Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Review: Why We Believe in God(s) by J. Anderson Thomson

We lined up shoulder-to-shoulder with our arms around each other. We swayed back and forth as we sang. The little old lady to my left was frail and I was acutely conscious not to knock her off balance, nor to bruise her. The song, of course, was Amazing Grace. It is a beautiful and powerful song, perhaps one of the best spirituals ever written. We lifted our voices and sang. We swayed together, left and right.
Slides walked us through the lyrics, projected on a large screen at the front of the room. It seems that everyone knew the first verse, but not the others. "'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved," we sang, struggling to hit the high notes, "How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed!"
Not one of us believed a word. This was, after all, a meeting of the Fredericksburg Secular Humanists. We all sat down as J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., MD, author of Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith [AmazonGoodreads], asked us for a show of hands. Andy is a practicing psychiatrist located near the University of Virginia and a faculty member there.
"How many of you feel more positive than you did before singing?", asked Andy. Almost every hand went up. He had us test our pain threshold by pinching the sensitive fleshy area on the back of our hands, between thumb and forefinger. It just didn't hurt as much as it did before we had sang. We had just proven by experiment his contention that ritual group behavior, what Andy calls "song, dance and trance", has a measurable positive effect on the mood and emotions of human beings.
You can do a small scale version of this experiment on yourself. Thomson tells you how on pages 99-100.
The vast majority of people believe in some form of god or another form of supernatural agency such as ghosts, a guiding hand, a purpose of some form. Many believe in reincarnation, bodily or not, and an immortal soul. Why should this be? Clearly it is not because we all, from primitive people to airplane-riding denizens of skyscrapers have the same perception of the same god. As Sir James George Frazer and Joseph Campbell showed, religions differ predictably in their fundamentals as the geography of their adherents change.
Frazer's epic study of comparative religion in the 1890's, The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion [AmazonGoodreads] was followed by Campbell's equally epic follow on two generations later with his Masks of God series: Primitive Mythology [AmazonGoodreads], Oriental Mythology [AmazonGoodreads], Occidental Mythology [Amazon,Goodreads] and Creative Mythology [AmazonGoodreads]. Thomson does not seem to be familiar with either of these studies. Of course, comparing religions was not his goal. Instead, he informs the reader that his studies were informed by the potent combination of his training as a clinical psychiatrist, including Sigmund Freud's The Future of an Illusion [AmazonGoodreads], his own personal atheism and the near-death experience of his son Mathew during the horror of the 9/11 attack on New York. He is interested in what is capable of turning a person from a religious believer into a suicide bomber.
Distribution of dominant world religions (Click image to expand)
No, Thomson did not set out to compare religions. He set out to determine why we believe. That is a tall order and one with a storied history. Heavy thinkers for more than the last two millennia focused on explaining why we should believe instead of why we do. Aristotle, noting that all activities have cause, postulated a prime mover (or unmoved mover) that began all events. St. Thomas Aquinas summarized five reasons (the quinque viae) to believe in the Christian god in his book Summa Theologica [AmazonGoodreads] in the thirteenth century. There have been so many others, from the ontological argument of René Descartes to Pascal's Wager. All of them, shows Thomson, have missed the point entirely.
I had already read Why We Believe in God(s) when I had the opportunity to hear Andy speak at a lecture in October 2014. He is personally engaging, passionate about his topic and very obviously experienced as a lecturer.
The book is wonderfully concise and has playful, almost humorous, aspects to it. Each chapter is cleverly titled using either a Biblical quotation or one from Christian culture. In spite if its brevity, it has the potential to start a long overdue, critical conversation about religious thought. Why do we believe in gods? Because, as Andy put it in his Fredericksburg lecture, "We are all trapped in a Stone Age brain."
