Did Civilization Start with Religious Belief?

May 31, 2011

I have been considering writing about this subject more extensively for a little while, but ended up writing about some other subjects and making a brief observation referring to the topic; but as Mike at the A-Unicornist took it upon himself to write a lengthy post about my little blurb I felt inclined to finish the more expansive post; more on his response in a bit.

What inspired the previous post were a couple of articles written recently about the pervasiveness of religious inclinations in human experience. The first bit was an article in National Geographic about Göbekli Tepe, one of the oldest known religious temples dated at 11,600 years old. It is fundamentally altering assumptions about what motivated the organization of the first human societies:

Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies. Compared to a nomadic band, the society of a village had longer term, more complex aims—storing grain and maintaining permanent homes. Villages would be more likely to accomplish those aims if their members were committed to the collective enterprise. Though primitive religious practices—burying the dead, creating cave art and figurines—had emerged tens of thousands of years earlier, organized religion arose, in this view, only when a common vision of a celestial order was needed to bind together these big, new, fragile groups of humankind. It could also have helped justify the social hierarchy that emerged in a more complex society: Those who rose to power were seen as having a special connection with the gods. Communities of the faithful, united in a common view of the world and their place in it, were more cohesive than ordinary clumps of quarreling people.

Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt’s way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it. When foragers began settling down in villages, they unavoidably created a divide between the human realm—a fixed huddle of homes with hundreds of inhabitants—and the dangerous land beyond the campfire, populated by lethal beasts.

I have also discussed elsewhere how religious impulses were fundamental to the origin of art – a fact only realized when science divested itself of traditional notions of ‘primitive’ man. And I have recently detailed the essential role the Church played in the development of science. Most of these findings are relatively uncontroversial – they don’t in and of themselves prove the existence of God, but they do give lie to the notion that religious belief is inherently dangerous or antagonistic to intellectual development. Not only is not antagonistic, it now appears fundamental to human flourishing and the development of civilization.

In many ways such a findings aren’t surprising if one understands humanity as fundamentally spiritual organism. Science has speculated for centuries about what distinguishes humans from animals. They have proffered reason, our tool making ability, our communication skills or our societal organization. Eventually of these aspects are found elsewhere in nature and our uniqueness in these respects turns out only to be a matter of degree. In the end our primary distinction is our devotion to the sacred, our comprehension of the transcendent.

Indeed, recent research indicates our religious inclinations are a universally natural and instinctive part of who we are as creatures. It takes considerable effort and training to deny this fundamental aspect of human nature – and numerous efforts to eradicate it have failed miserably.  Religious belief thrives today as it never has. Rather than being a virus of the human mind, our minds appear to be unwaveringly spiritual, and we crave spiritual knowledge and fulfillment.

Mike responds to this by listing a hodgepodge of assertions some which are odd, some which are clearly wrong. I am only going to mention two, because I think that is sufficient to demonstrate he really didn’t think it through too much. One of the points he makes regarding art music and poetry is this:

I’m going to leave poetry out, for the simple reason that poetry requires language, and we’re the only animal that has it (it’s worth noting, though, that the oldest known poem was a love story that had little to do with religious beliefs)

The article Mike links to here is about the Epic of Gilgamesh which is indeed one of the oldest poems. In fact it’s among our oldest literature. But to say it “little to do with religious beliefs” is to put it politely, extremely ignorant. The main character of Epic of Gilgamesh is two-thirds God, and one third man. His companion Enkidu is created by the gods to keep him from oppressing the citizens he rules over. Throughout the tale Giglamesh wrestles with various gods and goddesses seeking eternal truth in the netherworld and bringing back secret knowledge to the world. Saying it has little to do with religious beliefs is like saying the Catholic catechism has little to do with religious beliefs. It is essentially and completely a religious document, as are almost all early forms of literature and poetry.

As an aside I have to say this is something that has annoyed me with my interaction with New Atheists – they frequently have little knowledge of history or culture outside a narrow band of learning they cling to that they think re-enforces their belief systems. It’s as if history began at the Enlightenment. Also, the ‘science-is-the-only-reliable-form-of-knowledge’ thinking forces one to rely on immediate findings rather than the accumulated and proven knowledge of history. So that Mike would not see the obvious religious nature of this literature is no surprise.

