Thursday, May 05, 2011

Religion as Intellectual Neoteny

Yesterday at Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne responded to criticism from Patrick McNamara in which McNamara took issue with Coyne's characterization of religion as a sort of wish fulfillment.

McNamara's argument was that if religion were merely fulfilling wishes, why would people wish for all the restrictive practices religion incorporates? I think Coyne did a pretty good job addressing the issue, but I feel there was another point that should be made in response to McNamara's question. It's really more of an observation, but I think it strikes at the heart of what religion is.

The observation is that in childish play, children will often have a wish and then create stipulations for fulfilling it that are entirely non-sensical, but more importantly, both positive and negative. For example, if a child wants a new toy, they often imagine that if they avoid stepping on cracks, it will be given to them.

It's entirely analogous to what religion is doing: They want eternal life, and suddenly, there's a restrictive system of rules set up to achieve it. The difference is that with these childish games, kids are pressured to grow out of it. With religion, they're pressured to stick with it.

So why do children do this? I can't offer a complete explanation, but I think it comes from the realization that if you want something, you must offer something in return. In the helplessness of a child with little resources available, they have nothing else to offer except self-constructed rituals. Thus, they offer this up as "payment".

As adults, we grow out of it, generally realizing that if you really want something, there's ways to get it that actually work. For example, saving up and buying it. Futility gives way to practicality.

But for the wish of eternal life, what payment could ever be offered for such things? No price could be put on it and as such, could it be that some prefer to continue ineffective rituals?

Perhaps, and if so, I think we should again take a lesson from what it means to grow up in other respects: Sometimes, the things you want just don't exist. A child may want a rocket powered dinosaur that can travel through time. An adult might too. But as an adult, we realize such things make little sense and thus, wouldn't waste our time on them. Now if only we could over the other ridiculous ideas to which we offer hollow rituals.

So to answer McNamara's question, humans create restrictive religious practices that are, in themselves negative to attempt to achieve a positive wish due to the immature inability to simply accept that the object of the wish isn't achievable.

And this isn't the first time I've seen arguments about the intellectual postponement religion imposes. If you're familiar with Brenda Frei, one argument that she made that's stuck with me is that she often encounters children making intellectually backwards arguments for religion full of logical holes and childish reasoning. Which is fine, given they're children. But she'll also encounter grandparents, well beyond the stage we'd expect such arguments, using them just the same. They've never grown out of them.

Thus, it would seem that one of the potential effects of religion is intellectual neoteny, at least in some, self-contained areas of thinking.

This is by no means a fully formed hypothesis and suffers from a developed sense of causality (ie, religion is the cause, or is it the effect, or is this a chance correlation?), but it's an interesting charge that I think could display itself in many more aspects.


Anonymous said...

If religion is Wish Fulfillment, couldn't one argue that Atheism is Denial?

Hip Suburban White Guy

Ivan3man said...

Denialism is choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid an uncomfortable truth: it is the refusal to accept an empirically verifiable reality; it is an essentially irrational action that withholds validation of a historical experience or event.

Atheism, however, is the rejection of belief in the existence of deities or any other supernatural claims in the absence of empirical evidence.

Bryan Grossman said...

Possibly in a simplistic binary view of the universe that is true... But I think that the universe that has been shown to be much more complex that that. The wish of religion is ‘golly I sure hope there is an after life so I can go there if I am a good boy”, with atheism... the fantasy is not there... so atheism says... denial of what?