World Cup musings

Although I am not a soccer fan, I watched the World Cup soccer final between the Netherlands and Spain. I had nothing better to do last Sunday afternoon and thought that I should at least see the culminating event of something that had been engrossing the entire world for a month.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, although the game itself was not that great and the amount of roughness was excessive (especially by the Netherlands), even allowing for the absurd histrionics of players who collapse on the ground (referred to as ‘flopping’) and writhe in agony when tacked for the ball, as if they received a fatal injury, only to jump up and continue playing normally once the referee has penalized the tackler. Surely veteran referees must be aware of all this gamesmanship and discount it when awarding penalties, so for whose benefit is all this acting?

Some of the tackles were genuinely vicious and it surprises me that more players do not get actually hurt. The one time where the Spanish player was kicked directly in the chest with what seemed like a martial arts kick was such a flagrant foul that I was amazed that the kicker was not immediately red-carded and ejected from the game but apparently the referee’s view was obscured and so could not see how bad it was. I started the game with no team to root for except a mild preference for the Netherlands but the nasty style of play by the Dutch players made me switch my allegiance to the Spanish.

I really like the fact that the game moves so fast, with no breaks in the action, so that a 45-minute half actually lasts for only 45 minutes, with no time outs, stopping the clock, endless replays, challenges to referee calls, etc., the kind of things that drag American football out so that an allegedly 60-minute game actually can go on for well over three hours. Even though I am not a connoisseur of soccer and there was no scoring until almost two hours of play at very end of extra time, I was not bored at all, and was surprised at how quickly the time went by. Of course, this means no time for commercials except for the ones that are in the stadium and form part of the background to be captured by the cameras.

Another thing I like about soccer is that it is so simple. The players wear no special padding or helmets or other equipment. There is just one referee whose call is binding with no second-guessing involving replays or consulting with other officials, other than depending on the two line judges for offside calls. Although players do argue with the referee, the chats are quite short and the threat of the dreaded yellow card is enough to deter them from making too big a deal.

I am not sure why Americans do not prefer soccer to football. Soccer players look like regular people who happen to be athletic. They are normal-sized, quick and skilful, and fit enough to run around on the field non-stop for 45 minutes at a stretch. Anyone can aspire to being a good soccer player and still look a normal person. Who would want to be like the behemoths in football who pant heavily after a single run and have to go and rest on the bench after a few plays, or the absurdly tall basketball players?

I suspect that the very cheapness of the game and the lack of advertising opportunities during play works against it, since it prevents businesses from making huge amounts of money from it. Basketball is even simpler than soccer, requiring fewer people and less space but the way it is played in the US allows for a lot of stoppages for commercials, which may explain its appeal to sponsors. But given that soccer has managed to attract strong commercial support in the rest of the world, it is perhaps only a matter of time before it becomes a major sport here too.

The paranormal played an unexpectedly large role in the tournament. I found hilarious the soap opera surrounding the French team’s collapse and ignominious early exit, along with their coach’s dependence on astrology in selecting his line up. He will apparently not play people who are Scorpios and is dubious about Leos on defense. His faith in the stars did not do him or his team much good but I am sure that he will continue to be a firm believer.

Meanwhile, what about the Paul the Prophet? The octopus in the German aquarium correctly predicted all three of Germany’s group matches (2 wins, one loss), plus their next three games (victories against England in the round of 16 and Argentina in the quarter finals followed by the loss to Spain in the semis), and then wrapped it up by predicting Germany to beat Uruguay for third place and Spain to beat Netherlands in the final. That’s 8-for-8 with odds of only 1 in 256 of getting it by chance. That’s pretty impressive and has, I am sure, impressed at least some superstitious people that Paul has real powers.

But as with most paranormal claims, on closer examination things are not so impressive. There is some selection bias at work. Given the intense interest in soccer in the world, Paul was just one of many candidates that people were seeking signs from and it is only those that were successful in the early rounds (say the first four) that attention was focused on as prognosticators, and all the others were ignored. (See my earlier post on these kinds of selection effects. You can read about some of the failed animal oracles here.) Paul started getting real attention only later in the tournament, after Germany beat England. That means only the last four picks should be considered as real predictions, and that works out to 1 in 16 chance of success, which is good but not spectacular.

Paul has a track record even before the World Cup, though. He made predictions in the 2008 Euro Cup, picking Germany to win in all six games they played but getting only four right, which is not that much better than chance. Also he seems to have a preference for selecting the container with the German flag, selecting them to win 11 out of the 13 games they played. Since Germany has a strong team (winning 9 out of the 13 games), this increases his odds of success. So I will have to conclude that the evidence is just not convincing that Paul can see into the future and stick with my theory that he is simply an astute soccer fan.

Paul has, however, retired from the oracle racket, which is a wise move since it means that he can go out a winner and preserve his reputation. What ruins it for most claimants to paranormal powers is that they go to the same well too often and eventually the odds catch up with them. And when prophets fail their followers, they often suffer nasty fates. I am glad for Paul’s sake that he quit while he was ahead.