And again when he touches on the origin of marriage, he doesn’t seem to know how to approach it:

Let’s first define what marriage is. Because if we’re talking about monogamous marriages, that’s a relatively narrow tradition. From Sex: A Man’s Guide, published by Men’s Health:

Zoologist Desmond Morris argued in his 1967 book The Naked Ape that the whole point of human sexuality was “to strengthen the pair-bond and maintain the family unit.” But more recently, reports from the scientific front haven’t been quite so encouraging. It turns out that lots of birds fool around (at least 40 percent of indigo buntings get a little on the side, researchers report). And anthropologists have found that nearly 1,000 of the 1,154 past and present human societies ever studied have allowed men to have more than one wife.

It’s well known that polygamy was sanctioned and practiced extensively in the Old Testament, and it’s still practiced today by a few religious sects. So the tradition of monogamous marriage, in which we have a romantic ideal of one man and one wife, is more rare and more recent addition – the result of which is an impressively high incidence of infidelity .

It seems that while we do, as Desmond Morris argued in The Naked Ape, have a tendency to favor strong pair-bonding which may manifest in monogamous relationships, we’re not very good at actually being with one partner for our entire lives. One of the important implications of sociobiology is that sociocultural norms don’t stick if we’re not hard-wired for them. So it seems that we’re hard-wired enough for pair-bonding to make monogamous marriages work some of the time, but we’re also driven by our genes so strongly that we find it difficult to consistently adhere to such a stringent sociocultural norm and if the pair-bond in a monogamous marriage is weakened, it’s a safe bet we’ll find another pair-bond outside of it.

It’s important to note here that Mike never actually ‘defines’ marriage. In fact, if we accept his view of it, marriage plays almost no part legitimate part in human society; we are apparently too inclined as a species to be promiscuous. But such a view isn’t surprising if one is getting one’s information from Men’s Health quoting Desmond Morris. It always fascinates me that atheists, who are constantly claiming to be purveyors of rigorous scientific thinking, will accept almost any source of information providing it supports their beliefs. To wit, The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris was a pop anthropology book consisting of a series of vignettes that imagines how various sexual characteristics developed in primitive humans. It was originally serialized in the tabloid the Daily Mirror and later turned into a docu-drama style movie. I am old enough to remember it well – and how popular it was with the free love crowd. What it is not is a serious scientific treatment on the subject of human sexuality if one believes serious science consists of rigorous research, peer review and repeatable experimentation.

The fact is marriage is as old as human society. And while historically marriage is always essentially a relationship between a man and women for the purpose of forming a family, its forms are invariably tied up with the belief systems of the society – and as we have seen at the beginning of this post, human societies appear to have begun with religious beliefs. Animals don’t ‘get married’ because there are no sets of externally defined rules governing their relationships. Only humans understand their relationships to be ordained by a transcendent order – and this is what distinguishes marriage from the mere ‘pair-bonding’ Mike wants to reduce it to.

So Mike’s response to my brief observation yesterday doesn’t seem to be very well thought out, and there is not much there to contradict the history and research I have noted above.


May 28, 2011

While atheists are certainly free to say they they believe in science and art and poetry and love and marriage and family – and I believe it’s true – those aspects of human life invariably seem to have originated from religious belief. To the extent that the atheists enjoy those aspects of human life they are enjoying the fruits of the labors of others and are mere hangers-on to that which they were given by those who came before them. There is no evidence non-religious creatures could have given us the experiences that make us human.

What a Real Leader Looks Like

May 27, 2011

Yeah, I know it’s 45 minutes long. It is worth every second to see a brave and honest man like Benjamin Netanyahu speak.

Why We are Scared to Death of Evolution

May 26, 2011

There has been much talk lately about the recent research conducted at the University of British Columbia and Union College concerning the impact of ‘death anxiety’ on their acceptance of Intelligent Design. As the article on ScienceDaily quotes Prof. Jessica Tracey on the findings of the paper published in PLoS One:

“Our results suggest that when confronted with existential concerns, people respond by searching for a sense of meaning and purpose in life,” saysTracy. “For many, it appears that evolutionary theory doesn’t offer enough of a compelling answer to deal with these big questions.”

As a Christian such a result isn’t surprising, and comports with a result we would expect to see if it were true that humans are spiritual creatures with inherent meaning and purpose, as well as an eternal existence – for such persons considering beliefs to the contrary would cause cognitive dissonance.

Of course, as they find spiritual explanations contrary to their own beliefs the researchers ignore the obvious implications and come up with a possible solution to overcome the dissonance – indoctrination with naturalism:

Tracy says, “These findings suggest that individuals can come to see evolution as a meaningful solution to existential concerns, but may need to be explicitly taught that taking a naturalistic approach to understanding life can be highly meaningful.”

