Monday, January 19, 2009

Gaia Shibboleth 5: Religions as Dominant Social Strategies

Islam provides a stringent set of game theoretic rewards for the faithful, control of women and reproduction, and severe penalties for a variety of forms of transgression, which are designed to guarantee world supremacy over time. Although followers of other religions of God have a subsidiary status as Dhimmi, followers of more recent prophets, such as Bahai, can be murdered in gruesome ways.

The difficulty with the thesis that the Golden Rule unites all religions in an ethical principle of the common good is that religions survive not just by altruism, but by socially dominant strategies that have survived over centuries and millennia only because they pursue a strategic combination of interpersonal compassion, institutional authoritarianism and outright oppression of perceived transgressors.

Ara Norenzayan in "Religion is the key to civilisation" makes this point very clearly emphasizing that, from Göbekli Tepe 11,500 years ago to the present religion has evolved as a cultural force reinforcing cooperation by increasingly effective and dominant means. Cooperation is usually explained by one of two forms of altruism: cooperation among kin and reciprocal altruism, but cooperation among strangers is not easily explained by either. As group size increases, both forms of altruism break down. With ever-greater chances of encountering strangers, opportunities for cooperation among kin decline. Reciprocal altruism - without extra safeguards such as institutions for punishing freeloaders - also rapidly stops paying off. In his view religion, particularly those involving a moral deity, ever larger social systems which reach sizes where reciprocal and kin altruism break down because most people are now strangers.

Religious and non-religious communities alike are prone to rapid social evolution. The average lifespan of religious communes in a study was a mere 25 years. In 80 years, 9 out of 10 had disbanded. Secular communes, most of which were socialist, fared even worse: they lasted for an average of 6.4 years and 9 out of 10 disappeared in less than 20 years (Cross-Cultural Research, vol 34, p 70).

As noted in developmental predispositions, a growing view is that religious beliefs and rituals arose as an evolutionary by-product of ordinary cognitive functions. Once that happened, the stage was set for rapid cultural evolution that eventually led to large societies with "Big Gods".

Studies show that feelings of anonymity, even illusory, encourage selfishness and cheating (Psychological Science, vol 21, p 311), while social surveillance has the opposite effect. Even subtle exposure to drawings resembling eyes encourages good behaviour towards strangers (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 26, p 245).

It follows that people play nice when they think a god is watching and conversely religious people mistrust atheists who don't. In moving from the smallest scale human societies to the largest and most complex, Big Gods - powerful, omniscient, interventionist watchers - become increasingly common, and morality and religion become increasingly intertwined (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 24, p 126). As societies get larger and more complex, rituals become routine and are used to transmit and reinforce doctrines (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 32, p 50). Similarly, notions of supernatural punishment, karma, damnation and salvation, and heaven and hell are common in modern religions, but relatively infrequent in hunter-gatherer cultures.

These studies are complemented by actual experiments. Children are less likely to peek in a box when told an invisible agent is watching (Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, vol 109, p 311). In the economic "dictator" game where a person has to donate anonymously to a recipient, believers in the Abrahamic God gave away more money than those who believed in local deities who are not as omniscient and morally concerned (Science, vol 327, p 1480). Reminders of God by being exposed to words like divine, God and spirit had a powerful effect. Most people in the unexposed group pocketed the lot but those primed to think of God heightened believers' feelings of being under surveillance (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol 48, p 298) and were much more generous (Psychological Science, vol 18, p 803).

Subtle reminders of secular moral authority, words such as civic, jury and police, can have the same fairness-promoting effect, explaining why societies which have succeeded in sustaining cooperation with secular institutions and precipitated religion's decline by usurping its community-building functions are some of the most cooperative, peaceful and prosperous in the world.

As we move from the Hebrew religion of the Old Testament through Christianity to Islam, there is a clear evolution of the social strategic game plan in which the stakes have become more astutely honed to attain global reach and dominance and to do so in a way which has utopian aims of world dominion through apocalyptic tumult in the end of days judgment. Religions thus pose acute dangers for the world future because they embrace the principal of final conflict even to triage of the living systems of the planet to achieve the supremacy of the rule of God or Allah.

Is God's mercy to blame for high crime rates?  June 2012 There's nothing like the fear of eternal damnation to encourage low crime rates. But does belief in heaven and a forgiving god encourage lawbreaking? A new study suggests it might - although establishing a clear link between the two remains a challenge.

Hebrew Religion and Judaism

The Hebrew religion is perceived to be a qualitative advance on previous faiths, because it espouses a God acting in history through the literature of a people, rather than being merely a civic image worshipped in iconic stones and sculptured idols. This enables the religion to lay claim to an absolute power and to set out themes defining social and sexual morality as well as distinguishing the religious in-group from the heathen 'other'.

Despite claiming an abstract God of reality as patron, Hebrew religion traces its 'ancestry' through a tribal tree, extending in Genesis from Adam and Eve, through Abraham and Sarah to the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, then through Moses, Miriam and Aaron to the exodus and the establishment of Israelite communities in Canaan as the chosen people of God.

This relationship is very much an espousal as the unrequited love between the jealous God Yahweh and the ever unfaithful Bride Israel, setting the theme for endless diatribes against the fertility worship of the Nations, from Canaan to Edom.

In addition to defining the boundary of the Israelite tribes, Genesis also sets out a clear patriarchal tradition rejecting the matriarchal inheritance patterns of Laban for those of Jacob and placing Eve under the rule of Adam and women to be ruled by their husbands in the sight of God. This is then ring fenced by horrific tales of transgressors to the patriarchal custom, such as the wife who is left to be raped and die at the door by her husband because she tarried too long at her parents house, and by diabolical penalties of stoning for adultery, or for not possessing the tokens of virginity both of which leave women vulnerable as the polluted party.

Nevertheless, despite the patriarchal emphasis, the tribal matriarchs are in strong evidence, as well as subsequent leading female figures from Miriam, through Deborah to Tamar and Ruth, showing both that women assumed positions of power as priestesses and judges and that it was through the female line that the ongoing genealogy of the life history of the people was preserved.

Although the Golden Rule is declared, along with the Ten Commandments, as a basis for prosociality, this is clearly intended to apply only to the in group of the Israelites and not to the nations, as God ordains genocide at Jericho and Hazor, although we see in other passages, such as Jeremiah, that the Canaanite customs of the Queen of Heaven continued in the streets of Jerusalem unabated.

Joshua besieges Jericho: The Golden Rule did not apply to Canaanites.

The religion is clearly costly to the practitioners in terms of a complex raft of required practices, from male circumcision, a sacrifice of a part of the sexual member to enhance procreative fortune, through observing the Sabbath and other religious festivals, prescriptions on bathing and sexual activity, to kosher provisions for food.

It has to be born in mind that Hebrew religion, or Judaism as it has now become, is not a single entity nor has it been created by a single messianic or prophetic figure, but has been a complex evolving cultural tradition of a people, which has gone through many evolutionary changes, from the first worship of stones at Bethel, through dispersed tabernacles, the syncretic worship of the Heavenly Host in the period of the Kings, the Yahwist post-exilic conservatism, diversification into Phariseses, Saducees and Essenes in the time of Jesus and later Rabbinical, ultra-orthodox, messianic and progressive movements and which has been acted out and written about by many diverse prophets, judges, writers and editors, each of whom has created differing shades of meaning.

Nevertheless the Hebrew religion is clearly set up as a defining life strategy of a people, maintained both through application of the Golden Rule to the in-group, amid costly activities to the individual which can only reap their social rewards through maintaining the covenant with God and the faith, amid well-known highly effective social strategies such as "an eye for an eye", reinforced through religious law, with sometimes extreme penalties for transgressors and enemies.

Although Christian accounts have Jesus condemned for blasphemy, resulting in continuing mistreatment of Jews by Christians, even in biblical times, the dire provisions such as stoning for adultery were rarely carried out and have not been used over the last two millennia. According to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (10 BC - 70 CE), in the time when the religious courts had authority over capital punishment, a court that executed more than 1 person in 70 years was a "bloody court".