The book is a product of Pitchstone Publishing, a pocket publisher of the "new atheist" genre located in Thomson's home town of Charlottesville, Virginia. Their Web site lists only a meager seventeen print titles. I have heard of at least one of them, A Manual For Creating Atheists by philosopher Peter Boghossian [AmazonGoodreads]. It is on my reading list. Some of the other authors are psychiatrists like Thomson. The book was co-authored by Clare Aukofer, a medical writer and frequent collaborator of Thomson's.
There have been other attempts to explain why religious thought is so prevalent. Bertrand Russell's 1927 essay  Why I Am Not A Christian brilliantly and insightfully went to the heart of the matter: Addressing why arguments for the existence of god and the usefulness of the church, Russell systematically dismantled rational reasons to believe. His arguments against the design of nature were powerfully supported by Darwin's theory and pointed out that, with evidence to show that we have adapted to our environment, it was no longer sensible to argue that the environment was designed for us. Today's generation of both theists and atheists would benefit from dusting off Russell's essay.
More recently, in 2003, Christopher Hitchens took a stand against any form of revealed religion. Hitchens' Razor states, "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence". Hitchens followed astrophysicist Carl Sagan in his "baloney detection kit", introduced in his 1997 book The Demon-Haunted World [AmazonGoodreads]. Their arguments echo other rational thinkers like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennett. So-called "new atheists" such as Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett and their predecessors like Sagan have argued from the standpoint of logic. This is rational because science has uncovered two critical facts:
  1. The mechanisms of the world can be understood and explained through the scientific method, logic and mathematics.
  2. Humans do not think logically very often or for very long.
Unfortunately, point #2 ensures that most people will never be swayed by logical arguments such as Russell's.
The journalist, author and educator Michael Shermer touched on Thomson's core argument in his 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition and Other Confusions of Our Time [AmazonGoodreads]. Although Shermer is not a scientist and did not have the benefit of the last decade of neuroscience, he managed like Russell to close on the core problem:
In my opinion, most believers in miracles, monsters, and mysteries are not hoaxers, flimflam artists, or lunatics. Most are normal people whose normal thinking has gone wrong in some way.
Shermer proceeded to list a large number of logical fallacies where people's thinking goes wrong. He thus follows centuries of atheistic thinkers who can prove logically reasons for disbelief without being able to explain why people behave as they do. It is not uncommon for scientific explanations to proceed from facts, to knowledge, to theory, to more fully complete theory. Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, did not in fact explain the origin of species, only their differentiation. Others were required to do that following the explanation of genetic coding by Darwin's contemporary Gregor Mendel and the description of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick a century later.
By contrast with these earlier authors, Thomson has effectively related the mechanisms of evolutionary psychology to the actions evinced by religious thinkers. Where Shermer was only able to list, Thomson has been able to explain. Thomson systematically describes the reasons and benefits of each cognitive feature prevalent in religious thought so that we may see how and why it has been adopted for that purpose. Religion, it turns out, has empirically come to use each aspect of our brains that enable the religion itself to be considered compelling.  It is critically important for memes to be sticky; those that are attract adherents and thrive. Those that do not whither and die. A wonderful example is how the proselytizing religions such as mainstream Christianity grow while smaller factions that do not proselytize, and in fact erect a high barrier to entry such as the Shakers, have disappeared entirely or have fallen to just a few members.
Thomson challenges us to think about who we really are and how we really think. Not many will welcome such introspection. Reading Why We Believe in God(s), I am reminded of that other great modern insight, that the concept of self is also an illusion. In The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity by Bruce Hood [AmazonGoodreads], we are asked to consider what that would mean:
One can imagine all sorts of scenarios in which brain structures are copied or replaced cell by cell until none of the original brain material is left and yet people maintain an intuition that the self somehow continues to exist independently of all these physical changes. If that were true, then one would have to accept a self that can exist independently of the brain. Most neuroscientists reject that idea. Rather, our brain creates the experience of our self as a model - a cohesive, integrated character - to make sense of the multitude of experiences that assault our senses throughout a lifetime and leave lasting impressions in our memory.