Here one sees a new strategy emerging. The researchers are essentially saying it is not sufficient to merely present the science – we have to present a metaphysical motivation for belief in the science.

It is a progression I have seen a number of times before – there is a beginning to unbelief which is claimed to be merely the product of scientific rationality and lack of an evidence for the immaterial or divine, then when it is apparent this isn’t sufficient for rational thought they adopt ontological naturalism or materialism – a framework on which he or she can construct metaphysical beliefs. Then ideas about existence and meaning and morality are built on this metaphysical framework. Eventually the ‘unbeliever’ has come full circle and is no less driven by a dogmatic faith than the most fundamentalist religionist.

This is part of the reason we know atheism to be false – there is no such thing as a mere ‘unbeliever’. Humans invariably gravitate toward metaphysical constructs in which they find meaning and purpose. And we know that doing so has nothing to do with mere survival and reproduction – such intentions and compulsions transcend mere physicality. This is why can confidently say that atheism is inherently contradictory and self-defeating. We are all religious creatures, and this fact comports with the idea that a transcendent and immaterial reality exists.

We seek meaning and purpose for a very simple reason; we are here for a reason and we have been endowed with a purpose by the intention of a Creator.

San Francisco Seeks to Evict Jews

May 26, 2011


As well as a few Muslims and Christians.

 In what is becoming a frequent practice of a secular left, the city of San Francisco has put on November’s ballot a proposal to ban the circumcision of children under the age of eighteen. In many ways the proposal is the inevitable result of certain aspects of secular leftist thinking, amongst them being that parents shouldn’t be able to influence the choices of their children with regard to lifestyle and belief, that the state is the primary protector and provider of health and wealth for it’s citizens, and that the most critical knowledge we have about any subject is the knowledge we acquired most recently. These elements compose what is rapidly becoming a recipe for overt and intrusive statism and despotism.

And it is no coincidence that such initiatives are occurring in our largest cities. Unlike most of theUS, many metropolitan areas are ruled by small cabals of the extreme left whose thinking would otherwise be unacceptable by populations not dominated by bureaucrats, public unions and radical academics.

In a very real sense this is where liberty and tradition coincide. Most people see tradition and communities based on tradition as conservative organs who are intrinsically resistant to change and ‘science’. And that can sometimes be the case – but they are also extremely valuable at protecting individuals from the overt power of the state which is ever seeking to impose its current political will. There is a tyrannical aspect to social engineering which urgently seeks to impose the latest political fashion on people fueled by the latest research. Rule by state imposed political correctness can be every bit as despotic as rule by gun or army; the difference between denying Jews the right to practice their cultural and religious distinctives and seeking to eliminate the Jews themselves is really only a matter of degree.

There have been many bellwethers of our eroding liberty, and this move by San Franciscois is just the latest. But until we decisively seek to preserve and respect the right of groups to act according to their traditions and beliefs (a right which should be safely ensconced in the 1st amendment) we are going to face increasing intrusion into our lives by the state, and an increasing denial of our basic liberties – and there may be no remedy for this at the ballot box.

Atheism and Sex

May 24, 2011

There is a study currently being touted on the web and in the press that purports to show that atheists have better sex lives than the religious. I first heard about it on a post on Mike’s (a somewhat frequent commenter here) The A-Unicornist where it was titled ‘Atheists have better sex than believers’ – a title, in all fairness, he has backed away from. Nonetheless it provoked a rather lengthy conversation about the veracity of such a poll. I cited a number of readily apparent flaws in the ‘study’. Problems include:

  • The source. Mike makes this out to be an ad hom, but the person conducting the poll (and touting its results) isn’t a university researcher or a professional pollster, he is psychologist Darrel Ray, the New Atheist author of The God Virus. As a poll taker, there is an obvious conflict of interest there – he is looking for an outcome that would cast atheism in a good light (and what better light than great sex!). Now this doesn’t necessarily disqualify his findings, but it does impinge upon him an obligation to demonstrate his bias is corrected for by the polling methodology. As we shall see, no efforts appear to be made in this regard.
  • The group polled is also problematic. To conclude that one group is happier with regard to an aspect of their lives than another, it is probably important to poll members of both groups; that didn’t happen here. The only people polled were atheists, the majority of whom claimed to be members of some former religious group. This is like polling only divorced people about whether they are happier married or unmarried, and concluding people are happier if they are unmarried. They were asked to compare how happy they were with their current sex lives to their sex lives as believers, and most (unsurprisingly) were happier.
  • The means of soliciting those to be polled is extremely problematic. Notably, people were solicited for the poll at PZ Myers well known atheist site Phyrangula. PZ Myers often brags about his ability to skew polls by soliciting participation on his website. So rather than a random sample of individuals in this group, this study represents a self-selected and highly motivated group of advocates representing a skewed slice of a group that is already a small minority of society.
  • The demographics of the group is hardly representative of society as a whole, and somewhat explains the results achieved. Though Darrel Ray has done a terrible job of publishing the methods and demographics of the group, they appear to be available from some sources:

