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Natural religion

Thought this tied in, if obliquely, with a fascinating discussion that Euan Semple's kicked off.

In November, Abbas Raza over at 3quarksdaily wrote a great piece called "Re-examining Religion". Very briefly, the idea that is that

religious belief [is not] a corruption of rationality, but rather as an over-extension of some of the very mental mechanisms that underlie and make rationality possible. In other words, rather than religion having emerged to serve a social or other purpose, in this view it is seen as an evolutionary accident"
In other words, being religious is, on a mental level, no different from being color-blind (?).

One of the (increasing numbers of) people espousing this view is Paul Bloom. Children, according to Bloom, are "natural-born dualists": research indicates that the division of animate and inanimate objects is hardwired in our brains and it is this divide that enables the belief in gods, spirits, ghosts, and invisible friends. Therein lie the seeds of religion.

The experimenters [then] asked the children a set of questions about the mouse's biological functioning--such as "Now that the mouse is no longer alive, will he ever need to go to the bathroom? Do his ears still work? Does his brain still work?"--and about the mouse's mental functioning, such as "Now that the mouse is no longer alive, is he still hungry? Is he thinking about the alligator? Does he still want to go home?"

As predicted, when asked about biological properties, the children appreciated the effects of death: no need for bathroom breaks; the ears don't work, and neither does the brain. The mouse's body is gone. But when asked about the psychological properties, more than half the children said that these would continue: the dead mouse can feel hunger, think thoughts, and have desires. The soul survives. And children believe this more than adults do, suggesting that although we have to learn which specific afterlife people in our culture believe in (heaven, reincarnation, a spirit world, and so on), the notion that life after death is possible is not learned at all. It is a by-product of how we naturally think about the world.

Personally, I like this idea. [And for grist to the mill, there's Dunbar's related theory, which might go some way to explaining why these religious defects are so hard to correct.] But religion as a "by-product of the natural rational brain" veers towards the same extreme side of the fence as the idea that Darwin's was "sent to test our faith". And cowardly, splinter-bottomed fence-sitter that I am, it worries me a little. Literature and story telling may be totally fictional, but I tend to believe it has a useful function. Might not religion and spirituality have a useful function too?

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