POST SCRIPT: The football sniper

The origin of religion-5: The struggle between the primal and thinking brains

In an article in The New Scientist titled Born believers: How your brain creates God (subscription required), Michael Brooks says:

There is plenty of evidence that thinking about disembodied minds comes naturally. People readily form relationships with non-existent others: roughly half of all 4-year-olds have had an imaginary friend, and adults often form and maintain relationships with dead relatives, fictional characters and fantasy partners. As [University of Oxford anthropologist Justin] Barrett points out, this is an evolutionarily useful skill. Without it we would be unable to maintain large social hierarchies and alliances or anticipate what an unseen enemy might be planning. “Requiring a body around to think about its mind would be a great liability,” he says.

Useful as it is, common-sense dualism also appears to prime the brain for supernatural concepts such as life after death.

[Queens University, Belfast’s Jesse] Bering considers a belief in some form of life apart from that experienced in the body to be the default setting of the human brain. Education and experience teach us to override it, but it never truly leaves us, he says. From there it is only a short step to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and, of course, gods, says Pascal Boyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Boyer points out that people expect their gods’ minds to work very much like human minds, suggesting they spring from the same brain system that enables us to think about absent or non-existent people. (my italics)

As Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson write in their article The Evolution of Religion:

A significant adaptation that guided the course of human evolution has been our capacity to view the world through the eyes of another — known as ‘theory of mind’. This ability, which allows us to attribute mental states such as beliefs and desires to others, and intentions that differ from our own, is so complex, it does not fully develop in children until around the age of four. While some scientists argue that our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, possess some abilities to perceive the intentions of others — it is humans who have honed this ability to a fine art.

What does this have to do with religion? As our ancestors developed a sensitivity to the thoughts of others as an aid to second-guessing their outward and visible behavior, they would have started to see an intelligent creative force wherever they looked. An individual watching another chip away at a flint would attribute to him a purpose, similar to his own when he created a tool. So too would he assume that lightning, rain, the sun, the stars, the moon must have had some sort of purposeful creative force behind them.

Here lie the very deepest roots of our religious beliefs.

The reason religion is so successful is that it taps into our primal-brains in much the same way that a Big Mac does — only more so. Religion gained its foothold by hijacking the need to give purpose at a time when humans had only their imagination — as opposed to the evidence and reason that we have today — to fathom their world. Spirits and demons were the explanation for illnesses that we now know are caused by bacterial diseases and genetic disorders. The whims of the gods were why earthquakes, volcanos, floods and droughts occurred. Our ancestors were driven to sacrifice everything from goats to one another to satisfy those gods.

To understand this propensity to believe in the supernatural, Cornwell and Thomson suggest that we have to look deep into our evolutionary history, in particular the fact that our powerful primal brain, which deals with our basic instincts of survival and reproduction developed earlier in evolutionary history than the frontal cortex that controls our reasoning capacity. This staggered development is mimicked even in the growth of a human brain now.

The brain configuration of a pre-adolescent child is far different from the one she will possess as an adult. It takes about 12 years or so for the frontal lobes to develop fully after reaching puberty. Our frontal lobes are key to social behavior, abstract thinking, planning and solving complex problems.

Let’s call our frontal lobes the ‘smart-self’ and the more archaic part of our brain the ‘primal-self’. Our smart-selves know that over-eating and under-exercising is bad for us, leading to heart disease, diabetes, and a shorter life-span. But our primal-selves are still primed for the risk of starvation, thus it simply cannot understand why the smart-self would deny you a nice Big Mac with a large order of fries and a chocolate shake… The smart-brain is just not designed to prevent the primal brain from taking over because the abundance of food most of us are surrounded by is a fairly new development in human history. Perhaps given another few thousand years, those individuals with the will-power to resist all that tasty fat, protein, sugar and salt will out-reproduce those that don’t.

The point is, that there is an instant conflict between what we know is good for us and what we feel we want — and we often fall victim to our more primal needs even when we know they are harmful.

Religion arises from the drives of the primal brain that is instinctual while science and reason is the product of the frontal cortex, the later brain, that controls thinking and reasoning. The catch is that the primal brain, the source of what we call instinct, tends to drive our behavior more than the frontal cortex. This is why children find it easy to accept uncritically the religious beliefs that their parents foist on them and why it takes effort to reject such beliefs even when they grow into adulthood. As Cornwell and Thomson say:

Much of the world’s population still believe in a god forged out of the fears of a desert people and, worse, fully believe not only that their view of god and his wishes are right, but that those who disagree must be converted or face eternal torment (sometimes even offering some help to get there). The primal fears instilled by religious fever act as impenetrable walls to reason. According to a recent Gallup poll, 66% of the US population agrees strongly with the statement ‘God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years’. Given the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence to the contrary, such obstinate belief should frighten any reasonable thinking person. It also is testimony to the wealthy and powerful religious organizations who spend billions of dollars on public relations, creating controversies where none exist and spewing lies about the evidence for evolution. But none of this would be possible without our brains being ready and available to take in the message they are delivering. It is easy enough for atheists and humanists to chuckle at the credulity of believers, but we do so at our own peril. (my italics)

Religion needs to be taken seriously. Understanding its roots, how it can seize command of our psychology and take control of our culture, may well be one of the most important endeavors we pursue. For even with all our grand technology, modern medical advances, and volumes of knowledge, if we do not stop our archaic past from overriding our modern reason we are surely doomed.