    69.4% male and 29.7% female with .2% intersexed and .7% answering “other.” This is slightly [!]biased towards male compared with random surveys.

    47%, 30 or younger and 61.1%, 35 or younger. This is biased towards younger secularists which is consistent with the observation that this is an especially tech savvy population, and also hints at the effect of atheist blogging and general visibility on the internet.

    In the younger category, women were over-represented, which says something valuable about the power of secularism to undo the repression of religious sexual indoctrination and allow young females to discuss and think about their sexuality openly.

    “Alternative Sexualities,” mainly gay, bisexual, and lesbian, were also over-represented. It is impossible from this survey to ascertain a direct causal line, but intuitively, it seems that this might point to religious repression, and the comfort level secularists feel in “coming out” compared to religious environments where such lifestyles are demonized and practitioners persecuted.

    Respondents were far better educated than the average population, with over 70% having higher degrees.

    So a significant portion of the respondents were young tech savvy single men, a number of whom were adherents to alternative sexualities. This is hardly representative of any general population and so it tells us nothing about the happiness of an average person when it comes to sexuality and religious adherence. It is however more representative of atheists as whole though, who tend to be “younger, mostly male, with higher levels of education and income, more liberal, but also more unhappy and more alienated from wider society.”

  • The survey equates freedom from guilt with happiness and better sexual experiences. The problem with this sort of conclusion is that it doesn’t tell us why the person felt guilty to begin with. For example, if one of these young men felt guilty about soliciting prostitutes, and as a result of rejecting religious belief felt less guilty about doing so, does it follow he was having ‘better sex’? He might feel better about having sex with a prostitute, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that his experience is better compared to others who choose not to do so.

I could go on with the problems of this ‘study’. For all their claims of being rigorous adherents to good science, which they hold to be the most reliable form of knowledge, the New Atheists who are advocating this study are proffering the shoddiest science imaginable. But I don’t think their goal is to advance knowledge, but to sell atheism – and as we all know, sex is the primary method in our society of doing so. As one New Atheist advocate of this put it, “This report, people, is our sales pitch”.

The reality is that there are a number of good studies out there that concern happiness and it’s connection to other factors. For example:

Married people tend to be happier than singles, and have more sex than singles (as a Christian, I would hope so!)

– The happiness-maximizing number of sexual partners is 1

Married men tend to be happier

Religious people tend to be more happy, and the more committed you are, the more happy you are.

So contrary to the very flawed New Atheist study, multiple objective studies indicate happiness and good sex are tied to marriage, commitment, and having a strong faith.

So I guess as a Christian with a loving wife and family who is dedicated to following Christ, I appear to be the happiest person I can be. J


May 21, 2011

Personally I have always been skeptical that the world would end soon in a series of cataclysmic events brought about as a judgement for the evil that men do.

And that was even after they gave Al Gore the Nobel Peace Prize.

Science’s Debt to Christianity

May 20, 2011

I have elsewhere touched on the myth that Christianity is historically antagonistic to science in that Christian thinkers are responsible for many of the ideas that lead to modern science. Now James Hannam, a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge has done a much more thorough job in an article in Nature titled, Science owes much to both Christianity and the Middle Ages. The article comes via a blog post at the excellent blog Wintery Knight (which I have added to my blogroll). The article details how Christians and the church weren’t only in opposition to science, or that they merely allowed for the development of science, but the church was the primary organization driving the development of scientific research. From the article:

Until the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research. Starting in the Middle Ages, it paid for priests, monks and friars to study at the universities. The church even insisted that science and mathematics should be a compulsory part of the syllabus. And after some debate, it accepted that Greek and Arabic natural philosophy were essential tools for defending the faith. By the seventeenth century, the Jesuit order had become the leading scientific organization in Europe, publishing thousands of papers and spreading new discoveries around the world. The cathedrals themselves were designed to double up as astronomical observatories to allow ever more accurate determination of the calendar. And of course, modern genetics was founded by a future abbot growing peas in the monastic garden.

