Dawkins v Haidt on Evolutionary Advantage of Religion

by cofty 9 Replies latest watchtower beliefs

  • cofty

    Dawkins uses an interesting analogy comparing religious instincts to a moth's attraction to a candle flame.

    Dawkins describes religion as an accidental byproduct of a whole range of psychological predispositions such as a child's instinct to believe and obey its parents - he might have mentioned hyperactive agency detection as well.

    This is almost certainly true but is religion more than that? Dawkins declines to speculate on whether the byproduct - religion - is an evolutionary advantage, only that the instincts which resulted in religion were advantageous. In this regard he is at odds with Jonathan Haidt who describes how it may still serve a useful function...

    In other words, Dawkins and Haidt agree on how religion got started, but Haidt goes further and insists that religion itself was an advantage to humans as a social species. To go back to Dawkin's analogy, the instincts that cause a moth to kill itself in a candle flame were advantageous to its ancestors, but the byproduct - death by candle flame - is not. In this regard Haidt would reject the analogy.

    Significantly Dawkins finishes his answer in the video with the comment that "the religious byproduct is either neutral or ... well I, we don't even need to say whether it has an advantage, it doesn't matter..." Was Dawkins going to say that religion is either neutral or harmful? I don't know but he stopped himself from finishing that thought.

    I tend to disagree with Dawkins. I think Haidt may be onto something.


  • cofty

    This talk helps to introduce Haidt's concept of hive instinct. You need to pay close attention to avoid misunderstanding his thoughts on group selection.


  • Saename

    This is also a disagreement I had when I was reading The God Delusion. It doesn't seem to be the case that religion wasn't advantageous at all. I agree that it was likely a by-product, but I do think it served an advantage to humans as a social species at the dawn of civilization. And while I'm not sure whether it still serves a purpose, I do think it shouldn't serve a purpose (or in other words, we shouldn't use it for a purpose.) Ever since the Enlightenment, we have evolved intellectually and started to obey reason as the foundation for truth. The problem with religion is that it fosters faith, and faith is unreliable; it's the antithesis of reason. While it can lead to truth, or to goodness, however you may define it, it does so by accident more often than not, and it also leads to the opposite, which in and of itself is a valid reason to oppose religion. This is to say that unjustified belief shouldn't have a place in determining truth ever since we have found scientific (Enlightenment) and logical (4th century BCE) ways to do the same much more reliably.

    Now, I do wonder what Haidt's take would be on that. You say he believes it still serves a purpose. But does he think it should serve a purpose? I didn't even know what his position was on the origins of morality until now, so I do wonder what he has to say about that. But for now, I'm too busy reading other books, unfortunately. I wish I could just eat books in order to absorb their knowledge. I once saw a movie where a kid could do that. Indeed, this would be an amazing ability, assuming that eating books wouldn't bring other disadvantages, such as health issues.

  • cofty
    Ever since the Enlightenment, we have evolved intellectually and started to obey reason as the foundation for truth.

    The possible usefulness of religion has nothing to do with truth. Haidt agrees that nothing religion says about the world is objectively true - or where it is, it is not something we could not get at by more reliable methods.

    The benefit of religion was/is its ability to activate our "hive instinct" and make it possible for larger social groups to coalesce. The second video is an introduction to this idea..

    I recommend his book "The Righteous Mind" where he describes the evolutionary origins of morality...

  • Saename

    Yeah, I know of The Righteous Mind, and I will be reading it in a month or two, but for now, I don't have time. (I really wish I did!!)

    When it comes to the usefulness of religion being the activation of our "hive instinct," I agree. It's also an idea I had. Through a fault of my own, I was too ambiguous and included it in "goodness." Had I known what "hive instict" is, I probably would've been more articulate. But things being as they are, I came up with the idea that religion had the ability to activate the motivation to be cooperative on my own, and since I'm a rather young mind, I'm still prone to being ambiguous, and my ideas are susceptible to being broad in the sense of being indefinite and questionable, especially in areas where my ideas are extremely new. When I'll finally read The Righteous Mind, I'll probably be less ambiguous about those things.

    Anyway it's nice to see that I'm heading towards similar conclusions as Haidt. Maybe I'm not such a crappy "philosopher" after all...

  • Finkelstein

    Religion is a byproduct of human ignorance, it also was a endeavoring tool to empower and control in a human socialized environment .

  • Half banana
    Half banana

    Religion is a very woolly word and to understand it we would have to define it well because it means different things to different people. It almost defies an all inclusive meaning but at its root it must have to do with a recognition of-- or obligation to a spirit world which is interactive with human life.

    Looking back to the experience of our cave dwelling forebears, it can be demonstrated that they made a clear distinction between the mundane world and a sacred realm. (La Vache cave (mundane) and neighbouring cave (sacred) at Niaux in the Pyrenees, France, fourteenth century BCE) The sacred being marked by isolation from the everyday realities by using theatrical devices such as paintings, illumination and sound and holding rituals in special locations (often with cathedral like acoustics as at Niaux). For the tribal integrity certain rituals had to be observed and taboos respected. It was the hunter's relation to the sacred which explained his failures and successes. Had he observed the rites correctly? Had he consulted the shaman to intercede with the spirit masters? Had he sacrificed? Had he drained the blood of his kill? The human brain unlike the animal's, required explanations.

    It became clear that as humanity veered away from brute animal kind over geological time, what distinguished the difference between the two were the strategic faculties of the human mind. A mind capable of imagination and subterfuge and deception, including self deception par excellence.

    Religious observation kept the tribe psychically healthy but what worked i.e. the doctrines of the sacred, for one tribe may not have done for another and here is the rub. One set of sacred absolutes did not accord with a distant tribe's perception of what was a sacred absolute and so in the battle for survival over hunting territory, 'religion' became embroiled in the survival game. It may be argued there was an advantage to a tribe which was more religious or had a good shaman but since it is probable that all early humanity was smitten with the same bug it would be hard to determine at this distance in time.

    So did religion play a part in our evolution? Meaning did religion give an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors encouraging survival?

    I am inclined to think that at the tribal level it worked for internal order and submission to common values which made for unity. But that is not evolution. Instead I reckon that rather than religion being an agent for human evolution, religious thinking; the sacred and profane divide, can be shown to be the consequence of the expansion of the human cerebral cortex. (See; W. La Barre; The Human Animal)

    As a final note on the value of religion, although it conceivably gave some tribes a survival advantage; what worked for the tribe did not work universally so religion was not an agent for human improvement for in its extreme manifestations, it remains today a tribal force for division and mayhem.

  • Vidiot

    Things asserted by reason, proven wrong by religion... zip.

    Things asserted by religion, proven wrong by reason... uncountable.

  • cofty
    I am inclined to think that at the tribal level it worked for internal order and submission to common values which made for unity. But that is not evolution. - Half banana

    Individuals prosper within a group if that individual's brain is wired with certain instincts that make them effective members of that group.

    That is evolution.

    Group cohesion is vastly increased by the "hive instinct" that is triggered by shared rituals.

  • cofty

    Fink & Vidiot - I agree but the failure of religion to determine what is objectively true about the world is nothing at all to do with this topic.

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