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The Origin of Superstition - Animism and Agency
Even in our modern technologically advanced world the vast majority of people on planet Earth believe in something supernatural or some form of abiding spiritual truth. Most human beings identify with some form of religion or another although what sect and Church they identify with may be wildly different from what their neighbors believe. Even among the fastest growing group of people, those who profess no religious belief at all, there are pockets of believers in something spiritual, in superstitions that aren't as rigid as organized religion but are still a loose collection supernatural beliefs.
So why then do so many atheists argue against religious belief? It seems like something so ubiquitous to human experience that most forms of it must be innocuous. Perhaps there MUST be something true to these supernatural claims or otherwise why would so many people believe it? In this hub I'm going to talk about the basic building blocks that most religious claims are forged from and how all religions, modern and ancient, are built on the same psychological pattern-seeking quirks from our evolutionary past.
Rumble in the Jungle
Imagine for a moment that civilization is gone, you are alone in the desolate jungle that remains of one of humanity's former cities. Plants and animals have retaken the Earth from us and only you and a few bands of hunter-gatherer humans remain to try to salvage the human race and survive. All of a sudden checking your smart phone is no longer priority number one, now your very survival and the survival of your species in question every single day.
So you are walking alone in the forest when all of a sudden you hear the bushes ahead of you rustling and see the branches shaking. What are your immediate thoughts? Well it could just be a bird. If could just be the wind. But it also could be a predator, a hungry tiger that is seeking to eat you. The tiger is an intelligent agent, it has a desire to make you into lunch. If you choose to assume that the rustling is nothing at all and go on your way you might find yourself being gnawed on by a hungry animal and never get to pass on your genes. This is known as a type 2 error.
If you do, however, cautiously come to the conclusion that there is a tiger in the bush, you might run away and escape before it can pounce, you might climb a tree to avoid it. If you run away from the rustling sound and it happens to simply have been the wind all you have done is expend a bit of adrenaline and energy, no big deal. The consequences for making this sort of mistake (which is a type 1 error) are not bad whereas if you make the first type of mistake (assuming it was just the wind) you might end up lunch.
As Michael Shermer and many other skeptics point out natural selection favors the people who make the second mistake here because at least some of the time people who make the first mistake end up getting eaten. We modern humans are the descendants of primates and people who made the second sort of mistake, assuming there was an intelligent agent even when there wasn't one.
Pareidolia and Pattern Recognition
The basic problem here is in our methods of pattern recognition, because of our need to avoid predators as our ancestors descended from the tree tops to live on the forest floor we became great at pattern seeking. This is what is behind the psychological phenomenon of pareidolia, of finding familiar shapes even when they are not intentionally or actually there. Two dots and a semi-circle might be considered a smiley face and our brains immediately want to connect that shape to some intelligent designer. Like seeing shapes in clouds pareidolia is a big part of the puzzle in why human beings invoke agency, because we see patterns that aren't really there or that are completely coincidental.
For example let's say you get a song stuck in your head and then hear it on the radio and then this happens again, and again, ten times in the course of ten weeks. This might seem too great a pattern to be explained away as coincidence but if you are in the habit of listening to the radio and are familiar with a great deal of radio friendly songs you might well get songs you've heard stuck in your head and then hear them on the radio. Even if it's a song you haven't heard in a long time, or aren't immediately aware that you've ever heard at all, it can get stuck in your head only to show up on the radio.
Even some paranormal research groups acknowledge and attempt to correct for pareidolia, while others will shamelessly post photos of supposed “spirit orbs” and try to say there are faces inside of them.
It is tempting to put some kind of special importance on events that seem to form a pattern or that seem as if they would have to be somehow guided. We have to be sure we aren't falling victim to a false positive like in our example of the predator in the bushes above, we have to be sure the pattern really is there and that is where superstition fails.
Fine-Tuning and Agency
The supposed Fine-Tuning of the Universe is another classic example of invoking agency to explain a seemingly unlikely series of events. There are too many constants that are finely tuned, say theists, so that everything unfolded the way it did, right down to human beings evolving in the way they did. We wouldn't be here if the Universe were even slightly different, the chain of events leading up to us wouldn't have been the same.
This argument asserts that it is too unlikely for all of these events to have occurred on their own without intervention at some point. I just don't see how this is the case. If we take the chain apart and view each piece we can see the how and why that it might have happened doesn't have a magical connection to anything. The only point at which the chain becomes fuzzy and completely unknown is at the singularity and there is where Fine-Tuning proponents and Cosmological argument users like to stick their God of the gaps, invoking agency in the last place where scientifically literate people can actually do so.
The other point at which we have a problem with the Fine-Tuning argument is its assumption that because the existence of human beings is very improbable without a God (they assert) that there must be one because otherwise none of us would be here. This assumes that we are somehow special and that events aren't merely just taking place by cause and effect but are specifically tuned to lead to us.
There is simply no reason to make this assumption even if we were to agree that it is unlikely for us to be here. The moment you posit a God making sure we get here in the end you are doing away with your first premise, namely that it is unlikely and amazing that we are here. There's nothing special about us being here if a God did it, it would be much more surprising for a being like a God to fail in bringing about a desired outcome.