Current religious beliefs are a kind of parasitic system that latches onto the primal brain’s needs. As I will discuss in the next post, the primal brain dominates during early childhood, making children more susceptible to magical thinking. By the time more mature reasoning powers start to develop, the brain is already encumbered with religious thinking that it has to fight against.

POST SCRIPT: BP’s oil killing the gulf

This aerial video shows the scale of the damage caused by the BP oil spill and whales and dolphins and sharks trying to find clean water.

There are also still photos of animals and birds bathed in oil and they are heartbreaking.

The origin of religion-4: Religion as an evolutionary adaptation

While the growth and perpetuation of religious beliefs is an interesting question, we also need to explain how they originated in the first place. How did such unreal information arise at all?

Some have argued in favor of the direct adaptation model, based on Darwinian natural selection principles, that says that the tendency to assign causation and agency to natural events is an evolutionary advantageous strategy. In more primitive times, assigning a conscious agency to natural events may have provided survival benefits that did not accrue to those who did not, since the benefits of a false positive outweighs the disadvantages of a false negative. i.e., having genes that predisposed one to assume that lightning was caused by the anger of some powerful supernatural agency (aka ‘god’) and taking evasive action by cowering in shelters was better in terms of survival value than assuming that lightning was harmless and wandering around in the open, even if the reasoning behind it was faulty. It was only much later that we realized that lightning was dangerous for non-religious reasons and could avoid its hazards using mechanisms that did not involve rituals to appease an angry supernatural power.

In an article in The New Scientist titled Born believers: How your brain creates God (subscription required), Michael Brooks elaborates on this:

The ability to conceive of gods, however, is not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none. “You see bushes rustle, you assume there’s somebody or something there,” [Yale psychologist Paul] Bloom says.

This over-attribution of cause and effect probably evolved for survival. If there are predators around, it is no good spotting them 9 times out of 10. Running away when you don’t have to is a small price to pay for avoiding danger when the threat is real.

Another report in the New Scientist (no subscription required for this one) about a computer model by James Dow provides some support for direct adaptation. (The original paper by Dow can be read here.)

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

The interesting conclusion here is that believers in the unreal require the support of nonbelievers in order to have their numbers grow. In other words, the ‘respect for religion’ trope that says that we should treat with respect, and even admire, the faith of sincere religious people, is actually part of the problem. This conclusion supports the strategy of the new/unapologetic atheists who seek diligently to undermine false beliefs such as god and the afterlife.

Brooks also writes that the reason our brains are so susceptible to superstitions is that they are hardwired to do so, which suggests deep evolutionary origins.

It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world.

What psychologists have found is that during hard times or times when people feel they are losing control of their lives, they are more prone to adopt religious beliefs and superstitions. During the great depression of 1929, for instance, the most authoritarian churches saw a rise in attendance. If this hardwired aspect of the brain is true, then adopting religious beliefs uncritically is the path of least resistance. It takes conscious effort and will to resist religious beliefs, which explains why atheism is a harder sell than religion.

POST SCRIPT: Waiting for Elmo

Have I said how much I love the Muppets comedy sketches on Sesame Street?

The end of an affair

Well, the great drama of where LeBron James would play in future years has mercifully come to an end. There must not be a single person in America, however remotely located or disinterested in sports, who escaped from the endless speculation that culminated with an actual TV show where he revealed his decision. Surely the last was an act of egotism that has not been exceeded by any sports figure?

Living as I do in Cleveland, which was at the center of this spectacle, I could only marvel at how emotionally swept up people got about this whole thing. Even though I resolutely tried to ignore the coverage, not reading the endless newspaper articles, I still could not avoid being nauseated by the headlines alone, and the sight of an entire city and region, including civic leaders, begging and pleading with him to stay. This was over and above the usual and also highly excessive day-to-day adulation that we have lived with over the last decade ever since it became clear, even while he was in a local high school, that he had exceptionally good basketball skills. This devotion to him manifested itself in huge murals with him in messianic poses and his every movement adoringly reported in the papers, with front-page photos of him appearing regularly.

