Does Religion Serve a Purpose?

This lecture by professor Paul Bloom of Yale starts with the observation that religion serves no obvious adaptive purpose. I find that a little surprising since it is well documented that people who have a make generally accurate appraisals of themselves and their environment are depressed (notice it is not clear which way causality runs). Since optimism is considered to be adaptive, and most religions have a point of view as to what death is all about and what if anything happens afterwards, I would think that giving people coping strategies about the inevitability of death would be adaptive. As I wrote last year:

In the Indian epic Mahabharata, Yudhisthira goes looking for his missing brothers, who went searching for water. He finds them all dead next to a pond. In despair, but still parched, he is about to drink, but a crane tells him he must answer some questions first. The last and most difficult: “What is the greatest wonder of the world?” Yudhisthira answers, “Day after day, hour after hour, countless people die, yet the living believe they will live forever.”

And as Americans have become more and more work focused, and as job tenures become shorter and people often have to move in search of gainful employment, the idea of community as a place seems quaint. As this video suggests, houses of worship may be the only place most people find community these days. I doubt that is a healthy development.

And this DOES relate to the Super Bowl! The Center for Public Religion has found that 1/3 of Americans think God decides the outcome of sporting events. He does not do so directly, by having favorite teams (too tacky!) but by favoring teams with more God-fearing athletes.

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    1. JGordon

      There are a number of non-rational beliefs that people indulge in, even those in “advanced” societies.

      Let’s take ours for example: did you know that advanced degrees from universities are, even today, still being awarded in such fraudulent fields as astrology, economics, and parapsychology?

      Hard to believe I know, but it just goes to prove that everyone has his own supersitions–and to the believer they’re “real” and everyone else just “stupid” for not believing in them.

      1. nonclassical

        …good to study such as Joseph Campbell=history of religious belief…or J.Krishnamurti…who noted, “Religion has had thousands of years to cure man’s ills….should we give it thousands more…?

        Fine woodworker once asked Chuang-Tzu if he would visit him, in “heaven” (the afterlife)…
        Chuang-Tzu replied, “One must use proper tool for the job..”…

        Woodworker agreed…”Yes, proper tool for job”…

        To which Chuang-Tzu replied, “Life is not the proper tool with which to view death…better to use life to take good care in life…”

        Chuang-Tzu then noted, “Lao-Tzu has hinted there will be plenty of time for the tool of death..”


        1. pws

          The Subjugation of a Ghost

          A young wife fell sick and was about to die. “I love you so much,” she told her husband, “I do not want to leave you. Do not go from me to any other woman. If you do, I will return as a ghost and cause you endless trouble.”

          Soon the wife passed away. The husband respected her last wish for the first three months, but then he met another woman and fell in love with her. They became engaged to be married.

          Immediately after the engagement a ghost appeared every night to the man, blaming him for not keeping his promise. The ghost was clever too. She told him exactly what had transpired between himself and his new sweetheart. Whenever he gave his fiancee a present, the ghost would describe it in detail. She would even repeat conversations, and it so annoyed the man that he could not sleep. Someone advised him to take his problem to a Zen master who lived close to the village. At length, in despair, the poor man went to him for help.

          “Your former wife became a ghost and knows everything you do, ” commented the master. “Whatever you do or say, whatever you give your beloved, she knows. She must be a very wise ghost. Really you should admire such a ghost. The next time she appears, bargain with her. Tell her that she knows so much you can hide nothing from her, and that if she will answer you one question, you promise to break your engagement and remain single.”

          “What is the question I must ask her?” inquired the man.

          The master replied: “Take a large handful of soy beans and ask her exactly how many beans you hold in your hand. If she cannot tell you, you will know that she is only a figment of your imagination and will trouble you no longer.”

          The next night, when the ghost appeared the man flattered her and told her that she knew everything.

          “Indeed,” replied the ghost, “and I know you went to see that Zen master today.”

          “And since you know so much,” demanded the man, “tell me how many beans I hold in this hand!”

          There was no longer any ghost to answer the question.

          1. Lee

            Zen Buddhism is the only religion that has held any enduring interest for me. It is not even a religion as the term is usually employed in that it has no divinity (“If you meet the Buddha, slay him!”) and students who pose metaphysical questions such as what is the meaning of life or why do we live and why do we die are generally rebuffed with a blow or nonsensical answer such as “a dead cat’s head”.

            Scholar, R.H. Blyth claimed that Zen has more in common with existentialism than with what we generally think of as religion. But Zen and most existentialists would concur with Sartre that someone without a thirst for the absolute is an incomplete person. This absolute is to be found by a quality of attention to whatever moment we find ourselves in so that we live “poetically”, again according to Blyth, whether we are indeed writing a poem or scrubbing a toilet.

          2. Mansoor H. Khan

            or when trying to understand religion, or when trying to understand the monetary system, or when fighting a war, or when making love to one’s spouse…

            yes… all life is a worship! Even breathing and sneezing.

            Everything is interdependent, complimentary and connected and glorifies the creator and has a reason for why that is so. And we should use our brains to make our lives better (using our brains/logic/reasoning is also worship).


      2. They didn't leave me a choice

        Wait, a scamhouse that allows astrology to be taught is allowed to be called an university? What third world hellhole do you hail from?

      3. Massinissa

        I lol’ed at you mentioning Economics…

        But seriously you can get PHDs in parapsyhology still? My god…

        1. diptherio

          The First Church Of Diptherian Ontology-Orthodoxymoronic (Reformed), offers PhDs in Parapsychology as well as Metaphysical Chiropractic.

          $55 each, plus shipping. How many do you want?

      4. okie farmer

        Reg Morrison wrote a book called “The Spirit in the Gene” in which he built a case for human spirituality being adaptive to human survival. Convincingly, I might add. Here is a paragraph from his blog:


        When modern members of this family bet on racehorses they tend to
        recoil from bets that involve odds much greater than 50 to one, and
        they would scorn punters who habitually make bets at vastly greater
        odds—at 500:1 for example. Such gamblers are dismissed as exceptionally
        naive, even delusional to the point of insanity.
        Yet when members of this family consider the enigmas of biological
        existence, most of them make one particular bet against vastly
        greater odds without hesitation. They bet that, unlike the other 20
        million to 100 million species on the planet, they live a dual existence,
        one physical and the other mental or spiritual.
        As in horse racing, you can bet to ‘Win’, or place an ‘Each-way’ bet:
        1. WIN: this extreme option bets that there is some unseen supernatural
        power that will arrange matters in the gambler’s favour if the
        gambler plays his or her cards right. An even bigger payoff is promised
        in a mystical afterlife when the gambler is supposed to become
        similarly unseen and endowed with unnatural wisdom and eternal life.
        2. EACH-WAY: this moderate option bets that the gambler’s species
        is unique within the biota because evolution has endowed it with three
        crucial assets: complex language, high intelligence, and a rational
        brain that can juggle abstractions. Even some scientists make this bet
        without hesitation.

    2. digi_owl

      My take on it over the years is that religion is social/cultural rules of thumb gone rabid.

      A taboo on eating pig for instance? Pigs can carry a illness that do not really affect them (much like a number of things that our bodies has learned to cope with over the generations) but that can be lethal to humans.

      Observe enough people fall ill and die after eating pig and it is easy for the remaining community to declare the pig “unclean”.

      Over generations of upholding that declaration tho the reason why is likely not known by most, or only heard about in stories. And anyone that has played telephone knows how stories can be distorted as they pass around.

      Then you stack on top of that stuff like group alpha status (we are still apes after all) and things rapidly go down hill…

      1. from Mexico

        The rule of thumb hypothesis may have some explanatory power, but where it goes off track is where it is used to attack empathy and benevolence, as Richard Dawkins does here beginning at minute 47:30

        Dawkins argues that empathy, compassion and benevolence are, as you put it, “rules of thumb gone bad.”

        Dawkins’ irrational hatred of religion, quasi-religious rejection of the notion of group selection, and zealotry in the belief that all human behavior ought to be self-regarding lead him to some rather dubious “scientific” conclusions. As David Sloan Wilson put it in “Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Relgion”:

        In retrospect, it is hard to fathom the zeal with which evolutionists such as Williams and Dawkins rejected group selection and developed a view of evolution as based entirely on self-interest. Williams ended Adaptation and Natural Selection with the phrase “I believe that it is the light and the way.” Here is how Dawkins recounts the period in his 1982 book The Extended Phenotype:

        The intervening years since Darwin have seen an astonishing retreat from his individual-centered stand, a lapse into sloppily unconscious group-selectionism … We painfully struggled back, harassed by sniping from a Jesuitically sophisticated and dedicated neo-group-selectionist rearguard, until we finally regained Darwin’s ground, the position that I am characterizing by the label ‘the selfish organism…”

        This passage has all the earmarks of fundamentalist rhetoric, including appropriating the deity (Darwin) for one’s own cause. Never mind that Darwin was the first group selectionist. Moreover, unlike The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype was written by Dawkins for his scientific peers, not for a popular audience!

        1. digi_owl

          Yea, it is not a perfect explanation but it helps me find logical reasons for why seemingly arbitrary dogma exists.

          As for Dawkins and crew, their stuff extends on game theory. And we know how much good that has brought…

        2. different clue

          Dawkins does not hate “religion”. He is religious himself.
          His religion is Atheism. Perhaps one could call his religion Fundamentalist Atheism.

          He merely hates OTHer religions for retaining “market mindshare” that he thinks should belong to HIS religion, which is Fundamentalist Atheism.

      2. redleg

        Keep in mind the cultures that prohibit pork are herders/nomads. Pigs can’t be herded. This must have some bearing on the prohibition of pork – a multi-millenial old farmers vs. ranchers feud.

      1. from Mexico

        @ dipherio

        You beat me to the punch.

        There are a great many people who believe that false beliefs can be adaptive, including some prominent atheists.

        Nietzsche, for instance, believed that man is an incorrigible pragmatist, like other animals, ever maintaining the truth of those beliefs which seemed to help us. “We are knowing to the extent that we can satisfy our needs,” he said. That truth is always best for life, however, is a moral prejudice.

        Nietzsche believed that man greatly oversimplifies reality. Our senses respond to only a limited range of physical influences, present the world in perspectives with finite horizons, neglect countless details, exaggerate others, have strange gaps, and are shot through with inherited valuations. Science was scant improvement over religion. It was merely another level of delusion. He envisages several levels of “illusion,” each false in comparison to the one beneath it, but the last level is not “true being.” It is simply the irrational totality which includes the others. “The sincere person,” Nietzsche said, “ends by realizing that he always lies.”