The fact is that the first premise of the argument, namely that the fine-tuning of the Universe is due to physical necessity, chance or design, presents us with a false trichotomy. The third option, of course, has never been established to be a viable explanation for the supposed fine-tuning it explains. We have no reason to think that an intelligent disembodied agency beyond time and space (which is typically how God is defined) is even a plausible viable possibility.
We have flawed premises that do not have evidence backing them up and we have the fact that they are assuming we are special and that we were the intended outcome of the Cosmos.
Philosopher and atheist AC Grayling has an ingenious way of breaking this argument down. His argument goes along the lines of: imagine for a moment all the disparate events that had to come together for my great great great great great grandfather to meet my great great great great great grandmother and for them to fall in love and eventually down the line a long long way, lead to me. Of course when viewed in this massive chain it seems entirely unlikely that all of these events happened by chance. There is an amazing arrogance in assuming that we are supposed to be here at all, as if all these events happened on our behalf so that we could one day be born.
Animism and Natural Religion
Remember the example of the rustling in the bushes? Now try to imagine what the first people on Earth might have thought about the trees, the wind, the sun, the moon, the stars. What patterns might they see in their day to day, year to year, existence that would lead them to believe that there was some intelligent agency behind everything? Where might religion spring from?
Sun worship is widely believed to be one of the oldest known forms of religion and one can see why. Human beings moved up in the world immensely when we switched from hunter-gatherers, to farmers who raised crops and livestock. And what do all crops need? The sun. The sun is what allowed human beings to do agriculture, it kept the predators of the night away, it gave them heat and light to work and live. It is easy to see how primitive humans would imbue the sun with agency and like many gods of later centuries the sun fell and died only to rise again.
Rain, too, was viewed as being controlled by an intelligent agency but it seems likely that the original line of thinking was not that a man in the clouds controlled nature but that nature itself was alive. This view is known as Animism, the idea that inanimate objects and things like plants have some quality of life, a spirit or agency within them.
Using Animism the ancients arrived at a better understanding of the world around them, marking the movements of celestial bodies, aligning many ancient sites, like Stonehenge, to the motion of the sun, moon and stars. They used this information to further agricultural knowledge that helped move human beings toward historical times and out of pre-history. Rather than mere myth many early forms of religion use the superstitious beliefs that made natural phenomenon thinking agents to make observations that helped them know when to plant crops, when the rains would come, etc.
Inferring Agency in a Chaotic World
So what went wrong? What turned Animism and the desire to place agency and meaning onto the patterns we view in the world into suicide bombers and the Westboro Baptist Church? The answer is in the chaos and destruction that we observe in the natural world around us and in the unfortunate downsides of human nature.
When the crops are bad it might be inferred that the gods are angry, that the Earth is cursed or the creation tainted somehow. When drought or famine descend, when plague ravages and when the animals we needed to survive moved off to other pastures who was to blame? Some might have been bold enough to blame the gods but others, it seems, had the bright idea to blame members of their own community, or other communities, for behaviors that must have upset the gods. And so religion as a force of social coercion was born.
How do we get the rains to come back? By giving up behaviors that the shamans and priests advise us may upset the rain spirits. All of a sudden there are intermediaries interpreting the wills of these mysterious forces that govern our world and determine whether or not we survive another season. All of a sudden there are reasons to take the sinners out to the outskirts of town and stone them until they are dead, lest the wrath of the gods come down on the heads of the innocent. All of a sudden people are coerced into obeying authority by the specter of imaginary consequences in an afterlife. All of a sudden there is a reason for zealous young people to offer themselves as voluntary human sacrifices for the good of their civilization, because they falsely believe there is agency in the natural world that will look kindly upon them.
As religion became more and more tethered to every facet of people's lives it dragged on humanity making it harder and harder for us to progress. Suddenly it wasn't just about charting the motion of stars or knowing when the rainy season would come it was about enforcing rules and appeasing the chaotic forces of evil. People who were different could be demonized as witches, blamed for the famine or plague that had come down on their heads. Superstition became religion and, as the late Christopher Hitchens explained, eventually religion poisons everything.
At the root of all superstition and religion there is the idea that the natural world can be explained by invoking a supernatural agency. Whether you are a college student praying to pass some exam or an ancient farmer praying that the goddess bring rain soon you are invoking a supernatural agent to act on your behalf. Whether you are practicing Joel Osteen's Prosperity Gospel or are a believer that the Universe cannot have come into existence naturally and must have been the product of a mind you are invoking the same principle that made the ancients believe that when the volcano erupted a God was angry.
Believers who insist that there must be something supernatural, that the patterns are really there, seem to be making a type 1 error. Much like Pascal's Wager what we have here is an argument that says, “it's safer to believe, just in case it turns out to be real”. But for those of us who are skeptical not only do we not see any evidence for the existence of a god we also see reasons why such beliefs are based on psychological quirks and faith alone. Thanks for reading!