Discovery Institute: The Delusional Viewpoint

SOME Discoveroid blog articles require tough slogging to critique. Either their information is wrong, their quotes are bogus or out of context, their reasoning is warped, or their prose is tortured. In some cases it’s all of the above. When we see that one of their articles that has too many flaws, we skip it because it’s not worth the bother of a response. Few people take the Discoveroids seriously anyway, and the strange folk who do take them seriously don’t really know or care about facts. We usually save our efforts for those articles that have only one or two hilarious bloopers.

But sometimes we get sucked in, and by the time we realize that we’ve stepped into a bottomless pit of muck, we’ve expended so much effort that we have to see it through. So it was today. The neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids) have posted a really odd article at their blog: Pascal Boyer Dissects Religion.

Who is Pascal Boyer, and why don’t the Discoveroids like him? Here’s a Wikipedia article about him: Pascal Boyer; which describes him as:

… an anthropologist who advocates the idea that human instincts provide us with the basis for an intuitive theory of mind that guides our social relations, morality, and predilections toward religious beliefs. Boyer and others propose that these innate mental systems make human beings predisposed to certain cultural elements such as belief in supernatural beings.

Here’s his homepage at the domain of Washington University, Pascal Boyer, where he says:

My research is aimed at describing neuro-cognitive systems that [a] are part of the normal make-up of human minds as a result of evolution by natural selection and [b] support the acquisition of cultural knowledge, concepts and norms.

We can easily understand why the Discoveroids don’t care for Professor Boyer’s work. Let’s see what their blog article says. First, they mention that Boyer wrote this in Nature:

When people proclaim their adherence to a particular faith, they subscribe to claims for which there is no evidence, and that would be taken as obviously wrong or ridiculous in other religious groups. This signals a willingness to embrace the group’s particular norm for no other reason than that it is, precisely, the group’s norm.

Warning: We haven’t verified that quote because it requires a subscription, so we can’t see if it’s distorted or quoted out of context. We recommend that you should always verify quotes posted by creationists, but this time we’ll let their quote stand as it is. However, we found a draft of Boyer’s article when we were half finished with this post.

Then the Discoveroids say, with bold added by us:

The amazing thing is that Boyer rightly maintains that religious belief is easy and natural. It seems to be the natural way our cognitive systems work. But when researchers normally attempt to explain a phenomenon in terms of brain malfunction, it is usually an abnormal belief.

That’s the key to the Discoveroid article. They use Boyer as their authority that mysticism is “the natural way our cognitive systems work” so it’s the scientists who are abnormal. That’s how creationists make themselves feel good, by plucking quotes out of here and there and then imagining that science is on their side.

Did Boyer really say that religious belief is “the natural way our cognitive systems work”? And if he said it, what did he mean? He may very well have said that religious beliefs occur naturally — after all, the brain isn’t a supernatural organ, but that doesn’t say anything about the quality of beliefs. Natural doesn’t mean “true.” Mere beliefs are common, and many of them are silly. As for “cognition” — the process of perceiving and knowing objective reality, that’s the province of science, not religion.

Okay, at this point we went to Boyer’s homepage to find something he may have said on this topic. To our delight, we found a draft of Boyer’s Nature article (a pdf file) at his own website: Religion: Bound to believe? Now we can see that shortly after the quote given by the Discoveroids, Boyer said something else, not mentioned by the Discoveroids:

Religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources, as do music, visual art, cuisine, politics, economic institutions and fashion. This hijacking occurs simply because religion provides some form of what psychologists would call super stimuli. Just as visual art is more symmetrical and its colours more saturated than what is generally found in nature …

That’s not a ringing endorsement for religious beliefs, natural though they may be. It would appear that the Discoveroid claim about religious beliefs being “the natural way our cognitive systems work” hardly reflects the entirety Boyer’s position. Are we surprised?

Here’s more from the Discoveroid article:

But why then does Boyer seek to explain the dominant religious view, which he admits is the normal way brains function under normal circumstances, as though it was faulty? Why doesn’t he turn it around? Why doesn’t he seek to explain religious disbelief, which is the extreme minority, in terms of cognitive malfunction, if, as he admits, normal brain functioning leads to religious belief?

Why? Maybe it’s because a religious belief — although natural — is faith-based, and therefore may sometimes be contradicted by a rigorous examination of reality. There’s the malfunction! Natural, sure; but so is tooth decay. The Discoveroids — being steeped in precisely that malfunction — are left to wonder why Boyer, who says that religious thinking is natural, somehow isn’t on their side.

Here’s another excerpt, where they present another quote from Boyer. But as a teaser — we’ll tell you ahead of time that they left something out:

Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems. By contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.