Martyrdom becomes murder in the control of heresy (choice): Early martyrs burning to death becomes followed by the burning of the Knights Templar, witches, women healers, Cathars, Albigenses and other gnostics, mystics and Free Spirit followers in the Inquisition.

Christianity, Crusade and Inquisition

The professed stroke of genius in Christianity has been the claim that Jesus, despite claiming his mission was for the lost sheep of Israel, had reformulated God's relationship to be not one just between Yahweh and his elect chosen ones, but as Abba, or God the Father, had become the compassionate, yet son-sacrificing God of all humanity. The admittedly Helenistic attributes that then crept into Christianity under the reborn Paul, then recrafted what had begun as an exclusively Jewish-Christian movement into one embracing a Lord hero to eclipse Adonis and Dionysus, replete with a virgin mother figure Mary who could also capture significant features of the Goddess, appearing as an emulation of Isis.

Christianity, expanding its domain to its ultimate borders, has sought to make itself into a religion for all people, thus opening its utopian agenda to both embracing the entire world and, in the shadow of Zoroastrianism, to the end of times as well, in Christ’s return as avenging Lord in the day of judgment of Revelation.

Despite having one central heroic figure, Jesus, who is deemed to be the author and inspiration of the religion, Christianity began as a diverse bunch of disparate sects, from the Jewish Christians of James the Just, through the Johanine followers, to diverse Gnostic sects. It was thus only with the rise of Pauline Christianity and the overthrow of the Gnostics that Christianity began to develop an orthodox core based on the patriarchal rule of the family and the holy communion – as a carnivorous sacrament of Chris’s love and forgiveness of sins, centered around doctrines such as the Nicene creed.

Although the earliest Gnostic movements had had women in prominent positions of prophecy and authority, the orthodox church then sought to have women disbarred from the ministry, to be seen but not heard, living all the while in the shadow of Eve’s ‘carnal’ sin, mitigated only by the virginal purity and sexual chastity of mother Mary, hastily recruited as a replacement for the less than celibate persona of Mary Magdalen, despite mother Mary’s far less significant and sometimes discordant role in Yeshua’s mission.

Altar of the Lie St. Peters: After lying to St Peter, Saphira fell to the ground before the Apostle and died; in the background two young men carry the dead body of her husband, Ananias (Acts 5:1-11) Cristoforo Roncalli.

The earliest Christians appeared to be a communistic movement whose penalties to free-loaders were potentially lethal as the untimely deaths of Saphira and her husband Ananias in mortal fear of Peter's anger, for keeping back some of their property indicates. The costliness of early Christianity to the practitioners, could also hardly have been higher, with many of them voluntarily walking to a gory fate of martyrdom at the hands of Roman Emperors such as Nero, until Constantine caused an abrupt turn-around by adopting Christianity as the state religion of Rome.

From this point on, although the scripture would have us believe that Christianity has continued to be a single religion conveying the true teachings of Jesus, we are dealing with a religion which forms the social strategic glue for the largest and arguably most ruthless global empire of the age, to be born on the military standards as the foundation of Rome's might, religion gaining its name re-ligio 'to bind otgether' in echos of the 'fasces' or bundle of sticks of Fascism.

Setting up a paradigm of sexual guilt based on what would come to be pronounced later by Augustine as the ‘original’ sin of Eve seducing Adam, Christianity defined sex as for reproduction without the accoutrements of bestial pleasure. Opposing birth control and abortion infanticide of weak or genetically malformed individuals from the outset, Christianity also set up an unashamed paradigm of population expansion through the family. Despite this, many Christian offspring were simply abandoned to seek their own fate in life.

With the fall of Rome, a period ensued in which Papal authorities attempted to wrest power from feudal warlords, by imposing formal monogamous marriage, partly as a way of gaining control over feudal land estates. The church came to become a major land owner and engaged in increasingly corrupt political practices leading to widespread disaffection with the church and the emergence of Protestant denominations.

The transition from a religion of pacifism, in which Jesus said to turn the other cheek to one's enemies, to one of holy war in the name of God emerged in the Crusades, seeking to 'liberate' the Holy Land from the Muslim infidel. The Crusades having led to failure partly as a result of the corruption of their own leaders, by comparison with the more cultured discipline of Saladin, the Christian papacy then turned its wrath on its own people, in a Crusade against the newly emerging Gnostic followings of the Albigenses and Cathars and others, who had reabsorbed teachings, such as naked innocence, and the notion that Jesus and Magdalen were sexual partners, from Sufis and Gnostic remnants during the crusades.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in the audience hall of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith , now Pope Benedict XVI:
"My view is that if Purgatory did not exist, we should have to invent it."

The end result was the establishment of the Inquisition, which lasted 600 years and whose office still exists in the form of the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, whose last head, Cardinal Ratzinger has since ironically become Pope Benedict. The Inquisition led to summary torture and murders of millions of people who were believed to have league with the devil, or merely practiced forms of Christianity different from the Catholic party line. Up to four million women are believed to have been accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake, or drowned.

It was only with the fall of Constantinople and the ensuing 'cultural revolution' of the Renaissance and the flowering of science art and music, that the combined reign of the Papacy and the feudal Dark Ages made a transition towards the so-called 'Age of Enlightenment' and the forms of secular democracy we have grown used to assuming as the status quo today in the West.

Over the same era, on a world basis, Christianity has sought to become a utopian movement, seeking to convert the entire world to Christian belief by persuasion, or by force. The arrival of the Conquistadors in the Americas promptly resulted in atrocities, not only of the war-like Aztecs, who recognized in the Holy Communion a blood sacrifice akin to their own religion, but the wholesale massacre and dismemberment of innocent musicians, and others who professed to any form of heathen cultural celebration. When the Christian missionaries reached the last shore on Earth, Aotearoa New Zealand, hoping to finally bring about the Second Coming when the gospel would have been taught planet wide, they were chagrined to find that the Maori turned instead to the Old Testament, claiming they were one of the lost tribes of Israel. Again in the twentieth century, the apocalyptic expectation has been raised with the founding of the state of Israel.

Thus one can see that Christianity, while espousing the Golden Rule, and Yeshua's even more extreme turning of the other cheek, has throughout much of its history become an institutional religion of empire, and applied contrary doctrines of Crusade against not only the heathen infidel, but bloody repression of perceived Christian heretics among its own ranks.

Moreover, Christianity tells a story of Heaven, Hell and the Day of Judgment, which casts all the affairs on the planet as a very temporary situation, whose misdemeanours not only may affect us in this life, but will meet far more exacting reward and retribution in the world to come. So by engaging a perpetual war between God and the Devil, Christianity, polarizes its followers on the roasting spit of salvation and damnation with little neutral territory to relax and breath a sight of relief.

Furthermore, humanity is regarded as frail, prone to sin, guilty of original sin from which escape is almost impossible and unlike Buddhism, where each person is encouraged to find their own personal equanimity in mediation, people are told their only hope is to accept Jesus as Lord and pray for guidance and salvation.

It is generally very hard for devout Christians, believing in the Christian ideals of brotherly love and the notion of an omniscient and omnipotent creator God of forgiveness looking over us from behind the scenes, even in the scientific era, to accept and understand the deep contradictions in the violent repressive history of Christianity as a religion and the endless carnivorous cycle of the blood-thirsty Holy Communion founded in the notion that without shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.

All in all we can thus see that Christianity has survived as a religion as much from the dubious strategic gains it has made through the violent punitive measures it has adopted, and its dominance through colonization and evangelism of other cultures as it has from applying the Golden Rule of fairness in prosocial ethics, or its more extreme example in loving your enemies, even if they seek to hurt or kill you, as God Almighty is professed to do in his infinite compassion.

