Sunday, January 30, 2005

On the Persistence of Religion, part IV

This is the forth part of a multi-part essay on the persistence of religion.

In the first installment of the essay, I raised the question of the persistence of religion in individuals and sought to demonstrate that this persistence was not, as many unbelievers would like to think, genuinely akin to belief in such entities as Santa Clause. I explored a number of possibilities to account for the difference, without reaching any conclusions, and ended by suggesting that in order to explain the individual persistence of religion, we may need to consider its cultural persistence.

In the second installment I noted that religion was one of a small number of true human universals that transcends times and cultures. I also introduced and examined the hypothesis that the reason for this may be that religious beliefs persist because most humans have some sort of sense that the brain interprets as evidence of (for lack of a better word) a spiritual reality.

In the third installment I addressed a potential a priori objection to natural explanations for the persistence of religion in the form of the existence of atheists. I noted that polymorphistic features in biological organisms are permitted although they do require additional layers of explanation. I then proceeded to introduce the conjecture that religion may have adaptive value even if we don't posit that it is an adaptation whose function is to directly perceive some other sort of reality. I called this the Weak Adaptive Hypothesis and provided a few potential adaptive scenarios.

At this point, both hypotheses on the table can be described as directly adaptive, which is to say that they postulate that we have evolved a predisposition to religion and that the reasons we have done so are because religious belief is either the result of a specific adaptive function (i.e., some sort of undiscovered sensory organ) or because belief in religion has positive survival value (e.g., by providing a means of reducing stress). The next hypothesis I would like to examine would best be described as an non-adaptive hypothesis that, never the less, depends on adaptive forces. In order to explain what that means and to illustrate the hypothesis, I first need to introduce the concept of spandrels.

In architecture, a spandrel is the space between a curved body (or bodies) and a boundary. The classical example of a spandrel is the roughly triangular space that exists when two arches are set side by side. One common feature of spandrels is that they tend to have a lot of ornamentation. Someone who was architecturally naïve might even go so far as to conclude that spandrels exist in order to provide nice little spaces for artwork and engraving when, in fact, they are only they as an unintended consequence: the by-products of other, necessary architectural elements.

In 1979 the biologists Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin wrote a paper called "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme". In the paper, they used the metaphor of architectural spandrels to hypothesize that some features of biological organisms were not the result of direct biological adaptations but were, instead, the non-adaptive consequence of other traits. They suggested, appropriately enough, that such features (should they be proven to exist) ought to be called spandrels.

Gould and Lewontin, frankly, had an axe to grind when it came to adaptationism. They felt that the adaptationist paradigm had gone too far in seeking to describe every last feature of every last organism in terms of selective adaptations. As such, their use of the word spandrel was a deliberate attempt to use a word with absolutely no adaptationistic language what-so-ever; however, it must be noted that in order for biological spandrels to exist, there must be some adaptive interplay going on in other features of a given organism, which is why I indicated that I would be presenting a hypothesis that was non-adaptive but dependant upon adaptation.

A spandrel hypothesis for the persistence of religion would suggest that even though natural selection doesn't favor a predisposition towards religion in populace, there are other characteristics in humans which have the indirect consequence of resulting in such a predisposition. The advantage of such a hypothesis is that it is no longer necessary to presume that religion has any positive value in order for it to persist. In fact, religion can even represent a negative reproductive advantage so long as that disadvantage doesn't outweigh the selective advantages of whatever trait or traits are resulting the spandrel.

In the first installment of this essay, one of my readers1 suggested that our tendency to be religious might be a result of a fundamental need for pack leader (i.e., an alpha) which we then project into a kind of ultimate alpha. Although I have certain issues with Ron's specific idea, this is a good example of a spandrel hypothesis.2 If I were to restructure it in spandrel form, I would rewrite the hypothesis as, "It is postulated that there exists adaptive traits in humans such that we have a desire for an alpha and that we have also evolved a sense of imagination. It is further hypothesized that the intersection between our desire for an alpha and our imaginations results in a non-adaptive predisposition towards imagining the existence of an ultimate-alpha being (i.e., a god) and a predisposition to worship said imagined being."

Before I go ahead and put down The Spandrel Hypothesis as a bullet I feel that I must point out that the very idea of spandrels in biology is controversial. Many biologists either reject Gould and Lewontin's idea of spandrels outright or believe that they have overstated their case. In order to validate the hypothesis, it would be necessary to find an unequivocal example of biological feature that would require us to resort to the conclusion that the feature is a spandrel. Numerous possible cases for spandrels have been advanced but, to date, none of them have achieved the level of consensus.

With that caveat, let us present our next bullet:
  • Religious beliefs persist because they are the indirect result of some other biological feature or features which directly promote reproductive fitness among those who have said features; however, the capacity for religion and predisposition towards religion is not, itself, reproductively advantageous.
If you have been reading these installments up to this point (and thank you very much!) you may well suspect that I'm about to conclude this installment. However, I would like to introduce one more brief hypothesis before rounding this out.

You may have noticed that we've progressed from a hypothesis which has a strong adaptive component, to one with a weaker adaptive component, to one which has a quasi-adaptive component. Thus far, every hypothesis has assumed that religion is, in some sense, in our genes.3 I think that it's time to introduce a proposition that doesn't require us to assume that humans have any innate genetic predisposition towards religion.

A while back, I wrote an essay titled "Towards a Theory of Architectural Morality". In the essay, I considered the controversy between theories of absolute morality and relativistic morality and concluded that both sides of the controversy were missing the point, which was that the reason we have morals is because morals serve a functional purpose. Specifically, societies require moral frameworks in order to provide the necessary stability for them to exist in the first place (and the existence of societies is, furthermore, preferable to the alternative). I also argued that, for these purposes, a society can be something as small as two individuals.

Might it be possible that religion serves a similar role? Certainly we find religion serving a great many social functions. In the majority of societies religion is responsible for legitimizing births, providing a focus point for the community, setting the framework for civil law, marriage ceremonies, funeral ceremonies, and so on. In most societies, religion has also provided legitimization for the head of state (or the ruling house). Many have viewed this trend as a natural attempt for religions to co-opt civil and secular power to themselves; however, it is possible to speculate that the reason these functions tend to fall to religion is that religion does a better job than its secular counterparts.

Even if we don't suppose that it is necessary for a society to embrace religion in order to provide civil functions, perhaps we may hypothesize that religion is necessary in order to prevent social collapse. Newt Gingrich once summarized this by saying that a society that tolerated atheists was fine but that a society of atheists couldn't survive.4

One particularly cynical variant of this is Plato's concept of The Noble Lie that says that the rules of the idea society (Plato's republic) must tell the populace that the structure of society is ordained by God. Others have extended the concept of The Noble Lie to the proposition that even if there is no God, a good society must promote belief in God in order to ensure that the people remain obedient to the law.

