Origins of Religion – Two Hypotheses

In one of Don Johnson’s podcasts, he gave some “data” which he claims is supported by the theistic worldview and not the atheistic worldview.  The points he raises are:

  1. everyone has a moral code
  2. all cultures have essential monotheism (one main creator god, with lesser gods) and that humans are separated from the creator god
  3. no atheist cultures

I haven’t done the research to confirm point (2), so I’ll accept it for the sake of argument.  Points (1) and (3) I think are almost certainly true (there are some exceptions for point (1) – sociopaths).

So what would an atheistic explanation for this data?

1. The moral code is exactly what one would expect for social creatures, developed through a blind process of evolution.  Social creatures, by definition, need to work together to survive.  Thus, concepts such as fairness, supporting the weak members of the group, caring for others, etc… would be a direct consequence of this process.  We’d also expect a conflict between biological drives for individual vs group survival, variation in the altruism of the members,  and evidence of moral behavior in our nearest social species – all of which can be seen experimentally.  If this code is something uniquely human, which the theists claim, then we shouldn’t see it in other animals.

2. Answering a question with a question: how many societies have there been without a hierarchical governing organization?  It seems clear to me that the structure of monotheism matches pretty well the development of human cultures and the organization of those cultures.  As they say on the Reasonable Doubts podcast, “God thinks like you”.  I’d also add that, unless you had a totally democratic pantheon, you’d end up with one “most powerful” god, and probably fall under Johnson’s “essential” monotheism.  In other words, the category of “essential monotheism” may include nearly every possibility.

3. Atheism is not obvious, and we have a biological tendency to agency detection.  In addition, science is hard.  It takes work to be skeptical, against our many biases, etc…  Finally, apparent design in biology is so obvious that without the theory of evolution, the belief in divine design is a completely reasonable position.  Darwin did not disprove God, but he made it possible to be an intellectually consistent atheist.

Personally, I think these responses are far more compelling than:

1. God gave us a moral code (even with the inconsistencies between individuals, and the immoral actions condoned and commanded in the Bible)

2. All cultures believe in God , therefore it is true (even with the inconsistencies between the different depictions of God, and the observations that all cultures have had witchcraft without that being true)

3. There are no atheist cultures because God is so obvious to everyone (even though when we actually start figuring out how things really work, God gets less and less obvious).


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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One Response to Origins of Religion – Two Hypotheses

  1. Brian: Point two is an exaggeration. I would say most cultures have had such a concept. Some apparent exceptions seem to include Tibet, Japan at various periods, the Burmese, Egypt, Sumer, the Sawi in New Guinea, some Australian aboriginal tribes, etc, though it may be that God was merely suppressed or ignored in such cultures, and people were still somewhat aware of him.

    Lots of societies lack a hierarchical organization, but are aware of God.

    My argument on this point is I hope a little more subtle, and depends on arguments that famous atheists have made:

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