A Tale of Two Religion Scholars & A Conversion

This tale begins with Dr. Michael Blume, an evolutionary biologist who writes Homo religiosus — The Natural History of Religion.  His early studies focused on “neurotheology,” or the myriad ways in which naturally evolved aspects of brain-mind give rise to supernatural beliefs.  His current studies focus on the second pillar of evolutionary success — reproductive fitness.

Blume has found, to no one’s surprise, that people who belong to historically known and modern religious groups have more children than those who are non-religious or secular.  Having made this finding, he then surmises that religion must have evolved because it confers a differential fitness advantage on the faithful.  Another way of putting would be to say that the religious out-compete the non-religious in the bedroom and birthroom.

I do not have any problem with Dr. Blume’s data which show that historically known and modern religious groups are more fertile than their non-religious counterparts.  It has long been known that organized religions encourage members to marry and reproduce.  As Vernon Reynolds and Ralph Tanner demonstrated in The Biology of Religion (1983) (republished in 1995 as The Social Ecology of Religion), the survival of individuals who belong to religious groups often depends on it.  There is strength in numbers.

I do have a problem with using Dr. Blume’s data to argue that because modern religions encourage fertility and their members out-reproduce the non-religious, religion must have evolved because it conferred an evolutionary advantage on people living during the Paleolithic.  We cannot simply assume that relatively modern cultural-social organizations such as religion even existed in the evolutionary past, let alone project such institutions backwards into deep time and assert they were affecting selection.  Blume and I debated these issues here.

Now enter the second scholar referenced in this post’s title: Sue Blackmore.  She has quite an interesting background and her interests are eclectic, as is evident from her profile at the Guardian:

Sue Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a visiting lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol. She has a degree in psychology and physiology from Oxford University (1973) and a PhD in parapsychology from the University of Surrey (1980). Her research interests include memes, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation. She practises Zen and campaigns for drug legalisation. Sue Blackmore no longer works on the paranormal.

Blackmore is perhaps best known for her popular book, The Meme Machine, which I have briefly examined but not studied.  The entire meme thing, from its original presentation by Richard Dawkins to its elaboration by Daniel Dennett, neither convinced me nor captured my imagination.  We learned long ago that applying biological principles of evolution to culture history or “cultural evolution” is a bankrupt and misleading enterprise; with this in mind, one might think that equating ideas, symbols or concepts (i.e., “memes”) with genes is an even worse idea.  Meme/Gene is a bad analogy and even worse metaphor, and few were persuaded by this speculative overextension of biology into places where it does not belong.

Sue Blackmore was convinced, however, and maintained — as some still do — that religion was a particularly pernicious meme that magically (i.e., non-agentively) replicated itself among humans like a virus of the mind.  The ideological and normative connotations are hard to miss.  Like Dawkins, Blackmore thinks of religion as a disease — viruses, after all, rarely benefit their hosts.

Recently, however, Blackmore has abandoned her position and made a highly public confession.  I first learned about her conversion while browsing Dr. Blume’s blog and reading that after he presented at the Explaining Religion conference (Bristol University), Blackmore had a Damascus Road experience (or Pauline moment):

As I finished my talk at the “Explaining Religion” conference in Bristol, Susan Blackmore added some tough questions – and then admitted on the spot that the religion-virus-metaphor that she had advocated for years was wrong. And since then, she even wrote a post about the subject at Guardian: “Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind: [Dr. Blume’s presentation] at the “Explaining Religion” conference has made me see that the idea of religious belief as a virus has had its day.

Although the “religious belief as a virus” idea never really had a day, except in the minds of a zealous few, I wish to join Dr. Blume in congratulating Blackmore for seeing the light.  This illumination, however, does not mean that religion evolved during the Paleolithic because it conferred fertility advantages on believers.

Did you like this? Share it:

10 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Religion Scholars & A Conversion

  1. Michael Blume

    Hi Cris,

    thank you very much for the insightful post! I just wanted to add that I got my doctorate in the scientific study of religion. Although I have worked with biologists these last years, I would claim expertise only in evolutionary studies of religiosity and religions. That’s my field.

    Concerning the age of the reproductive advantage, I would gladly admit that much remains to be discovered! But then, we are observing the emergence of religious behavior at least for some tens of thousands years – and many early depictions as well as most of early figurines are symbolizing matters of motherhood, fertility and sexuality. Contemporary religious traditions of hunters and gatherers are encouraging pro-natal and pro-familial rules and values, too. And the first words of God according to the biblical Genesis (stemming from very old mythology) are constituting the commandment: “Be fruitful and multiply!” As yet, I don’t know about a convincing way to assume that the reproductive potential of religiosity has been “just” a very recent invention.

    Best wishes!