Just think about this for a moment. All this was because he was able to play with a ball better than others. Of course some would try to rationalize their childish involvement with something so trivial by trotting out economic arguments, such as that his playing here brought a boost to the economy by having people come to the city to go to the games, patronize the restaurants, and so forth. I have no doubt that there was some economic impact but it was clear that what was going on was based on far more than economics. This city is desperate to win a national championship in a major sport and winning the spelling bee simply does not cut it.

This desperation manifested in the city and its sports fans acting like a needy lover who is willing to do anything in order to keep the object of devotion around. And as often happens, when the lover is spurned and the object of adoration finds someone new, love turns to hate in a second. Instead of the spurned lover throwing all the stuff out the window, in this case fans are destroying or defacing the ubiquitous James memorabilia. The murals are coming down. Angry, vicious letters appear in the newspapers. The city has called James selfish, ungrateful, and a traitor. They seem shocked that he would leave them after all the love they have given him

What did they expect? Shifting metaphors, the city is like overly indulgent parents who give in to their adored child’s every whim, praise him incessantly, overlook or excuse every misstep, and then are surprised to find that he has grown up to be thoroughly spoiled, only cares about himself, and spurns his parents when he no longer needs them. In his TV special he said quite explicitly that he wanted to do what’s best for himself with no other consideration in mind.

I can understand that, actually, but that is because I know that major sports is a business in which sentimentality plays little or no part. Players are businessmen, going where they can make the most money. So are the team owners. The Cleveland Cavaliers owner called James ungrateful, which he is, but is that news? I am certain that he, like other sports team owners, would in turn dump the city in a heartbeat and move somewhere else if they did not cater to his whims. The owners and players can be like this because they exploit the fans’ sentimental attachment to their teams, which makes them willing to shell out huge amounts of money for taxes to pay for new stadiums with luxury accommodations for wealthy patrons, highly inflated ticket prices, buy team merchandise, and watch their teams on TV.

I used to be a sports fan once, long ago. My emotions would rise and fall with the success of my team and I would eagerly discuss with other fanatics the possibilities of the next game or do a post-mortem on the one just passed. But then I grew up and realized that there were other things in life that were more important. I got further disenchanted when I became aware how cynically owners and players viewed the fans, as people with pockets to be picked. Now sports is something I follow casually by flipping through the sports section of the daily paper in a few minutes, but refuse to take seriously.

Since I live in Cleveland, I would like the city to win a football or basketball championship only because it is painful to watch actual adults agonize over not doing so for so long, and winning would put an end to that misery, at least for the next few decades I hope. (As for the local baseball team and its fans, I have no sympathy whatsoever for them because of their determination to hold on to the offensive Chief Wahoo logo.) It is pathetic that the city feels so invested in achieving something so trivial and I am embarrassed for them. In Bertholt Brecht’s play Galileo, Andrea tells his teacher “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero” to which Galileo replies, “No, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” How much more unhappy (and pathetic) is a city that needs as a hero someone whose main skill is the ability to throw a ball through a hoop?

LeBron James can go wherever he likes and apart from feeling sympathy for how badly the people here feel because they suspect that their one chance of success has slipped through their hands, I simply couldn’t care less. I am grateful, though, that the hoopla surrounding him will now take place far, far away.

POST SCRIPT: Paul Robeson

If people feel they must have heroes, then instead of venerating athletes with just one talent who simply look out for themselves, people should emulate figures like the multi-talented Paul Robeson, athlete, singer, actor, and activist, who was willing to sacrifice his career to fight for justice for the poor and against racism. Because of his outspokenness, he was hounded by the US government and his passport seized for many years. My parents had the great privilege of attending a concert given in London by Robeson after he got it back, and said that it was electrifying.

Here is Robeson singing the song that became identified with him, Old Man River from the musical Show Boat. It is a performance that never fails to move me, especially its memorable lines, “I get weary and sick of trying. I’m tired of living and scared of dying.”

Later in life, Robeson would change the lyrics to make them less despairing and more inspiring.

The commentary you hear is by Harry Belafonte, a worthy successor to Robeson as someone who uses his celebrity to advance the cause of justice.

The origin of religion-3: Do people have a ‘god gene’?

It seems clear that people want to believe in religious ideas or at last have a propensity to believe in supernatural phenomena. Is religion a social belief that developed only after complex societies formed or is a predisposition towards religion hardwired in our brains? Those who argue the former think that religious beliefs emerged late in evolutionary history as a cultural artifact, a ‘meme’ if you will, that appeared only after language and social structures appeared, and spread widely because of its utility.

Others argue that the ubiquity and durability of religious beliefs suggests (though does not conclusively establish) that they might have evolutionary advantages and that a propensity to believe in gods and the afterlife developed early on and became hardwired in our brains and spread throughout the species the same way (through natural selection) that other genetic features spread, thus providing us with what one might call a ‘religious gene’.