        Another promient atheist who argues that false beliefs can be adaptive is the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. “Even massively ficticious beliefs can be adaptive,” he writes in Darwin’s Cathedral, “as long as they motivate behaviors that are adaptive in the real world.”

      2. hardindr

        It is very hard to believe that false beliefs would benefit early humans in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. I’m sure that false beliefs may lend people confidence, but I don’t know what that has to do with increasing their fitness. Many false beliefs associated with religion are time-consuming, materially costly and painful. None of those things increase fitness.

        1. diptherio

          Delusionally high self-confindence makes one more believably intimidating to potential rivals, thus reducing the need for actual physical force to be used to maintain one’s status (as, for instance, among baboons). Self-deception can often be adaptive in this sense.

          And just because religious rituals may seem expensive, time-consuming, and/or painful to you, does not mean that there are not offsetting benefits realized by the participants. Shared rituals create social bonds and serve to bind together members of the community through communal sacrifice and enjoyment.

          What seem like crazy rituals to an outsider, may have a very deep meaning and effect on participants. Take the Lakota Sun Dance. According to Russell Means, the purpose of the Sun Dance (where the skin of the chest or back of a man is pierced with rawhide strips which are then ripped out in some manner) was too give men some idea of what the pains of childbirth are like. The Sun Dance is a ritual which is meant to bring balance to the participants, and while it may seem &uumlber-macho to us, it is in fact an attempt by the male to access and release his femininity.

          It is easy to ridicule that which one does not understand, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. Religion, like everything, is multifaceted and paradoxical. Broad generalizations regarding it, therefore, are of little use.

          1. diptherio

            uh…that’s supposed to be uber-mach with umlauts on the u. Weird, it previewed right…oh well.

            I’ll add that strong communal bonds, and the ability to empathize with peers are highly adaptive characteristics for social animals such as ourselves, in case I didn’t make that clear above. It’s a very limited perspective on “fitness” that doesn’t take these things into account.

          2. hardindr

            I think we are maybe talking past each other. I don’t think religion was selected for in humans’ early history because false beliefs would not have increased early humans fitness in EEA. As Scott Atran has noted, no one has provided any evidence that group selection (what might account for religions’ increasing early humans fitness) exists. Also, eventually other baboons find out that someone is bluffing, and act accordingly. Today, religions may serve many purposes, moral or otherwise, but they don’t have to.

            It is easy to ridicule that which one does not understand, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. Religion, like everything, is multifaceted and paradoxical. Broad generalizations regarding it, therefore, are of little use.

            I am not ridiculing religious beliefs or practices, even though I find them bizarre and false. I think that religion is a wash, I think it does as much good as it does evil. If religion were to disappear tomorrow, I don’t think humanity would be better off in a substantial way.

          3. diptherio

            Group Selection, I thought that was probably were we disagreed.

            I’ll just say that I think the jury is still out. I don’t know Atran, so I can’t comment on him, but I’ve read at least a couple journal articles that present evidence for group selection (the exitence of altruism, for instance).

            Sorry to imply that you’re ridiculing, my bad.

          4. nonclassical

            Socrates viewed the matter=subject as search for TRUTH..

            question here then, for obvious “relativists” is, “IS THERE TRUTH?”…

            Appears to me, abstraction of many answers here, people cannot answer truthfully…

    3. rotter

      I think most adaptive behaviors human being have gained came long before anything that could be called “religion’ (a term not defined by professor Bloom). In any case religion appeared several thousand years ago with another human behavior not “apparently adaptive” – Law. Most religionists, if I unserstand it correctly, believe that knowledge of God (and of law) was revealed, anyway.

      1. rotter

        And we can, and should add ART to that list of “useless’ behaviors.. In humans, Law and Art reside in the same place as God.

    4. Jim Shannon

      Humans believe what they want to believe because they can! Truth is whatever the collective wants to believe, fact or fiction is irrelevant!

  1. Roland

    I’ll start with the observation that Paul Bloom of Yale is unfit to comment on thousands of years of human religious history.

    1. skippy

      “thousands of years of human religious history.” Roland

      Try – HUNDREDS of THOUSANDS… fixed

      Prehistoric period (300th millennium to 34th century BCE)

      See also: Prehistoric religion, Paleolithic religion, and Evolutionary origin of religions

      A commonly held marker for the dawn of religious belief and practice is with the advent of intentional burial marks,[1] thus included in this section.

      skip to

      100th to 34th century BCE


      The Neolithic Revolution begins and results in a worldwide population explosion. The first cities, states, kingdoms, and organized religions begin to emerge. The early states were usually theocracies, in which the political power is justified by religious prestige.

      Skippy… Someone sure – is – unqualified.

      1. skippy

        Oppsie… forgot link.

        Ancient history (33rd century BCE to 3rd century CE)

        See also: History of religion
        [edit]33rd to 12th century BCE
        3228 – 3102 BCE
        Traditionally accepted time of Krishna’s life on Earth (One of the revered gods in Hinduism).[12][13][14][15][16][17]
        3100 BCE
        The initial form of Stonehenge is completed. The circular bank and ditch enclosure, about 110 metres (360 ft) across, may be complete with a timber circle.
        3100 – 2900 BCE
        Newgrange, the 250,000 ton (226,796.2 tonne) passage tomb aligned to the winter solstice in Ireland, is built.[18]
        3000 BCE
        Sumerian Cuneiform emerges from the proto-literate Uruk period, allowing the codification of beliefs and creation of detailed historical religious records.
        The second phase of Stonehenge is completed and appears to function as the first enclosed cremation cemetery in the British Isles.
        2635 – 2610 BCE
        The oldest surviving Egyptian Pyramid is commissioned by pharaoh Djoser.
        2600 BCE
        Stonehenge begins to take on the form of its final phase. The wooden posts are replaced with that of bluestone. It begins taking on an increasingly complex setup—including altar, portal, station stones, etc.—and shows consideration of solar alignments.
        2560 BCE
        The approximate time accepted as the completion of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest pyramid of the Giza Plateau.
        2494 – 2345 BCE
        The first of the oldest surviving religious texts, the Pyramid Texts, are composed in Ancient Egypt.
        2348 BCE
        Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood that wiped out all previous civilizations according to the Ussher chronology.
        2200 BCE
        Minoan Civilization in Crete develops. Citizens worship a variety of Goddesses.
        2150 – 2000 BCE
        The earliest surviving versions of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (originally titled “He who Saw the Deep” (Sha naqba īmuru) or “Surpassing All Other Kings” (Shūtur eli sharrī)) were written.
        2000 – 1850 BCE
        The traditionally accepted period in which the Judeochristian/Islamic patriarchal figure Abraham lived. Likely born in Ur Kaśdim or Haran and died in Machpelah, Canaan.
        1700 BCE
        Zoroaster (a.k.a. Zarathushtra), founder of Zoroastrianism is thought to have been born.
        1600 BCE
        The ancient development of Stonehenge comes to an end.
        1500 – 1000 BCE
        Vedic ‘Samhitas’ composed (Rig-Veda : Hinduism : India)
        [edit]13th to 9th century BCE
        1367 BCE
        Reign of Akhenaten in Ancient Egypt. Akhenaten is sometimes credited with starting the earliest known monotheistic religion. Akenaten’s monotheistic beliefs are thought to be the precursor of the monotheistic doctrines of the Abrahamic religions.
        1300 – 1000 BCE
        The “standard” Akkadian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh was edited by Sin-liqe-unninni.
        1250 BCE
        The believed time of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt.
        1200 BCE
        The Greek Dark Age begins.
        1200 BCE
        Olmecs build earliest pyramids and temples in Central America.[19]
        950 BCE
        The Torah begins to be written, the core texts of Judaism and foundation of later Abrahamic religions.
        877–777 BCE
        Parshva, 23rd Tirthankar of Jainism.[20][21][22][23][24][25]

        Skippy… and some of this will be revised upon future discovery.

      2. nonclassical

        Joseph Campbell’s historical consideration begins with man’s conception of greatest “power” being the sun, planets, stars…then, progressing to natural forces; rains, oceans, mountains-then fire…along with planets…then progressing to animals more powerful than humans…..and finally, to humans aggrandizing themselves…

        I believe Campbell also noted Sumerian “Tales Of Gilgamesh”, and related stories prevalent in biblical history…gods coming from sun..leading to sun god=Ra-Egypt…leading to “son of god”….prison religion, Egypt…better life in afterlife..

        one could also peruse this:

        though NOT “similarly titled” derivations….

      3. knowbuddhau

        Well said! I’ve been re-reading all week Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (1959; rev. ed. 1969), the first in a four volume set. Aside from some old-school sexism and chauvinism (eg, “man” as the collective noun for humanity; “savages” for people who live in exceptionally old ways, etc.), it’s very good stuff.

        You’re right about the time scale. The use of fire goes back at least 400,000 years. We have evidence of Neanderthals practicing ritual burial, complete with grave gear, beginning at least 300,000 years ago. Homo sapiens used the painted caves of Europe for at least 25,000 years.

        Let that sink in. The oldest “cities” in the world date back to c. 10,000 BC. The painted caves were already older than that when we began living in permanent settlements.

        There’s something missing from the Wikipedia timeline, though: the Ness of Brodgar, found in the Orkney islands of northernmost Scotland, a temple complex dating back to 3200 BC. It was in use for a full millennium. And it’s built on even older ruins! (Funny thing is, I have the following links open in tabs already, was discussing this yesterday. I love it when synchronicity happens. I bow, with great respect, to Our Lady of the Enlightened Blog).

        BBC2: A History of Ancient Britain: Orkney’s Stone Age Temple
        The Ness of Brodgar Excavations: a millennium of activity

        Its most important revelation has been the reversal of the pattern of cultural diffusion: in neolithic Britain (at least), arts and culture diffused southward, not northward, as the Greco-Roman tradition has had us believing all these years.

        So even in what we call the West, all “civilization” does not come, in fact, from Greco-Roman roots. There’s a whole history of tribal roots that got completely overwritten by the coming of the Romans to “Britain,” itself a Roman name. There are much more ancient traditions that may offer solutions to our ever so “civilized” and “modern” problems. Sound familiar? (Hint: Idle No More.)

        On this theme, I’ve been watching some truly awesome videos lately (via the Pirate Bay :D).