Islam provides the most diverse set of game theoretic strategies of any religion
to ensure its expansion as a globally dominant world religion:
(a) for Muslims a very simple yet effective public costly commitment in terms of the Five Pillars of Islam
(b) Muslim women are reduced to half the status of a man, hidden from unrelated men, and male relatives are given
effective control over female reproductive choice, subject to dire penalties for sexual transgression.
(c) free-loaders who either do not fulfill the observations, vacillate, or do not want to engage in jihad are
branded hypocrites and given a chance to recant, but otherwise painfully punished.
(d) Dhimmi other monotheist religions receive a concession as believers in God that they can exist in Muslim societies
but they must respect Muslim supremacy, have an subject status in law and additional taxation in a long-term strategy of attrition.
Some such as Bahais sill receive death sentences for any form of religious educational activity.
(e) lethal punishments for root defectors in the eyes of God, such as idolaters, and apostates who become
Muslims and then recant the faith or blaspheme it, thus irreversibly locking in existing Muslims.
(f) reproduction is ordained by God as a means of expanding the population of the faith.

Islam, Sharia and Jihad

When we come to Islam, the relative new kid on the block, we see that, despite its apparent orphan status in the Western world as an archaic sixth century-based belief system struggling to make even minimal adaptions to the 21st century era of science and democracy, the strategic realities are rather different. This facile image belies the fact that as a strategic process, Islam has instituted a more complete socially dominant strategy than any religion before or since, which contains within it extremely effective means at maintaining and enlarging the faith through a combination of the simplicity of mass appeal, strict social controls and and a utopian agenda of world domination in the name of God, which rivals or surpasses that of any other totalitarian social system devised by humanity.

A great deal of the Qur'an and Muhammad's own history as a prophet, military leader, social innovator and wily politician, have been brought to bear on crafting, in the archetype of the Hebrew teachings, a new social world order based on Arab tribal custom. Thus, while many Western readers will rightly find that much in the Qur'an and hadith are anything but religious, but rather a string of conservative social rules, these rules are honed astutely, as a game of social strategy, to give rise to a religion capable of dominating societies on global scales fifteen centuries later.

Islam's perceive religious destiny is to conquer the world: Left and Right protest posters. Centre Yunis Al-Astal Hamas MP: "Allah has chosen you for Himself and for His religion, so that you will serve as the engine pulling this nation to the phase of succession, security, and consolidation of power, and even to conquests thorough da'wa and military conquests of the capitals of the entire world. Very soon, Allah willing, Rome will be conquered, just like Constantinople was, as was prophesized by our Prophet Muhammad. Today, Rome is the capital of the Catholics, or the Crusader capital, which has declared its hostility to Islam, and has planted the brothers of apes and pigs in Palestine in order to prevent the reawakening of Islam - this capital of theirs will be an advanced post for the Islamic conquests, which will spread through Europe in its entirety, and then will turn to the two Americas, and even Eastern Europe".

Jihad, whether we choose to think of it as spiritual struggle, or outright genocidal warfare is central to Islam's utopian agenda to rule the world, either in the Sunni model through a world caliphate, or in the Shi'ite model through an ayatollah-based theocracy leaning heavily towards the Day of Judgment.

The Muslim world is a conflict zone divided between the domain of submission to God or Islam and Dar al Harb - the domain of war. Thus no one can be of the naive delusion that Islam is a religion of peace or peace alone. Muhammad in his own allegedly perfect example, was prepared to commit a genocide of 700 Jewish men in the souk of Medina for fear they might betray the Muslims even though they had merely made diplomatic initiatives to both sides and had not opened their gates to the enemy. He then took the women into (sexual) slavery, demonstrating preparedness to annihilate the very people from whom he learned the path of God.

Moreover having struck the peace Treaty of Hudaybiyah in the name of sakina the spirit of tranquillity, echoing from the Shekhinah of feminine face of God of Jewish folklore, when he met with superior armed resistance, Muhammad then abrogated the peace treaty on the excuse of a skirmish with an ally of the Meccans, once he had the force of numbers to march on Mecca, so a peace treaty with Islam has to be regarded as a case of takiya, or faking the peace until a more strategic opportunity presents itself.

In contradiction to Western society's hard-won ideals of secular government based on the separation of church and state, devised as much to protect religious freedom from autocratic theocracy as for any secular agenda, Islam, by contrast, seeks the unification of three pillars, scripture, law and government in the Qur'an, Sharia and the Islamic state.

Firstly, the Qur'an is regarded as the direct revelation of God's word by his holy prophet, whose face is so holy that to represent it could bring the death penalty, subsequently deemed to be the last and final prophet (except perhaps for the (Shiite) Mahdi in the Day of Resurrection), so that any other prophets who might attempt to found a new following, such as Bahá'u'lláh who founded the Bahá'í Faith, are condemned, along with their followers to death or imprisonment, as Bahá'ís are killed or imprisoned in Iran today.

On 18th June 1983 ten women (pictured above), one of whom was only 17 years old, were executed in Iran for teaching Baha'i children more about their Faith. They were among more than 200 individuals who were killed in Iran for being Baha'is but their story has stood out through the years as they were all women and many of them are very young.

Although it is clear that the claim in the Qur'an that Islam is the original religion of God, emanating first from Adam and then a string of prophets from Abraham, through Moses and the Israelites, followed by Jesus, rather than acknowledging that this entire description has come historically through the Hebrew account, Muslim teaching makes a mythical claim that Islam is the true religion of Abraham, that Hagar found the spring of Zam-Zam during her sudden flight (hajira) with Ishmael, thus laying claim to the founding mythological territory of Genesis.

Secondly, unlike Hebrew law, whose violent provisions, such as stoning for adultery, were rarely applied, even in Biblical times, and are never applied by modern Jews or Christians, however fundamentalistic their belief that the Bible is the word of God, Muslim societies frequently apply Sharia as a literal code of law, complete with diabolical sixth century punishments like stoning, which it inherited not from the Qur'an but Deuteronomic law, dismemberment, and beheading, on the basis they are ordained by God.

This means that Islam poses a real risk, particularly to women, because of the pressure to adopt Sharia and the insistence when it is adopted of applying it absolutely, even when in means killing women in gruesome slow deaths which were never conceived of in Deuteronomic law, for making what would anywhere else be an autonomous sexual choice, punishable at worst by a civil divorce suit.

Thirdly, there is a continuing desire on the part of Muslim scholars and clerics to bring about a global Islamic state under Sharia which would cement the three pillars of Islam into a world monolith. This then enters into the politics of some Muslim countries and becomes a world problem both when some fundamentalists preach world jihad to achieve such an aim and when certain countries with Islamist agendas seek ultimate military instruments such as nuclear weapons, with a view to a final push for a world Islamic society. This is where the notion of Islamofascism gains a strong ring of truth, demonstrating the essentially fascist nature of montheism at its core.

The sacrifices a Muslim must make to follow the religion are deceptively simple - the five pillars of Islam:

1. Believe and declare his faith by saying the Shahadah ('witness'):

'There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.'

2. Prayer must be performed five times a day.
Prayers are led by a learned person who knows the Qur'an and is chosen by the congregation.

3. The alms-tax (Zakah) on wealth, to be used as specified by Islamic law.
Also an act of purification through sharing what one has with others, as everything belongs to God, and wealth is held by man as a trust.

4. Daily fasting during the whole of the month of Ramadan.

5. To make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in one's lifetime.

One can immediately see that 1 is a confession of faith in God and his messenger just as Christians accept Jesus. 2 is a commitment to daily devotion, generally performed in public. 3 is a formulation of the Golden Rule as a requirement, 4 is a requirement to commit to a period of restraint (a similar constraint to observing the sabbath) . 5 - observing the Hajj, by contrast is a political compromise made by Muhammad with the people of Mecca, to continue the pre-Islamic polytheistic rite that gave Mecca its fame and economy.

The cost to the practitioner is extremely simple, clear and general. They declare faith in God and the prophet, have to pray five times a day from dawn to dusk, accept not just the Golden Rule but a tax to prove it, fast during the day for one month a year and finally to go once to Mecca to keep the faith to the founding city.