A less cynical variant rests on the proposition that people have a natural tendency to break rules (including laws) when two conditions are met: 1) the rule-breaking results in some perceived advantage for the rule breaker and 2) the rule breaker believes that he can break the rule with little or no consequence. Given this, laws are only effective to the degree that those who would break them fear being caught and punished. In this view, a god is sort of an ultimate cop who will, without fail, punish those who succumb to the temptation to break the rules. Those who do not believe in an ultimate cop are required to fall back on ethical injunctions and self-control which are weaker than the simple fear of being punished for doing wrong.

Does this not, however, lead us back to the Santa Claus dilemma that I outlined in the first installment? Not necessarily. Since Santa-belief does not serve a necessary social function, those societies that have a tradition of Santa belief have no vested interest in preventing people from losing their beliefs. Under this conjecture, since religion does serve a positive social function, it is more vital that societies strive to promote religious belief in their citizens and, consequently, we can expect that more energy and creativity will be devoted to ensuring this.5

It is possible to phrase this proposition in a negative form. If we suppose that societies without a strong religious tradition are inherently instable then the natural tendency, over time, will be for societies with religious traditions to become dominant and, in fact, ubiquitous since those societies which aren't will automatically remove themselves from consideration.

We can call this the Social Preservation Hypothesis. As such, let us add the bullet:
  • Religion positively enhances the stability of those societies that embrace it. Consequently, those societies that fail to instill religious beliefs in a majority of their populations will have a tendency to collapse leaving behind only those societies which do instill such beliefs.
This shall conclude this week's installment. In next week's installment I will introduce one final hypothesis and, space permitting, reach the essay's conclusion.

1 Ron Smith.

2 The problem I have with the alpha theory is that I am not convinced that all religions, or even the majority of religions in our history, have the hierarchical structure necessary to support the conjecture. Buddhism, as a case in point, does not clearly have anything at the top of the chain of deity. Be that as it may, something like this may well help to reinforce those religious beliefs that do have an alpha arrangement.

3 Please do not make the mistake that any of these hypotheses are examples of so-called "genetic determinism". Each of them should be understood in terms of genetic predispositions. Even if we go all the way and assume that there is some kind of "god gene" which accounts for religion in humans, there is no cause to assume that because person X has the gene that said person would, therefore, believe in any gods (to say nothing of specific gods). For more on this topic, see my essay titled "A Rebuttal to the A Priori Argument Against a Genetic Basis for Homosexuality".

4 The obvious objection to this is to note the existence of Communist governments such as China and the USSR; however, although atheism tends to be the official state creed of Communist governments, it is not clear that the populous of such governments, in general, actually reject their religious beliefs. It has also been conjectured that the goal of Communism was to set itself up as a sort of state quasi-religion, much in the same way that artificially constructed Cult of the Supreme Being was briefly made the state religion of France.

5 How a given society might accomplish this goal is open to speculation. One possibility might be found in the Jesuit maxim that if you give them a child for seven years, the child will be theirs for life. All that is required, for the hypothesis, however is the presumption that there does exist some technique or techniques whereby a culture could accomplish this general goal.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Interview Update

Some of you have been very kind in wondering how my interview went. I wanted to let everyone know that I have been called back for a third and final interview.

Wish me luck.


A freight train wind
Blew down the street

Cold with souls
Stacked high like cordwood

Off, I suppose,
To be processed (and then what)

I gave it a feeble wave
And kept on walking

Ain't no business of mine

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Tuesday Fun

Henry Ford once said that history "is one damn thing after another."

It is in this spirit that I present to you a link to the strange and aromatic tale of the Islip Garbage Barge, a ship so unwelcome that the Mexican government actually sent out their navel to prevent it from entering their territorial waters.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

On the Persistence of Religion, part III

This is the third part of a multi-part essay on the persistence of religion.

In the first installment of the essay, I raised the question of the persistence of religion in individuals and sought to demonstrate that this persistence was not, as many unbelievers would like to think, genuinely akin to belief in such entities as Santa Clause. I explored a number of possibilities to account for the difference, without reaching any conclusions, and ended by suggesting that in order to explain the individual persistence of religion, we may need to consider its cultural persistence.

In the second installment I noted that religion was one of a small number of true human universals that transcends times and cultures. I also introduced and examined the hypothesis that the reason for this may be that religious beliefs persist because most humans have some sort of sense that the brain interprets as evidence of (for lack of a better word) a spiritual reality.

Before I precede to the next hypothesis, I think that I should address something that we may be tempted to take as an a priori rejection of any naturalistic attempt to explain religious persistence: the existence of atheists. Although the historical record for atheism isn't at consistent as the historical record for religion, it does appear that whenever societies strictures against atheism become sufficiently relaxed that people can declare their atheism without fear of bodily harm or undue reprisal, atheists appear on the scene. I think that it is a safe assumption that even when atheism isn't a safe option, atheists never the less do exist.

The biological term to describe variations in a trait in a species is polymorphism (meaning "many shapes"). One of the most obvious examples of polymorphism in our species is handedness. Most humans are right handed, a relatively small percentage are left handed and a very small percentage are ambidextrous. Clearly polymorphisms do exist and, therefore, do not automatically rule out adaptive explanations for a given trait although it should be noted that evolutionary biologists do consider such to be cases which need to be accounted for given that the general trend, over evolutionary time, is for the trait with the best adaptive fitness to become the only trait in a population. It must be stressed that there are exceptions to this rule (hence the existence of polymorphisms in the first place) but it is generally the case that when there are multiple traits in a population, there is some other factor in the environment that keeps the minority trait from disappearing altogether.

What this means for atheism is that the existence of atheism can not be used to rule out a natural explanation for the persistence of religion. It does mean that there is an additional factor which should require explanation in order to get a complete picture of the subject. However, this essay is not about the persistence of atheism, so I'm going to continue seeking ways to account for the persistence of religious beliefs while offering the caveat that whatever conclusions we reach are likely to be somewhat incomplete.

Now, if we may return to the central subject of this essay, I would like to consider another adaptive explanation. This one is going to be weaker (in the technical sense of the term) than the first adaptive hypothesis which sought to explain religious belief by positing some sort of undiscovered sensory organ that causes people to directly experience something that the brain interprets as a spiritual realm. 1 I shall call this first hypothesis the Strong Adaptive Hypothesis. Naturally, what I about to propose will be called the Weak Adaptive Hypothesis.