This exploration seems dangerous and perhaps it is. Challenging our most closely held beliefs about ourselves may be our final frontier - and maybe even a frontier where most of us dare not go.
In an attempt to summarize Thomson's long list of cognitive features that relate to religious behavior, I decided to group them by their evolutionary benefit. The first and longest list relate to group cohesiveness. Group cohesiveness is critically important to the survival of humans and our closest cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos. Interestingly, it seems that these features align with a category of behavior theorized by Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development, especially Piaget's symbolic function substage that kicks in between two and four years of age and that is characterized by the beginning of social behavior.
Cognitive Features Driven By Group Cohesiveness
Thomson's DefinitionNotes
Decoupled CognitionThis allows us to conduct a complex social interaction in our mind with an unseen other.Also related to mating behavior. We choose much of our behavior after playing out various scenarios in our heads to judge which would yield results closest to the ones we want.
AttachmentThis most basic of human needs almost defines religion’s premise. Religion supplements or supplants family.Also related to safety. We cling to family in times of hardship or crisis.
IntensionalityThis allows us to speculate about others’ thoughts about our thoughts, desires, beliefs, and intentions.Also related to mating behavior. We take actions based on what we think others are thinking.
Theory of MindThis allows us to “read” others’ possible thoughts, desires, beliefs, and intentions.Also related to mating behavior and closely with intensionality. Thomson: "A chimpanzee mother will never share her baby, but humans will because we can judge trust."
Mirror NeuronsWe literally feel each other’s pain; this is inborn, not invented by religion. We are born caring about others.Also related to safety. Mirror neurons are also implicated in spectator sports and probably systems that inspire via grandeur (e.g. Catholicism, British Empire).
TransferenceWe can accept religious figures as easily as we accepted the family figures we’ve known since birth. We transfer our familial thoughts to religious figures.Who are our parental figures once our parents have died or are absent? Not everyone is comfortable becoming parents without a safety net.
Deference to AuthorityWe are all more deferential to authority figures than we can see or want to admit to ourselves.See Stanley Milgram's experiments.
Kin PsychologyWe are hardwired to prefer our kin over others.This simple survival mechanism allows us to define an "in group", which has the natural result of simultaneously defining the opposite: the out group. Those not in the in group become The Other.
Reciprocal AltruismYou scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.Probably just a human iteration of social grooming in other animals.
Moral Feeling SystemsThese generate moral decisions. They are instinctual and automatic. Because they operate largely outside of awareness, religions can claim ownership of them and insist that we are only moral with faith.Experiments related to moral sense theory shows that moral feelings are innate and not a product of religion.
Ritual behavior - song, dance and tranceThis enhances group cohesion and tests who is committed to the group. Song and dance harness our neurochemistry that reduces pain and fear and increases trust, love, self-esteem, and cooperation.This was what Thomson was illustrating with the song and dance experiment discussed above.
The following, plus the ones noted in the table above, all relate to safety:
Cognitive Features Related to Safety
Thomson's DefinitionNotes
Hyperactive agency detection (HADD)This leads us to assume that unknown forces are human agents. It evolved to protect us. We mistake a shadow for a burglar and never mistake a burglar for a shadow. It encourages anthropomorphism.Errors toward false positives, and a near-complete elimination of false negatives.
Promiscuous TeleologyThis arises from our bias to understand the world as purpose driven.Why? What benefit do we get from that? Perhaps we benefit from the presumption that the world is understandable even though nature can be capricious. All of science presumably arises from the bias to understand the world as being understandable.
Childhood CredulityWe all believe too readily, with too little evidence. Children are even more vulnerable, especially when taught by someone with a mantle of authority.What happens during adolescence that reduces this?