        BBC4: The Dark Ages: An Age of Light
        Part 1, “The Clash of the Gods,” is especially pertinent. We’re living in the 1700th century of imperial Christianity, begun by Constantine in 313. I think it’s the worst thing that ever happened to it. Having sprung from the myth of a fallen and corrupt Nature to begin with, the Christian mind moved indoors, so to speak, and has been removing itself from Nature more and more ever since.

        Also of note is that, along with the transformation of Roman basilicas into Christian cathedrals, state-funded Christian artists used Apollo as their model for Jesus; Zeus for God; and Isis and Horus as the model for the Madonna and Bambino. In fact, one of the lessons of Campbell’s works is that all new religions borrow from older ones. All, and I do mean all, of the motifs of Judaism come from the earlier Sumerian system, transmogrified into the image of their patrons.

        And this is an extremely important point: the vast majority of what we know of religions comes to us through the works of male priests working for male patrons who could have the priests killed. So of course what has been passed down to us reflects, to a large extent, the influence of male royal patrons.

        BBC2: Divine Women: When God Was a Girl
        Hugely important revelations of the earliest history of religion. Contra a comment below, that the first objects of religious contemplation were the heavenly bodies, the nude female form is the first. The earliest figurines found are of nude women, dating back to around the time of the painted caves (c.23,000 BC). (See also Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness?)

        Historian Brittany Hughes relates how cults of thunder-bolt hurling war gods have, time and time again, sought to erase from history cults of the goddess. We’re living in a such a period now. The cults of war gods are ascendant (Jehovah/Zeus, to be specific). Greek kings explicitly demoted Gaia in favor of her grandson, Zeus. Rome’s followed suit.

        Is it any wonder that war, far from being a short-term aberration, is, in fact, what we do? Just look at the latest imperial incarnation of this tradition. What does Obama, King of Drones, do about perceived threats to his empire’s dominance? Hurl thunderbolts from heaven, complete with human sacrifice of innocents on the altar of said dominance. How does he treat infidels and heretics? Lock em up, make their lives a living hell, and throw away the key (aka the abomination of “indefinite detention”).

        We shouldn’t expect cults of wannabe war gods ever to produce lasting peace.

        I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point: the religious mode of being human is far, far older than has previously been thought, and the vast majority of what we know has been shaped by a self-referential, bellicose, belligerent, even belliphilic patriarchy.

        1. skippy

          It completely – amazes me – that so much data is *cut out* and pushed to the floor. If the information is not filtered through the – trickled down from… the central command structure… it’s heresy (deviation from the *truth*)

          With regards to this subject, has there ever been a more extreme case of – willful ignorance – in humanity’s history[!!!]. The Christian bible it self was heavily edited by political processes, and yes, for the good of the Empire[!].

          Skippy… Evident in this entire thread is the lack of scope, dedication to a small data set, tunnel vision, an unwillingness to recognize our species as a hole and not a sum of it belief parts. A species intent on diminishing everything, including its self, over IT…

          1. hik19

            The Bible indeed is heavily edited, but the similarities in the texts, that of the Roman-edited version and the recently discovered texts, is curious enough. And maybe that was what got me going. I used to think of myself as an agnostic of sorts but ask me now and I’d say that the teachings of Jesus Christ has become the truth for me. So I guess that makes me an example of a person who adapted to what others may say as fictitious belief.
            I also see religion as a convenient tool for people to further their causes, meritorious or otherwise – indeed highly susceptible to cultivating extremists among their ranks and you cannot really filter out people with very irrational/illogical/unpractical view in life. Personally though, there is a clear delineation between religion and faith for me.
            As for the rituals each religion has, I think this is the social component to it that it gives comfort for most people to find out that they connect or share something with others.
            Well anyway, I am not as well read as the other people here and I really appreciate the extensive discussion and references to different ideas here.

    2. diptherio

      I’ll start with the observation that you are unfit to comment on Bloom’s fitness to comment on millenia of religious history (so far as any of us know). Nice non-comment, though.

      1. Jim Haygood

        ‘This lecture by professor Paul Bloom of Yale …’

        Yale Divinity School is partnered with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Blair taught a course at Yale called ‘Faith and Globalization.’

        Who knew that one could absorb religion at the feet of a prominent war criminal who slaughtered thousands in an invasion based on entirely on lies?

        Maybe he was dispensing cautionary tales …

        1. diptherio

          Bloom is a cognitive scientist, not a theologian. I have no idea how much time he spends at the Divinity School, but I don’t see how that is relevant.

    3. craazyman

      This fellow should be vigilant not to stray unredeemably far from the path of virtue and traffic in his own vain fables of a Godless world with clever disquisitions that impress the feeble minded.

      The judgment of the Lord is righteous altogether . . .

      “Sinner, I beseech thee, realize the truth of these things. Do not go about to dream that this is derogatory to God’s mercy, and nothing but a vain fable to scare children out of their wits withal. God can be merciful, though he make thee miserable. He shall have monuments enough of that precious attribute, shining like stars in the place of glory, and singing eternal hallelujahs to the praise of Him that redeemed them, though, to exalt the power of his justice, he damn sinners heaps upon heaps.” -Rev. Samuel Treat, Calvinist Pastor, Eastham, Mass., late 1600s

    1. nonclassical

      …you have the “right” to believe in whatever god you wish-so long as you afford anyone else the “right” to believe whatever god THEY wish…which defeats the “purpose”…

  2. JGordon

    In places where people live in harmony with nature, being in touch with reality engenders feelings of freedom and optimism. Not depression. So don’t generalize too much there.

    You and the researchers have a bit of shared cultural blindness that you won’t be able to get past until you realize that there’s something outside the fishbowl.

      1. JGordon

        You’re generalizing. Yes, there are other options. Such as recognizing the most basic fact that the composition of every plant on earth is carbon dioxide and water, with a few trace elements thrown in for variety.

        The only difference between a barren desert that will support no life and a lush forest teaming with people and animals is relative arrangement of elements within the system. We labor under the illusion of scarcity while untapped abundance surrounds us. Hopefully that you can see the error of your thinking and start to break free from the blindness now.

  3. Yonatan

    Religion is (or was primarily) a means of power and wealth. Power and wealth for the supposed men of god – who just happen to have invented the god in the first place. Sounds a bit like the Free Market?

    1. from Mexico

      So how do folks like Jesus, Martin Luther, the abolitionists, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. fit into this explanation?

      1. Thorstein

        Each of these was a heretic who stood in opposition to the established religion of his time. It’s hard to separate the saints from the heretics, the devout from the demonic.

      2. skippy


        Jesus is an ambiguous character written in the second, third or more state, by individuals with their own interpretations of events, projections, and shifting bias, over a prolonged time line. Until the second coming, I would personally reserve my comments as I can not validate any of it.

        Martin Luther strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be purchased with money, other wise he was good with all the rest.

        Abolitionism was only concerned with ALL men, women and children of any ethnic were fit to worship – their – creator equally. Yet poor (kids included) could still get ground up in the machines of early industrialism.

        Gandhi was parochial and his experiments in “brahmacharya” or the elimination of all desire in the face of temptation.[179] In 1906 Gandhi, although married and a father, vowed to abstain from sexual relations. In the 1940s, in his mid-seventies, he brought his grandniece Manubehn to sleep naked in his bed as part of a spiritual experiment in which Gandhi could test himself as a “brahmachari.” Several other young women and girls also sometimes shared his bed as part of his experiments.[180] Gandhi discussed his experiment with friends and relations; most disagreed and the experiment ceased in 1947.[181] – wiki


        Martin Luther King, Jr. (a baptist minister) at a Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. With assistance from the Quaker group the American Friends Service Committee, and inspired by Gandhi’s success with non-violent activism, King visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India in 1959.[21] The trip to India affected King in a profound way, deepening his understanding of non-violent resistance and his commitment to America’s struggle for civil rights.

        In a radio address made during his final evening in India, King reflected, “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.”[22]

        African American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin had studied Gandhi’s teachings.[23] Rustin counseled King to dedicate himself to the principles of non-violence,[24] served as King’s main advisor and mentor throughout his early activism,[25] and was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.[26] Rustin’s open homosexuality, support of democratic socialism, and his former ties to the Communist Party USA caused many white and African-American leaders to demand King distance himself from Rustin,[27] which King agreed to do.[28] – snip

        David Garrow wrote about a number of extramarital affairs, including one woman King saw almost daily. According to Garrow, “that relationship … increasingly became the emotional centerpiece of King’s life, but it did not eliminate the incidental couplings … of King’s travels.”

        King explained his extramarital affairs as “a form of anxiety reduction”. Garrow noted that King’s promiscuity caused him “painful and at times overwhelming guilt”.[205] King’s wife Coretta appeared to have accepted his affairs with equanimity, saying once that “all that other business just doesn’t have a place in the very high level relationship we enjoyed.”[206]

        The FBI distributed reports regarding such affairs to the executive branch, friendly reporters, potential coalition partners and funding sources of the SCLC, and King’s family.[207] The Bureau also sent anonymous letters to King threatening to reveal information if he did not cease his civil rights work.[208]

        One anonymous letter sent to King just before he received the Nobel Peace Prize read, in part,
        The American public, the church organizations that have been helping—Protestants, Catholics and Jews will know you for what you are—an evil beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done. King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant [sic]). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy fraudulent self is bared to the nation.[209]

        A tape recording of several of King’s extramarital liaisons, excerpted from FBI wiretaps, accompanied the letter.[210] King interpreted this package an attempt to drive him to suicide,[211] although William Sullivan, head of the Domestic Intelligence Division at the time, argued that it may have only been intended to “convince Dr. King to resign from the SCLC”.[185] King refused to give in to the FBI’s threats.[191]

        Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. in 1977 ordered that all known copies of the recorded audiotapes and written transcripts resulting from the FBI’s electronic surveillance of King between 1963 and 1968 to be held in the National Archives and sealed from public access until 2027.[212] – wiki

        Skip here… King only wanted equal status amongst the other parishioners and had little problem with cutting the cord with one of his most trusted advisers, New York City lawyer Stanley Levison for political reasons.

        Skippy… in the end… all of them… and others… have been completely co-opted by the elites for – their – agenda.