The Weak Adaptive Hypothesis is that although our perception of religion isn't a literal perception of an external reality, religion persists because there is something about religious belief that enhances the reproductive fitness of those who are religious.

Reproductive fitness is a term used in evolutionary biology to describe an organisms chances at successfully reproducing before it dies. Some traits tend to enhance reproductive fitness (e.g., stronger leg muscles in a gazelle which helps to prevent it from being eaten long enough to bear children) while others tend to compromise it (e.g., near sightedness in an eagle which prevents it from successfully hunting). It should be noted that when we are discussing the reproductive impact of a given trait, we are talking about its statistical impact upon those creatures that have the trait. This is an important consideration to keep in mind because a particular trait that has positive adaptive value for the population as a whole may be maladaptive for any given individual. The reason I note this is to forestall objections that religion can't represent a reproductive advantage because it occasionally leads to a state where an individual embraces a lifelong celibacy or a rather short career as a suicide bomber.2 I should also note that a reproductive advantage doesn't necessarily need to be directly about reproduction. Per the example above, a gazelle's leg muscles don't have anything to do with a gazelle's reproductive system except that they help the gazelle survive long enough to employ it.

So, what sort of reproductive advantage might religion confer? In strict terms, the Weak Adaptive Hypothesis does not need to commit itself to any specifics (nor, in a strict sense, shall I attempt to have it do so). It is sufficient for the hypothesis to suppose that there is something about religion that does so without having to make any specific claims (which is one of the reasons that I'm labeling this a "weak" hypothesis in contrast to the Strong Adaptive Hypothesis which does make a particular claim). Be that as it may, it does behoove me to offer at least one example of how religion could fulfill this role.

One possibility is that religion serves as a stress alleviation mechanism. Doctors Kathleen A. Lawler and Jarred W. Younger recently conducted a study (circa 2002) in which they subjected a series of volunteers to a stressful situation (known as a betrayal interview) while measuring their blood pressure and heart rate. Their results indicated that those individuals who were more religious exhibited less stress than those who were less religious.

One of the things that religions do is to provide a framework of meaning to our interactions with others and with the universe as a whole. Even when bad things happen, a believer can appeal to the conviction that when things seem arbitrary, or even awful, they are, never the less, part of a greater plan. One of the most striking features of the Old Testament is that the Hebrew tribes not only kept their faith from calamity to calamity but that in times of crisis, they clung to their faith that much more firmly. One sees this recapitulated in modern tragic circumstances all the time. The typical pattern is that a small percentage of people will lose their religious convictions in the face of overwhelming events but the majority will seek solace and shelter in their beliefs no matter how difficult their circumstances. If religion does, indeed, serve as a coping mechanism for dealing with stress, this makes perfect sense (while undercutting the naïve view that embracing one's religion when bad things happen is an example of mere ignorance and irrationality).

One potentially tantalizing corollary to this is the observation that scientists, especially physical scientists, are much more likely to be atheists or relatively areligious than the general populace.3 Contrary to the (erroneous) view that science is a religion, it may be that science, by providing its own explanatory framework, reduces the need for the explanatory framework provided by religion. Of course, I should hasten to note that the explanation could easily go the other way: perhaps people who aren't religious by nature are more inclined to take up a career in the sciences.4 Never the less, it is a tantalizing speculation.5

Before I make too much of this particular notion, I need to reemphasize that this is just an example of one possible instance of the Weak Adaptive Hypothesis. In order to illustrate this, let me briefly sketch another possibility.

Some have suggested that because religion helps people to suppress their fear of death, warriors with religious beliefs are less likely to be paralyzed by their fears and, paradoxically, would therefore be expected to do better in battle. Over the history of the species where the majority of conflicts were inter-tribal, face to face and all too common, the ability to survive such conflicts would have been of paramount important. Not only would survival allow one to reproduce but the more successful one was as a warrior, the more attractive he would be considered by the women of his tribe and, therefore, he would have that many more options to reproduce.

Or so it has been hypothesized. At any rate, I think that we are in a position to add our second bullet-point:

  • Religious beliefs persist because they provide some function which directly promotes reproductive fitness among those who embrace religious beliefs.
As you may well have guessed, the essay is not over. You may, indeed, be wondering whether or not it's ever going to end (I know I have). At this point, I have two more hypotheses I'd like to develop before making any attempt at drawing a conclusion. I fully expect that each point may require its own mini-essay and the conclusion may, or may not, require one of its own as well. As such, I think that, at the very most, you can expect three more entries… unless I come up with more points that I'd like to discuss.

I hope that you will continue to bear with me.

1 Indeed, the hypothesis can include the proposition that what is being experienced is a spiritual realm. As noted in the previous installment, however, the degree of variation in experience precludes us from draw any firm conclusions about what people with "spiritual sense" are, in fact, actually experiencing.

2 I expect that some are going to object to this last example. I've heard various people claim that suicidal martyrdom isn't "genuinely" religious because religion promotes generosity and cooperation. Such claims are little more than special pleading of the No True Scotsman variety. The fact of the matter is that while religion can inspire individuals to acts of nobility, it can also inspire them to acts of infamy.

3 Unfortunately I can't find a good online reference for this. The studies I have seen, however, show not only dramatic numbers but numbers that are consistent over a broad range of years. Scientists in the early 20's were just as prone to embrace atheism as scientists in the 90's which is very remarkable considering that the 20's were not a time that was particularly friendly towards atheism.

4 In point of fact, the null hypothesis (which is to be preferred in the absence of direct evidence one way or the other) would be that there is no correlation at all. If this were an academic paper, I would give the null hypothesis its rightful due; however, since this is an informal analysis, I think that it's fair to suggest a potential correlation. I would go so far as to suggest that it would be rather remarkable if there were no meaningful correlation what so ever.

5 Another suggestive corollary might be found in the high incidence of superstitious behavior among gamblers. Gambling is the epitome of randomness (especially in such games a slots where one seems to find the most examples of superstitious actions). B.F. Skinner suggested that such behaviors as crossing as tapping a slot machine three times before pulling the lever is nothing than the product of operant conditioning in the face of rewards provided at random intervals. He did some interesting studies with mice using random food rewards when they pulled levers. His mice would invariably develop really strange actions, such as spinning around before pulling their levers, in a very short amount of time. Perhaps, however, there's something more going on in humans. Could it be that superstitious gambling behavior is an example where people adopt an explanatory frame to negate the anxiety of dealing with a random system thereby allowing them to spend more time and money gambling? (Please also note that I am not attempting to draw a one-to-one correspondence between religion and common superstition.)