However the cost to other parties is also abundantly clear and shows the sophistication of the way Muhammad drafted a social code in a way which dealt in much more specific and sometimes very violent terms with all the varying strategies of turncoats, freeloaders, defectors, as well as idolaters, other religions of the book and of course women.

Firstly the idolaters can be slaughtered and it is forbidden to marry them unless they take the faith:

So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful (9.5 ).

And do not marry the idolatresses until they believe, and certainly a believing maid is better than an idolatress woman, even though she should please you; and do not give(believing women) in marriage to idolaters until they believe, and certainly a believing servant is better than an idolater (2.221)

People of the book, named as Jews, Christians and Sabians or Hanif were given a secondary status, since they followed the true God but failed to acknowledge Muhammad as his prophet. Dhimmis "the people of the dhimma or pact of protection" (which also came to include others such as Buddhists and Sikhs as well as monotheists) were allowed to "practice their religion, subject to certain conditions, and to enjoy a measure of communal autonomy" and guaranteed their personal safety and security of property, in return for paying tribute and acknowledging Muslim supremacy. Various restrictions and legal disabilities were placed on Dhimmis, such as prohibitions against bearing arms or giving testimony in courts in cases involving Muslims. All of them, however, were designed to eliminate other religions in a deliberate, long-term process. In general, the Muslim attitude toward dhimmis was one of contempt instead of hate, fear, or envy.

Apostates who revert from Islam can be killed:

What is the matter with you, then, that you have become two parties about the hypocrites, while Allah has made them return (to unbelief) for what they have earned? Do you wish to guide him whom Allah has caused to err? And whomsoever Allah causes to err, you shall by no means find a way for him. They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from amon8-g them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah's way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper (4.89 )

Hypocrites who profess Islam but do not follow its teachings, or waver in their faith, or fail to join in battle, when the going gets tough, are also liable to painful punishment:

Surely (as for) those who believe then disbelieve, again believe and again disbelieve, then increase in disbelief, Allah will not forgive them nor guide them in the (right) path. Announce to the hypocrites that they shall have a painful chastisement (4.137 ) And that He might know the hypocrites; and it was said to them: Come, fight in Allah's way, or defend yourselves. They said: If we knew fighting, we would certainly have followed you. They were on that day much nearer to unbelief than to belief. They say with their mouths what is not in their hearts, and Allah best knows what they conceal. Those who said of their brethren whilst they (themselves) held back: Had they obeyed us, they would not have been killed. Say: Then avert death from yourselves if you speak the truth (3.167-8).

On the contrary, faithful Muslims do not die when they are killed, but are taken straight to heaven:

And reckon not those who are killed in Allah's way as dead; nay, they are alive (and) are provided sustenance from their Lord; Rejoicing in what Allah has given them out of His grace and they rejoice for the sake of those who, (being left) behind them, have not yet joined them, that they shall have no fear, nor shall they grieve. They rejoice on account of favor from Allah and (His) grace, and that Allah will not waste the reward of the believers (3.169-71).

Thus Islamic martyrs thus believe they are taken straight to heaven to see the face of God, in a manner as effortless as surgery under anesthetic, even though they may main or kill innocent bystanders in the process.

Sexual relations in Islam are highly asymmetric

Finally we have the inferior status of women in Islam, in contradiction to claims that Islam improved the status of women, when the previous Meccan society worshipped female deities and extolled their matriarchs:

1. A Muslim man can have up to four wives, but not vice versa:

And if ye are apprehensive that ye shall not deal fairly with orphans, then, of other women who seem good in your eyes, marry but two, or three, or four; and if ye still fear that ye shall not act equitably, then one only; or the slaves whom ye have acquired: this will make justice on your part easier... (Sura 4:2).

2. Wives are a tilth for the ploughing, expected to be sexually available to her husband's wishes:

Your wives are a tilth for you, so go into your tilth when you like (2.223 ).

3. Muslim men have absolute freedom to divorce or repudiate their wives simply by uttering the triple talaq "I divorce you" three times, however the women then have to wait three months in case they carry the man's child who divorced them:

You may put off whom you please of them, and you may take to you whom you please, and whom you desire of those whom you had separated provisionally; no blame attaches to you; this is most proper, so that their eyes may be cool and they may not grieve, and that they should be pleased, all of them with what you give them (33.51).

And the divorced women should keep themselves in waiting for three courses; and it is not lawful for them that they should conceal what Allah has created in their wombs, if they believe in Allah and the last day; and their husbands have a better right to take them back in the meanwhile if they wish for reconciliation; and they have rights similar to those against them in a just manner, and the men are a degree above them, and Allah is Mighty, Wise (2.228).

4. Women rate only half the value of a man in law and endowment:

Allah enjoins you concerning your children: The male shall have the equal of the portion of two females (4:11)

call in to witness from among your men two witnesses;
but if there are not two men, then one man and two women from among those whom you choose to be witnesses (2: 282).

5. The Qur’an states that God prefers men over women and that women are to be beaten, if their husbands fear their perverseness:

"Men stand superior to women in that God hath preferred the one over the other ... Those whose perverseness you fear, admonish them and remove them into bed chambers and beat them, but if they submit to you then do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great" ( 4:34)

This sura is cited by Islamic preachers to approve a husband forcing sex on his wife and beating her if she resists:

A Muslim cleric in Australia who said men have a right to force their wives to have sex has been told to apologise in public and repudiate his statements by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The cleric, Samir Abu Hamza reportedly questioned how rape can exist within marriage, and encouraged "light beating" of disobedient women. He was replaced as Mufti of Australia in 2007 after creating a storm of protest when he described scantily-dressed women as "uncovered meat" inviting rape. (Cleric 'must deny' views on rape BBC 22 January 2009).

Depersonalization of women: Going, going, gone! Atefah Sahaaleh hung at 16 in Iran in 2004 for 'crimes against chastity'
displays a Shi'ite chador, followed by Sunni neqab successively covering all but two eyes, one eye, two slits, none.

6. The Qur'an does not say that women should be veiled or their faces and hands be covered, but merely that they should dress modestly and not expose their breasts. However Muslims use the fact the Muhammad ordered his wives to be behind a curtain, after the guests stayed too long after his marriage to Zaynab, as an excuse to keep women veiled and covered, sometimes from head to toe, with only their eyes visible, or one eye, or both hidden behind a network screen.

“And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess [slaves], or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known” (24.31).

7. The above requirement for women to hide themselves from non-related men leads further to the requirement, particularly in traditional Sunni countries, that women cannot go out in public without being chaperoned by a male relative. The veil and chaperoning thus combine to reduce or eliminate a woman's ability to meet and form partners of her own choice, let alone have a working career, or education. This gives related males and family almost exclusive rights to determine who Muslim women can associate with and marry, and serves to ensure Muslim women will not be able to marry non-Muslim men, or will have great difficulty doing so.

Given the fact that many Muslim societies also practice honour killing if they even so much suspect a female is having a relationship with a partner not of her family's choosing, even if she is still a virgin, and given that several Muslim countries proscribe whipping, or even the death penalty, for perceived acts of female immorality, Islam serves as a religious instrument to give Muslim men almost complete control over the reproductive choices of their female relatives.

Finally, the fact that sex and procreation are viewed as a primary act of men, ordained by God, traditional Muslim societies tend to have high birth rates, ensuring the spread of the religion by reproductive pressure.

go in to them as Allah has commanded you; surely Allah loves those who turn much (to Him) (2.222).

Although some Muslim measures have been marginally better then Christian oppression in the Dark Ages of Crusade and Inquisition, they are still far more restrictive and arbitrarily punitive than the law and social norms of Western democracies today.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Gaia Shibboleth 4: Religion and Social Evolution

Van Gogh The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix - see below)
Samaritans accept only the Pentateuch as valid scripture.