  4. redd

    He has a point. Human Sheeple are social animals first, then, only then, are any spiritual.

    muhammed was one smart ass dude. He knew from the get-go that “community aspect” is the way. Cook up some common daily things you need to do as a commune. Daily prayer 5 times (sprinkle in “facing particular direction”), other customs of worship, brotherhood, us-vs-them etc.etc, you have a pretty strong “army” to achieve your goals (first starts off as a petty village quarrel that needs to be won, then a evolves district, then countries). Then a religion.

  5. peace

    Ignoring evolution, he focuses on the associations between moral behaviors, perceptions of moral behaviors, and individual outcomes such as happiness. So, he indirectly suggests that some rituals associated with religion (e.g., attending weekly services) may be individually adaptive in terms of increasing individual happiness and reducing stress. Whether they are societally adaptive is unclear, particularly since he avoids discussing “loyalty” which is associated with conservatism and not necessarily associated with morality. His term “community” is confusing and a more accurate way to describe it would be “individuals experience more belonging.” “Belonging” is a more general psychological experience (e.g., “a state of enmeshment with one’s environment” “I belong here”) while a sense of “community” involves identification with and attendant loyalty and duties to a specific group.

    He made good points distinguishing the actual associations of religious rituals compared to religious rules and dogma. The benefits seem to accrue from the rituals (such as weekly attendance to services). He also clearly distinguished that neither religious nor atheist individuals are “good” or “bad.” Surprisingly, he made this point without even specifically defining “good” or “bad.” His examples imply good to involve equal treatment (fairness, justice, equality) and charity towards individuals in need (active harm reduction).

    He missed a fundamental psychological benefit that religion provides — certainty. Individuals’ need for certainty underlies many other psychological and social processes. Yves’ example regarding death captures this fundamental underlying factor of codified religious beliefs.

    He also missed a morally counterintuitive psychological bias, the moral credential. Individuals who do something good believe they are good people and create a good identity for themselves. Subsequently, this good identity or moral license counterintuitively allows them to relax their inhibitions and they then act less “good” in subsequent actions. This may explain why priests abuse their authority over children. This moral bias highlights a counterintuitive, long-term, societal effect of legitimating only *special* individuals as more moral compared to others. This moral legitimation of a few special individuals increases their authority and power (yes, Yonatan) and power corrupts.

    1. from Mexico

      • peace says:

      …he avoids discussing “loyalty” which is associated with conservatism and not necessarily associated with morality.

      So just because things like ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity don’t make it into the moral pantheon of liberals, does that mean they’re not “necessarily associated with morality”?

      • peace said:

      His examples imply good to involve equal treatment (fairness, justice, equality) and charity towards individuals in need (active harm reduction).

      This seems to be a fairly common error, to assume that everyone has the same moral compass as we do. Not all people, however, share Bloom’s morality.

      Take the notions of equality and harm reduction, for instance. The social Darwinists developed a science that demonstrated that equality and active harm reduction are bad. And as Bruno Amable observed, these inform the morality of neoliberalism, which just so happens to be our dominant moral paradigm at the moment:

      [S]ocial] Darwinism put forward the notions that will later be at the centre of neo-liberal thought: struggle and competition… For social Darwinists such as Spencer, competition between individuals is seen as an evolutionary principle leading to the improvement not only of society but also of the individual, an element which is alien to the classical liberal thought of the eighteenth century. In social Darwinism, competition between individuals is seen as law of nature (Sumner, 1914) sanctioning the survival of the fittest. As a consequence, any attempt to lessen inequalities would amount to fostering the ‘survival of the unfittest,’ ‘carrying society downward’ and favouring its ‘worst members.’

      — BRUNO AMABLE, “Morals and politics in the ideology of neo-liberalism”

      • peace says:

      He missed a fundamental psychological benefit that religion provides — certainty. Individuals’ need for certainty underlies many other psychological and social processes.

      Agreed. However, I would add that science for many people meets the same need. As Stephen Toulmin notes in Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, “John Dewey’s 1929 Gifford Lectures on The Quest for Certainty claimed that the debate in philosophy had rested, ever since the 1630s, on too passive a view of the human mind, and on inappropriate demands for geometrical certainty.”

      As Toulmin goes on to explain of our Modernist Quest for Certainty, the “Cartesian Error,” the “modern dead end” or the “errors that Modern Philosophy fell victim to” according to Dewey and Richard Rorty: “All the protagonists of modern philosophy [beginning in about 1630 and continuig on down to today] promoted theory, devalued practice, and insisted equally on the need to find foundations for knowledge that were clear, distinct, and certain.”

      • peace says:

      He also missed a morally counterintuitive psychological bias, the moral credential. Individuals who do something good believe they are good people and create a good identity for themselves. Subsequently, this good identity or moral license counterintuitively allows them to relax their inhibitions and they then act less “good” in subsequent actions. This may explain why priests abuse their authority over children. This moral bias highlights a counterintuitive, long-term, societal effect of legitimating only *special* individuals as more moral compared to others. This moral legitimation of a few special individuals increases their authority and power (yes, Yonatan) and power corrupts.

      And the moral credential may also help to explain why the lords of capital are so callous and non-caring in their pursuit of profit. The justification for this “goodness” may come predominately from science and secular ideologies (like Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), but undeniably religion (e.g., Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, the prosperity gospel — what Reinhold Niebuhr called “yankeeism”) certainly plays a key role.

      1. peace

        @Mexico: Yes, we agree on all these points, I think.

        re: liberal loyalty: Haight and others imply that liberals are more moral because they do not have accentuate loyalty which leads to ingroup/outgroup enmities.

        re: Bloom’s liberal ideology and attendant moral assumptions. Exactly! Social Darwinism dominates conservative/neo-liberal thought, while equality, mutual aid and cooperation rule liberal thought. Personally, I think the fear is unproven and uncertain that cooperation will lead to mediocrity due to the survival of less fit individuals. There are so many outcomes of cooperation and mutual aid which would then be responded to by individuals, groups and society at large before absolute deterioration of the species or society occurs. There remain many hypotheses concerning the causes of mediocrity in contemporary society.

        re: Agreed that capital “S” Science is the religion of modern (and post-modern) society. The devil is in the details though. We must be careful of jargon propping up faulty arguments, or imperfect empirical methods, or the straightjacket of falsification. Additionally, the religion of Science replicates ingroup/outgroup enmities between the scientific disciplines (e.g., deductive economic models, proofs and large datasets versus social psychology’s inductive observation and hypothesis testing with controlled laboratory tests). Skepticism should be maintained.

    1. Steve

      For a very few perhaps. If you -believe- this in general, you don’t understand the difference between science and religion.

      1. Birch

        I wonder what those guys running the large haldron collider right now are thinking… I hear they haven’t found any single dimensional strings yet.

      2. nonclassical


        could I invite exploration of “DEductive” vs. “INductive” processes?…Scientific method is DEductive orientation…one assembles one’s expert (even open mindedly so) professional opinion, forms a baseline of expertise, if one will, across the lower arc of a circle, extends prognostication across the circle to a specific point on arc, and attempts to define that point…

        INductively, one would begin on the lower arc of the circle at the single small point of the individual, viewing across the circle towards the general area of interest, attempting to comprehend an expanding area surrounding=influencing the point one wishes to perceive…study of what is-may be related to area of concern, as much as point of focus…

        west, meet east…

        One cannot study the metaphysical aspect of what it is to be alive (any species)
        by DEducting-cutting apart the whole, that IS life..

        Then there’s “Heisenberg on Metaphysics”…Krishnamurti is as encompassing, and much less technically forbidding…”1992 Discussions in Ojai”..

    2. from Mexico

      superduperdave says:

      Science is a kind of religion, for some.

      Absolutely. But where you say “for some,” I would say “for most.”

      1. knowbuddhau

        And I’d agree. Rather than comment on each of your excellent posts, fM, (in part because I already have a rather long, perhaps over-linked post in moderation), just let me say that your encyclopedic knowledge, and expert manner of deploying it, blows me away.

        1. nonclassical


          …all due salutations; now you are discussing human condition…

          University of Washington featured renowned Nietzche=Prof. of Existentialism..
          Sitting in on his class, he was seen to offer variation of opinion on whether the tree falling in the forest makes a noise if noone is there to hear…?

          Solitary student in back rows was found, laughing uncontrollably….to which Professor responded, “Glad we could entertain you-could you share the joke with us?”

          Student replied, “I’m NOT god….”

          Professor replied sardonically, “We’re all glad to hear that…”

          Student replied, “So, I can’t tell whether or not anyone else is out there listening…”

          (human condition)

  6. Andrew Watts

    The moral of the story is that one should never underestimate mankind’s capacity to rationalize their actions. Whether for good or ill.

    Other then that I’m not inclined to talk about religion with strangers. It’s like dancing through a minefield. One wrong step and…

  7. Jayarava

    Someone else has made the point about there being evidence for religion almost as long as there is evidence for modern humans. So let’s move on.

    Hardindra says “Religion is probably not adaptive, since false beliefs about the world around us do not increase fitness.”

    Say what? Virtually everything our ancestors believed has been shown to be false in the last 200 years. So how did they survive? This kind of nonsensical argument mascarading as informed comment is not helpful.

    What I find stunning in these public forums on religion is how one-eyed the opinions on religion are. Everyone seems to have an axe to grind. The arguments typically take the form “Religion is X” where X is some simple function of a society that the person feels angry about. Or we get the old “Religion is false beliefs”. Really? Is that the best you can do? Because if that’s it then you’ve already lost the debate.

    Religion is a complex and ancient phenomena of human societies. It is more or less ubiquitous. Religion is manifestation of complex interrelated factors related to human experience of self, community, and environment. As often as not it helps to regulate how we relate to each other – in groups beyond the famous Dunbar number this is essential. As living beings our most fundamental urge is to survive; and yet with self-awareness comes the certain knowledge of our death, and the deaths of all those around us; and religion is in part an adaptation to ease this powerful tension. Finally I would say that religion is an adaptation to the knowledge that we are usually at the mercy of forces we do not understand in the society and world around us. And for all that I have a BSc and I’m reasonably well informed I still have a sense that I do not understand. Religions promote the idea of an underlying order to the world to prevent the sense of helplessness and senselessness that would cause most thoughtful and sensitive individuals to despair.

    And very often religion is predicated on the basis of extra-ordinary experiences such as the one Dr Jill Bolte Taylor describes in her TED talk about her stroke: an alternate mode of being which is expansive, inclusive, beautiful. This mode is actually fairly accessible through various types of techniques. I know I’ve also experienced something like that. OK, culture determines the way we interpret and explain such experiences (Prof Thomas Metzinger’s account of his out-of-body experiences is insightful), but the fact is that we have choices that are usually presented in religious terms.

