Well, I haven't read the book yet. Mainly because I hadn't heard about it until yesterday on a broadcast of Mr. Harris speaking on cspan.
I must say that I was thrilled and amazed to see someone saying out loud what I have been thinking for many years. Namely, that what we call "religious faith" is inherently dangerous to the continued survival of human civilization- if not all life on Earth.
In fact, I wonder if perhaps Mr. Harris has hit upon a probable answer to the question posed by the "Fermi Paradox"?
The Fermi Paradox states that, given the known age of the galaxy, it would easily have been possible (even at sub-light speeds) for the entire galaxy to have been colonized and re-colonized many times by many different races. And yet, there is no credible evidence that Earth has ever been visited by anyone - much less colonized. Why not?
Of course, there are many possible explanations for this.
But suppose that "religious belief" is a sort of inherent side-effect of the development of "creative" intelligence.
If I understand the current thinking in human evolution, there is evidence for this idea.
Its my understanding that the last major "improvement" that separates fully modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens) from the near modern humans (homo heidelbergensis, etc ) was actually a "software" change that resulted in the sudden increase in the pace of technological development. This change also marks the first appearance of art and religious expression in cave art.
In other words, the tools started to get better at the same moment in time that the religious cave art appears. To me, thats not a good sign.
What if that is a universal phenomenon? Could it be that religious belief is the curse of "creative intelligence" everywhere? In that case, the universe could be littered with dead worlds that were once the home of species that got to be as smart as we are, before destroying themselves in wars of fundamentalist insanity.
Note: since I haven't yet read the book, its possible that Mr. Harris discussed this point. If so, I apologize for "claiming" it.
Actually, I don’t believe there is any credible evidence that the universe has a finite age or any finite boundaries, for that matter. I refer you to “The Big Bang Never Happened,” by Eric J. Lerner. Lerner’s cosmolgy comes very close to positing that there is no necessity for a creator, since nothing was ever created…then, disappointingly enough, he stops short of that conclusion. Otherwise a good read, though, especially the part that deals with the history and development of theoretical astronomy.
Do people have a “God” instinct, or a genetic tendency toward deistic belief? It seems likely that a sort of deistic restlessness inhabits some of us, though not everyone. Keep in mind that a current genetic tendency toward deistic belief could easily be argued, since over the past dozen or so centuries many thousands of heretics, blaspheners and simple non-believers have been taken out of the gene pool, to put it politely.
It also seems likely that our seemingly instinctual quest for religious significance starts in childhood, as we focus on our parents, who manipulate the world for us like gods. Infancy and childhood are obviously times of mental habit forming, and when we are children, we become accustomed to wondering about, predicting, pondering, and otherwise trying to manipulate and exploit the overseers, our parents. Once our mental processes have taken root, they typically do not change except under fairly drastic circumstances. The result can be adults who think like children, and who don’t even realize this fact, partly because they don’t know that it is even possible to actually view their interiors.
Dave…hey again. It certainly is tempting to believe there is a sort of god gene since I’ve never heard of a society that did not develop some sort of belief in spirits that seem to have an interest in our behavior. Whether the spirits are benevolent, neutral, or malicious, and whether they take the form of gods, forest creatures, or ancestors seems to be less specific.
It’s my understanding that researchers think the brain works on inference systems that observe and ask simple questions, such as “does it move?”, “does it move on its’ own?”, “does it have legs?”,“hair?”, “horns?”, etc. All done in a subconscious flash, you can see how you would eventially infer you’re looking at a deer when the data is finally compared to memory banks of what deer look like and how they behave. If the data satisfies enough of the inference systems we “believe” we see a deer.( Even if at times we’re fooled by, say a hunter in a deer suit.) We have basic systems that likewise analyze events and infer causes, and reasons for causes etc. When lightning hits a tree we infer a cause. The idea of death is dificult to deal with and it must be that we do not naturally infer an end to all aspects of that person. Picture that we are primitive men (probably these inference systems are much older than that) and we witness a murder, and then we see a tree fall on the murderer. Whooo! What would primitive men infer? There are events and there are causes of these events…we didn’t do it, who did? Might it seem reasonable that a god who could make things happen might also have reasons to make things happen? The god seems to be affected by what we do. Or was it the spirit of the murdered man? Well, I guess you can see why the supernatural is a universal idea. It simply fits a lot of our inference systems and seems reasonable. How much more satisfying it is when the god is benevolent and loving, not forgetting that trees still fall on people. If all my spirits were malicious ancestors, might I even convert to the benign gods without to much disarray in my systems.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t think there is a god gene but god is a natural outgrowth of the way we are wired to interpret our world. At least until a more rigorous way of looking at evidence came along, who really needed to question something that worked? As an aside, religious believers are not crazy, in the sense of talking to a dish washer, they just have not questioned that comfort zone they’re in too closely. It still seems to be reasonable, yes “reasonable” to believe. Remember, most atheists were probably in those same comfort zones at one point.
I am not tempted to think there is a God gene. Our tendency to create dieties has nothing to do with nature, at least not directly. My view is that man developed religion when he developed consciousness, and culture and civilization began as a result. This isn’t strictly Julian Jaynes’ bicameral story, but it’s not far off. The original experience of consciousness was, and is for us as young children, not experienced as the self. That would come later, and we would forget what religion was originally for. The dieties this mental evolution created have no connection or relation to any possible or alleged dieties that may have created the real universe or maybe maintain some supernatural control over it.
Forgive the brevity, I’m at work….
Rod, what I think is that I wish I’d written the essay you wrote above. The more I think about it, the more I suspect that “God Gene” is a misnomer. Gary Marcus, an NYU cognitive scientist, explains genetics as being much more subtle than most people seem to think. I’ve seen him speak on C-SPAN about his book, The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexities of Human Thought. He emphasizes how genetics relies on many “if-then” propositions. Different environmental conditions instruct genes in very different ways.
You’re exactly right about humans having an overwhelming need to explain. It’s always been desperately crucial to our species. I’ll admit that life often seems miraculous to me. And the more I attempt to discover about life, the more it seems to lead me toward at times deceptive rationalization of order, behavior and even matter itself. But in the end, I argue against the Deism of religions. I suspect that so many people find themselves placing their faith behind the God of the Bible because they’re taught from childhood that godliness is next to cleanliness. They see themselves as being good, or at least of striving somewhat toward what is good and clean, and therefore—so their unspoken logic goes—they must side up with God with a capital G. “Good” in this case being: kind, loving, generous, hardworking, and so on. People naturally tend to see themselves this way.