This article in the Gaia Shibboleth series covers two in-depth reviews of the social effects and possible social evolutionary basis of religiosity in terms of two features, prosociality (forms of moral action which enhance social viability) and individual self-control plus a brief review of a woekshop on the subject this month in Edinburgh.

Religious Prosociality

The first "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality" by Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff (Science 322 58-62 2008) examines how religions contribute to various forms of altruism, trust and personal reputation under the banner of 'prosociality'.

Social science theories have long pointed to religion as a cultural facilitator of social cohesion and ingroup solidarity often at the expense of rival groups. Various evolutionary theories of religion all predict that religious beliefs and behaviors have facilitated human prosocial tendencies. Some argue that at least certain religious beliefs and behaviors are evolutionary adaptations for group-living in large communities that have maximized genetic fitness.

Two evolutionary accounts are compatible with cultural variability. One proposes that religious content is a cultural by-product of a suite of psychological tendencies evolved in the Pleistocene for other purposes, such as detecting and inferring the content of other minds and sensitivity to one’s prosocial reputation in the group. Religious beliefs, to the extent that they were compatible with these psychological tendencies, could then culturally spread through social learning mechanisms and could solve adaptive problems, particularly the problem of cooperation in large groups.

Another evolutionary perspective, known as cultural group selection, maintains that competition among social groups may favor the spread of fitness-enhancing cultural beliefs and costly practices, such as religious prosociality. This takes as its starting point that religious beliefs are cultural by-products of evolved psychology, but argues that reputation-sensitivity, although important, is not sufficient to explain the features of strong prosocial tendencies such as the ones found in religious behavior.

Despite these important differences, agreement is emerging that selective pressures over the course of human evolution can explain the wide cross-cultural reoccurrence, historical persistence, and predictable cognitive structure of religious beliefs and behaviors.

Although in many societies supernatural agents are not directly concerned with human morality, in many others, morally concerned agents use their supernatural powers to observe and, in some cases, to punish and reward human social interactions. These beliefs are likely to spread culturally to the extent that they facilitate ingroup cooperation. This could occur by conforming to individual psychology that favors reputation-sensitive prosocial tendencies, as the by-product account holds; by competition among social groups, as the cultural group selection account would suggest; or possibly by some combination of the two.

Religious behaviors and rituals, if more costly to cooperating group members than to freeloaders, may have reliably signaled the presence of devotion and, therefore, cooperative intention toward ingroup members, in turn, buffering religious groups against defection from free-loaders and reinforcing cooperative norms. Religious prosociality, thus, may have softened the limitations that kinship-based and (direct or indirect) reciprocity-based altruism place on group size. In this way, the cultural spread of religious prosociality may have facilitated the rise of stable, large, cooperative communities of genetically unrelated individuals.

The acute human sensitivity to prosocial reputation is a psychological mechanism, originally unrelated to religion, that evolved to facilitate strong reciprocal cooperative bonds within groups. In an intensely social, gossiping species, reputational concerns likely contributed to the evolutionary stability of strong cooperation between strangers. Individuals known to be selfish could be detected, subsequently excluded from future interaction, and even actively punished. The threat of being found out, therefore, became a potent motivator for good behavior. Accordingly, studies have repeatedly shown that experimentally reducing the degree of anonymity in economic games increases the rate of prosocial behavior.

The cognitive awareness of gods is likely to heighten prosocial reputational concerns among believers, just as the cognitive awareness of human watchers does among believers and non-believers alike. However, supernatural monitoring, to the degree that it is genuinely believed and cognitively salient, offers the powerful advantage that cooperative interactions can be observed even in the absence of social monitoring.

First, religious devotion, insofar as it involves habitual worship of morally vigilant deities, is expected to be associated with greater prosocial reputational concern.

Second, religious situations, such as religious ritual performance or being in religious surroundings, would, in societies with morally concerned deities, activate thoughts of these deities and habitually facilitate prosocial behavior. Therefore, experimentally inducing religious thoughts would also increase prosociality even when the situation is objectively anonymous. But this should be the case only when thoughts of morally concerned supernatural agents are cognitively accessible in the moment when prosocial decisions are called for.

Third, religious behavior that signals genuine devotion would be expected to mobilize greater cooperation and trust, and when internal and external threats to group survival are high, religious groups would be expected to outlast secular ones.

Fourth, large societies that have successfully stabilized high levels of cooperative norms would be more likely than smaller ones to espouse belief in morally concerned gods who actively monitor human interactions.

If religions centered around moralizing gods promote prosociality, it would be expected that individuals who report stronger belief in such gods would have stronger altruistic tendencies. Sociological surveys suggest that this is the case.

If religious individuals are more motivated to maintain a prosocial reputation than the nonreligious, then the former may be more likely to engage in prosocial reputation management. However, this association raises questions about the validity of self-report measures of prosocial behavior.

Parable of the Good Samaritan Delacroix
Religiosity promotes such acts when personal reputation is at stake

In a Good Samaritan study, religious people showed little or no increased altruism unless it was beneficial to their personal reputation, but in a Kibbutz study religious Kibbutz members showed greater prosociality than secular one in a game where withdrawing money would reduce the pot for other similarly aligned Kibbutz members. The difference here seems to be that cheating on members of your own religious community is a different question from cheating anonymously on a public victim.

Studies repeatedly indicate that the association between conventional religiosity and prosociality occurs primarily when a reputation-related egoistic motivation has been activated, rather than empathic compassion. Many studies have corroborated that religiosity predicts prosocial behavior primarily when the prosocial act could promote a positive image for the participant, either in his or her own eyes or in the eyes of observers.

Further studies show that when a supernatural figure (God, or a ghost, or fictional character) are present in an experimental setting, cheating is reduced and prosociality increased. Thoughts of God activated without conscious awareness caused greater generosity between anonymous strangers.

Because professions of religious belief can be easily faked, theorists of religion have recognized that evolutionary pressures must have favored costly religious commitment, such as ritual participation and various restrictions on behavior, diet, and life-style, that validates the sincerity of otherwise unobservable religious belief. However, for costly signals to evolve as a stable strategy, religious behaviors ought to be more costly for cooperators than for freeloaders, and variation in costliness should predict degree of intragroup trust and cooperation.

Attitudinal surveys show that religious individuals are perceived to be more trustworthy and more cooperative.

Lifetimes of religious and secular communities

Sociological analyses are consistent with the idea that religious groups imposing more costly requirements have members who are more committed. Religious communes were found to outlast those motivated by secular ideologies, such as socialism. A further quantitative analysis of 83 of these religious and secular communes for which more detailed records are available found that religious communes imposed more than twice as many costly requirements (including food taboos and fasts, constraints on material possessions, marriage, sex, and communication with the outside world) than secular ones. This difference emerged for each of the 22 categories of costly requirements examined. Importantly for costly religious signaling, the number of costly requirements predicted religious commune longevity after the study controlled for population size and income and the year the commune was founded, although the number of costly requirements did not predict longevity for secular communes. Finally, religious ideology was no longer a predictor of commune longevity, once the number of costly requirements was statistically controlled, which suggests that the survival advantage of religious communes was due to the greater costly commitment of their members, rather than other aspects of religious ideology.

In one well-researched laboratory game of trust, participants were randomly assigned to be a proposer (truster) or a responder (trustee). In the first step, the proposer decides how much money to forward to the responder, which gets multiplied. In the second step, the responder decides how much money to send back to the proposer. By transferring money to the responder, the proposer stands to gain, but only if the responder can be trusted to reciprocate. In a variation of this trust experiment, researchers measured individual differences in the religiosity of the proposer and the responder. In addition, in some trials, proposers knew about the level of religiosity of the responder in an anonymous context.

Results indicated that more money was forwarded to responders perceived to be religious, and this was particularly true for religious proposers. Furthermore, religious responders were more likely to reciprocate the proposer ’s offer than less religious responders. They do not show that costly religious behavior elicits more trust and cooperation than less costly behavior under controlled conditions, as required by costly signaling explanations of religion; or that members of religious groups that impose more costly requirements are more trusting and less likely to take advantage of others, particularly ingroup members, as would be expected from cultural group selection accounts.