    So let’s raise the game a bit shall we? Try to understand ourselves and each other a little better, rather than trying to rubbish ourselves and others.

    1. Nathanael

      Unfortunately, a delusional belief in an orderly world is NOT adaptive.

      A healthy understanding of the randomness and senselessness of the world can be liberating rather than depressing, if viewed correctly.

      1. jake chase

        I agree. Life is rationally viewed as an opportunity of uncertain dimensions. We are all here by chance. Make the most of it. Don’t expect any favors. Unfortunately, such a belief system conduces to sociopathy. Maybe that’s why some smart guys invented religion, the best excuse for which is the comfort it seems to offer to those who believe in it.

        1. Nathanael

          Though atheism leads to a strong belief in community and cooperation: there’s no big man in the sky looking out for us, so *all we have is each other* and we’d better take care of each other, because nobody else will.

      2. from Mexico

        Nathanael says:

        …a delusional belief in an orderly world…

        Jayarva, however, is factually incorrect when he states that “Religions promote the idea of an underlying order to the world.” Some do. Some don’t.

        Christianity has historically had two schools of thought on this subject. There are those who believe in a benevolent, rational God. These are the realists and the scholastics. They operate in the tradition of neo-Platonism.

        Opposed to these are those who operate in the Nominalist tradition and believe in an irrational, omnipotent and capricious God.

        1. juliania

          “Christianity has historically had two schools of thought on this subject. There are those who believe in a benevolent, rational God. These are the realists and the scholastics. They operate in the tradition of neo-Platonism.

          Opposed to these are those who operate in the Nominalist tradition and believe in an irrational, omnipotent and capricious God.”

          Neither of these descriptions fit the Christianity I know and love. God isn’t rational or irrational – those are human descriptions of behavior. God is beyond either one. He is, in my tradition, ‘a good God who lovest mankind. ‘ (which these days can be considered, in human terms, rather irrational given that we seem determined to destroy his earth.)

          And no Christian would consider God capricious. Again, a human concept beyond which the economy of purpose dwells.

          By the way, didn’t anyone notice that the second sentence of the essay above makes no earthly sense? Just sayin’.

    2. Birch

      I think you’re touching on the line demarcating where religion is. There is no doubt that a healthy belief system is vital to the individual, as well as the community. What you are describing above is what many would call the bonds of community.

      Religion would then be what results when these mutual agreements between neighbours are corrupted for the benefit of one specific portion of the population. Why, of all the families of Israel that followed Moses, did one line of one lineage receive 10% tithes from all the rest? Because it was religion. When men from other lines of the same lineage questioned why they weren’t also special, why did they burn to death and their families were swallowed up? That isn’t community. That’s a break-down of community.

      If religion is what you describe above, then many – perhaps most – of the harshest criticisms of it do not apply. But they still perfectly apply to that other autocratic entity universally known as ‘religion.’

      I have no lasting qualms or worries about death, and I have no religion what-so-ever. I do, however, have a sound and widely fluctuating belief system. From my point of view, religion appears to foment worrying about death rather than otherwise.

      1. diptherio

        Religion can be used as a tool of autocracy (as can “democracy”), but religion does not imply or necessarily lead to autocracy. You’ve got the causation backwards.

        1. Nathanael

          Religion is not a well-defined concept. When discussing it, I find it useful to ask what definition the person I’m talking to is using.

          Certain narrow definitions of religion define something which is *inherently* troublesome — genuinely bad for people.

          Other, looser definitions do not require that and can include “religions” which are reasonably healthy. I tend to use the looser definitions myself. However, followers of many of the most troublesome religious traditions like to use the narrower definitions.

      2. Jim Haygood

        ‘Religion appears to foment worrying about death rather than otherwise.’

        Depends on which one you mean. Some holy books claim that the odds against you on Judgement Day are mighty grim. But a slim hope is still offered in return for a contribution or an animal sacrifice.

        Whereas NDE (Near Death Experience) accounts say that the afterlife is such a pleasant place, with beautiful concealed lighting, that they really didn’t want to return to this vale of tears.

        We’ll see …

        1. Jagger

          My father had an NDE. He absolutely hated religion. Myself, I was agnostic and really didn’t care. But his description of his experience was simply impossible in terms of physical science. Impossible. Which started me on a journey of spiritual exploration. I don’t know the answers but the NDE is fascinating.

          One thing I discovered is we simply do not know the origin of consciousness. We have all sorts of theories but nothing remotely proveable. I also found it interesting to discover that at the speed of light, time and distance disappears. No time, no distance…mind boggling concept.

          1. Nathanael

            Consciousness seems to be an “emergent property”, a bit like friction or fluid dynamics — practically impossible to explain in terms of its component parts.

      3. ohmyheck

        Birch, what you have missed in Jayarava’s comment is that there are people who have had a conscious experience in the physical, which is why he mentioned Jill Bolt Taylor. When one has had an experience, one attempts to explain it.

        Many people, who have not had an experience, dismiss that person’s experience out-of-hand. But who is anyone to deny someone’s experience, just because they haven’t experienced it themselves? They don’t have that right, and they shouldn’t.

        Now Science has taken into account that these experiences are happening to people, and have come up with theories about activation of certain parts of the brain, which then causes the experiences. Who knows?

        To those that say life in random and senseless, I ask this. If you are from a primitive tribe in the jungle, and you are placed above a subway platform at a stop in Manhatten, what would you observe? Random chaos. But to the subway riders, there is order in that chaos. Just because your mind is not trained to see the order in the chaos, does not mean that order is not there.

        You and the tribesman can argue about order vs. chaos ’til the cows come home. But the order is there, no matter what someone believes.

        1. Nathanael

          Oh, there is order.

          But there’s also a great deal of randomness.

          Most people overestimate the amount of order and underestimate the amount of randomness.

          It doesn’t help that most people have very poor instincts regarding probability, which is the study of randomness. Randomness doesn’t work the way your instincts tell you it does.

          1. Nathanael

            At the most fundamental level which we have studied, quantum mechanics, we can only make *probabilistic* predictions — there is inherent randomness.

            However, there is also order — so much order that we can design machines at a nanoscopic scale and predict the behavior of huge objects.

            Randomness and order are not contradictory. In fact, perhaps the most useful concept in science is that of a “probability distribution”….

      4. Lafayette

        There is no doubt that a healthy belief system is vital to the individual, as well as the community.

        Define “healthy”.

        I see no difference between the fundamentalist Taliban in Pakistan and fundamentalist Christians in western democracies. Both are prepared to plunder and pillage in the name of their God.

    3. diptherio

      I almost don’t even want to engage with this conversation, as you are quite correct about the incredibly narrow view that most here take on “religion.” It seems to me that these breezy assertions about false beliefs and how damaging religion supposedly is are examples of exactly what Bloom is talking about. But assuming that religious belief is important in determining human behavior is not necessarily a good assumption. For most people, belief fits itself to behavior and not the reverse. Behaviors will be rationalized post hoc, and justifying scriptural passages found later. I wonder how many people were actually paying attention to what Bloom was actually saying…

      And then, of course, it is always somewhat frustrating (though also humorous) to listen to people who have obviously never had a spiritual or mystical experience in their lives, pontificate about the origins and meaning of religion. It’s like a bunch of dogs sitting around discussing whether or not there is such a thing as mathematics (h/t Idries Shah)

      To the Native peoples from my area of the country, it was self-evident that everything had some form of consciousness: whether human, animal, plant, or mineral. Us rational westerners knew that to be superstitious nonsense, so it didn’t bother us a lick when we started the wholesale slaughter of the bison and the systematic clear-cutting of the forests. Decades later, it turns out that plants do show evidence of consciousness and perception. The difference between rational and irrational, common sense and superstition, is much more culturally determined than most care to admit. No, no, they proclaim, we’re rational and scientific; our assumptions about the world aren’t assumptions at all, they are universal truths! Thusly do the truly superstitious ever proclaim…

      I think maybe we should all just take a deep breath and listen to some Alan Watts.

      1. AbyNormal

        If we cling to belief in God, we cannot likewise have faith, since faith is not clinging but letting go. AW

        1. jurisV

          Very nicely and gently said ! Letting go and accepting uncertainty is something that I understood from listening to Prof Richard Feynman. In his conjecture we as humans do not have the ability to understand the true nature of the universe.

          Others (including Henri Poincare and John Wheeler — who coined the term “Black Hole” and was a mentor to Feynman) have said that to understand a universe you have to be outside of it. IOW to objectively view a world of 3 dimensions you have to be in a world of 4 dimensions. Lest you think that time is that 4th dimension — there happens to be a number of younger physicists that are conjecturing that “time” may not be a fundamental variable of our universe, but rather a “dependent variable.” Major difference!! It’s probably a coincidence, but from my association with Zen I have learned to appreciate the idea that in our universe there is “No Time”. No past or no future, just the “Now.” Time is a convenient abstract unit of measure that allows us to make some sense of the dynamic, living nature of our world.

          As an aside, John Wheeler in his last two decades calculated (using models that appear to be valid to just after the “Big Bang”) that the amount of information in the universe (the entropy) decreases as you collapse the universe; and appears to reach a limit of 1 bit — just the amount of information required to answer a question of “Off or On.” This result led him to say that observing our universe from outside it “that there’s no ‘There there’ ”

          In my opinion, the most interesting conjectures on our world comes from the Information Technology community on the Universe-as-Virtual-Reality. Brian Whitworth’s writing on this idea is the most intelligent, interesting and fun. Especially if you appreciate the anomalies in contemporary Physics theories.

          1. jurisV

            I forgot to include that Faith does not equal Absolute-Belief, in my opinion. Faith requires that you accept the element of uncertainty in understanding of “life, Universe and everything”. In other words, my beliefs are contingent on continuing observations of the universe — they cannot be absolute. If a person is certain in their beliefs they are no longer faith-based. They are absolutist who believes they have the powers of “God” to understand the mysteries of “life, universe, and everything.” Hat-tip to Douglas Adams and his Hitch-Hiker’s Guide !!!

      2. nonclassical

        …is “belief” “mystical”?…metaphysics? Can you perceive someone’s intention-force, from contact, all the way to their centeredness?

        “feint” is untrue…one cannot feint one’s own intention…

        one can train….

