Myths and Faith
Improbable Beliefs

One of the several reasons that every civilization, even every culture short of the august status of a civilization, has something like a religion is that it defines the boundaries between who is in the group and who is outside of it.

Published on: May 24, 2012
show comments
  • Very interesting, maybe a future installment could address what the ideas you express here mean in light of Berger’s statement that:

    “For most Muslims, the Quran is “inerrant” to a degree far beyond the understanding of this term by even very conservative Christians or Jews.”
    http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/berger/2012/01/04/islamic-philosophy-and-the-future-of-the-arab-spring/

  • Aron Matskin

    Does not bode well for the future of liberal democracy, does it?

    • That is actually also an issue that comes up in the Berger post I linked to in my first comment; the context of the line I quote is:

      “I think that the advent of modern historicalscholarship has greatly helped this process of separating core and periphery inthe scriptural texts. Liberal Protestants have been in the forefront of thisdevelopment, followed (initially with some reluctance) by Catholics, and thenby liberal Jews. Of course there continues resistance in all branches of the“Abrahamic tradition” by conservatives who insist on the “inerrancy” of thescriptural texts.

      Such a development is much more difficult in the case ofIslam. I think that a major reason for this is the Muslim understanding of theQuran. It is misleading to compare the Quran with the Bible. For most Muslims,the Quran is “inerrant” to a degree far beyond the understanding of this termby even very conservative Christians or Jews. It has been suggested thatChristians, rather than comparing the Quran with the Bible, should compare theQuran with Christ”– END QUOTE

      While Berger is no doubt right to conclude that Muslim liberals who look for a faith-based justification for democracy could find it, I think it’s far too optimistic to hope that this could attract significant popular support in the region any time soon.

      I felt that Berger’s point here and the ideas in Adam Garfinkle’s post could perhaps provide some insights into why e.g. in Egypt (but also elsewhere in the region) there is plainly no conspiracy too hair-raising not to be believed. A good example was the governor of Sinai suggesting that some shark attacks on tourists in the Red Sea were due to a devilish Mossad plot, or Saudi authorities detaining a “spy” vulture that had a clip from an Israeli organization tracking bird migrations…

      To be sure, conspiracy theories have fans everywhere — as 9/11 truthers and Obama birthers illustrate — but it seems the Middle East has the best claim to be described as a world of conspiracy, and that has of course implications for the politics of the region.

  • WigWag

    “One of the several reasons that every civilization, even every culture short of the august status of a civilization, has something like a religion is that it defines the boundaries between who is in the group and who is outside of it.” (Adam Garfinkle)

    Adam’s speculation about this may or may not be right but the reason that all civilizations and cultures have religious beliefs goes far deeper than he suggests; the proclivity towards religious beliefs is cooked into our genes.

    Two closely linked brain regions, the temporal lobes and the limbic system mediate religiosity. Numerous studies have been conducted where neuroscientists electrically stimulate these brain regions and the subjects experience religious awe or the presence of the deity. More recently these experiments have been conducted with a less invasive technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation (tms). Even staunchly secular non-believers report experiencing the “divine” when these areas are stimulated. Some have reported that they saw “Jesus” while some reported a feeling of religious ecstasy. These regions, especially the limbic system are associated with extreme emotion and the fight or flight response. Stimulation of nearby regions leaves subjects with the feeling that they have been haunted, seen ghosts or even visited with dead friends and relatives.

    When animals have similar brain regions stimulated it impacts what they view as their place in the social hierarchy. Dominant males can be induced to be submissive and submissive males can be induced to behave in a dominant fashion.

    It should be emphasized that what the research suggests is that what we are talking about here is a proclivity that can be modified by the environment. Just as people programmed by biology to be left-handed (5-10 percent of the population) can learn to be right-handed, people with a proclivity towards religious beliefs can learn to eschew religion. Nor does this research tell us anything about whether a deity-creator does or does not exist or whether the tenets of any particular religion are objectively correct or incorrect.

    Perhaps a proclivity towards religion provides an evolutionary benefit for precisely the reason Adam suggests; perhaps it leads to am enhanced sense of community which provides a survival advantage. For many years some societies have placed great stock in seers, shaman, and prophets who’s sense of religious insight probably had it’s genesis in epileptic activity in their temporal lobes or amgdylas.

    In any case, the evidence is clear, the proclivity to worship the Divine is cooked in our genes.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.