Is religion universal?

Is religion universal?

Postby purewater » 28 Jul 2011, 09:23

Has there ever been a society that we know of, that demonstrated no religious behavior?

As far as I have always thought, it's universal behavior, expressed by common features such as rituals. I had recently debated this with someone, who pointed out the case of the Amazon Basin's Pirahã people, someone wrote a book about them after the converted a Christian missionary to atheism, according to this article:

http://freethinker.co.uk/2008/11/08/how ... n-atheist/

But according to wiki: The Pirahã have no concept of a supreme spirit or god[10] and they lost interest in Jesus when they discovered that Everett had never seen him. They require evidence for every claim you make. They aren't interested in things if they don't know the history behind them, if they haven't seen it done.[4] However, they do believe in spirits that can sometimes take on the shape of things in the environment. These spirits can be jaguars, trees, or other visible, tangible things including people.[11] Everett reported one incident where the Pirahã said that “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, was standing on a beach yelling at us, telling us that he would kill us if we go into the jungle.” Everett and his daughter could see nothing and yet the Pirahã insisted that Xigagaí was still on the beach.[12]

But this still is religious behavior?

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?
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Re: Is religion universal?

Postby Fortigurn » 28 Jul 2011, 11:42

They require evidence for every claim you make. They aren't interested in things if they don't know the history behind them, if they haven't seen it done.[4] However, they do believe in spirits that can sometimes take on the shape of things in the environment. These spirits can be jaguars, trees, or other visible, tangible things including people.[11] Everett reported one incident where the Pirahã said that “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, was standing on a beach yelling at us, telling us that he would kill us if we go into the jungle.” Everett and his daughter could see nothing and yet the Pirahã insisted that Xigagaí was still on the beach.


Highlighted for great irony.

But this still is religious behavior?


They're animists; that's about as Old School Religion as you can get.
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Re: Is religion universal?

Postby purewater » 28 Jul 2011, 12:21

Well said. Thank you.

I have another question. Do you think that religious behavior is innate by way of evolution? Is it an adaptive evolutionary behavior?
If it's universal, it must have a genetic basis?
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Re: Is religion universal?

Postby maoman » 28 Jul 2011, 12:30

purewater wrote:Well said. Thank you.

I have another question. Do you think that religious behavior is innate by way of evolution? Is it an adaptive evolutionary behavior?
If it's universal, it must have a genetic basis?

Maybe it has an intellectual basis. It addresses questions (however feebly) that all thinking people have: Why are we here? What's right? What's good? What is truth? Wherefore evil? These questions are also addressed by the great thinkers of history, religious or not, so I think the capacity to ask questions and to be curious about abstract notions is a commonality.
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Re: Is religion universal?

Postby finley » 28 Jul 2011, 12:38

There are bits of your brain which seem to be dedicated to what you might call "religious experience". I'm recalling from 20-years-ago lectures here, but it's possible to artificially stimulate intense religious/spiritual feelings (whatever that might mean) either by drugs or using implanted electrodes; and of course there are various religions which are based specifically on drug-induced experiences.

Whether these are 'adaptive' is a question that will probably never be answered. However there is a difference between religious fervour (which is the sort of thing that makes people crash airliners into tall buildings and is probably more biological than anything else) and simple faith in an unseen God, which (most of the time) results in more benevolent behaviour since it is based on rational thought and reasoning that randomly-firing religion neurons. So in that sense you might say that religion is 'adaptive' in that it can make societies function more smoothly by promoting altruism. The problem with that theory is that you would expect highly individualistic societies, such as Australian aboriginals, to have no interest in religion, which doesn't seem to be the case.
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Re: Is religion universal?

Postby yuli » 28 Jul 2011, 13:04

purewater wrote:Has there ever been a society that we know of, that demonstrated no religious behavior?

Can't speak for others, but I have never heard of any such society - it would seem to me that religion is like language and music: ubiquitous and diverse.
A corollary: arguments over which religion is better (or right or wrong) are as productive as arguments over which language or music is better (or right or wrong).

To answer the OP's question: it seems so - and now what? :D
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Re: Is religion universal?