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Warning: Evil Twin Hotspot Alert

If you have a wireless laptop and plan to use it in public spaces, be warned, there's a new way that hackers have for getting your information.

Basically, they have developed a technique, known as creating an "Evil Twin" hotspot, where they can override the signal of the hotspot that you are using and can imitate the hotspot from their own machines, which means that even though you think that you're signing into a legitimate connection point, you're actually passing all of your data through them.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any good way to detect or prevent this, right now, so the advice of the day is that when you are surfing in public, avoid going to sights with private information (e.g., your email) and ABSOLUTELY avoid conducting any financial transactions.

For more information, see this article.

Friday, January 21, 2005


Code breaking is one of those fields where I have a deep sense of respect for those that can do it while, never the less, being painfully aware that my own talents don't lend themselves to it.

As such, it makes me feel a little better that there are codes that even the professionals haven't worked out. One of the more interesting cases is on the grounds of the CIA headquarters in the form of a scuplture named Kryptos. Wired news has the very fascinating story behind it.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


I have become fused
To my surroundings

The floor has
Caught my footsteps,
The chair has laid claim
To my seat.

I am bound --
Hand, ear, and mouth --
To my phone.

Even the fluorescent light
Sticks to my skin.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Brunching Archive

Because I'm still prepping for my interview, today's entry is going to be a quickie.

The Brunching Shuttlecocks website may be no more, but it lives on in archive form. While it was around it was one of the best humor sites around. Fortunately, even in a state of eternal stasis, it remains well worth perusing.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

How to Tell Your Ass From a Hole in the Ground

First the good news: I have a job interview this Wednesday. Now the bad news: because I am going to be tested on my SQL skills, I need to study for this interview. Unfortunately, the study time has cut into the time that I was hoping to spend on part three of the current essay series. Instead of simply offering nothing for this week's essay, however, I have decided to do a repeat of one the earlier essays from the blog. If you've seen it before, I hope that it will still amuse you. If this is one you haven't seen before, I hope that you will enjoy it.

Hopefully, next week, I will have the next installment. With any luck, I'll also be employed. In the meanwhile, I give you the following history of a great philosophical question.

Since time immemorial, mankind has pondered the question of how to tell its ass from a hole in the ground.

Among the first people to tackle this subject in a rigorous and philosophical manner (meaning one guaranteed to ensure tenure) was Sophocles who suggested that holes were distinct from asses in as much as people tended to put things into holes. Unfortunately, most of Sophocles' compatriots were Greeks and, thus, did not find this a useful distinction.

Socrates, on the other hand, suggested the following syllogism:
  1. All mortals have asses.
  2. Socrates has an ass.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is the only person who knows his ass from a hole in the ground.

Tragically, this argument upset the authorities of the day who forced Socrates to commit suicide with a hemlock enema.

Plato, the arch-student of Socrates, disagreed with his mentor by suggesting that there exists an Ideal Ass and an Ideal Hole and that we are like people trapped in a restroom who can only see the shadows of these Ideal forms being cast upon the stall.

Aristotle had a great many things to say on the subject including such observations as that man is the only animal that has an ass and that nature abhors a hole. Although Aristotle's work on the subject held sway for centuries, modern philosophers now realize that nearly everything Aristotle said about this was wrong and only continue to read him so that they can enjoy the sensation of smug amusement.

It was not until the Enlightenment that philosophers once again began to ponder the question.

Descartes conceived of reality as an infinitely dark hole and insisted that the only thing that we could be sure of was that we had an ass. Pascal, much impressed with this, took Descartes' observations and recodified it into his famous "You Bet Your Ass" Wager.

Hegel, on the other hand, suggested that one could view the problem as a dialectic:
  • Thesis: Ass
  • Antithesis: Hole
  • Synthesis: Asshole
Berkeley, by contrast, took the extremely solipsistic perspective of denying the existence of either asses or holes. The great English philosopher, Samuel Johnson, countered Berkeley by saying, "I refute you, thus!"

He then proceeded to kick Berkeley in the ass and shoved him down a hole.

Kant believed that it was the hole that made the ass possible and not the ass that made the hole possible and was preparing to construct an elaborate system of ethics from this contention when he abruptly ceased work on the project after Hegel called him an asshole.

Perhaps the bleakest view on the subject came from Nietzsche who wrote, in Thus Spake My Buttocks, "The Ass is dead and we have killed it!"

He also warned that if we gaze into the Hole, the Hole also gazes into us.

Spinoza proclaimed that asses and holes were one and the same but most of his fellow philosophers believed that he only reached this conclusion because he always had his head up his ass.

Freud did not offer any means to tell one's ass from a hole in the ground but did insist that it was this very confusion that was the genesis of all neurosis and that one should, therefore, talk about it in excruciatingly graphic detail. Jung, however, disagreed, claiming that the Ass and the Hole were primal archetypes and that it was the descent of the Ass into the Hole that formed the basis for all societies, religions and governments.

The advent of quantum mechanics has, like all other things it has affected, deeply confused the issue. Bohr claimed that asses and holes only exist when there is someone to observe them to which Einstein famously replied, "God isn't that kind of asshole, you schmuck!"

Heisenberg proclaimed that the matter was fundamentally indeterminable and that it was impossible, even in principle, to truly tell one's ass from a hole in the ground. At best, we could only say that we probably know one from the other.

Schrodinger provided the interesting paradox of "Schrodinger's Butt," in which it is imagined that he has accidentally got his ass stuck in a hole after being administered a Barium enema. According to the dictates of this thought experiment, so long as no one actually looks in the hole, the ass and the hole would exist in a mixed "eigenstate" in which neither is distinct from the other. Since most people have better things to do with their time then to look at the nether regions of physicists, it follows that this would be a permanent state.

Hugh Everett has proposed an even more radical theory known as the "Many Asses" interpretation of Quantum Mechanics which claims that the universe is the product of an infinite number of "ass-events" and that every "ass-event" causes a "flushing" in the time stream. Although this theory provides one of the more interesting and mind stretching solutions to the problem, Everett's detractors claim that it is actually full of holes.

The current set of Postmodernists have, for the most part, decided to unask the question. They believe that every culture has a unique and valid perspective on the question of asses and holes but that only White European Males are really assholes.

Friday, January 14, 2005

A Unique Day

Today is a unique day. For the first time in our history, humanity, via our robotic proxy, is touching a fresh world for the very first time. As I type this, the news is reporting that the Huygens space probe is descending through the atmosphere of Titan.