        1. nonclassical

          Alan Watts…”The Wisdom of Insecurity”…good for youth, questioning..a bit passé’ considering that of his own example, J Krishnamurti’s life works..

    4. from Mexico

      @ Jayarava

      EXCELLENT comment!

      However, I think you fail to identify the fundamental conflict that lies between Modernity and traditional religion. You state, for instance, that:

      Finally I would say that religion is an adaptation to the knowledge that we are usually at the mercy of forces we do not understand in the society and world around us. And for all that I have a BSc and I’m reasonably well informed I still have a sense that I do not understand. Religions promote the idea of an underlying order to the world to prevent the sense of helplessness and senselessness that would cause most thoughtful and sensitive individuals to despair.

      Science, however, set out to understand and conquer nature and the underlying order and harness them for human purposes. As Stephen Toulmin explains: “By 1650, the humanist tolerance of uncertainty, ambiguity and diversity of opinion gave way to Puritan intolerance, rationalist insistence on universal and exact theory, and an emphasis on certainty in all things.” This Promethean vision of Modernism is hardly compatible with the notion that “we are usually at the mercy of forces we do not understand in the society and world around us.”

      However, the Moderinist order, just like the old feudal order that preceded it, is now beginning to crack. As Toulmin goes on to explain:

      Nostalgia for the Modern Cosmopolis exposes us to the frailty of the image of Nature on which it rests: of a stable physical system of bodies moving in fixed orbits around a single source of power — the Sun and the planets as a model for the Sun King and his subjects. This model served constructive ends in the 17th century, but the rigidity it imposed on rational practice in a world of independent and separate agents is no longer appropriate in the late 20th century, which is time of increasing interdependence, cultural diversity and historical change. Intellectual and social patterns that had the virtue of being stable and predictable in earlier times turn out, in our time, to have the vice of being stereotyped and unadaptable. By continuing to impose on thought and action all the demands of unreconstructed Modernity — rigor, exactitude, and system — we risk making our ideas and institutions not just stable but sclerotic, and being unable to modify them in reasonable ways to meet the fresh demands of novel situations.

    5. Jim S

      “As often as not it helps to regulate how we relate to each other…”

      To expand on this, it is easy today, in the age of separation of church and state, to overlook the often overt role of religion throughout history in establishing law. Even today where religion generally lacks legal force, morality’s interpersonal aspect generally functions as a code of conduct (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse). Sharia, for example, while addressing issues such as dress codes, also addresses issues such as usury. In that respect we might apply Prof. Bloom’s question to civil laws and codes: does law serve an adaptive purpose? Clearly many who profess to follow the law–even officers of the law–often violate the law to serve their personal purposes and attempt to justify their actions after the fact. Of course it is silly to construe from this that law serves no socially useful purpose, and while less obvious it’s a mistake to conclude that morality (and hence religion) serves no social purpose because people often violate it.

      Holding the view that one of a religion’s main functions is to regulate interpersonal behavior I suspect that one of the primary effects of the waning of religion in the US is the increase of friction between individuals and groups who have can no longer agree about what is acceptable public behaviour (I was born well after it came down, but maybe you older heads can speak to the impact of the fall of conformity–inclusive of Christianity–in this respect). It’s been something of a wonder to me to note the rise of school bullying in this country–of course it has always been around, but we’re seeing a degree far beyond what I remember growing up. It seems as if bullying is at the level of what I remember reading about Japanese schools in the 90s, and I wonder if Japanese culture in some ways doesn’t foreshadow American culture (of course Japanese society is still highly conformist).

      But speculation aside I think religion generally plays a more useful role beyond forming community (thought that is important).

      (BTW from Mexico, how on earth are you always able to add a relevant quote or three to all your posts? I struggle just to avoid making a complete idiot of myself when I write.)

  8. Birch

    I hold with Veblen, that community is a super-ancient ethic from pre-barbaric peaceable days. As the ‘great’ religions lost power to modern society, they began to grab on to the brand of community as if they had come up with the idea. This idea was totally foreign to their natural power structure, which was built on… can we call alms extortion these days?

    It didn’t hurt their cause that most of their supposed founders had preached Community hundreds of generations before, or that they owned a staggering network of community built gathering areas. It also didn’t hurt that they ran many of the best libraries, and held sway in writing history.

    So, does religion serve a purpose? Community is a beautiful purpose that religion as partially co-opted for its own benefit and perpetuation. When we let religion go, we have more room to develop community in a way properly adapted to each and every situation in which it finds itself.

    That’s my experience, anyway. Community doesn’t suffer when religion disappears, trust me.

  9. sadness

    ….a purpose?….
    – yep, subjugate divide and rule, works for evey 2000 to 3000year old…or otherwise known to work every time, no worries

  10. Jessica

    Religion evolved originally as a way of dealing with questions that are too large, too subtle for any individual get much of a handle on. In other words, it was a mechanism for generating collective intelligence. Or perhaps the collective intelligence was a byproduct of evolving for the purpose of generating Naturally, social cohesion.
    Either way, with the rise of civilization and social inequality, that social cohesion came into the service of social power structures.
    Science arose as another way of generating collective intelligence. But it too serves existing social power structures.
    The development of new forms of collective intelligence generation in service of humanity as a whole would be extremely helpful. I can see that potential in meditation and other inner growth practices, but as far as I can tell, the broader community of those practices is stuck blindly within the role of the knowledge production (“creative”) class within the current power structure.

  11. DaffyDuckGoesQuack

    Yeah, it seems that the man (R.L.) who pays families to shut up, hides blood stained clothes, and chooses not to discuss what part he may or might not have (how much would you like to wager?? If your religion doesn’t allow you to wager, you can just volunteer to send your daughter with R.L. on a late night date) played in a double murder, the whole “God-fearing thing”‘ has worked well for his team, the Baltimore Ravens, racking up wins.

    It really amazes me how many high school and college suburbanite families (usually the worst being the goofball Mom, with her Tank-size SUV she “needs” “for 5 year old Billy” (not herself of course as she is always thinking “of others”)…..believe….. that clasping their hands together and yelping “Dear Lord” or putting a deathgrip on rosary beads is going to equate to wins. I bet there are a lot of religious families whose sons ended up quadriplegic on a football play or whose teams couldn’t win 2 games in a 12 game season must be wondering how many days they have left before entering hell.

    It really boggles the mind how many Americans live a close approximation to Portlandia and they don’t even WANT to decipher reality.

  12. Ching

    It’s belief system.

    Religion is a belief system. Atheism is also a belief system.

    Belief system is fundamental to human being’s existence. It is so fundamental that most people do not know enough about themselves, and their thought processes, to appreciate its existence.

    So the questions: does religion serve a purpose? does atheism serve a purpose?

    If one seeks truth, then these questions are not the right questions to ask.

    Why? because these questions are flawed with predicated assumptions. What is purpose? For whose purpose? A purpose for an atheist is based on very different assumptions from those of a religious person. And when assumptions are involved, it simply means that the truth is assumed. And when truth is assumed to produce a purpose, isn’t it simply circular logic that its conclusion is self-serving?

        1. nonclassical


          “the artist sacrifices creative intuition at exact moment he-she becomes aware of impression about to be made…” (Jun Fan)

  13. diptherio

    I know it’s easy to forget but there are other religions apart from the big five. The Native Americans, for instance, had very different views than ours, and their religion was not based on metaphysical belief but rather actual experience and reality. When the whites caught a glimpse of this unexpected and unknown power, all they could do was call it “Satan.”

    For instance, many medicine people had corn songs that they would sing during the planting ceremony. A kernel of corn would be placed in a mound of dirt, and the shaman would sing and drum. Over the course of several hours, the corn would grow and mature, and then be distributed to the tribal members (!). Seeing this, a Jesuit priest proclaimed it the work of the Devil, but he didn’t claim it was superstition: obviously the Natives knew something the white folk didn’t. There are those who still do, if you know where to look…

    “Religion” (whatever that means, really) is much more diverse than most people seem to realize.

    Recommended reading: The World We Used To Live In ~Vine Deloria Jr.

  14. Schofield

    Nathanael says:
    February 3, 2013

    “Unfortunately, a delusional belief in an orderly world is NOT adaptive.”

    Nicholas Wade’s book “The Faith Instinct” says you’re wrong on that.

    “A healthy understanding of the randomness and senselessness of the world can be liberating rather than depressing, if viewed correctly.”

    David Abel’s book “The First Gene’ suggests the jury’s still out considering the evidence on the randomness and senselessness.

  15. Schofield

    Ching says:
    February 3, 2013

    “It’s belief system.

    Religion is a belief system. Atheism is also a belief system.

    Belief system is fundamental to human being’s existence. It is so fundamental that most people do not know enough about themselves, and their thought processes, to appreciate its existence.

    So the questions: does religion serve a purpose? does atheism serve a purpose?

    If one seeks truth, then these questions are not the right questions to ask.

    Why? because these questions are flawed with predicated assumptions. What is purpose? For whose purpose? A purpose for an atheist is based on very different assumptions from those of a religious person. And when assumptions are involved, it simply means that the truth is assumed. And when truth is assumed to produce a purpose, isn’t it simply circular logic that its conclusion is self-serving?”

    Surely the seeking of “truth” more often than not helps keep human beings alive and therefore has purpose or adaptive use. We might think of it as cybernetic. A form of “hunting” for an “area of stability” no matter how often we revise our opinions of what constitutes “truth.” Perhaps we are lucky that we can find no firm evidence of “intentionality” or “teleology” in the data processing going on in Nature in the sense it keeps us “truth” seeking.

    1. Ching

      It is interesting to note that both evolution thru natural selection and intelligent design are fundamentally teleological in their definitions.

  16. Don Pelton

    I’m not (conventionally) religious myself. In fact, I’m nominally atheist but regard the universe with happy awe.

    Nevertheless I begrudgingly acknowledge that “positive paranoia” has its adaptive uses, despite being sometimes maladaptive.

    1. diptherio

      Pronoia: The arational belief that the Universe is conspiring to help you.

      I find that holding to this belief, in conjunction with my belief that I do not know what is truly good for me and therefore don’t know what “help” would actually entail, has an overall positive affect on my psyche. At least it helps me weather the inevitable unexpected events of life with a fair amount of aplomb and good humor.