Postby purewater » 28 Jul 2011, 13:48

Well, my debate was with atheists claiming that religion will die away and vanish as we have no need for it anymore. I recently read a book by two Newsweek journalists called God Is Back, an excellent read, so I pointed out the main ideas of the book, namely, that religion is such a dominating force in the world at the moment there is no reason to believe it's going to die away. Especially as religious fervour seems to be increasing, for good or bad.

This then led to my rebuttal of the argument that religion is inherently bad. If it offered no benefits, we would not have practiced it for thousands of years, from when we were hunter gatherers. I have many examples of the advantages it offered, such as more cohesiveness, emotional bonds, more committed to defense in times of warfare, so it's natural to assume that since we have no trace of societies without religion, they lost the battle for survival, and religion became the universal trait that it is as a result. Those examples are at from primitive religion. If you look at the move to settled societies, religion was a form of invisible governance, keeping people in line, and when we made the move to agricultural societies religion was used as a means for this - the religious rites were placed according to the farming calendar.

Warfare was the natural state of the hunter gatherers, so given that societies devoted so much time and energy to religion, it must have had some benefit, otherwise it would have been a serious handicap against others in the battle for survival.

Whatever about religions role today - and my own personal beliefs never entered the debate - I felt for my opponent to deny this history was similar to a fundamental religious person denying some other part of our history on earth. I also felt that there was an irony to the fact that the religion they want to eradicate - and I mean all religion - helped shape our evolution. So in a way, they were also denying Darwin, who indicated some of his beliefs about a religious instinct in his autobiography.

Their response was that religion is not universal. Hence, the story about that tribe, given as an example by an atheist news website of a society without religion. Fortigurn has already noted the ironies there.

So, my retort was similar to that of Fortigurn, that the example actually adds weight to the theory that religious behavior is universal, which I felt was another irony.

At this point I had to take a break and ask you guys if I'm making any sense at all! I know the argument doesn't suit everyone because it neither helps the atheist viewpoint or the "insert particular faith here" viewpoint.

Have I missed anything in my train of thought?
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Re: Is religion universal?

Postby Fortigurn » 29 Jul 2011, 16:22

purewater wrote:Well said. Thank you.


You're welcome.

I have another question. Do you think that religious behavior is innate by way of evolution? Is it an adaptive evolutionary behavior?
If it's universal, it must have a genetic basis?


It's probably closer to say that the neurological wiring in humans which has been naturally selected for survival, has historically favoured the kind of wiring of which religion is a highly predictable product. It is quite possible that a significant contributing factor is the personal and social benefits accruing to strong religious belief. Thus people with neurological wiring which is more likely to produce religious belief (see finley's post), out-survive and therefore out-breed those with different wiring.

Note however that this is simply my personal off-the cuff speculation. I would suggest you read something scholarly on the subject, preferably by someone properly qualified in the relevant fields. There's some very accessible and useful discussion here, which cites the relevant literature. That's an article writen by someone with relevant qualifications, published in the 'Skeptical Inquirer', by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. This publication has a very high reputation among skeptics in professional fields.
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Re: Is religion universal?

Postby purewater » 29 Jul 2011, 23:42

I have read The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade, which presents the universality argument, and that it must have a genetic basis, so I guess I find his ideas persuasive, just as atheists did with Dawkins' book.

However, when I discuss religion, I'm met by three arguments -

1. the manipulative priest argument - that religion only benefits itself. But surely this argument falls because of the universality of religion in egalitarian societies.
2. the gullible child argument - but would "silly" stories of religion persist for thousands of years if they didn't have a benefit to society
3. the virus / meme argument - which made me google whatever the hell a meme is. Is this really science? Meme is apparently just word play on the word "gene", similarly "memetics" with "genetics", seems like an attempt to add weight to a theory that doesn't strike me as being very strong.
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Re: Is religion universal?

Postby yuli » 30 Jul 2011, 00:58

purewater wrote:that it must have a genetic basis

I don't see any compelling evidence that human beings' tendency to create religion(s) is genetically determined - I think it can be sufficiently explained as a side effect of the mental and emotional faculties that humans have developed for survival in general (in line with the article described that Fortigurn linked to)... :)
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