The size of human settlements since the end of the Pleistocene far exceed the limitations that kin-based and reciprocity-based altruism place on group size. Cultural evolution, driven by between-group competition for resources and habitats, has favored large groups. However, large groups, which until recently lacked institutionalized social-monitoring mechanisms, are vulnerable to collapse because of high rates of freeloading. If unwavering and pervasive belief in moralizing gods buffered against such freeloading, then belief in such gods should be more likely in larger human groups where the threat of freeloading is most acute.

In a quantitative cross-cultural analysis of the 186 societies in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, this prediction was confirmed. The larger the group size, the more likely the group culturally sanctioned deities who are directly concerned about human morality. Although most cultures in the world do not promote morally concerned deities, those that do tend to have disproportionately larger populations. As a consequence, the majority of religious adherents in the world worship moralizing gods.

One alternative explanation is that Christian and Muslim missionary activity may have caused both more belief in the moralizing Abrahamic God and may have favored larger group size. Another, is that because large societies are more socially stratified, belief in moralizing gods serves to preserve political and economic in- equality. However, although missionized societies and caste-stratified societies were indeed more likely to endorse a moralizing God, the association between large group size and the prevalence of moralizing Gods remained strong even after statistically controlling for missionary activity and for two indicators of societal inequality, as well as for population density and geographic region. Similarly, controlling for the cultural diffusion of moralizing Gods via Christian and Muslim missionary activity, society size, population size, and societal inequality, moralizing gods are more likely in societies with high water scarcity—where the threat to group survival, and the need to minimize freeloading, is also pronounced. The cross-cultural evidence suggests that moralizing gods are culturally stabilized when freeloading is more prevalent or particularly detrimental to group stability.

Conclusions of the study, Outstanding Questions, and Future Directions

Many religious traditions around the world explicitly encourage the faithful to be unconditionally prosocial; yet, theoretical considerations and empirical evidence indicate that religiously socialized individuals should be, and are, much more discriminating in their prosociality. Although empathy and compassion as social-bonding emotions do exist and may play a role in prosocial acts of religious and nonreligious individuals some of the time, there is little direct evidence to date that such emotions are systematically implicated in religious prosociality. The preponderance of the evidence points to religious prosociality being a bounded phenomenon. Religion’s association with prosociality is most evident when the situation calls for maintaining a favorable social reputation within the ingroup. When thoughts of morally concerned deities are cognitively salient, an objectively anonymous situation becomes nonanonymous and, therefore, reputationally relevant, or alternatively, such thoughts activate prosocial tendencies because of a prior mental association. This could occur when such thoughts are induced experimentally or in naturalistic religious situations, such as when people attend religious services or engage in ritual performance. This explains why the religious situation is more important than the religious disposition in predicting prosocial behavior.

Although religions continue to be powerful facilitators of prosociality in large groups, they are not the only ones. The cultural spread of reliable secular institutions, such as courts, policing authorities, and effective contract-enforcing mechanisms, although historically recent, has changed the course of human prosociality. Consequently, active members of modern secular organizations are at least as likely to report donating to charity as active members of religious ones. Supporting this conclusion, experimentally induced reminders of secular moral authority had as much effect on generous behavior in an economic game as reminders of God, and there are many examples of modern, large, cooperative, and not very religious societies (such as those in Western and Northern Europe), that, nonetheless, retain a great degree of intragroup trust and cooperation.

More research is needed to address the costliness of religious and nonreligious rituals, and few studies have attempted to quantify these costs in relation to prosocial behavior. The finding that religiosity evokes greater trust underscores the need for more experimental and theoretical research, including mathematical modeling, to establish the specific conditions under which costly religious commitment could evolve as a stable individual strategy and whether these models need to take into account intergroup competition. More broadly, the extent to which religion is implicated in human cooperation, and the precise sequence of evolutionary developments in religious prosociality, remain open to lively scientific debate. Further progress on these issues will require concerted collaboration among historians, archaeologists, social scientists, and evolutionary biologists.

In recent years, moral psychology has received a great deal of scientific attention, and although most of the studies reviewed here concern behavioral outcomes, the relation between religious prosociality and moral intuitions and reasoning is ripe for further investigation. More direct research on the possible role of prosocial motivations, such as empathy and compassion, in religious prosociality are needed. Finally, we have seen that religious prosociality is not extended indiscriminately; the 'dark side' of within-group cooperation is between-group competition and conflict. The same mechanisms involved in ingroup altruism may also facilitate outgroup antagonism. This is an area of no small debate, but scientific attention is needed to examine precisely how individuals and groups determine who are the beneficiaries of religious prosociality, and who its victims.

Variations on the Prosocial Argument

A recent workshop on natural (Darwinian) foundations of religious belief and behavior ("Is Religion Adaptive? It's Complicated" Scientific American January 19, 2009) a series of slants on the basis of a Darwinian adaptive basis for religious belief were put forward, several of which are variants of adaptive prosociality.

Political scientist and evolutionary biologist Dominic Johnson presented the idea that omniscient supernatural agents served an adaptive social policing function in the ancestral past, by encouraging individuals in groups to conform to group sanctions out of the fear of divine punishment, thus lessening the chances of social fission. As already noted, this phenomenon would have been biologically adaptive since larger groups meant better chances of survival and reproductive success for individual members.

Anthropologist Richard Sosis summarized his “costly signaling” hypothesis of religious behavior: that people engage in costly religious behaviors - rituals, uncomfortable clothes, financial commitments - to advertise their commitment to the religious in-group. If you’re willing to do things such as cut off your child’s foreskin, pay a regular alms tax of 2.5 percent of your net worth or sit for two hours every Sunday morning on a hard church pew, then your fellow believers will assume that you’re really one of them and can therefore be trusted.

Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers from Rutgers University, who first developed the idea of reciprocal altruism, discussed the possible role of psychological self-deception in the realm of religion and reviewed the impossible to ignore evidence that religiosity positively effects human health.

Biologist Jeff Schloss considered what these scientific developments in the study of religion will ultimately mean philosophically - “what does it all tell us about the existence of God?”

Jesse Bering the author of the article responded with the central enigma of adaptive religiosity: "What if the data suggest that God is actually just a psychological blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain. Would you still believe if you knew God were a byproduct of your evolved mental architecture?

Is Religion Adaptive for Self-Control?

The second study by Michael McCullough (to appear Psychological Bulletin Jan 2009) looks at religiosity as an evolutionary means to facilitate 'self-control'.

The study by University of Miami professor of Psychology Michael McCullough finds that religious people have more self-control than do their less religious counterparts, suggesting that religious people may be better at pursuing and achieving long-term goals that are important to them and their religious groups. This, in turn, might help explain why religious people tend to have lower rates of substance abuse, better school
achievement, less delinquency, better health behaviors, less depression, and longer lives.

McCullough evaluated 8 decades worth of research on religion, which has been conducted in diverse samples of people from around the world. He found evidence from a variety of domains within the social sciences, including neuroscience, economics, psychology, and sociology, that religious beliefs and religious behaviors are capable of encouraging people to exercise self-control and to more effectively regulate their emotions and behaviors, so that they can pursue valued goals. The research paper, which summarizes the results of their review of the existing science, will be published in the January 2009 issue of Psychological Bulletin.

"The importance of self-control and self-regulation for understanding human behavior are well known to social scientists, but the possibility that the links of religiosity to self-control might explain the links of religiosity to health and behavior has not received much explicit attention," said McCullough. "We hope our paper will correct this oversight in the scientific literature."