Some of these features date to the far evolutionary past of our species, so far in fact that we could reasonably suppose that other animals share them.  Others seem to be related to "higher" thought. There is almost surely a continuum between humans and other animals in this regard. Darwin was the first to intuit (or at least to have the guts to express, however lately and reluctantly) that the theory of evolution applied to humans as well as any other animal. Thomson quotes Darwin at the beginning of his seventh chapter, "Such social qualities, the paramount importance of which to the lower animals is disputed by no one, were no doubt acquired by the progenitors of man in a similar manner, namely, through natural selection, aided by inherited habit."
As we approach a complete theory of how cognition operates, we must accept that Darwin was right. Many animals empirically show elements of familiar cognition, although certainly to a lessor degree. The primatology studies of Jane Goodall, which showed that chimps had individual personalities, and the ever-evolving recitation of tool usage by animals, have begun to break down the religiously circumscribed belief that humans are somehow separate from the rest of nature. Thomson was right to highlight what he called the "lovely phrase" of William Allman, "We are risen apes, not fallen angels." The quote is from Allman's book Stone Age Present: How Evolution Has Shaped Modern Life - From Sex, Violence and Language to Emotions, Morals and Communities [AmazonGoodreads].
The many dog cognition studies referenced in The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think [AmazonGoodreads] by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods seem to lead to conclusion that dogs do "think" using much of the same physical properties of brain that humans have. Hare and Woods illustrate the special relationship which dogs have with people, not just socially (or culturally) created, but as a product of a sort of evolutionary co-dependance. Similarly, studies of dolphin cognition show that they, too, are a species with strong social ties. We have no reason to believe that the underlying mechanisms are completely different. To make matters worse for those who would deny that evolved brains produce complex social behavior, the book Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence [AmazonGoodreads] by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould should give any reader pause.
So we are left with a question for Thomson's remaining cognitive features: Do dogs or dolphins also have these features, much less monkeys?
We might think that they do. Wolfgang Köhler's primatology studies from the 1970s reported the dancing of a group of chimpanzees around a central pole. This probably relates more to group dynamics than religion per se, but it provides an interesting continuity of behavior from our closest extant ancestors and the earliest human religions, regardless of the human justifications for the action. The observation is in Köhler's 1976 classic The Mentality of Apes [AmazonGoodreads].
A useful discussion on the study and its wider context is to be found in the first volume of Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God series, Primitive Mythology [AmazonGoodreads(pp. 358-359): It seems to me extraordinary,” Köhler concludes, “that there should arise quite spontaneously, among chimpanzees, anything that so strongly suggests the dancing of some primitive tribes." and on the same page Campbell says:
We note, furthermore, the surprising detail of the central pole, which in the higher mythologies becomes interpreted as the world-uniting and supporting Cosmic Tree, World Mountain, axis mundi, or sacred sanctuary, to which both the social order and the meditations of the individual are to be directed. And finally, we have that wonderful sense of play, without which no mythological or ritual game of “make believe” whatsoever could ever have come into being.
Other Cognitive Features Implicated in Religious Expression
Thomson's DefinitionEvolutionary BenefitNotes
Minimally Counterintuitive Worlds (MCIs)This allows belief in the supernatural, as long as it’s not too “super” and does not violate too many basic tenets of humanness.Possibly cognitive closure, which is presumed necessary for understanding the world.Could this be related to intuitive reasoning in that one is perhaps a mechanism of cognitive closure and the other (MCI) a minimization of the effort involved?
Intuitive ReasoningThis helps us “fill in the blanks” of logic.Possibly cognitive closure, which is presumed necessary for understanding the world.Could this be a (the?) mechanism of cognitive closure? If we are presented with multiple disconnected facts and need to cognitively close the world, we must do it somehow.
Person Permanence(Discussed in Thomson's slides, but not his book)Object permanence is necessary for object tracking and recognition, especially in noisy environments. Person permanence probably builds on the same mechanisms.Also called object-person permanence.