If so, then that raises two more questions. The first question concerns time. Did the hard-wired propensity to believe in supernatural agencies arise after the human species appeared or has it an even earlier genesis? Advocates of the former view suggest that religious beliefs are an evolutionary adaptation that appeared after humans and spread because they provide a survival advantage, by being a kind of glue that helped form tightly knit groups of early humans that provided greater success in hunting and foraging. This idea of properties selected for the benefits it confers on a group (known as ‘group selection’) is controversial because strictly speaking natural selection only works on the level of individual genes, not even a whole organism, except in so far as the organism is a vehicle that propagates the genes. Group selection seems to be possible only under very limited conditions. (See Evolution “for the Good of the Group”, David Sloan Wilson and E. O. Wilson, American Scientist, vol. 96, September-October 2008, p. 380-389.)

Supporters of the latter view of pre-human origins think that the origins of religion lie deep in our primal brains that originated long before humans appeared on the scene. The fact that we share the pattern-seeking quality with other species suggests that that feature at least goes back deep into our prehistory.

The second question deals with mechanism and involves the technical issue of whether the propensity to believe is an evolutionary adaptation (i.e., a property that provided a selection advantage that enabled it to grow and spread throughout the entire species) or whether it is a by-product of selection for another feature that did have a survival advantage. For an example of the latter, diseases like sickle cell anemia should, in a naïve Darwinian view, have died out long ago because the bearers (due to incapacity or early death) tend to leave fewer offspring than people without the disease. The reason that it persists is that sickle cell anemia in its mild form confers protection against malaria. So sickle cell anemia exists as a by-product of selection for malaria resistance.

Neurobiologist Jeff Schweitzer dismisses the idea that there is such a thing as a religion or god gene’ and argues that religion originated and was transmitted as a cultural artifact.

The human brain is extraordinarily adept at posing questions, but simply abhors the concept of leaving any unanswered. We are unable to accept “I don’t know,” because we cannot turn off our instinct to see patterns and to discern effect from cause. We demand that there be a pattern, that there be cause and effect, even when none exist. So we make up answers when we don’t know.

The first ideas of religion arose not from any awe of nature’s wonder and order that would imply an invisible intelligent designer, but rather from concerns for the events of everyday life and how the vast unknown of nature affected daily existence. To allay fears of disease, death, starvation, cold, injury and pain, people fervently hoped that they could solicit the aid of greater powers, hoped deeply that they could somehow control their fate, and trusted that the ugly reality of death did not mean the end. Hope and fear combine powerfully in a frightening world of unknowns to stimulate comforting fantasies and myths about nature’s plans.

Of course, the biggest and most wrenching unknown served by religion is that of our fate upon dying. As a matter of survival, we are programmed to fear death, but perhaps unlike most other animals, we have the cruel burden of contemplating this fear. Religion is one way we cope with our knowledge that death is inevitable. Religion diminishes the hurt of death’s certainty and permanence and the pain of losing a loved one with the promise of reuniting in another life.

Fear of death, the need to explain away the unknown, hopes for controlling one’s destiny, a desire for social cohesion, and the corrupting allure of power are the combined masters of all religion. Evolution and natural selection do not enter into this equation other than with the obvious fact that humans evolved large brains.

Anthropologist Maurice Bloch argues that religion originated along with the capacity to use our imaginations. If religion is a figment of the imagination, it thus probably originated around the time that humans developed the capacity to imagine things and beings that do not exist and which live on after they physically die. He thinks that this likely happened around “40-50,000 years ago, at a time called the Upper Palaeological Revolution, the final sub-division of the Stone Age.”

Is belief in god a ‘meme’ (a unit of knowledge) that propagates like a gene, by spreading from person to person via cultural transmission instead of biological inheritance? The problem with cultural explanations is that one has to make the additional assumption that these cultural belief practices are plausible enough to have spread rapidly throughout the entire population. With evolutionary genetic adaptations, a single advantageous mutation can end up dominating an entire species.

While it is possible that belief in god is a purely social and cultural phenomenon, resulting from the need of early people and societies to find explanations for natural phenomena and to frighten people into obeying social norms, their similarities across wide geographical areas suggests that they may have some sort of biological origin. While it is true that the power of the state and the religious hierarchy has historically been used to enforce religious orthodoxy by severely punishing non-conformity, beliefs in gods seem to predate the existence of such organizations. And anything, like religion, that has features of universality immediately suggests that they have their origins in our distant evolutionary past, the way that the universality of the animal body structure of four limbs can be traced back to our fish-like ancestors.

Next: The case for the hardwiring of at least the propensity for religious beliefs

[UPDATE: Paul, the octopus prophet, picks Spain to win the World Cup.]

POST SCRIPT: Is the South African racist an endangered species?