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention A Tale of Two Religion Scholars & A Conversion -- Topsy.com

  3. admin Post author

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for checking in. I will briefly comment on your last sentence — where you mention “the reproductive potential of religiosity.” I am not making any assumptions here; we know that humans during the Paleolithic were practicing various forms of shamanisms. I am very familiar with the ethnohistoric and ethnographic record of shamanisms, and there is not a very strong link between shamanisms on the one hand and fertility on the other. All hominid/human groups from 75,000 to 6,500 years ago would have had shamanic complexes.

    Their group sizes during this time would have been determined by many factors other than their supernatural beliefs: local resources being foremost among them. Hunter-gatherers cannot just “Be fruitful and multiply.” They have to be very careful about group sizes given the carrying capacity of their particular environment. This is why most hunter-gatherer women lactate and breast feed for so long (on average, four years): this delays further conception. Many hunting-gathering groups are known to practice infanticide to limit group sizes.

    The organized, systematic religions of which you regularly speak did not begin appearing until after the domestication of plants/animals (i.e., the Neolithic Revolution). This was about 6,500 years ago. If we assume that the religion/fertility link begins at this time, we are not really talking about why religion evolved or whether it was an adaptation. We are talking about cultural processes rather than biological ones.

  4. Pingback: Making Religious Babies: A Cultural Phenomenon

  5. Michael Blume

    Hi Cris,

    of course, there have been “secular” humans among our ancestors – religious behavior evolved in time and thus had to evolve and to spread to recent universality.

    Then, religiosity is not only about having many babies, but about developping various strategies for survival and reproduction, affecting different variables such as cooperation, group formation, health and fertility.

    You might be interested in “The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior” (Springer 2009), featuring respective articles by David Lahti, Matt Rossano and others – including an ethnography by Wulf Schiefenhövel about Melanesian aboriginal religious culture and shifts.

    And what is it with those many figurines featuring (grand-)motherhood, fertility and sexuality during the paleolithic? You have to admit that they fit into the contemporary picture of evolutionary advantage perfectly well! :-)

    Best wishes!

  6. admin Post author

    Hi Michael! I hope you don’t think I am picking on you because that is not my intention. Your work is excellent and says much about the ways in which cultural-social-political traditions, such as “religions,” can impact human behavior and reproduction.

    There were no secular hominids/humans because the capacity to generate beliefs in the supernatural arose in tandem with brain evolution. There are several naturally evolved aspects of mind that, when combined in the fluctuating platform of consciousness, causes belief in supernatural forces and spirits. These include (but are not limited to):

    — Causal Attribution
    — Pattern Imposition
    — Perceptual Animism/Anthropomorphism
    — Theory of Mind (Subjectivity/Intersubjectivity)
    — Agency Detection
    — Commonsense Dualism

    I find it most interesting that autistics are incapable of generating supernatural concepts, and therefore are unable to understand “religions.” What do they lack? Theory of mind.

    I have the volume you mentioned, and while some of the articles are quite good, others amount to mere storytelling. Several are nothing more than “just so” stories of human evolution, where everything connected to “religions” (a highly fluid and non-essential category) is assumed to have adaptive value. Others are so highly imaginative that they read like pure fiction.

    Yes, there are several so-called “venus” figurines; I am not saying fertility/birth was not important to Paleolithic hunter-gatherers — it was. But their group sizes were constrained by ecological factors unrelated to any supernatural beliefs. Fertility figurines, at most, tell us that new life was important and that about every four years or so, it was important for a female to successfully birth a child. The fact remains that hunter-gatherer group sizes were limited, and remained relatively small, until the advent of agriculture.

  7. Gruesome_hound

    Well, the problem of the approach of most evolutionary psychologists to religion is that they presuppose without evidence the truth of reductive materialism:, namely that the mind, our emotions and our thoughts, can be fully reduced to the interactions of molecules.
    Assuming that, they then wonder: but why do so many people believe they have a soul, and that invisible beings exist, and that there is a God beyond the universe ?
    By investigating the possible explanations, they fully rule out the possibility that people have these beliefs because they may be partially true.
    They have therefore to resort to materialistic explanations like the idea we are deceived by this hyperactive agent detection device.

    But let us examine the problem of religion’s origin from an other standpoint: let us just assume, like many modern philosophers, that feelings (qualia) and thoughts are immaterial, that they are a part of nature, but irreducible to material processes.
    Thomas Nagel argued for example that the full knowdlege of the neuronal processes going on in a bat sending out signals can not show us how it is felt by the bat itself, and that therefore subjectivity is something radically different from the material world studied by science.

    If one presupposes this is truly the case, the explanation of religion’s appearance looks quite different: people are rightly aware that their feelings, thoughts and personhood is something different from matter, and they infer that other humans and animals must also have this kind of subjective experience, they form thus their own theory of mind in this way.

    Like philosopher Keith Ward argued, since their immaterial mind is the first reality they encounter, they intuitively think that there may be also invisible minds, and that the ultimate reality itself must rather be something spiritual rather than material.

    The fear of death, coupled with the odness of their own existence may then lead them to believe they are immortal.