A century ago, man was barely taking to the air in rickets craft whose sustained flight time was measured in minutes. Now we are confidently sending sophisticated probes to the outer planets.

As I wrote in my ratfish blurb, we are, indeed, in the midst of a new era of discovery. In spite of all the turmoils and controversies that have beset us in this new century, it is still an exciting time to be alive.

If you are reading this from the norther hemisphere, Saturn should be visible in your night sky (in fact it's especially bright given that it's nearest approach to Earth was yesterday). If you can, I would suggest sparing a moment, tonight, to look up at it and to contemplate the fact that we are, at this moment, doing amazing things there.

Thursday, January 13, 2005


It’s crowded on the crosses, today.
Fifteen martyrs to a beam,
Hanging by their hands,
Shouting rhetorical questions
To powers and principalities.

The road to Jerusalem
Had become a perilous path:
Too many stones dislodged from tombs
Have found their way to the road.

Everybody wants to be a Savior,
Everyone wants to chart the course
From perdition to redemption,
To empty the already depleted
Bowels of Hell.

There isn’t a vintner
Whose wine doesn’t have
The rust flavored taste of blood,
And too many loaves of bread
Leave bits skin between your teeth.

God Himself has become secluded.
I’ve even heard rabbinical rumors
That he’s thinking about seeking
Asylum from Rome.

The soldiers ran out of nails,
Before it was even noon,
And were forced to resort
To masking tape and superglue.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Tree of Life

One of the goals of science is to find theories that provide unifying frameworks. In physics, Newton's Theory of Universal Gravitation unified the heavens and the Earth by showing that the same forces that goverened terrestrial matters also applied to the extraterrestrial. Physics is, however, still in search of a grand unifying theory that accounts for all forces via a single equation that can, in principle, explain all physical interactions. Many disciplines lack even basic unification. We don't, for example, have a grand congitive theory (which is not to denigrate the accomplishments of cognitive scientists who are, after all, dealing with an extremely complex subject).

In all of the sciences, the best example of a unifying theory is Darwin's Theory of Evolution. It is a shame that Darwin's magnificent theory does conflict with a number of religious dogmas. It is not the first time that this has happened. The Catholic Church famously rejected the Copernican Theory of Heliocentrism, Christian Scientists, to this day, reject the Germ Theory of Disease, and there are even groups that reject, on religious grounds, the Theory of Sphericalism when interpreting the shape of the planet. It is my hope that the current furor over the Darwinian model will, too, die down in the fullness of time. Be that as it may.

Although the theory has been updated somewhat (i.e. the Modern Synthesis) by the integration of genetics and elucidated by such things as Game Theory, Darwin's central insight into the mechanism by which new species of organisms arise remains simultaneously elegant and profound. Darwinism also implies a different sort of unification by demonstrating the profound interconnections between all living organisms. I've already spoken of this in my prior essay titled Immanence; however, this time I'd like to draw attention to a site that beautifully illustrates these interconnections.

This is the Tree of Life web project. The Tree of Life site is, essentially, a gigantic database of the connecting nodes (e.g., generas, phylums, etc) of life on this planet. This description, however, fails to give a sense of how beautifully the site is organized nor of the depth of information that is provided at each node (to say nothing of the plethora of beautiful photographs and illustrations). This also fails to give a sense at the sorts of surprises that one can find (for instance the observation that crocodiles are more closely related to birds than to turtles, overturning our traditional conception of what it means to call something a reptile). It is the sort of site that begs you to pick a starting point and to simply wander through it. I have lost (or, rather, found) hours of time doing just that. I hope that you shall, too.

Once you've had your fill of the site (as if!), I might also encourage you to go out and buy Richard Dawkin's new book The Ancestor's Tale, which expands on these interconnections via a brilliant "prilgramage" backwards in time to meet up with our "concestors".

Sunday, January 09, 2005

On The Persistence of Religion, part II

This is the second part of a multi-part essay on the persistence of religion. In the previous installment of the essay, I raised the question of the persistence of religion in individuals and sought to demonstrate that this persistence was not, as many unbelievers would like to think, genuinely akin to belief in such entities as Santa Clause. I explored a number of possibilities to account for the difference, without reaching any conclusions, and ended by suggesting that in order to explain the individual persistence of religion, we may need to consider its cultural persistence.

The cognitive scientist Donald E. Brown has been compiling a list of human universals. The list includes such entries as the existence of taboos, body adornment, nouns, and units of time. The reason that lists such as Dr. Brown's are important is that human cultures have such wide degrees of variation between them that it is often tempting to think that every element of human culture is an arbitrary development that is the product of historical contingencies. Some have gone so far as to suggest that there is no such thing as human nature and that we are only blank slates which are written upon by our various cultures (see Pinker's The Blank Slate for an eloquent refutation of this theory). The identification of human universal's cuts through the cultural "noise" in order to reveal the core elements of our shared humanity.

It should come as no surprise that religious beliefs are a member of Brown's list. Religion is, indeed, a human norm. That said, we must be cautious to use the term "norm" in its generic sense without assigning emotional or moral attachments to it. Atheists are, indeed, abnormal in the sense that we are, and have always been, in the minority. This does not mean that we are morally aberrant nor can this observation, by itself, be used to suggest that we are mentally defective. To provide a simple point of comparison (one that I'll use again because it is so relevant) consider handedness. Right handedness is the norm in our species. In times past, some have taken the rarity of left handedness as an indication that left-handers were defective. Many believed that this "defect" was, in fact, evidence of a deeper moral defect and used that as a pretext of either persecuting left-handers or trying to "correct" them into "normal" right-handedness.

That said, the universality of theism across cultures and across times demands explanation. It is insufficient to simply dismiss it as an anachronistic infantilism that will, invariably, be dispelled by the dawning light of reason and rationalism, Nietzsche's hopefulness to the contrary. The most obvious explanation for a trait that is found to be a universal is that it is, in fact, part of our genetic heritage. I must note that there was a point, not too far in the past, when the mere suggestion would be considered anathema by most academics, ripe with overtones of racism and eugenics. It is not the place of this essay to document the Sociobiology controversy, however. I will merely note that, although the suggestion that culture can, in any sense, be tied to biology remains controversial although it has gained favor in the field of Evolutionary Psychology. It is not my goal to endorse Evolutionary Psychology (although I do believe that the field has merit); however, I think that I would be remiss if I did not explore the possibility. Suffice it to say that I would encourage my readers to research the subject on their own and to draw their own conclusions.