Jon Oliver of The Daily Show investigates and finds one exceptional specimen.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Oliver – World Cup 2010: Into Africa – The Amazing Racists
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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The origin of religion-2: The power of religion and other superstitions

When investigating the origin of religion and other superstitions, an important fact to bear in mind is that it is not just humans that base their behavior on imputing meaning to meaningless correlations. There is evidence that even animals do this, suggesting that this instinct comes from a fairly primitive part of the brain, and developed early in our evolutionary history before we branched off from those species that share this trait. We all have heard of Pavlov’s experiments with conditioning responses in animals. Behaviorist B. F. Skinner did an interesting experiment with pigeons. After the usual ones where pigeons were trained to peck at a button in order to obtain a food reward, he then did an experiment where the rewards were given out randomly. What he found was that after awhile the pigeons started going through what seemed like rituals, specific repeated behaviors. It seemed as if they were trying to figure out which pattern of actions had caused the rewards to appear in the past and were repeating them in order to ’cause’ the rewards to appear.

What is extraordinary is that superstitious beliefs, although formed on the flimsiest of evidence that can easily be explained as coincidence, tend to be hard to shake off. What is more, superstitious people strongly resist any real test of their beliefs because that might ‘harm’ their lucky charm. Or they find some explanation to shrug off any failures.

I know Sri Lankans who will not put nail clippings in the trash but insist on flushing them down the toilet. Some don’t know why they feel they must do so, except that they were told as children that to do otherwise would bring bad luck. The practice likely originated from the belief that witch doctors could more easily put an evil spell on you if they had some piece of your body. Since nail clippings are among the easiest tissues to obtain unobtrusively, flushing them made it harder for your enemies to put spells on you.

Some superstitions and religious rituals, especially involving food, originated out of common sense health precautions during times when people were not as aware as they are now of the causes of disease. But over time, those sanitary practices evolved into rigid rules of religion or superstitions as people forgot the reasons for them. In the worst cases, these rules can be used in abusive ways but in others they are simply amusing. I recall a story of a woman who always used to trim the ends of the roast before putting it in the pan and into the oven. When her daughter asked her why she did this, she replied that she learned it from watching her mother and assumed it had some cooking benefit. Becoming curious, she asked her mother why she did it and her mother said that it was because her mother did it. When she asked her grandmother, her grandmother explained that it was because she had had a very small oven and oven pan, and usually had to trim the roast to make it fit in the pan.

Religious beliefs, like superstitions, continue because people do not bother to stop and question why they do something and whether it makes sense to continue the practice. Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson in their article The Evolution of Religion reflect on the extraordinary hold that religious beliefs have on otherwise rational people.

Despite the illogic of believing that some great being in the heavens, capable of creating not only the laws of physics, the principles of evolution, and the vastness of time also cares a great deal about whether or not you use your left hand to clean up after defecating, eat a cracker while sinless, or not mix cheese with chicken, we still seem to sup it up like mother’s milk.

An acquaintance of mine is a cricket fanatic and during the last cricket World Cup I asked him if he had watched the final game live with other fans at a public screening. He said no, that he had watched it at home because then he could do ‘pujas’ (prayer rituals done by Hindus) at his home shrine in order to help the Sri Lankan side win. (Depressingly, this person is a faculty member in the medical field, showing that an education in science does not inoculate one against superstitions.) What was particularly interesting was that he told me this the day after Sri Lanka had lost convincingly to Australia, and yet he seemed unfazed by his god’s lack of action and to not draw the obvious conclusion from this that his pujas had not helped in the least. He will no doubt do his pujas again on future occasions, the way religious people pray for things despite overwhelming direct personal experience that their prayers will not be answered. And when his team wins, he will no doubt ascribe their success to his pujas.

(Note: The psychic octopus Paul’s prediction that Spain would upset Germany in the World Cup semi-final game came true, continuing his winning streak. Is the octopus really psychic? It seems like just a matter of time before people start worshipping Paul as a god, since he seems to be more successful than the existing gods. I personally think that Paul does not have any psychic powers at all and is merely an extremely knowledgeable and astute soccer fan. Even though he has apparently only predicted games so far in which Germany plays, it has been reported that if he is not too exhausted, he will pick the winner of the Spain-Netherlands final too.)

But while we can often find plausible reasons for many superstitions, the origins of religious beliefs lie far back in time, making their sources much harder to determine.

Next: Do people have a ‘religious gene’?

POST SCRIPT: The power of belief

In this clip, Richard Dawkins covers an experiment on dowsing that shows how strongly people want to believe in their superstitions and refuse to accept any evidence that goes against their beliefs. He also discusses Skinner’s pigeon experiment.

The origin of religion-1: Superstitions

I think we can all agree that, looked at objectively, religious beliefs result in a colossal consumption of time and resources that, to anyone outside that particular religion, seems like an enormous waste. As Richard Dawkins says:

As a Darwinian, the aspect of religion that catches my attention is its profligate wastefulness, its extravagant display of baroque uselessness.

