Manual Textual, Comparative, Sociological, and Cognitive Approaches: Volume 2 (Religion and Reason)

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  4. Chapter Religion – Introduction to Sociology – 2nd Canadian Edition

Our goals are twofold: to produce a detailed picture of the current state of the field, and to provide a road map for future research on the relationship between religion and morality. Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong. The question of whether or not morality requires religion is both topical and ancient. In the Euthyphro , Socrates famously asked whether goodness is loved by the gods because it is good, or whether goodness is good because it is loved by the gods.

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The notion that religion is a precondition for morality is widespread and deeply ingrained. Although these associations are stronger in people who themselves believe in God, even atheist participants intuitively view acts such as serial murder, incest, and necrobestiality as more representative of atheists than of other religious, ethnic, or cultural groups Gervais, a. Views of religion and morality Pew Research Center, ; reprinted with permission.

See the online article for the color version of this figure. Although there is no shortage of lively polemic, scientific investigations of the connection between religion and morality have so far produced mixed results. To make progress on this issue, we require a more precise specification of which human virtues are under consideration and which features of religion might be thought to influence their expression.

Our aim in what follows will be to sort out some of the conceptual confusions and to provide a clear evolutionary framework within which to situate and evaluate relevant evidence.


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We begin by highlighting a set of conceptual limitations hampering contemporary academic discourse on this topic. To circumvent these problems, we advocate a cross-culturally encompassing approach that fractionates both religion and morality while carefully distinguishing cognition from culture. We go on to consider the quite separate question of whether the evolution of religions as cultural systems has selectively favored moral values of various kinds.

In the process, we provide a comprehensive review of research on the religion—morality relationship. Despite the confident claims of many contemporary commentators, we believe the relationship between religion and morality is poorly understood.

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In our view, this is because debates about religion and morality are marred by a set of interrelated conceptual lacunae and confusions. Our aim in this section is to enumerate these shortcomings and to highlight some of their serious consequences. History can be written at any magnification. One can write the history of the universe on a single page, or the life cycle of a mayfly in 40 volumes. Just as history can be written at any magnification, the relationship between religion and morality can be explored at any granularity.

The challenge is to adopt a pragmatic and theoretically defensible scale of analysis. One problem with the coarse-grained monolithic approach is that religion, like the constellation Orion in the night sky, may not reflect a real natural structure but may instead comprise a more or less arbitrary gathering of disparate features. Researchers in the discipline of cognitive neuropsychiatry view psychiatric syndromes as culturally and historically contingent constellations of symptoms, and argue that the unit of investigation should be the symptom e. Likewise, progress in understanding the relationship between religion and morality may require fractionating these hazy concepts into more basic units.

Many authors have attempted to identify the fundamental elements of religion. In brief, for Saroglou, to be religious entails. Believing: Holding a set of beliefs about transcendent entities e. Bonding: Having self-transcendent, emotional experiences, typically through ritual whether private or public, frequent or rare , that connect one to others and to a deeper reality.

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Behaving: Subscribing to certain moral norms, and exerting self-control to behave in accordance with these norms. Barrett, Much the same could be said about ritual , which is often understood to be a religious trait but is also prominent in nonreligious e. Tendencies to postulate bodiless agents such as ghosts and gods and to participate in rituals may seem to warrant some overarching label, but in reality their cognitive causes may be quite unrelated. For example, afterlife beliefs and rituals may be explicitly connected by more or less shared systems of meaning, expressed in discourse at social events like funerals and wakes; and they may form part of larger cultural systems that are transmitted across populations and handed down over generations.

But the psychological mechanisms that generate and underpin afterlife beliefs may operate quite independently from those inducing us to perform rituals Boyer, ; Whitehouse, Moreover, according to a prevailing conception in moral psychology, morality—perhaps like religion—comprises a suite of largely independent mechanisms that, although often connected by narratives, doctrines, songs, and other culturally distributed networks of ideas, are the outcomes of quite distinct psychological processes and functions.

Thus, both religion and morality can be endlessly assembled and reassembled in culturally and historically contingent ways. If moral psychology is to contribute to the psychology of religion, it will have to describe a moral domain as expansive as that of the Gods. In a recent interview, the Hon.

Simon Lokodo, Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity, indicated that he viewed the heterosexual rape of young girls as preferable to consensual homosexuality:. Interviewer: Oh let them do it the right way? Let them rape children the right way? What are you talking about? Lokodo: No I am saying, at least it is [the] natural way of desiring sex. What could be more immoral than the rape of a child, a manifestly harmful act? Our concern is with descriptive rather than prescriptive ethnocentrism.

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There are those who consider appropriate sexual behavior to be of paramount moral importance, and those, like Peter Singer, who think there are more pressing moral concerns. For our purposes, therefore, a moral behavior is not necessarily a behavior that we advocate, but a behavior that is undertaken on putative moral grounds. We also view descriptive religious ethnocentrism as problematic.