Supposing, for the moment, that religion is the product of our biology, the obvious question is why do we have a biological predisposition towards theism. The simplest answer is that we have a religious sense because there is, in fact, something that we are sensing. In other words, our god-beliefs are the product of our god-awareness. No less a cognitive expert than V.S. Ramachandran has suggested this in order to account for the fact that we have learned to artificially simulate a sense of religious experience via a specially designed magnetic helmet, developed by Dr. Persinger, that stimulates certain areas of the brain's frontal lobe. Ramachandran argues that when one finds an area of the brain dedicated to experiencing a certain perception, it is most likely because it is, in fact, interpreting something that is actually being perceived by some sensory organ. We would be surprised, for instance, to find that the visual centers of our brain weren't actually interpreting the data that the brain is receiving from the eyes.

As tempting as this thought it, there are two problems with it. The first is that simply because we perceive something does not automatically guarantee that the perception is real. We are all familiar with optical illusions. Almost universally (there's that word again!) if you show a person a pair of identical lines with of the lines bracketed by inward pointing angles and the other by outward pointing outward, we will perceive the first line to be shorter than the second. This is not because our eyes are feeding us erroneous data – the length of the two lines on our retinas are pretty much identical (correcting, of course, for the angle of observation). The problem is that the brain, although it is a truly magnificent organ, is forced to take a number of short-cuts in order to provide us information in real time (a brain that provided us perfect sensory interpretations would be of no use if the information was always processed too late to react to, say, an incoming rock). Sometimes those shortcuts result in anomalous data… i.e., illusions. Optical illusions aren't the only ones we experience. In adition to the optical variety are tactile, olfactory and, yes, cognitive illusions (Rudiger Pohl has a good book on the topic called, appropriately enough, Cognitive Illusions). Such illusions persist because they don't have enough of an adaptive deficit (compared to the advantage of being able to process information in real time) for natural selection to remove them from the population. Does this mean that religion is a cognitive illusion? No. It does, however, mean that the possibility can not be discounted. Religious experience can not be used to validate religious belief.

There is another problem with the theory that religion is the product of some undiscovered sensory organ, which is the nonuniformity of religious experiences. If I were to draw a picture of a circle, a square and a triangle and show this picture to a variety of people across the world and (via my amazing time travel device) across history, the vast majority (baring those with visual and cognitive impairments) would describe them in a way that another random person would be able to reproduce them from their descriptions. Our sense of visual perception, in other worlds, is homologous (a fancy word that, essentially means that two things share common characteristics). There is, of course, the niggling question as to whether the world I see really resembles the world that you see. Most lay philosophers (and quite a few professional ones) have often pondered the question of whether or not the red I see is the same as the red you see. Might it not be that my red is what you would call purple? This question (which, in technical terms, pertains to something that philosophers call "qualia") is, for the most part irresolvable. It is also, for the most part, irrelevant. Whether or not our qualia are distinct, they are isomorphic, which means that even if my red is different from yours, so long as we can agree to apply the label "red" to a agreed upon color ("It's this part of the rainbow") we will tend to agree what objects to apply the color to (stop lights, blood, crab shells, etc). Religion does not share this characteristic.

In recent years (meaning the last few centuries!) there has been a trend towards ecumenicalism among certain groups of theologians and religious movements. Ecumenicalism can be defined as a Christian movement whereby the goal is to unite all of the disparate Christian churches under the banner of a single doctrine.1 Informally, however, some have taken the goal of ecumenicalism to be the unification of all religions. Proponents of the view that all religions ultimately point to the same god (often God with a capital G) tend to view religions in terms of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The problem is that the any attempt to reconcile the diverse theologies of the world is that most of them have legitimately irreconcilable points. To offer a simple example, the majority of Christian churches (with the exception of such outliers as the Unitarian-Universalists) have, as a core aspect of their theology, the proposition that the only way to be saved is to accept the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. Such a proposition is specifically blasphemous within the context of Islam (again, noting the existence of such outliers as Sufism). In order to reconcile the two as part of a greater meta-religion would require core elements within one or both theologies to be rejected. As such, even if we posit a meta-religion that Christianity and Islam are, in some sense, part of, it would follow that neither (or either) Christianity and Islam are not, in fact, members of that meta-belief. The problem grows with each additional religion that we attempt to incorporate in our theoretical meta-religion (consider the divergence between monotheism and genuine polytheism2).

So, discounting ecumenical ambitions, for the moment, we are left with the observation that although religion is common, religious consensus is not. In fact, one can make the apparently paradoxical observation that no matter which religion one embraces, the majority of people in the world will disagree with you! This is even more apparent if we include historical religions (which we really ought to, otherwise falling into the fallacy that our own slice of history is privileged). This indicates that any hypothetical spiritual sense most not be very well developed. The poor quality of such a hypothetical sense is emphasized by the observation that the greatest predictor of a given person's religious beliefs are the beliefs of that person's parents and that the second greatest predictor is the beliefs of that person's culture. The web-comic Tom The Dancing Bug did a good job of satirizing this with a parody news account of a protestant couple who had somehow managed to give birth to a Hindu baby.

The grand upshot of this is that any supposed sense of this nature would not only have to be a poor discriminator but that our interpretation of the sensory data we got would be very sensitive to subjective contaminations. Does this mean that such a sense is entirely ruled out? No. Nature has examples of sensory organs that aren't well developed. Some versions of animal eyes, for instance, are nothing more than light sensitive patches that are only useful for discriminating between light and dark. However, given that our hypothesized sense is so unreliable and so subject to subjective biasing, even should we suppose its existence, we could not reliably trust the data from it other than to say that it is, apparently, perceiving something (but we know not what). However, just because we can't trust the data from such a sense does not mean that the sense, itself, could not help to explain the persistence of religious belief. After all, if the majority of people had an undeveloped sense and this sense did, in fact, lead them to conclude that there was something "out there", even if they could not agree on what they are perceiving and even if their interpretation of their perceptions was subject to influence and contamination, so long as that majority had their convictions reinforced by that sensory organ, we would have cause to suppose that this would help to ensure that people and cultures persisted in having religious beliefs. So, let us put this down as our first entry into our list of hypotheses:

  • Religious beliefs persist because most humans have some sort of sense that the brain interprets as evidence of a "spiritual reality".3
I see that I've spent quite a lot of effort to just reach this single bullet-point. In all honesty, I was hoping that this would be a two-part essay but I think that both you and I could probably benefit from a break. Next week I will take up the thread in considering other possibilities to account for the persistence of religion. With any luck, I will also be able to draw the essay to a conclusion… but no promises.