That makes sense. Science is difficult work — one needs to gather data, devise rational hypotheses, and then test them. Compare that effort to a mystic’s methodology of merely staring into space and contemplating the infinite — the mystic’s method is certainly “the path of least resistance.” For example, consider the pioneering efforts of James Hutton, regarded as the father of modern geology. He was the first to systematically examine evidence to determine the age of the Earth, about three generations before Darwin’s theory of evolution. Hutton didn’t take the “path of least resistance.”

But the Discoveroids seem not to appreciate the difficult path. One more excerpt, the final paragraph of their article:

Of course this [their Boyer quote about the “path of least resistance”] does not follow from any of the research he presents. If anything, the research he cites shows that religious belief is natural, and scientists like Boyer ought to be applying their expertise to find out why the irreligious fail to believe when they are, so to speak, “programmed” (whether by evolution or by design) to do so.

No cited research? That’s what motivated us to find the draft of Boyer’s article. We were shocked — shocked! — to discover that somehow, the Discoveroids omitted the first sentence of Boyer’s two-sentence paragraph. What they left out was this:

Knowing, even accepting these conclusions [the research findings summarized in the preceding paragraph] is unlikely to undermine religious commitment.

We told you, some Discoveroid articles just aren’t worth the effort we put into them.

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8 responses to “Discovery Institute: The Delusional Viewpoint

  1. retiredsciguy

    It’s easy to see how we could have evolved into a predilection toward religious belief. If you think of religion as a way that a ruling class of people controls the actions of the masses, then it’s easy to see why so much pressure is placed on the individual to conform. Those who conform get ahead and are successful, those who do not submit to the prevailing religious belief are shunned, or worse.

    For an example of this, just consider politics. Do you think it would be possible for an avowed atheist, or even agnostic, to be elected president of the United States?

  2. “Do you think it would be possible for an avowed atheist, or even agnostic, to be elected president of the United States?”

    Probably not. There were at least a few — most of the Founders were Deists, probably — and no one knows what Lincoln was, but none were “avowed” atheists or agnostics.

  3. retiredsciguy

    So, non-believers have been systematically killed off down through man’s history — heretics burned at the stake, etc. This is evolution by unnatural selection, but evolution nonetheless. Goes a long way toward explaining why blind faith is seen as a virtue, while doubt and skepticism are considered vices.

  4. “So, non-believers have been systematically killed off down through man’s history …”

    I donno. There have been some bad episodes, but for the most part, thinking hasn’t been bred out of the species — it only seems that way when dealing with creationists.

  5. Good job Curmy.

    I’m not sure that religion as it stands today, or has stood in the past for that matter, is a natural part of our evolution. I think spiritualism*, the yearning and search for something beyond ourselves, something greater in explanatory power, something that gives us direction and meaning, is part of our nature. Religion is simply a tool used by human authorities to tap into spiritualism and with the aid of ‘carrot and the stick’ manipulation, give themselves the power to dictate direction and meaning. Religion is a case of pure control.

    The religious have had their spiritualism forced towards authoritarianism and mob rule, while atheists have either replaced spiritualism with a rational understanding of nature (science) and/or have harnessed it to help them appreciate the awesomeness of nature. (sunsets)

    *My definition is not the same as the woo meister’s.

  6. retiredsciguy

    b_sharp says:
    “…while atheists have either replaced spiritualism with a rational understanding of nature (science) and/or have harnessed it to help them appreciate the awesomeness of nature. (sunsets)”

    Or both. Science and an appreciation of beauty are not mutually exclusive. Consider Leonardo da Vinci.

    But back to whether evolution may have shaped our predilection toward religious belief. A strong argument can be made to support this hypothesis. In all cultures, and going back through human history, many benefits have been conferred on believers — or those who profess belief. Just look at reproduction. In most cultures, people have needed the blessing of their religious leaders in order to (legally) reproduce. And they are then encouraged to do so bountifully. “Go forth and multiply.”

    In daily interactions, life has been easier for those who have conformed to the cultural norms regarding religious belief. More success in life translates into more of one’s genes making it into the next generation. Isn’t that the whole object of life?

  7. retiredsciguy

    Just after submitting my last post, I saw the “and/or” in b_sharp’s comment. I apologize for missing that, and saying the same thing.

  8. Religion’s proposed evolutionary origin is too complicated for me to figure out. Religion has traditionally served several functions. It’s an attempt (a failed attempt) to understand the world, a useful method for justifying kingly power, and a successful method for controlling society. But is it inevitable?

    Science is a far better way to understand the world (unless one is contemplating First Causes, perhaps), we have no need for kings, and there are many ways to control society. Ethics and philosophy can lead to religion, but not necessarily our current religions. I have no answers here.