Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief by Justin L. Barrett

The first part of Barrett’s book presents evidence to show why the indoctrination hypothesis is wrong. Belief in god is almost inevitable given natural brain development during childhood because of agenticity, theory of mind and teleological thinking; cognitive pathways that mean we are prone to seeing a consciousness where there isn’t one, then theorising as to it’s desires and intents and attributing other phenomena to its design. I have previously discussed these and other aspects of religious psychology based on Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain, a much wider-scoped primer on how we form beliefs and why.

The vast majority of atheists still rail against indoctrination despite this evidence having been around from some years. Even Skeptics who are dedicated to educating others as to how people form false beliefs, have been lagging behind. It’s tempting to think that itself it may because it’s equally natural to think other people believe things due to indoctrination. Certainly, it seems to be based mostly on an appeal to common sense. Regardless, I suspect many other false beliefs are due to maturationally natural cognition which predisposes us to belief in psychics, alternative medicine, UFOs and the like.

The second part discusses what the consequences of this new understanding. Continue reading

Chasing Davis: An Atheist’s Guide to Morality Using Logic and Science by James Luce

I bought this book because I had read many philosophical discussions and justifications for the ability of atheists to have morality without religion, but little with and practical help for how to live one’s life. Not because I necessarily desire any dictates on what to do in specific circumstances, but general advice on how to be more objective about interactions with people and dispassionate about my own thoughts and biases.

Chasing Davis is not the book I was looking for, its guidance is limited. It pays lip service to being that sort of book, so I think I am justified on reviewing it as such, rather than just complaining that it did not meet my expectations. Continue reading

The New Synthesis: Thoughts on The Righteous Mind & Atheist Spirituality

I’ve often wondered why there seems to be a universal understanding of what is ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ and what is ‘conservative’, why all nations seem to have left- and right-wing parties despite the terms being Franco-centric and how do these inform national party policies. Why in the UK we talk about ‘big C’ and ‘little C’ conservatism? As wikipedia puts it ‘There is general agreement that the Left includes: anarchists, anti-capitalists, anti-imperialists, autonomists, communists, democratic-socialists, feminists, greens, left-libertarians, progressives, secularists, socialists, social-democrats and social-liberals. There is also general consensus that the Right includes: capitalists, conservatives, fascists, monarchists, nationalists, neoconservatives, neoliberals, reactionaries, right-libertarians, social-authoritarians, theocrats and traditionalists.’ How did these agreements come about? Why are conservatives usually pro-capitalist in Western nations despite capitalism being progressive by definition? Note I will be using ‘liberal’ as shorthand for all things Left-wing and ‘conservative’ as Right-wing throughout.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt is a book about the psychology of morals but by explaining them he solves my conundrum and explains the relation between psychology, politics and religion at the individual, national and global scales. He does this by introducing his moral foundation theory, the idea that there are six major areas the human brain is wired to care about:

  1. harm/care,
  2. fairness/justice,
  3. authority/respect,
  4. ingroup/loyalty,
  5. purity/sanctity,
  6. liberty/oppression.

These are the categories of our moral emotions; things pertaining to them trigger our feeling that something is right or wrong. Due to a combination of genes, neurology and environment different people have moral emotions triggered by different things. It’s the combination of what and how strongly these 6 foundations are triggered by that gives rise to all our political dimensions, with the vast majority of people falling into two broad groups based on what causes their sympathies and judgements. The graph below shows how the liberal-conservative spectrum informs the first five of these traits. The foundations hold true across cultures, suggesting they are universal to humankind; we are probably born with a predisposition to be one point on the spectrum based on our personality, with some leeway to change the point as our brains develop in life. They are a definition of liberal and conservative at their most basic psychological level. The political and everyday meanings, at the national or cultural level, (are you ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’, Republican or Democrat?) in turn map onto the foundations; a local event impresses upon our psychology producing a moral emotion in us; we then use this to decide policy.

Moral Foundation Scores & Their Relationship to the Liberal-Conservative Spectrum (Haidt, The Righteous Mind, Figure 8.2)

Moral Foundation Scores & Their Relationship to the Liberal-Conservative Spectrum (Haidt, The Righteous Mind, Figure 8.2)

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Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Faith-Free Spirituality

In the Q&A printed in the back of Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience, he is criticised for missing that we are physical and spiritual beings. He replies that there is no evidence that we have an extra element that is not matter, although we are more than the sum of our matter due to the emergent properties of the various combinations of matter that we are made up of.

Both are right, and the feeling that each has, that the other is not making sense, underlines the difficulties believers and materialists have in communicating. The truth, as far as is consistent with science, is that we have no extra element, we are not literally physical and spiritual beings, but we have psychical and spiritual needs. These needs are what many religious believers fear will not be fulfilled by scientifically-based materialism as it stands now, and many pronounce could never be and that many (the majority?) of non-believers don’t notice or deny are true needs.

To say ‘spiritual’ need not mean more than deeply emotional, but fulfilling these types of emotional needs have only recently been looked at separate from the trappings, beliefs and the faith of religion. Under the discourses presented by the majority who hold the materialist worldview they have rarely given the importance that the developing scientific paradigms are showing them to deserve. (Carl Sagan’s answers in the above citation suggest he falls outside this majority and recognises the importance of spirituality.)

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The Spiritual Benefits of Materialism

Spirituality without beliefs may seem an oxymoron. What I mean by spirituality, however, is certain feelings, i.e. chemical and electrical changes to neuronal states, which are touted as the height of what it is to be human and the domain solely of religious belief systems.

Secularism, particularly atheism, is often attacked for not allowing outlet for producing these special emotions, without which the non-believer is missing out on an important part (maybe THE important part) of being human. This is assumed to denote feelings of wonder and astonishment at life, the universe and everything, which is supposedly unimaginable without wondering at the concept or being that created these things. These feelings are in fact conveyed beautifully by Richard Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow, The God Delusion) or can be experienced by watching Brian Cox’s BBC TV series without resort to the divine. What I think those who are immersed in a religious belief system mean when they describe feelings of ‘oneness with god’, ‘giving oneself up’ etc, are important neuronal states that are important to cultivate. I think this spirituality is dismissed by non-believers, but my conviction is that we can and should experience these states too. Continue reading

What Does a Spiritual Materialist Believe?

Materialism is a philosophical world-view that all that exists consists of matter and energy and the forces between them. There is no ‘other’ world or dimension, nothing supernatural or extra-material. Materialism is also the largest paradigm in science; the entirety of this venture, and other evidence based disciplines, operate under it. (If there is anything that could be seen as other-worldly, such as some of the theories of physics, superstrings and quantum foam, they are predictable by mathematic model, require confirmation and certainly are not expected to include beings with intention.)

Materialism is often seen as dangerous, immoral, reductionist and destitute, that ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ (Hamlet). I believe that this is not the case, but that I understand why many feel these criticisms are valid. This is because materialists do not give enough weight to subjective experience. By this I do not mean belief, opinion or interpretation of experience, but subjective experience that is observable by the tools of neuroscience, statistical predictable and universal or generalisable to the whole of humankind, i.e. match the criteria for any good science. Continue reading