1 Actually, that particular description does go beyond what many people consider to be the goal of ecumenicalism, which they would describe as a movement to increase communication and understanding between the denominations. While acknowledging that this may, in fact, be the broader and more prevalent form of the ecumenical movement, I do believe that it is fair to say that some see the ultimate goal in the terms that I have framed. Since it would be this form that is more pertinent to my point, this will be the one that I focus on.

2 As distinguished from para-polythestic beliefs such as the Christian notion of a Trinity.

3 For lack of a better term.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Linguistic Curmudgeon

I try not to be a linguistic curmudgeon and I think that I do a reasonably good job. I've got a high tolerance for acronym confusion, e.g., "I went to the ATM machine," I tend to be patient with slang, and I've even fully embraced the "singular they" as a gender-neutral pronoun. I have found, however, that I just can't stand it when people say "We're pregnant."

I understand the point of the phrase is to emphasize that pregnancy requires teamwork and that the man's role extends beyond passing out cigars to his buddies and reading magazines in the waiting room while his wife labors. I am all for the notion that men should be part of the process; however, when a couple says "we're pregnant" the phrase only makes sense if each half of the couple can legitimately say "I'm pregnant" as well and, frankly, any man who does so is making a rather implausible biological claim to fame.

The problem, for me, is that pregnancy is a rather specific medical term with very strict connotations. Might I suggest the broader, more colloquial term "we're having a baby" or "we're going to have a baby"? The understanding and the implications of mutual effort remain without the suggestion that a human male is gestating a fetus.

Now if you'll pardon me, I see some more windmills in the distance that need to be tilted at.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


Breakfast is the taste of warmth,
The smooth melody of flavors
That recapitulates spring as we wake
From our nightly hibernations,

Or so it once was,

But now breakfast
Has become a shrunken
And anemic thing.

It is cup of coffee
And maybe a donut
Or a bagel

Eaten with half awareness
As you’re driving to work
Too pressed for time
To even have a bowl of cereal.

It is a casualty of the world,
Ceremoniously resurrected
On holidays and special occasions
But dead, nine-tenths of the year round.

It is, ultimately, another relic
Of a recently demised era
Where the clock didn’'t march
Quite so fast.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Virtual Knee Surgery

I will have to confess that I've always been squeemish. I'm glad that there are people in the world who are able to put up with the sight of a body's innards, but I'm certainly not the kind of person who can, for instance, watch surgery shows on the TV.

Given this, it may seem odd that I'm recommending a site called Virtual Knee Surgery.

It may well be that your threshold of empathy is even higher than mine and that this site may be too disturbing for you, but I found that that the fairly antiseptic cartoon renderings of the surgery (minus all that messy blood and such) allowed me to appreciate and enjoy the experience without feeling the least bit quesy.

I will say that, if the prospect doesn't entirely put you off, it's well worth the while. The science and artistry involved in reconstructive surgery really is very impressive and the hands-on nature of the site that lets you (kinda sorta) participate in it really does help to give you an inkling of the amount of skill that goes into being a surgeon.

You will need a Flash player to engage the site.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Tsunami Relief

Unless you've been studiously avoiding the news for the last week, you are doubtless aware of the horrific tsunami that has devestated large regions of Southeast Asia (and areas as far away as Somalia).

It is at times such as these that I am often impressed by the way the people rally together in order to support their fellow human beings.

If you are inclined to want to help, Google has set up a great page of links to a variety of relief organizations that are assisting with the recovery from the disaster.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

On the Persistence of Religion, part I

I recently saw The Polar Express (in IMAX 3D, which well worth the extra ticket price). Although I generally liked the movie, I was a bit disturbed that it fairly overt message that advocated that merits of faith over reason. As someone who is convinced that faith can easily lead one to perils and who considers reason one of the pinnacle achievements of the human species, I found myself more than a little bothered by the movie's central message. As I left the theater, I found myself considering an essay on the subject.

The first idea I had was to write a snarky little piece that I was going to call "The Three Santas". I was going to suggest that there are three kinds of Santa belief. Some people believe in a literal Santa who resides up in the North Pole using a labor force of elves to build toys for deserving boys and girls (and, presumably, to mine coal for the bad ones) which are then dispensed on Christmas Eve via the deployment of transonic reindeer. I was then going to suggest that other people believe in a Santa Clause that is more metaphorical. Rather than a literal, flesh and blood entity, this liberalized version would be more of a totem to represent the good aspects of people. In this view, Santa would still have a reality, but it would be the reality described in the "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa" essay. Finally, there would be those who would insist that Santa is a fiction and that no amount of warm metaphoricalization or wishful faithfulness would serve to move Santa out of the category of unreal things.

The obvious intention of this essay was draw some rather unsubtle comparisons to the kinds of religious beliefs that people have, all the way from fundamentalist literalism, through the "spiritualism" of more liberal theologies and, finally, to atheism. I did not, however, write that essay. Even as I was drafting it in my mind, I found that it simply did not ring true. The more I thought about it, the less I became convinced that belief in gods is substantially the same and belief in Santa. By that, I do not mean to say that I have come to believe that God, unlike Santa, is real. If you are hoping that this is the essay where I finally renounce my own atheism, I must disappoint you. I remain an unbeliever. However, beyond the question of whether or not there are any gods (and I won't pretend that I have the skills to settle that matter) is the question of how and why we believe as we do.

There are two primary things that distinguish religious beliefs from belief in jolly old elves: persistence. Now, you may suppose that you caught me in a grammatical blunder, but by persistence I mean two different sorts of persistence. There is the personal persistence whereby a belief in maintained over a lifetime and there is cultural persistence whereby a belief (or, more precisely for this discussion, a category of beliefs) persists for historically significant durations.

The first sort – persistence of personal belief – is the most obvious sort of distinction that we can draw between Santa-belief and god-belief. To put it bluntly, the vast majority of people stop believing in Santa at a fairly early age. Although a lot of atheists that god-belief is just as juvenile, the fact remains that the observations and interactions that tend to dissuade most people from believing in Santa are insufficient to do so for religious beliefs. Although there are, indeed, people who grow out of believing in gods, the fact of the matter is that such people are in the minority. Although it may be tempting for someone, such as myself, who doesn't hold with gods to suppose that this simply means that the majority of people are deluded, smug assumptions can not negate the fact that this is a difference and that it ought to be accounted for.