      1. from Mexico

        Well it certainly seems to be what motivated Martin Luther King:

        Finally, the method of nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. It is this deep faith in the future that causes the nonviolent resister to accept suffering without retaliation. He knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. This belief that God is on the side of truth and justice comes down to us from the long tradition of our Christian faith. There is something at the very center of our faith which reminds us that Good Friday may reign for a day, but ultimately it msut give way to the triumphant beat of the Easter drums. Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. So in Montgomery we can walk and never get weary, because we know that there will be a great camp meeting in the promised land of freedom and justice.

        Havel, even though a secular man, came to similar conclusions:

        Under the orderly surface of the life of lies, therefore, there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth. The singular, explosive, incalculable political power of living with the truth resides in the fact that living openly within the truth has an ally, invisible to be sure, but omnipresent: this hidden sphere.


        At the basis of this world are values which are simply there, perenially, before we ever speak of them, before we reflect upon them and inquire about them. It owes its internal coherence to something like a “pre-speculative” assumption that the world functions and is generally possible at all only because there is something beyond its horizon, something beyond or above it that might escape our understanding and our grasp but, for just that reason, firmly grounds this world, bestows upon it its order and measure, and is the hidden source of all the rules, customs, commandments, prohibitions… Any attempt to spurn it, master it, or replace it with something else, appears, within the framework of the natural world, as an expression of hubris for which humans must pay a heavy price.

        1. diptherio

          I have to admit, had it not been for some otherwise inextricable events in my life, I would find the Pronoia mindset very hard to swallow. I was a fairly hard-headed agnostic until one day…

          I was in Nepal, working on organizing a community school, living at an ashram, when I let some of my friends talk me into coming to a hotel for another friend’s going-away party. As it turned out, I ended up paying for most of a rather expensive night of boozing. This was a problem, since I had to pay an airport tax in Bangkok on my return trip, which was about a week away, and now I was broke. Uh…shit…

          Two days later, I check my email at the cyber-cafe and find an email from my friend Ginger, who I haven’t communicated with in over nine months. She’s teaching English in South Korea. Her email is one line long: “I feel strangely compelled to ask you where you are and what you need.”(!!!) I write back that I need $50 to get home and she replies, “no problem,” so I have her wire the cash to Bangkok via Western Union, thinking I’ll just collect it at the airport. Stupid.

          At Suvarnabhumi airport there is only MoneyGram and no one even knows what Western Union is. Shit, shit, shit. Fortunately, I was able to put my room on a credit card and I still had enough bhaat left over from my last trip for the cab ride to the hotel. During the drive, I spotted a Western Union sign at a big shopping center, but the cab drove on for another ten minutes before reaching my hotel. I despaired.

          At the hotel desk, no one knew what Western Union was or where I might find it, so I just headed out the front door and started walking. I made a couple of turns and found myself on a major street. I looked to my right and saw, holy shit!, my Western Union. I collected the money the next morning and flew back to Montana via LAX.

          Arriving in LA at 2 o’clock in the morning, I get tapped for a random bag search going through customs. This is a problem. I have two liters of clarified butter and a bag of dried mustard greens hidden in the bottom of my duffel, traditional gifts from my Nepali friends. Not kosher, at all. My heart is beating about a million miles an minute as I walk up to the burly, bald-headed customs agent and plop my duffel and backpack on the counter.

          The agent opens my duffel, pulls out the small hand-drum I’d bought for a friend, gives it a shake and then asks if I can play it. So I play it a little, while he digs through my backpack…Then he goes back to the duffel.

          “What ya got in there?”

          “Oh, just some dirty laundry, some books, souvenirs, that sort of thing.”

          He peers down into my duffel, pokes at some of my dirty clothes, looks up at me and says,

          “Man, I don’t wanna go through your stuff. Just tell me what all’s in there.”

          So I did, with a few exceptions, grabbed my bags and headed for the exit. I felt like I was walking on air as I exited the terminal. I laughed out loud. Someone, or something, was obviously watching out for me; otherwise, my stupidity would gotten the better of me at least one of those three times. Been Pronoid ever since!

  17. OMF

    Yves, please stay on topic on the financial crisis. Resist all temptation to dip into third or “half-third” rail topics, even for the odd post. If a crap-storm erupts in the comments, or a few wing-nut posters wander in as a result, you could well be kicking yourself in the morning.

    1. par4

      Religion and economics are both inventions of the human mind. That is why they are both so fucked up.

        1. ohmyheck

          He actually posted a few comments here in the past few days. That’s why I hoped he’d weigh in.

    2. from Mexico

      OMF says:

      Yves, please stay on topic on the financial crisis.

      And you believe that the financial crisis was not precipitated by a moral crisis? And you believe that when the subject of morality arises, the question of religion doesn’t also come up?

      1. peace

        I agree with Mexico. The economic crisis and our ongoing responses rely on moral judgments about what is appropriate (e.g., self-interest or mutual aid).

        Which Golden Rule will we follow: a subjective but somewhat agreed upon law of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” or a double standard of “She with the gold rules” whereby rules are differentially applied and rewritten when the powerful deem appropriate.

        1. peace

          Clarification: I do not believe Yves is rewriting the rules regarding the economic focus of this blog – even though it’s her gold.

    3. diptherio

      It is Yves’s blog, afterall, she can do with it as she pleases, no? And don’t you get tired of all the same old stuff, occasionally? I know I do. I think a lot of us like the “full service blog” aspect of NC.

  18. Peter Pinguid Society

    Let us recall Marx’s great declaration: he who denies God does only a “secondary thing”, for he denies God in order to posit the existence of man, to put man in God’s place (the transformation taken into account).

    Here at the Peter Pinguid Society we’re not Marxists, the thing that interests us in the statement above is the “secondary thing” that Marx referred to.

    We’re interested above all in profit, and therefore must subvert and undermine all territorial groupings such as familial, religious, or other social bonds. At the same time, having subverted all social bonds, we rely on the continuous appearance of various social groupings in order to continue with a smoothly functioning oligarchy, and to re-enforce our social ordering needs.

    Having subverted familial / religious or other social bonds, we next attempt to re-constitute the need for traditional/nostalgic, or, even newer forms of social groupings or religious/state institutions.

    Therefore, on the one hand, we encourage the 99 percent to:

    1) consume, be an individual, be unique, may the best man win, the cream rises to the top, the romantic creative individual, mindlessly pursue your desires…

    Yet, on the other hand, and at the same time, we encourage the 99 percent to engage in:

    2) religious revivalism, family values, community first, moral majority, neighborhood watch (and snitch), deny/sacrifice, etc…

    Do these contradictory messages cause vast confusion and bewilderment among the 99 percent? Do they cause many of them to break under the strain of an absurd society, to not know whether they’re coming or going?

    Of course, but look at it from our point of view. As only 0.01 percent of the population we’re vastly outnumbered. This is all part of our strategy to divide and conquer.

    We are the Peter Pinguid Society, we are the 0.01 percent.

  19. Lilguy

    Is there anything more personal than a person’s relationship with God, including a relationship that questions or denies God?

    Why people believe they must subjugate themselves to someone else’s faith, denomination, sect, or cult to assure a safe passage into a positive afterlife (or re-birth or whatever) or even rewards in this one is beyond me.

    At the same time, I recognize these “evil” thoughts threaten the authority of religious institutions and leaders, and the power they exert over humanity worldwide–be it witch doctors or the Pope.

    Let’s face it: The only purpose organized religion serves is to serve itself–its authority, its wealth, its position in society.

  20. Garrett Pace

    Beats me re the good professor’s criteria. Though I wonder who is having more children right now, the religious or irreligious?

    Still wondering if anything without an “adaptive advantage” can be a good thing? I don’t see too many “adaptive advantages” to the study of astronomy, and yet I was up very late reading wikipedia on the subject. We humans are funny people.

  21. Schofield

    diptherio says:
    February 3, 2013

    “Pronoia: The arational belief that the Universe is conspiring to help you.

    I find that holding to this belief, in conjunction with my belief that I do not know what is truly good for me and therefore don’t know what “help” would actually entail, has an overall positive affect on my psyche. At least it helps me weather the inevitable unexpected events of life with a fair amount of aplomb and good humor.”

    So there you go despite the lack of evidence for pronoia it’s adaptive!

  22. comment number 70-ish

    ” Paul Bloom of Yale starts with the observation that religion serves no obvious adaptive purpose”

    too many comments to read through so early…..but I think religion is definitely adaptive—it encourages/perpetuates a hierarchical “worker bee,” “soldier bee” v. “priest bee” division of labor that passes on the genes of the species—-though not necessarily you.

  23. briansays

    i use to think religion served a purpose to assist in the maintenance of civil order in a society without an authoritarian state

    that assumed the inherent decency of humans

    i now no longer believe or at least assume this

    religion now has been co-opted as a tool to enable the exact opposite in most if not many cases–the imposition of an authoritarian if not corrupt order and ideology on the masses without expense of force of arms

  24. Greg Taylor

    The ability to hold shared beliefs is essential to forming any type of lasting community or to perform any cooperative activity.

    The purpose of religion is to build the capacity for shared belief.

  25. Eric Zuesse

    I am disappointed at Yves’s “adaptive” approach to religiosity. I think she is looking in the wrong place (sociobiology) to explain the phenomenon.

    Most religions worship the All Powerful, and even refer to their deity as “the Almighty.” In other words: the very pedrsonification of power is bowed down to. Religions don’t worship the personification of truthfulness, which would be any authentic scientist, but the personification of power, which would be the aristocracy: those who in former times controlled the land but now control the megabanks and the oligopolisgtic corporations. This is why the aristocracy have always donated generously to religious organizations, and why, in turn, the clergy overwhelmingly tend to be conservative — i.e., power-justificatory.

    1. diptherio

      Eric, I have to disagree. Religion has historically been the vehicle for both tyrannizing and liberating movements in societies. The former use is well known, but the latter is all too often overlooked. The example of MLK Jr. has already been invoked, and Ghandi is another obvious one. Catholic liberation theology in S. America has served as a religious basis for social justice action, and most of the saddhu orders (Hindu religious renunciates) are open to all and make a point of repudiating the caste system and related dogmas.

      This doesn’t mean that religion per se, is necessary for social justice movements, but it does put the lie to your assertion that religion is only the worship of authoritarian power. This is Bloom’s point: religion by itself is neither “good” nor “bad” (no matter how you define those terms), it leads to neither social cooperation nor cynical domination, all popular claims to the contrary. Social (and anti-Social) behaviors are determined by many factors, but religious belief does not seem to be one of them.

