistic philosophy as a starting point. Not necessarily. Even some neo-atheists aren’t entirely opposed to religion. Sam Harris practices Buddhist-inspired meditation. Daniel Dennett holds an annual Christmas sing-along, complete with hymns and carols that are not only harmonically lush but explicitly pious.

And one prominent member of the byproduct camp, Justin Barrett, is an observant Christian who believes in ?an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being,? as he wrote in an e-mail message. ?I believe that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other.?

At first blush, Barrett’s faith might seem confusing. How does his view of God as a byproduct of our mental architecture coexist with his Christianity? Why doesn’t the byproduct theory turn him into a skeptic?

?Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people,? Barrett wrote in his e-mail message. ?Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?? Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them, he wrote. ?Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does??

What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe. Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down. The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism higher than the values of spiritualism.

This internal push and pull between the spiritual and the rational reflects what used to be called the ?God of the gaps? view of religion. The presumption was that as science was able to answer more questions about the natural world, God would be invoked to answer fewer, and religion would eventually recede. Research about the evolution of religion suggests otherwise. No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural. The drive to satisfy that yearning, according to both adaptationists and byproduct theorists, might be an inevitable and eternal part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.