Ingroup generosity and outgroup derogation actually represent two sides of the same coin. In all of these cases, however, prosociality is used to denote voluntary behaviors that intentionally benefit others at personal cost e.

And conversely, behavior that benefits the group may be harmful to at least some of its members. For example, torture is a powerful mechanism for enforcing and stabilizing social norms, yet torture is often unambiguously detrimental to the recipient. This is not even to consider behavior that extends across group boundaries. In social psychological terms, it is clearly the latter, but we regard this usage of the term as unhelpfully sanitized.

In a different example, Blogowska, Lambert, and Saroglou found that self-reported religiosity predicted helping of a needy in-group member and also physical aggression toward a member of a moral out-group a homosexual person.

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Blogowska et al. We argue that this behavior can be reconstrued as literally prosocial—after all, if homosexuality is a norm violation from the perspective of a religious group, then behavior that punishes this violation serves to enforce the norm and thus promotes and protects the interests and values of the group. If the relationship between religion and morality is to be explored within an encompassing evolutionary framework as we intend , the notion of prosociality should assume a literal rather than sanitized meaning i.

As we will describe later, we advocate a strategy of scientific pluralism where morality is concerned. Efforts to fully characterize the relationship between religion and morality are limited by a tendency for researchers to conceptualize morality or religion as bundles of either cognitively or culturally evolved traits rather than both. For example, Bloom has attempted to refute the claim that morality requires religion using evidence of proto moral behavior in infant humans and in other primates.


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  • This argument operationalizes morality at the level of evolved psychological systems, but operationalizes religion as a set of cultural notions. One way of avoiding this problem is to disambiguate epigenetic, cognitive—developmental, and social—historical processes in the formation of religious and moral traits Whitehouse, For example, a capacity to empathize with the pain of others may be genetically canalized in the development of infant neural structures, but environmental cues also shape the organization of neural networks and even the gross morphology of the brain.

    Chapter Religion – Introduction to Sociology – 2nd Canadian Edition

    The interaction of genetic and epigenetic factors in the maturation of empathizing capacities may follow different developmental pathways in different individuals, resulting in quite different outcomes at the level of cognitive and behavioral patterns in adulthood.

    The same principles apply to the development of religious traits. For example, a genetically canalized tendency to process information about mental and mechanical events via quite different neural structures may undergird the cognitive developmental pathways for mind—body dualism Bloom, , but this tendency is also shaped and constrained by cultural concepts and their histories. When asking, for example, how notions of bodiless agents might impact the development of empathy, we need to specify the level s at which the impact is hypothesized to occur and trace its repercussions at all levels on both sides of the religion—morality equation.

    In order to circumvent these limitations and avoid these problems, we propose a new approach to the religion—morality debate that not only fractionates both religion and morality but is careful to distinguish the different levels at which explanation is required. This will provide the basis for more precise questions about the relationship between the fractionated components of religion and morality, respectively.

    Tinbergen, Thus, if the pigmentation of butterfly wings in industrial areas becomes darker over successive generations Haldane, , it is because darker variants have a selective advantage in smoke-stained environments, but that does not dispense with the need to explain the physiological mechanisms by which individual butterfly wings acquire their coloration, darkness, and hue.

    These answers are all correct, but together they provide fuller understanding. Hinde, , p. In considering human traits, however, the situation is often complicated by the extent and variability of cultural overlays. In some cases, these are quite literally overlays—for example, in cold environments, human hands may be overlaid by clothing, such as gloves or mittens. Our general theoretical approach melds recent theorizing in disciplines such as moral psychology and the cognitive science of religion.

    According to this approach, religious and moral cultural representations are triggered and constrained by implicit, intuitive cognitive systems in much the same way that the morphologies of human hands and feet shape and constrain the morphologies of gloves and shoes see Figure 2. To become culturally widespread, shoes must fit the basic morphology of human feet, while also satisfying other biologically endowed preferences e. But such structures may, in turn, be subject—given sufficient time scales—to genetic modification under the selection pressures imposed by culturally evolved practices and preferences.

    So just as shoes adapt to the needs of biologically endowed feet, so feet may need to adapt to fit cultural prescriptions. And in the same way, certain universal features of our biologically evolved cognitive architecture and our culturally evolved religious and moral representations may result from complex processes of coevolution.

    To analyze these various processes correctly, however, it is vital that we disambiguate at which levels selection acts on which traits. Cultural representations e. The relations depicted here are intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. In what follows, we begin by fractionating, first, morality and, then, religion into elements that are thought to be recurrent features of human evolved psychology.


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    • We then consider whether there is evidence that any of the fractionated elements of religion have a biologically evolved connection to the fractionated elements of morality. We will argue that there is scant evidence for this at present.