Religious behavior in bipedal apes occupies large quantities of time. It devours huge resources. A medieval cathedral consumed hundreds of man-centuries in its building. Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolized medieval and Renaissance talent. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people have died, often accepting torture first, for loyalty to one religion against a scarcely distinguishable alternative. Devout people have died for their gods, killed for them, fasted for them, endured whipping, undertaken a lifetime of celibacy, and sworn themselves to asocial silence for the sake of religion.

Though the details differ across cultures, no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking, fecundity-forfeiting rituals of religion.

So with all these disadvantages, and with science showing that most of the claims for religion are either false or lacking any evidentiary support, why do we still have religion? Why would such useless belief structures be so widespread and durable? Why are they able to command such a significant number of adherents? The ubiquity and longevity of religious practices cries out for explanation.

Since religious beliefs are supported by no empirical evidence, one has to look for other reasons to explain both their origin and continuation, and a good place to start is with superstitions, which are also irrational and yet they too are durable beliefs that can grab hold of people, spread widely quickly, and new ones appear all the time. So studying the origins of superstitions may give us clues as to the origin of religion.

Before every presidential election, for example, you find the media paying attention to some ‘predictor’ of the outcome. They will point to some state or county or precinct that has in the past always had a majority for the winning candidate and then focus on what that indicator might predict for the current contest. Sometimes the ‘predictors’ are something as unrelated as the winning team in the Super Bowl or stock market indices. Of course, rational people are aware that there can be no causal connection between the two events.

It is always possible to find, after the fact, some indicator that seems to correlate with some major event. For example, suppose I tell you that you should give me all your money to invest because I have an uncanny knack of predicting whether a given stock will go up or down the next day. You naturally will want some evidence of my predictive power before you give me your money. If I guarantee to do it correctly four times in a row, would you be willing to give me your money to invest? If you say yes, you are a sucker. The reason is that all I need is 16 people to agree to the same deal, each of whom does not know about the other 15. Then I give 8 of them a prediction that the stock will go up the next day and 8 that the stock will go down. I then forget about the eight who got the wrong prediction, and give four of the others the prediction that it will again go up, and the other four that it will go down. The next time, I deal with only the four who got both earlier predictions right and give two up and two down. This leaves me with two who got all three right predictions. I repeat the process and of those two, I will finally end up with one person who got all four predictions right and is now a believer that I have this amazing skill at picking stocks.

It is because of this tendency of people to not use their reasoning abilities or seek underlying mechanisms that causes superstitions to originate and conmen to flourish. When something unexpectedly good (or bad) happens, people tend to remember some of the circumstances surrounding that event. Then if another similar good (or bad) event occurs, and they recall that both occasions had some common feature, then that feature can become seen as an omen, as a good or bad luck talisman. Thus superstitious people end up wearing ‘lucky’ clothes or carrying some ‘lucky’ items or doing some ritual before an important event, based on whatever it was that happened to catch their notice. Athletes and sports fans can carry this to ridiculous extremes. Faith healers particularly exploit this to con people because people will note and remember their few alleged successes and ignore the vast number of failures.

People seem to be very susceptible to this kind of magical thinking. The latest superstition is the ‘psychic octopus‘ in Germany that has apparently picked the winner in every match involving Germany in the current soccer World Cup. (It predicted that Germany will lose to Spain today.) The need of people to seek out patterns and correlations, and think that they arise out of some underlying causal agency, seems to be innate. Because of it, it is extremely easy for superstitions to originate and for crooks to scam people into thinking that they have secret powers.

This tendency to ascribe causal relationships, and even a causal agency, to unrelated events is, as we will see in the next post, not simply a cultural trait developed in the last few thousand years in humans. It goes back quite far.

Next: The power of religion and other superstitions.

POST SCRIPT: Last word on flags

I received this cartoon from a reader following my post on the flag fetish and the next day’s photo album of celebrities wearing the flag design on bikinis and underwear.

Bizarro flag.gif

Another reader also reminded me of this Eddie Izzard sketch about flags.

Anonymity, pseudonymity, and sockpuppetry

The recent article I wrote in The Chronicle Of Higher Education titled The New War Between Science and Religion generated a lot of interest. The editors told me that it was the most viewed, forwarded, and commented on article for some time. The article dealt with the current debate between the new/unapologetic atheists and the accommodationists, with me taking the former side.

There were also some responses on some blogs, including a critical one on a website called You’re Not Helping. The site’s anonymous author (I’ll assume a man) said that he was an atheist and that the goal of his site was to critique fellow atheists whom he felt were harming the cause of atheism by poor arguments, tone, etc. That’s fair enough. The internet is a fast-moving place and we could all use watchdogs to monitor what we say so that in our haste we do not say things that are not measured. The commenters here often point out when I am in error or go too far off the rails. The criticisms about me on YNH however, though strongly worded, seemed to me to be somewhat confused and so I did not respond, figuring that readers would figure out for themselves who was more credible.

It was with some surprise that I discovered recently that the site’s author had pleaded guilty to the offense of ‘sockpuppetry‘. This is where one person assumes one or more aliases and then posts articles and comments on the web to support a single individual (usually the sockpuppet himself or herself) or to advance a specific agenda. The different names are used to give the impression that the opinions are widely held.