    Note that my non-reductive account of religion may be fully naturalistic, if one accepts that subjective feelings, ideas, and concepts like mathematical truths are a part of nature, although not reducible to matter.

    Likewise, I am not a dualist in the traditional sense: I believe that the immaterial feelings, thoughts which makes us a person emerge from the brain and are completely dependent on it, and would disappear if the brain was damaged.

    According to my non-reductive theory, people began to believe in immaterial spirits mainly because they were puzzled and amazed by the non-material character of their being which they intuitively recognized.

    Now, many religious beliefs could be false of course: it is quite possible, like Thomas Nagel postulated, that nature does not only consist of matter but also of ideas and the potentiality for subjectivity , but that there is no God, no invisible spirits, and no afterlife.

    Basically, I don’t agree with the evolutionary psychologists because they assume the truth of reductive materialism and limit the possible explanations to material processes, altough many philosophers of mind hold a non reductive position.

  8. Gruesome_hound

    Well, the problem of the approach of most evolutionary psychologists to religion is that they presuppose without evidence the truth of reductive materialism:, namely that the mind, our emotions and our thoughts, can be fully reduced to the interactions of molecules.
    Assuming that, they then wonder: but why do so many people believe they have a soul, and that invisible beings exist, and that there is a God beyond the universe ?
    By investigating the possible explanations, they fully rule out the possibility that people have these beliefs because they may be partially true.
    They have therefore to resort to materialistic explanations like the idea we are deceived by this hyperactive agent detection device.

    But let us examine the problem of religion’s origin from an other standpoint: let us just assume, like many modern philosophers, that feelings (qualia) and thoughts are immaterial, that they are a part of nature, but irreducible to material processes.
    Thomas Nagel argued for example that the full knowdlege of the neuronal processes going on in a bat sending out signals can not show us how it is felt by the bat itself, and that therefore subjectivity is something radically different from the material world studied by science.

    If one presupposes this is truly the case, the explanation of religion’s appearance looks quite different: people are rightly aware that their feelings, thoughts and personhood is something different from matter, and they infer that other humans and animals must also have this kind of subjective experience, they form thus their own theory of mind in this way.

    Like philosopher Keith Ward argued, since their immaterial mind is the first reality they encounter, they intuitively think that there may be also invisible minds, and that the ultimate reality itself must rather be something spiritual rather than material.

    The fear of death, coupled with the odness of their own existence may then lead them to believe they are immortal.

    Note that my non-reductive account of religion may be fully naturalistic, if one accepts that subjective feelings, ideas, and concepts like mathematical truths are a part of nature, although not reducible to matter.

    Likewise, I am not a dualist in the traditional sense: I believe that the immaterial feelings, thoughts which makes us a person emerge from the brain and are completely dependent on it, and would disappear if the brain was damaged.

    According to my non-reductive theory, people began to believe in immaterial spirits mainly because they were puzzled and amazed by the non-material character of their being which they intuitively recognized.

    Now, many religious beliefs could be false of course: it is quite possible, like Thomas Nagel postulated, that nature does not only consist of matter but also of ideas and the potentiality for subjectivity , but that there is no God, no invisible spirits, and no afterlife.

    Basically, I don’t agree with the evolutionary psychologists because they assume the truth of reductive materialism and limit the possible explanations to material processes, although many philosophers of mind hold a non reductive position.

  9. msdinakar

    What stumps me is how come brilliant thinkers – whether scientists or non-scientists – often make premature conclusions? To revise one’s opinion or perspective on the basis of newer findings/discoveries is fair enough. Yet, often being an expert only signifies that one has long/broad/deep experience within a particular framework/paradigm of thought/action. It certainly NEVER confers the honor of being the ULTIMATE TRUTH PROPOUNDER! It can NEVER! After all, whether it is science or other fields, ultimately we are just grappling with ideas, doing one’s best to symbolically express the experience. If ancients did it on the cave walls, moderns are doing it on computer screens. Religious art has evolved over a long period of time as mathematical art has evolved over a limited time-frame of that period. Scientists will continue to evolve newer modes of expressions too. But, at the end of the day, all our symbols are just representations of perceived experiences whether it is about the metaphysics of the yantra or physics of heterotic strings !

  10. Father Clifford Stevens

    The basic premise of Dr. Blume’s work is false.
    Religion is not a biological construction, it is judgment of the human intellect in response to the Cosmos, so it is a Cosmological question and not a biological question. It is the response of the human intellect to the immensity and magnitude of the Cosmos, which, in the face of that immentity, diversity and magnitude concludes to a Primary Cause. To assert that religion is manufactured by biology is disproved by that very assertion. Biology in, biology out, and any conclusion of that formula means that the conclusion has no intellectual content and is therefore absurd. With religion you are tinkering with the inner workings of the human psyche, you are not repairing a clock.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    Boys Town, Nebraska

Leave a Reply