Angst and Brainsoothing Religion

Over at HuffPo Religion, Wray Herbert asks whether religious belief soothes the worried mind and reports on some new research suggesting it does.  Scholars have been asking this question for quite a long time, and many have simply assumed that religion does in fact sooth troubled minds.  Freud reached this conclusion in Future of an Illusion, but did not cite any research or data in support.

Recently, some scholars (such as Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran) have pointed out that religion does not always soothe the mind but can at times be positively terrifying.  Given these widespread assumptions and subsequent questioning of them, it is nice to see that some people are actually researching the issue and generating data.

Unfortunately, however, Herbert’s article begins a falsehood:

Religious beliefs date back at least 100,000 years. That’s the time when our Neanderthal cousins began burying their dead with weapons and tools — presumably prepping them for the world beyond the grave.

This is simply wrong, though for those believe that religion is adaptive it is a cherished article of faith.  We have no evidence which comes close to proving that 100,000 years ago, hominids — whether Homo sapiens or Homo neanderthalensis — had beliefs that amounted to religion.  At best, deliberate burials are suggestive of belief in a spirit or soul.  If such burials include grave goods, it is more suggestive.

As I explained in Do Hominid Burials Indicate a Belief in Spirits or Souls, many reports of deliberate burials during this time period are questionable, others are mistaken, and even if we can unequivocally conclude that a burial was deliberate, it does not mean that those doing the burying believed in anything like religion.  There is a much simpler and more likely explanation:

Fairly soon after death (especially when temperatures are above freezing), bodies begin to bloat, rot, and stink. They turn ghastly colors and begin decaying in revolting ways. Dead bodies may also attract dangerous predators and bothersome scavengers, and they certainly attract insects, bacteria, and vermin. It may simply be the case that bodies were buried to avoid these unpleasantries and keep the home-base or camp-site clean. This is most plausible and parsimonious explanation for deliberate burials.

There are additional problems with Herbert’s assertion.  First, even if we assume that the dead were buried because of a belief in spirits-souls, believing in souls does not amount to religion.  Many people believe in souls and ghosts without being religious.  While commonsense dualism may contribute to the formation of religious beliefs, it cannot explain religion.  Second, Neanderthals are not humans.  Thus, even if we assume that Neanderthals were deliberately burying their dead 100,000 years ago because they were religious, we cannot infer that their human “cousins” had the same beliefs.

Fortunately, Herbert gets on track after this initial mistake:

The antiquity and universality of belief suggest that it serves some fundamental psychological purpose, but what would that be? A small but growing number of psychological scientists have been exploring these questions, focusing on the idea that religious belief may be a natural consequence of the human mind at work. According to this view, belief emerged to satisfy a basic human need to comprehend and explain a complex and unpredictable world. By allowing us to impose some sense of purpose and order on the randomness, believing in God and the afterlife helps us cope with uncertainty — and thus relieves anxiety.

At least that’s the theory of Michael Inzlicht and Alexa Tullett of the University of Toronto Scarborough, who study the cognitive aspects of religion. Inzlicht and Tullett have been testing the notion that belief quells anxiety by looking at the brain in action.

The results of of this research, according to Herbert and the scientists, are somewhat equivocal.  After I have read the original study, I will provide additional comments.

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