Among conclusions that the research team drew were the following:

• Religious rituals such as prayer and meditation affect the parts of the human brain that are most important for self-regulation and self-control;
• When people view their goals as "sacred," they put more energy and effort into pursuing those goals, and therefore, are probably more effective at attaining them;
• Religious lifestyles may contribute to self-control by providing people with clear standards for their behavior, by causing people to monitor their own behavior more closely, and by giving people the sense that God is watching their behavior;
• The fact that religious people tend to be higher in self-control helps explain why religious people are less likely to misuse drugs and alcohol and experience problems with crime and delinquency.

McCullough's says his review of the research on religion and self-control contributes to a better understanding of "how the same social force that motivates acts of charity and generosity can also motivate people to strap bomb belts around their waists and then blow themselves up in crowded city buses. By thinking of religion as a social force that provides people with resources for controlling their impulses (including the impulse for self-preservation, in some cases) in the service of higher goals, religion can motivate people to do just about anything."

This of course begs the question as to what forms of social control religions might also apply through costly behaviours, punishments of transgressors and utopian aims connected with absolute beliefs. It is these features of religion that we will examine in the next episode of the Gaia shibboleth.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gaia Shibboleth 3: God in the Brain?

For an update to the blog, with additional research, see the full subsequent Gaia Shibboleth article.

The Cerebral "God Spot"

In 1997 Vilayanur Ramachandran of UC San Diego (1) astounded the media world by suggesting that the brain had a 'God spot" or "God module", which united feelings of religious fervour with supreme significance.

The physiological basis for this is the fact that the emotional limbic system, and particularly the amygdala, which is responsible for integrating intense emotional feelings of paranoia and ecstasy associated with survival and threats to survival, is situated alongside the limits of the temporal lobe, which processes semantic meaning and its significance. Thus excitations linking the two could result in a simultaneous experience of extreme fulfillment and intense significance - equating to a profound religious, or mystical experience.

Ramachandran had been studying cases of temporal lobe epilepsy in which the patients experienced deep religious feelings during their seizures which they revered and found to be of great significance to their personal lives. His team went on to do a study involving comparing epileptic patients with normal people and a group who said they were intensely religious. Electrical monitors on their skin a standard test for activity in the brain's temporal lobes showed that the epileptics and the deeply religious displayed a similar response when shown words invoking spiritual belief.

One effect of the patients' seizures was to strengthen their brain's involuntary response to religious words, leading the scientists to suggest a portion of the brain was naturally attuned to ideas about a supreme being: "There may be dedicated neural machinery in the temporal lobes concerned with religion. This may have evolved to impose order and stability on society," the team reported at a conference.

As we have noted, evolutionary scientists have suggested that belief in God, which is a common trait found in human societies around the world and throughout history, may be built into the brain's complex electrical circuitry as a Darwinian adaptation to encourage co-operation between individuals.

Reactions to this announcement were varied. Some religious people, spanning a spectrum from Christians to Muslims, raced to publish claims that this proved the existence of God and the existence of the Creator's master plan. More liberal Christians, such as the Bishop of Oxford, said whether there is a "God module" is a question for scientists, not theologians, nevertheless noting "It would not be surprising if God had created us with a physical facility for belief".

To seal the case for the temporal lobe’s involvement, Michael Persinger (2) of Laurentian University in Ontario sought to artificially re-create religious feelings by electrically stimulating that large subdivision of the brain, using his “God helmet,” which generates weak electromagnetic fields and focuses them on particular regions of the brain’s surface. The researchers induced in most subjects the experience of a sensed presence—a feeling that someone (or a spirit) is in the room when no one, in fact, is—or of a profound state of cosmic bliss that reveals a universal truth. During the three-minute bursts of stimulation, the affected subjects translated this perception of the divine into their own cultural and religious language—terming it God, Buddha, a benevolent presence or the wonder of the universe. Valiantly or foolhardily, he tried in on perhaps the least suggestible person on the planet, Richard Dawkins, who duly reported not a flicker of the Immanent Presence (9). Although a 2005 attempt by Swedish scientists to replicate Persinger’s God helmet findings failed, researchers are not yet discounting the temporal lobe’s role in some types of religious experience.

The difficulty with the popular science cliche of the "God spot" (3, 4) is that subsequent studies looking at specific types of religious experience from devout Nuns to meditating Buddhist monks has thrown up a much more diverse set of neural pathways, exploding the myth that there is one God designed religious system in the brain.

This should have been obvious to anyone with experience either in neuroscience or religious history because the sort of experiences Ramachandran's team were investigating were at the mystical fringe of prophets crying in the wilderness and almost diametrically opposed tot he kinds of mentality we associate with rigid conservative fundamentalistic beliefs and practices.

fMRI recordings from Beauregard's study


In a 2006 fMRI study (5), the recall by nuns of communion with God invigorated quite different regions - the caudate nucleus, insula, inferior parietal lobe (IPL) and medial orbitofrontal cortex (MOFC), among other brain regions. Each of these nuns answered a call for volunteers “who have had an experience of intense union with God” and agreed to participate in an experiment devised by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard of the University of Montreal. Beauregard and Paquette used fMRI to study the brains of 15 nuns during three different mental states - 1 resting with closed eyes, 2 recollecting an intense social experience - control states against which they compared 3 reminiscence, or revival of a vivid experience with God. The researchers found six regions that were invigorated only during the nuns’ recall of communion with God . There was increased activity in the caudate nucleus, a small central brain region to which scientists have ascribed a role in learning, memory and, recently, falling in love; the neuroscientists surmise that its involvement may reflect the nuns’ reported feeling of unconditional love. Another hot spot was the insula, a prune-size chunk of tissue tucked within the brain’s outermost layers that monitors body sensations and governs social emotions. Neural sparks there could be related to the visceral pleasurable feelings associated with connections to the divine. Augmented activity in the inferior parietal lobe, with its role in spatial awareness - paradoxically, the opposite of what Newberg and Davidson witnessed - might mirror the nuns’ feeling of being absorbed into something greater. The remainder of the highlighted regions includes the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which may weigh the pleasantness of an experience; the medial prefrontal cortex, which may help govern conscious awareness of an emotional state; and, finally, the middle of the temporal lobe.

Complementing the spatial resolution of fMRI with the time resolution of EEG, Beauregard and his colleagues found that the most prevalent brain waves are long, slow alpha waves such as those produced by sleep, consistent with the nuns’ relaxed state. In work that has not yet been published, the scientists also spotted even lower-frequency waves in the prefrontal and parietal cortices and the temporal lobe that are associated with meditation and trance. “We see delta waves and theta waves in the same brain regions as the fMRI,” Beauregard says.

Brains scans from Davidson's PET study

University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili (6), used a form of PET single-photon-emission computed tomography (SPECT) to image the brain when meditating Buddhist subjects reached their self-reported peak, in which they lose their sense of existence as separate individuals. This was associated with both a large drop in activity in a portion of the parietal lobe, which aids with navigation and spatial orientation, and an increase in activity in the right prefrontal cortex, charged with attention and planning. The neuroscientists surmise that the abnormal silence in the parietal underlies the perceived dissolution of physical boundaries and the feeling of being at one with the universe and the prefrontal recruitment at the meditation peak may reflect the fact that such contemplation often requires that a person focus intensely on a thought or object.

Richard Davidson (7) of the University of Wisconsin, Madison and colleagues used fMRI to scan the brains of several hundred meditating Buddhists from around the world and found that the Buddhists’ meditations coincided with activation in the left prefrontal cortex, again perhaps reflecting the ability of expert practitioners to focus despite distraction. The most experienced volunteers showed lower levels of activation than did those with less training, conceivably because practice makes the task easier although not effortless as accomplished Buddhist practitioners claim. They had previously done EEG studies showing gamma synchrony in meditators (7).

Meditators and controls in Davidson's 2004 EEG study

Meditation may even delay certain signs of aging in the brain, according to preliminary work by neuroscientist Sara Lazar of Harvard University and her colleagues. A 2005 paper in NeuroReport noted that 20 experienced meditators showed increased thickness in certain brain regions relative to 15 subjects who did not meditate. In particular, the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula were between four and eight thousandths of an inch thicker in the meditators; the oldest of these subjects boasted the greatest increase in thickness, the reverse of the usual process of aging.