Before we examine the question (and I'll admit, in advance, that I'm not going to promise a solution), I think that we need to consider how people come to stop believing in Santa Clause. Sometimes a child is simply told that Santa doesn't exist and that often suffices to, at the very least, plant the fatal seeds of doubt in the child's mind, especially such a revelation comes from the parents. Typically, though, parents and their community will go to fairly convoluted lengths to try and maintain Santa-belief (at least up to a certain point – I doubt that such belief by a thirteen year old would continue to receive much support). Peer groups are often more influential than parental groups, of course (a fact that often plagues immigrant families struggling to maintain a sense of cultural identity), but many children stop believing in Santa before the rest of their friends do. Beyond that, pointing to peer groups is, itself, question begging. What causes the peer group to shift from endorsing belief to denying belief and why doesn't the same thing happen with religious belief? The observation that children stop believing in Santa can not be used to explain the transition.

We must also note that whether or not a child is told there is no Santa, there must come a point where the child accepts the conclusion. I suspect that most children employ reasoning in reaching that point. Perhaps they note that there seem to be an awful lot of Santas ("Ah, but those are just his helpers," says the community). Perhaps they wonder how Santa manages to deliver toys to kids without chimneys ("His magic isn't limited to chimneys… they just help"). There are a lot of problems with naïve Santa-belief and it is our inquisitive nature to ask them. Yet the same is true of naïve god-belief (I'll leave the question of sophisticated god-belief for another time). What child hasn't wondered whether God could create a rock so heavy that he couldn't lift it, or why it is that bad things happen to good people? For whatever reason, we eventually reach a point where the rationales that justify Santa-belief come to seem like transparent excuses used to shore up an untenable belief. The same, however, does not tend to happen with god-belief. I can assure you that the difference is not in the quality of the answers. Although I have a fair amount of respect of serious theology, the typical sorts of answers advanced by lay theologians is rather dismal (which is typical of philosophical contemplations as a whole).

Again, leaving aside the question of whether or not gods exist, which really is a separate issue, the logic that most people employ to maintain their belief is often riddled with holes. The difference between the problems that confront Santa-belief and god-belief isn't that people tend to find better reasons to believe in god but, rather, that they are more apt to accept reasons to believe in gods. Sometimes, not even that much is required. Most religious traditions (especially the Abrahamic religions that dominate the Western world) make of faith a virtue. One is encouraged to believe in one's god even if one can't think of any good reasons to. Again, this is a point where a lot of atheists are tempted to have smug thoughts concerning the gullibility of the religious; however, I think that such smugness is misplaced. Children are often encouraged to just believe in Santa, too (as emphasized by The Polar Express) but, ultimately, most children find that faith is simply impossible to sustain. Sooner or later skepticism creeps in and once it takes root it becomes impossible to dislodge. In my own case, the crowning proof of Santa's non-existence was an experiment where I told Santa I wanted one thing and my parents another in order to see which gift I would get; however, the very fact that I conducted the experiment indicates that I already was suspicious of the whole Santa story. It is true that people sometimes test their faith (or have it tested for them) but whereas we tend to accept negative evidence for the existence of Santa at face value, people will typically either rationalize or discard equivalent results when it comes to evaluating their gods. As a last resort, many will accept the conjecture that their god isn't willing to be tested -- but who would accept such an excuse on behalf of Santa?

So, what should we propose to explain the discrepancy? Perhaps it may be that Santa just isn't as plausible as god. Even if the rationales used to get past thorny theological conundrums may be typically weak, perhaps the central idea of a god is stronger. I once tried to conduct an informal survey where I asked people how they would behave differently if they could, somehow, be convinced that their god didn't exist. When I posed the question to a Jewish group, one person kindly, but firmly, informed me that I was asking him to consider an impossibility because God was the "ground of all being" and that it would be absurd to suppose that he could be convinced otherwise. Although I've rarely seen this view expressed so poetically, a lot of theists do believe that their god is such an obvious truth that not only does it not require any special effort to accept it, but that it must take a certain effort (indeed, arrogance) to deny it. As an explanation for the persistence of personal belief, though, I find it problematic. If there were one specific god-belief that had this characteristic, it would be one thing, but people tend to be certain of their gods regardless of which gods they believe in. As Robert Heinlein irreverently put it, one man's god is another man's belly-laugh. This undercuts the notion of some inherent plausibility.

I have already raised the notion of communal enforcement of religious belief. As I've noted, Santa belief enjoys communal enforcement as well. Perhaps, though, it isn't as strong. After all, adults don't really believe in Santa and, perhaps, children cue off of this. If there is one constant of childhood it is that children want to become adults (while all too many adults wish they could recapture their childhood). It isn't as though the truth of Santa Clause is a very well kept secret. It may simply be that it's the sort of deception that can only fool children and that the eventual disillusionment is simply a consequence of older children becoming more perceptive of their parents and the world at large. Although I admonished against question begging, is it possible that religion persists through adulthood because adults persist in believing in religion?

One facet of religion that can not be ignored is that it is communal. More exactly, religion tends to be entwined throughout a communities traditions. Birth, rites of adulthood, marriage and death are all traditionally associated with religion. The identification of religion with ones community. This association is exemplified by the phenomenon of Jewish atheists who consider themselves to remain Jews in spite of their atheism because they do not wish to abandon the broader culture that is inextricably associated with the religion of Judaism. One can find similar examples in the community of "lapsed" Catholics (and even more extremely in "Death of God" Catholic theologians).

Unfortunately, these very examples point to a problem with the notion of religion as an extension of communal identity and authority. It is possible for someone to reject God while never the less maintaining a sense of connection to their community. It is true that some religiously identified communities make this more difficult (e.g., the Jehovah's Witness practices of disfellowshipping and the Roman Catholic practice of excommunication). However, even in those cases where apostasy may result in segregation from the community, one could always resort to being a closet atheist… or deciding that the communal bonds aren't worth maintaining.

That said, I do not think that it is a coincidence that most religions have traditions whereby belief is periodically reinforced (e.g., via weekly worship), nor do I think that it is coincidental that religions tend to organize themselves into hierarchical arrangements (regardless of their origins). Many primates (including, certainly, that branch known as Homo sapiens) have a natural tendency to utilize social hierarchies in order to organize and maintain the social structure. We have a natural response to such rankings and tend to confer more automatic respect to a given individual based on how many individuals are below him. If religion were simply a matter of personal preference where people maintained their own convictions without any need for external reinforcement, such arrangements would be redundant. On the other hand, however, we can not ignore the fact that many religious people either choose not to identify would a given religious organization or, conversely, will identify with in name but not in doctrine (which is why heresy and schism are such an issue for established religions).

Ultimately, I suspect that the answer to the question of personal religious persistence does, in fact, require us to examine the second and more enduring form of religious persistence. This is the subject that I will address in the second installment of this essay.

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