Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Foundations of religious belief

Judith Shulevitz reviews James Kugel's "In the Valley of the Shadow - on the Foundations of Religious Belief." The book rose from the author's experience of still being alive seven years after being told he would die of cancer within a few years. His points on the utility of religious belief (even it if is a cognitive error) remind me of last Friday's MindBlog post on the utility of the size-weight illusion in throwing. Here are a few clips from the review:
...the recent debates about religion — is it a force for good or for evil, intrinsically violent or intrinsically peaceful? — have on the whole been a bit “narrow.” Too many pundits, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists fail to imagine their way into the rich, elusive mental condition called “believing in God” or “being religious.” They dismiss it as a neurosis, a superstition or a mistake. An otherwise appealing evolutionary theory of religion, for instance, holds that God and the gods are ghostlike entities created by a “hyperactive agent detection device” in the brain — that is, a hair-trigger response to unusual stimuli that evolved to protect us from danger, but wound up making us mistakenly attribute intention and even divinity to things that have none.

Kugel asks whether it’s the skeptics who are being willfully blind to the ancient truths bundled into these apparent errors. Consider the band of prehistoric hunter-gatherers made aware of their fragility by the magnitude of what they were up against. “This little group was endlessly overshadowed by all that was outside of them, forever on the receiving end of whatever You — immanent in the great Outside all around — happened to be dishing out,” he reminds us. To call their brains “hyperactive” because they identify that “You” as a mindful agent, Kugel says, is “ludicrous.” The “great Outside” was nearly all-powerful: why shouldn’t it mean to make things happen? “On the contrary,” Kugel writes, “it would require some sort of extraordinarily twisted spirit to look up and not see You, Your hand gloved in cloud and sky, Your voice mingling with cricket song and crashing waves, doing all the things that impinged on the little band’s existence. You were practically everything, and You completely overwhelmed their own little reality.”

Believing in God, Kugel suggests — possibly being a tad ahistorical — originally meant aligning yourself with the force of the universe, of humbly opening yourself up to its grandeur, more than it meant asserting faith in a particular deity. Kugel reviews the literature on epilepsy and the “God spot,” the “verbal conceptual association area” where various lobes of the brain come together. When stimulated, as in epileptic seizures, it has been shown to lead to visions of God or at least a sense of what one researcher called “connection with an overwhelmingly powerful being.” You could say the God spot proves that religion is a matter of brain malfunction, Kugel observes. Or you could call the epileptic’s aura “a privileged moment, an opening of the mind to something it cannot normally perceive.”

To the religious — or at least to Kugel and his sources — religion is an experience more than a cosmology. “It is not God’s sovereignty over the entire universe that is at issue so much as his sovereignty over the cubic centimeter of space that sits just in front of our own noses,” he writes. “That is to say, religion is first of all about fitting into the world and fitting into one’s borders. There may indeed be something ‘mythic’ about it, but it pales before the mythic quality of our own clumsy, modern selves.”


  1. Anonymous5:39 PM

    Sorry Kugel, all you're doing is equivocating the word "religion". Get us to accept one definition and *bam* pull the switcheroo and claim we must accept the more conventional definitions, too! No thanks!

  2. Ted Braun6:35 AM

    May I suggest a far better book - Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion by David Lewis-Williams. The utility of religion is a great discussion, but Kugel contributes very little.