But religious support for science took deeper forms as well. It was only during the nineteenth century that science began to have any practical applications. Technology had ploughed its own furrow up until the 1830s when the German chemical industry started to employ their first PhDs. Before then, the only reason to study science was curiosity or religious piety. Christians believed that God created the universe and ordained the laws of nature. To study the natural world was to admire the work of God. This could be a religious duty and inspire science when there were few other reasons to bother with it. It was faith that led Copernicus to reject the ugly Ptolemaic universe; that drove Johannes Kepler to discover the constitution of the solar system; and that convinced James Clerk Maxwell he could reduce electromagnetism to a set of equations so elegant they take the breathe away.

Given that the Church has not been an enemy to science, it is less surprising to find that the era which was most dominated by Christian faith, the Middle Ages, was a time of innovation and progress. Inventions like the mechanical clock, glasses, printing and accountancy all burst onto the scene in the late medieval period. In the field of physics, scholars have now found medieval theories about accelerated motion, the rotation of the earth and inertia embedded in the works of Copernicus and Galileo. Even the so-called “dark ages” from 500AD to 1000AD were actually a time of advance after the trough that followed the fall of Rome. Agricultural productivity soared with the use of heavy ploughs, horse collars, crop rotation and watermills, leading to a rapid increase in population.

As I read this I am struck at how ignorant secularists and atheists are of history. The meme that Christianity holds back science is simply false – and the idea that science is primarily the result of ontological naturalism is just as false. Given that the New Atheists are so wrong on this fundamental fact, on what issue can they be trusted to get the facts right?

The Ignorance of Stephen Hawking

May 20, 2011

While there is widespread agreement that Stephen Hawking is an unusually bright light in the firmament of theoretical physics, he shows himself to be considerably less stellar when he applies his mind to other disciplines.

In his recent book The Grand Design he made philosophical proclamations about the universe while simultaneously claiming philosophy was dead. Some trick that. And in a recent interview with The Guardian, he made this claim:

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

At the outset this old trope, which bears striking similarity to Karl Marx’ claim that religion is the, “opium of the people” begs the question a bit – he doesn’t even seem to pause to wonder how or why computers would be afraid of the dark to begin with or of being shut down.

But his statement also belies a fundamental ignorance of religion, Christianity in particular. Obviously in Christianity there is the definitive belief in the existence of hell. As an afterlife experience, hell is always portrayed as considerably more horrible than this life – it doesn’t incite comfort about the afterlife at all, but a fear of eternal punishment. Now here the atheist might inject that it is this very reason for the creation of the idea of hell – to scare people into seeking ways to get into heaven. The problem is if people created heaven because they were scared of death, why would they need the idea of hell to further motivate them? And if the whole set of beliefs are imaginary, why imagine an eternity so horrible at all when one can simply be comforted by heaven?

This seems to be another case where atheists criticize religious beliefs for completely contradictory reasons – we are somehow simultaneously trying to scare people into belief and comfort them into belief. Indeed, in view of hell a belief that death is a mere shutdown of our mechanical systems might be the real attempt to ease one’s fears about death.

In addition, Christianity doesn’t hold heaven itself to be a place of mere comfort and ease. Our actions in life are understood to have eternal impacts even if we are going to heaven – we can suffer loss by our choices, or gain through right choices in this life.

As much as a Christian understands this to be true, it makes this life considerably less easy from a practical standpoint. A Christian who believes he will reap what he sows in eternity isn’t afforded the luxury of devoting himself to material comfort or selfish pursuits. He isn’t allowed to conform to society at large in terms of its customs and practices. Paul commands us in Romans 12:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Though adamant atheists are generally disliked, committed Christians are often actively persecuted and excluded. In fact the most comfortable set of beliefs to adopt in the Western world if one wants to fit in is to have a casual indifference to all things spiritual, and a devotion to physical attractiveness and material wealth. That is the pattern of this world. So being strongly committed to the idea of an eternity in heaven creates great discomfort, at least in terms of one’s daily life.

Hawking’s notion that heaven is a mere pacifier created to ease our fears of death is a sign of his ignorance of the actual concept. He should probably stick with theoretical physics which seems to be his stronger suit.

Friday Fun-ness

May 20, 2011

I always knew smiling was good for you, I didn’t realize how good. The ancient Proverb is true:

A happy heart makes the face cheerful – Prov. 15:13