Thomson also lists "Hard to Fake, Costly Honest Signals of Commitment" as an important cognitive feature that is used by religious belief. An example of a costly signal is the giving of an expensive gift to a friend, a potential mate, or in the case of potlatch, to an entire community. Costly signals do not seem to fit with an evolutionary argument but with a cultural one. Thomson suggests that costly signals help a person to determine when someone is lying to them (pp. 80-81) and thus associates them with safety. Of course, we cannot perfectly detect lies. Just as shiny hair, full lips or clear skin are often taken as signals for robust health and hence indicate good mating potential, they can also be faked. Faking them is in fact big business. A 2012 study by Michelle Yeomans for Market Research Firm Lucintel, forecasted that the global beauty care products industry will grow to approximately $265 billion annually by 2017. (See Global beauty market to reach $265 billion in 2017 due to an increase in GDP ). Similarly, costly signals can lead us to believe the sincerity of someone like a religious leader even when the long term impact of that belief might not be good for us. Thomson naturally uses as examples the mass murder/suicide at Jonestown and Islamist suicide bombers. One is left to wonder just how detrimental mainstream religious belief might be to the interests of believers. There has been wide consensus among literati for millennia that religion helps keep the powerful powerful. "Religion is regarded by the common people as true," said Seneca the Younger in the first century CE, "by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." Readers of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers would recognize the truth of that statement in the character of Cardinal Richelieu. The relationship between the established religions and politics seem to be in the headlines of international newspapers on a daily basis.
One of the few criticisms I will make of Why We Believe in God(s) is that the book is in desperate need of an index. The publisher really should have seen to that. Thomson asks in his preface that we take four actions: "Finish the book. Refer to it often. Give it to a friend. Donate it to a library or school." It is in fact rather difficult to refer to specific sections of it quickly in the absence of an index. A good index provides a complement to a table of contents as the other side of the same coin. Readers might approach a table of contents as a map to give them an overview and an index as a key to specific content.
Andy has collected a very large (250MB) number of slides and has been incredibly generous in allowing their public distribution. I have placed his entire slide deck online for download here with Andy's permission. Please note that the collection has been modified for various talks over time and does contain some significant duplication. There are no speakers notes in the slides. However, the book's Web site contains an hour-long video of Dr. Thomson lecturing on the topic using the slides.
I highly recommend Why We Believe in God(s). Perhaps only by understanding why we believe can we begin to consciously decide what we should believe.

An Abbreviated Literature Survey

Andy recommends a number of studies during his lectures. Here is a short list of them for your further enjoyment with notes regarding their applicability:
  • Asp E, Ramchandran K, Tranel D. Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, and the Human Prefrontal Cortex, Neuropsychology. 2012 Jul;26(4):414-21. doi: 10.1037/a0028526. Epub 2012 May 21.
  • Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, Born to Believe: God, Science, and the Origin of Ordinary and Extraordinary Beliefs [AmazonGoodreads]
  • The first human religion:
    • Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures [AmazonGoodreads]
  • We attribute to the dead mental states that we cannot shut off, so we think of them still being somewhere. Those raised in religious schools or families lose this tendency later than those raised in secular schools or families:
    • Jesse Bering, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life [AmazonGoodreads]
  • Robert Karen, Becoming Attached, Atlantic Monthly, Feb 1990
  • Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil [AmazonGoodreads]
  • Matthew D. Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect [AmazonGoodreads]
  • Morality is innate and not attributable to religion:
  • Autistic people "simply cannot be religious", as in the case of Temple Grandin:
    • Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism [AmazonGoodreads]
  • Neuroimaging evidence that religious experience occurs in Theory of Mind networks:
  • Neuroimaging evidence that belief in self and god overlap; belief in others resides in a different part of the brain:
  • The origin of religion is based on kin group selection, as driven by oxytocin release:
  • Rowers moving in synchrony had higher pain thresholds than those rowing alone:
  • Neuroimaging differences between believers' and nonbelievers' brains:

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