Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Biology of Religion

Author and philosopher Daniel Dennett recently gave an interview discussing his newly released book, Breaking the Spell.

As a biologist, I have a few problems with the meme concept as originally articulated by Dawkins and disseminated by Dennett and others. Nevertheless, the interview brings up very interesting cross-connections about religion in terms of biology and evolution.

10 Responses to “The Biology of Religion”

  1. SansCard says:

    I listened to the piece, and while I sympathize with the interviewee, I was disappointed in his seeming bias and lack of evidence presented – I assume the book is more factual. I do find one aspect of his argument weak on first principles: the fact that we can discover the evolutionary path of religious ideas in no way invalidates them – in fact, I think it makes them more valid in ways (in the same way other human arts are valid in their context.)

    He is arguing against, I think, the common perception of religious teaching being a revealed truth rather than a human invention. I find this perception to be ignorant and so agree with him. His conclusion that it this somehow weakens the value of religious teaching is more questionable to me. That said, the majority of loudmouth religionists (a minority in most religions I think) do think they have revealed truth and are therefore worthy of repudiation – especially when God “reveals” to them that hating the people they already hated is a Divine Good.


  2. Athena says:

    I find Dennett rather shallow and his knowledge of biology shaky, which is why I made the comment about the memes. The interesting questions that he glancingly touches on in the interview are 1) what was the evolutionary reason for development of religion? and 2) where in the brain/mind does it arise? Insights into these topics would not only increase our fundamental knowledge of ourselves, but might also help us short-circuit some no-longer adaptive habits.

  3. SansCard says:

    Those are interesting topics indeed! I find the brain imaging work going on to be intriguing as it relates to mind/brain binding, whatever your take is on causes. I find the current evidence too shallow to say that the spirit is merely a brain-generated feeling or for that matter that we know what the material universe really is. In a way it seems related to the other conversation we’ve been having on the email thread about FTL – if things are connected at the quantum level outside Einsteinian space-time, perhaps the mind is wholly physical, and the spiritual is actually just a “deeper” physicality.


  4. Athena says:

    Spirit as part of the curled-up dimensions in string theory? Now there’s a Grand Unified Theory! (*laughs*) But we as lifeforms are firmly in the Middle Kingdom, our scale and processes are almost entirely Newtonian.

  5. SansCard says:

    It’s just a GUT feeling (ugh)…

    Buddhist philosophy and Pagan/Gnostic ideas bear a certain similarity to quantumthewory at least in a broad sense. The Buddhist description of this world is “causes” and the transcendent world is “not is, not isn’t, not this, not other”.


  6. rocketscientist says:

    It’s just a GUT feeling (ugh)!

    LOL! I’ll say! Love the argument though.

  7. Athena says:

    Some of the convergence comes from the fact that our brains are not made to directly encompass the extreme ends of the physical continuum. We make do with approximate models. An obvious example of this is the borrowing of lovely but semantically loaded words (strange, charmed, truth, beauty, quark) to name entities and properties that aren’t easily accessible to our mental processing.

  8. Walden2 says:

    Darwin’s God

    New York Times March 4, 2007


    In the world of evolutionary
    biology, the question is not whether
    God exists but why we believe in
    him. Is belief a helpful adaptation
    or an evolutionary…

  9. Athena says:

    I just mentioned this particular article in the forums! One of the best I read in a long time. It imparts an enormous amount of information, explains complex concepts really well and brings many disparate threads together. In short, my kind of essay!