As a young physics math guy, religions to me were just another silly cultural thing we humans do. Makes one prone to ignorance of science, evolution. Like Dawkins, I was dismissive and haughty about it.
I viewed it as two opposing hypotheses about the world. Rational Bayesian reasoning left no doubt: religious claims are false. Really really false! End of issue.
But through my own research in cognitive science and the origins of language and music, I slowly transformed to possess a new respect for religion. Why?
First, by “respect” I mean it here in the way you have respect for a lion when you encounter her in the wild. Whether you like her is irrelevant. Whether she’s good is irrelevant.
You respect her in the sense that you appreciate that she is a highly engineered thing, worthy of much study to understand her. And she is also powerful.
My change toward respect of religion started in the early 2000s when I became interested in whether writing, language and the arts have culturally shaped themselves to be a good fit for our brains. The answer was, Yes.
For writing, it occurred to me that we read too well — almost as if we have a reading instinct. See this piece: Pinker’s Instincts on Language.
I wondered if writing over history has culturally evolved to look “like nature”. I provided evidence for this in two papers — first and second — and also in my earlier book, VISION rEVOLUTION.
Writing culturally evolved to harness our ancient instincts for object recognition. No reading instinct was needed.
A few years later I examined whether the sounds of speech might also harness us, by sounding like natural events. Here too I found strong evidence for what I call “nature harnessing.”
On the controversial issue of whether we have a language instinct, the answer is No. Spoken language harnesses already existing natural-event-recognition mechanisms.
Although, there is, in another sense, a language instinct: We are really born with an innate proclivity for our languages.
But not because we evolved for language, but, rather, because our languages evolved to fit us.
The nature-harnessing origins of speech was the topic of my most recent book, HARNESSED. (And that book also makes the case that music may have culturally evolved to sound like something we already had ancient auditory mechanisms for: the sounds of human movement.)
What did these research directions have to do with religion?
Well, language — writing and speech — are central to who we take ourselves to be.
But, on the view I am suggesting, they aren’t human per se. They are cultural inventions. Really really sophisticated ones.
In this light, rather than being a reservoir of silly things we humans happen to do, culture is a brilliant (blind) engineer giving us highly honed artifacts that change us into a kind of Human 2.0
I had acquired at this point a whole new respect for culture.
But, if cultural artifacts we take for granted can have, hidden inside them, tremendous design, why not religion?
As a theorist, I like letters and phonemes and relatively simple stimuli, because I just might be able to wrap my head around them.
Religion is not the kind of cultural animal I prefer studying. Too complicated for the sorts of elegant hypotheses, and tests, I hope to have.
So, I have not studied religions in this “harnessing” paradigm. And I don’t plan on doing so. There are minds much better equipped for that, like Pascal Boyer.
But, once one sees the secret wisdom of seemingly simple cultural artifacts like writing, one would have to close one’s mind to not see that much-more-complex religions might be teeming with design, and tap into lots of our innate mechanisms, transforming us. ...in some way.
That religion’s truth claims are false is so missing the point.
Again, whether religion is good for us, or for society, is another issue.
Respect here just means realizing that religions might well be well-oiled machines plugging into human brains, and that one should be prepared to get one’s feet wet in trying to pick them apart and reverse engineer them.
We need less haughtiness and hostility from us atheist scientists. More humility on religion.
Originally published as a Twitter thread, 2018, at @markchangizi