Newberg and his colleagues discovered yet another activity pattern when they scanned the brains of five women while they were speaking in tongues. The activity in their subjects’ frontal lobes declined relative to that of five religious people who were simply singing gospel. Because the frontal lobes are broadly used for self-control, the research team concluded that the decrement in activity enabled the loss of control necessary for such garrulous outbursts.

The quantity and diversity of brain regions involved point to the complexity of the phenomenon of spirituality. “There is no single God spot, localized uniquely in the temporal lobe of the human brain,” Beauregard concludes. “These states are mediated by a neural network that is well distributed throughout the brain.”

This new area of “neurotheology” or “spiritual neuroscience" raises as many questions as it answers. It cannot, Ramachandran says be called "The God Module." It is not the final reduction of God to mere neurophysiology; but he does admit that the finding provides strength to the suspicion that belief in god is "largely protoplasmic", however the scientists emphasized that their findings in no way suggest that religion is simply a matter of brain chemistry. "These studies do not in any way negate the validity of religious experience or God," the team said. "They merely provide an explanation in terms of brain regions that may be involved."

On the other hand those who are committed to the scientific enterprise, and believe in exhausting all possible material explanations for "transcendence" before considering any "other worldly" possibilities, will find no surprise in the suggestion that brain neurophysiology can alter perceptions of the "transcendent."

Is the 'God spot' idea just making us an instrument - part of God's computer?

Persinger (2) argues that religious experience and belief in God are merely the results of electrical anomalies in the human brain - that the religious bents of even the most exalted figures - Saint Paul, Moses, Muhammad and Buddha - stem from such neural quirks. The popular notion that such experiences are good, he argues, is an outgrowth of psychological conditioning in which religious rituals are paired with enjoyable experiences. Beauregard says: “These experiences have existed since the dawn of humanity. They have been reported across all cultures. It is as important to study the neural basis of [religious] experience as it is to investigate the neural basis of emotion, memory or language.” However, he points out that they are not necessarily associated with religion: “If you are an atheist and you live a certain kind of experience, you will relate it to the magnificence of the universe. If you are a Christian, you will associate it with God. Who knows? Perhaps they are the same.”

But using such vague structural clues to explain human feelings and behaviors may be a fool’s errand. “You list a bunch of places in the brain as if naming something lets you understand it,” says neuropsychologist Seth Horowitz of Brown University. Vincent Paquette, who collaborated with Beauregard, goes further, likening neuroimaging to phrenology, the practice in which Victorian-era scientists tried - and ultimately failed - to intuit clues about brain function and character traits from irregularities in the shape of the skull.

Recent research suggests that just thinking rational thoughts or even thinking about rational thoughts erodes belief in God, consistent with religion being an intuitive non-rational process. "Will Gervais asked 93 university students to rate their own belief in God and other supernatural agents such as angels. Then, several weeks later, they underwent "priming" for analytical thinking – they were asked to unscramble sentences that included words such as "ponder" and "rational", read text written in hard-to-read fonts, or even just look at a picture of Rodin's sculpture The Thinker. Controls were given less analytically charged tasks: looking at Myron's Discobolus, or The Discus Thrower, unscrambling sentences containing words such as "shoes", or read text written in easy-to-read fonts. Ara Norenzayan and Gervais then asked the students to again rate their supernatural beliefs. The students who had been exposed to analytical priming consistently downgraded their belief in the supernatural, regardless of their previous degree of belief. This was also true of 148 adults tested online. The simplest way to explain these effects, the team conclude, is if intuitive thinking leads to belief, and analytical thinking suppresses or overrides this process. That gives analytical thinking a causal role in disbelief." (Analytical thinking erodes belief in God New Scientist 26 April 2012 Debora MacKenzie).

Developmental Predispositions

In the "The God issue: We are all born believers" (New Scientist) Justin Barrett claims childrens' propensity for agent-based explanations, a tendency to explain the natural world in terms of design and purpose, an assumption that others have superpowers - makes children naturally receptive to the idea that there may be one or more god which helps account for the world around them.

He claims agency based reasoning begins early. In the first year of life children distinguish between the movement of ordinary objects and the movement of agents. The babies first watched either a red disc chasing a blue one or vice versa until they got bored. Many of these experiments used animated discs that did not remotely resemble a human or animal. When the experimenter reversed the chase., by nine months, the babies noticed the difference and started watching again (Perception, vol 33, p 355).

He points out that such agents do not have to be visible and cites his own experiments to shows this propensity continues into adulthood. College students were asked to narrate their actions while placing ball bearings over holes on a board. Periodically an electromagnet sent the ball bearings racing around in violation of intuitive physical expectations. Almost two-thirds of the students spontaneously referred to the ball bearings as if they were agents, making comments such as, "That one did not want to stay", "Oh, look. Those two kissed", and "They are not cooperating" (Journal of Cognition and Culture, vol 3, p 208).

He than cites other experiments in which children prefer purpose-based explanations. Four and 5-year-olds thought it more sensible that a tiger was "made for eating and walking and being seen at the zoo" than that "though it can eat and walk and be seen at the zoo, that's not what it's made for" (Journal of Cognition and Development, vol 6, p 3). Likewise children under 10 tend to embrace creationist explanations of living things over evolutionary ones - even children whose parents and teachers endorse evolution (Cognitive Psychology, vol 42, p 217). Experiments with adults suggest we do not simply outgrow this attraction but that it must be forcibly tamped down through formal education (Cognition, vol 111, p 138).

In another experiment 12 to 13-month-old babies viewed two animations: a ball knocking over a stack of blocks (obscured by a barrier during the actual striking), and vice versa with the blocks starting in a disordered heap and finishing in a neat stack. Like adults, babies were also surprised, in that they looked longer at the second animation. This suggests that babies find a ball creating order more surprising than a ball creating disorder. In a second experiment a ball-shaped object with a face moved purposefully behind the barrier and either apparently ordered or disordered the blocks. In this case, the babies found neither display more surprising (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 107, p 17140).

He suggests the most straightforward explanation is that babies have the same intuitions as adults: people, animals, gods, or other agents can create order or disorder, but non-agents, such as rolling balls, only create disorder.

He then goes on to claim children may presume that all agents have superknowledge, superperception and immortality until they learn otherwise. When shown a gourd expected to contain tortillas but actually containing boxer shorts, Maya children aged 4 to 7 gave a graduated response showing awareness of supernatural powers when asked which of the following agents would now the right answer without looking - the all seeing and all knowing Catholic god Diyoos, the Maya sun god, who knows everything under the sun, forest spirits whose knowledge is limited to the forest nuisance bogeyman called Chiichi' and a human. The youngest children answered that all the agents would know what was in the gourd. By age 7, the majority thought that Diyoos would know that the gourd contained shorts but the human would think it contained tortillas. They were also sensitive to the shades of difference in the other supernatural agents' level of knowledge (Journal of Cognition and Culture, vol 8, p 235).

The trouble with these ideas, as admittedly put forward by a professed theologian is that the first is simply a natural propensity essential for any mammal to learn rapidly to deal with an agent-filled world of predators kin and prey essential to animal survival, and the latter two are already working with children of an age which has already been exposed to ideas of craftsmanship and strong cultural and religious influences.

None of these three suggest in any way that God is a natural reality and tend to imply the opposite - that it is a cultural feature which takes advantage of natural propensities in the developing mammalian consciousness of our natural and highly cultural environment.

This point is extended in the following article "Science won't loosen religion's grip" is that while religion capitalizes on such 'fast' easily accommodated processes at an early age, theology and science require a much more complex process of examining and questioning such simplified assumptions, effectively classing religious fervour as a natural but over-simplified view of reality which science has trouble replacing because nature has proven to be vastly more complicated and couter-intuitive than our easily assumed naive beliefs.


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