YNH’s sockpuppetry came to light when he slipped up in various ways, such as by praising one sockpuppet’s comments while signing with the same name, using similar verbal and punctuation tics for the different authors, etc. An alert website called The Buddha Is Not Serious (where do they get these names?) noted some of these quirks and investigated. When the evidence of YNH’s sockpuppetry became too obvious to deny, the author gave a petulant apology and closed the site except to those who register, and then later shut down the site altogether.

In the course of reading about YNH’s shenanigans, I discovered that rather than being a disinterested atheist trying to improve the quality of the debate, the site’s author seems to have been a ‘concern troll‘ (someone who acts like they are sympathetic to your side of an issue but are giving you advice that is really meant to undermine your position) whose main agenda seems to have been to attack a variety of new atheists. When commenters would try and defend them, the various sockpuppets would be brought in to gang up on them and intimidate them.

This started me thinking about this whole business of anonymity on the web. I am not anonymous. In fact, my name is part of the website’s name, not because I am an egotistical maniac, but because when I started this blog, I did not have the imagination to think up a good name nor did I think it worthwhile making the effort to think up one for what I presumed would be a short-lived experiment. Now I am kind of stuck with the name, though I dislike it. When I visit other sites and post comments, I do so under my own name.

But I recognize that being public about my views is a luxury that not everyone can afford and other people being anonymous does not bother me in the least. I can well understand why some people would prefer (for family, social, professional, or even psychological reasons) to keep their true feelings about issues from being widely known. I would prefer that people use one pseudonym consistently (rather than no name at all or multiple names) so that others know they are dealing with a single person, but realize that doing so carries the risk that if you are a prodigious commenter or blogger that people who care enough may be able to piece together clues as to your identity.

What puzzles me is why anonymity seems to bother some people. I do not understand why people sometimes investigate to try and reveal the true identity of a pseudonymous blogger or commenter.

But while I can understand why some want to be anonymous, there are some things an anonymous person should not do, such as make personal attacks on people or spread rumors about them or bring their personal lives into the equation. Such actions are bad in general but doing so behind a shield of anonymity is cowardly and inexcusable.

What I find really pathetic, though, is sockpuppetry. How insecure must one be to create alter egos whose main function is to praise and support your ideas and denigrate those of your opponents? And yet there are cases of people whom you would not think needed to do so indulging in this kind of thing.

Another thing I found is that there seems to be a fairly common practice of site owners banning certain commenters whom they find obnoxious for whatever reason. I am not sure why this is necessary. If someone says something you don’t like, why not just ignore them?

Reading through all this, it struck me how calm my own blog is, even though quite a lot of controversial topics are discussed, I often take a strong position on things, and the readership is quite large. Even though people have disagreed strongly with my views and those of other commenters, and some people have posted lengthy rants that have had only marginal relationships to the posting, there really has been no nastiness of any kind, even though anonymity is allowed. I have no idea if sockpuppetry is going on here and frankly don’t really care enough to investigate. The thought of banning someone has never even crossed my mind and I do not even know how to do it, frankly. The only comments that I erase are ones that are obviously spam. If I find that a discussion in the comments has started getting repetitive and is not going anywhere, I just stop participating.

I hope it continues this way.

POST SCRIPT: Clint Webb for Senate

At last, an honest political ad.

On the pursuit of happiness

On this holiday on the day after independence day, I am posting again a reflection on what to me is one of the most intriguing phrases in the US Declaration of Independence. It is contained in the famous sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

I have always found the insertion of the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental right to be appealing. One does not expect to see such a quaint sentiment in a political document, and its inclusion sheds an interesting and positive light on the minds and aspirations of the people who created that document.

But the problem has always been with how happiness is attained. And in one serious respect, the suggestion that we should actively seek happiness, while laudable, may also be misguided. Happiness is not something to be pursued. People who pursue happiness as a goal are unlikely to find it. Happiness is what happens when you are pursuing other worthwhile goals. The philosopher Robert Ingersoll also valued happiness but had a better sense about what it would take to achieve it, saying “Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

Kurt Vonnegut in his last book A Man Without a Country suggests that the real problem is not that we are rarely happy but that we don’t realize when we are happy, and that we should get in the habit of noticing those moments and stop and savor them. He wrote:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any “Good Old Days,” there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, “Don’t look at me, I just got here.”

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity — the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, “Today I am a woman. Today I am a man. The end.”

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, “You’re a man now.” So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a man can’t be a man unless he’d gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Good advice.

POST SCRIPT: More on flag fetishes

There were some interesting and informative comments on my post on flag fetishes.

One rule about the proper treatment of the US flag that is routinely violated is the use of the flag design on clothes. You can see this photo album of celebrities wearing the flag design on bikinis and underwear.