      It seems to me like people are attributing more to Bloom than he is actually claiming. All he is saying is that there is no discernible connection between one’s religious beliefs and one’s actual actions in the world. Religious claims and interpretations make convenient cover for actions one would do anyway, but they are rarely the underlying cause.

      If anything, I think this should be encouraging for atheists and theists alike. Both can now stop bickering over metaphysical belief claims, and get to work actually building communities, knowing that the other’s “wrong-headed beliefs” won’t actually make that much difference, practically speaking.

      1. LifelongLib

        Yes. Looking at English history alone, there were religious justifications for monarchy (“the King is God’s representative on Earth”) and for its abolition (“only God is King”).

  26. Buck Eschaton

    I am of the Rene Girard understanding of religion. Murder as being the foundation of all human societies, and that religion being the ritual reenactment of the founding murder…and Christianity attempting to base society on something other than murder.

  27. jsmith

    Organized religion?

    Pshaw, that stuff’s old hat!!

    Burning bushes, floods etc etc blah blah.

    Instead we have our own American magical fairy tales complete with mythological figures who are capable of feats that defy the laws of physics and rationality.

    Here’s a nice little synopsis of the American Mystery Cult:

    9/11: A Conspiracy Theory

    For further more scientfic investigation please see:

    So, while you’re all getting metaphysical about Jeezus and shite realize that you’re more than likely already an unwitting adherent to America’s religion of murder and mayhem.

  28. Max424

    I believe in God.

    I didn’t, until a couple of Sundays past. That’s when God took it upon Himself to intervene in a football game.

    Never seen –nor heard mostly– anything like it. Going back weeks, the Baltimore Ravens had been telling me repeatedly –or more specifically, their intrepid leader, Ray Lewis, had been preaching to a football following nation– that God wanted Ray Ray and his team back in Foxboro in mid-January for a repeat of last year’s AFC title game, a game in which the fates’ or something equally fickly interceded on the Patriots behalf, and delivered unto New England a last second anomalous victory and a trip to the Extravaganza.

    At first I found this proselytizing by the Ravens mildly amusing, as any non-believing SportsCenter fan would. But as a slow fortnight of TV build-up unfolded (or compiled, whatever the case), the daily God Loves the Ravens Don’t Ya Think? crap had a grating effect, and hence by the start of the God Desires This Revenge Match More Than Anything AFC title game, my thoughts had turned so bitter towards both God and Baltimore, they manifested themselves as sarcasm:

    “Sorry Ray Ray and the God Fearing Ravens, but you don’t get it, ya faith blinded nits! Say your God is indeed the God of Revenge (amongst other things), how do you know He is not seeking revenge on you?

    “Say God let’s you vanquish the Patriots. How do you know it’s not a set-up? How do you know God has not been taking you on this –40 days and 40 nights– playoff journey marked by presumably unequal parts Guidance, faith, and timely/smart/team football, to advance you all the way to the Really Big Test, only to see you lose, so He can triple-humble you all the bettor before Him?”


    The Patriots have a first down at the Ravens 10, up 10-6, with 20 seconds left to go in the first half. They have one remaining just-in-case-timeout.

    (A routine scenario, not quite Pop Warner, but certainly, any JV squad coached by a competent intern knows exactly what to do here. You drop back three times, and rifle three –safety first!– throws into the end zone. In other words, you take three considered aerial TD shots. If you don’t hit the touchdown throw and get the seven, you then kick the field goal and accept the disappointing three. So, three shots via the air for the extra four, each shot equally important)

    One of the two or three smartest quarterbacks to ever play the game, Tom Brady, wanders out of the pocket to his left. 15 seconds left in the half now. He squares his shoulders to throw, but nothing good is developing.

    Normal Tom throws the ball away here, and stops the clock, but this is Possessed Tom, and Possessed Tom tucks the ball and runs!

    Right there, I said: The Devil made him do it!

    Giggle. The Devil. Who’s he. But then, the Hooded Genius, New England Head Football Coach Bill Belichik, the smartest coach ever to coach anything since long before sports began, looking out at his star QB splayed in the grass, having not run very far, having slid to ground, the clock ticking out, does nothing.

    Call timeout Hoodie! Yes, the smartest QB you’ve had the pleasure to associate with in 35 years of coaching has just made a mistake no little leaguer should ever make, and that’s why you are the smartest coach going back to the Big Bang, you realize that these things can happen, and frequently do!

    So call timeout already, Hoodie! My God, what are you thinking?

    Aha! That’s it. It must be God! For it is only God who could stay Bellichik’s hands from instinctively forming a timeout signal, and fill his coldly analytical mind with hot panic!

    The Patriots kicked a field goal on second down. Unheard of. Absurd. The pissed away two shots. Unthinkable!

    The Lord. Man, I’m convinced it was His doing, I sh-t you not. Only explanation. Now that I believe, the most interesting prayer prayer/question I have regarding The Bowl today: God, are You going to reward Ray Lewis’ resplendent faith with glorious victory? Or are the Ravens to lose, so that Ray Ray’s faith may be tested in some way and made stronger, or weaker, as a result.

    You can give away the ending, Lord, I don’t mind. And I assure You, wanting to have foreknowledge has nothing to do with being a bettin’ man. I don’t even play the Super Bowl squares … as You know.

    Too risky. Right?

    1. ohmyheck

      From the Lord God on High, Max, the 49-er’s coming back from 17 points down at the half, and only winning in the last seconds, would definitely make any SportsCenter Fan be left with no Doubt that God herself has divinely intercepted, er, intervened, to create this Holiest-of-Holies battle from on High
      But methinks this is more about the Brothers. Think of it…two brothers, now coaching opposing teams in the Biggest Match-Up in the Cosmos. A replay of the story of Cain and Abel. Only God could have created such a dramatic set-up, er, back-story, to add to this most esteemed and historic meeting since the Spartans battled the Persians.
      I’ll take The Secularists with 10.

  29. Schofield

    comment number 70-ish says:
    February 3, 2013

    ” Paul Bloom of Yale starts with the observation that religion serves no obvious adaptive purpose”

    “too many comments to read through so early…..but I think religion is definitely adaptive—it encourages/perpetuates a hierarchical “worker bee,” “soldier bee” v. “priest bee” division of labor that passes on the genes of the species—-though not necessarily you.”

    Division of Labor usually requires a brain to direct instruction but not necessarily a parasitical or predatory one although lack of checks and balances makes it most likely that it will have human nature being ambivalent.

  30. bubba

    Or we just believe in the religion of progress cloaked in science.

    Highly adaptive. To a point. Then terribly non-adaptive as we seem to not be learning right now.

  31. Susan the other

    Chickens and eggs. Which came first, morality or religion? Just thinking about how deliberate and careful solitary wild animals are. Compare the tracks of the red fox to your Irish setter. The fox is never sloppy, it does not waste time, it’s paw print is never smeared and it sticks to it’s purpose. I’ve heard that fox do not confabulate creation stories, yet they are moral in the sense that they are not immoral. So I choose morality. Giddiness is another matter. Still it isn’t immoral to make up wildly incoherent stories and then claim them to be true. That’s probably just an extreme form of morality, obsessive-compulsive morality. And never forget that one man’s rationalization is another man’s horror. Case in point: those sanguine uncivilized people living at the headwaters of the Orinoco who eat their sacrament without recrimination.

  32. knowbuddhau

    Oh my heavens. A discussion of religion, on a blog devoted to our modern religion, economics, that includes Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, and Vine Deloria Jr?! I’m in heaven.

    I’ve also spent the entire morning on just one post, and now I have to go to work. Oh well, that’s what happens when you follow your bliss. (That is, you know you’re following your bliss when you completely lose all track of time and instead exist in the light of eternity, which isn’t an infinite amount of time, it’s timelessness itself).

    Just want to amplify what’s already been noted: a lot of this discussion involves vastly divergent definitions of religion. It’d be helpful if we could define the term before jumping in with both feet, only to have them land firmly in our mouths.

    Ah, found it, from Links: 12/30/2012.

    3. The third function of a mythological order is to validate and maintain a certain sociological system: a shared set of rights and wrongs, proprieties or improprieties, on which your particular social unit depends for its existence. [Joseph Campbell’s “Four Functions of Myth”, from Pathways to Bliss (Novato, CA: New World Library), pp 6-10.]

    In this regard, science is most definitely a religion; moreover, it fulfills all four definitions of a mythological order. That the human psyche is profoundly mythological is simply incontrovertible. People who argue otherwise simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

    1. nonclassical

      actually, “knowbuddha”, “it’s” forgetting to set yourself apart from that which you are experiencing…(tao)…(even as observer of)..

  33. Schofield

    Hard to avoid grabbing onto mythical stories to explain why things go right or wrong when there’s not much science around.

  34. abprosper

    Organized religion builds social capital, not only at a low perceived cost but among strangers. It also allows social controls with less direct force, something that historically was often unavailable or risky to use in scale

    In some societies, religion is just a folkway increasing in group bonding and social capital (its the thing our people do) but it has less impact.

    All in all religion is highly useful and I suspect will be a around a long time.

    I’d go as to suggest that a general increase in religiosity is highly likely since the highly religious are liable to accept a somewhat lower standard of living for child rearing and to be more natal.

    A back of the virtual napkin example

    Religious minded people have 3 kids, lose .5 to other views gain .2 to converts

    Less to non religious people have low fertility rates around say 1.5 or less (this seems to be the global trend) they gain .5 kids to conversion and lose .2

    The more natal slowly gain population (2.7 is well above replacement) where the less religious slowly loose population even with gains (1.7 is below replacement)

    In time the number of losses will be reduced as well since the social ability of the non religious to change the less religious will diminish.

    In the long term (fairly long term, the weakly religious outnumber the highly religious for th moment) the tendency to some kind of religion will probably be default although we may not recognize any of the new faiths.

    1. diptherio

      While I question your genetic analysis of religious belief I do agree that we may not recognize the new forms of religion that emerge out of our current bizarre, global milieu. Hell, we might not even recognize Christianity. I think John Shelby Spong (Ret. Episcopal Bishop) might be the future of that particular sect.

      Re-Casting The Christ Story. Why Christianity must change or die (and when he says “change,” he means it).

    2. Mansoor H. Khan

      One major reason for decline in belief in afterlife is our fossil fuel enabled industrial civilization with its very high rate of material production which has significantly reduced material scarcity.

      All “rich” places are a lot less religious then the non-rich places in the world.

      If we don’t find a cheap energy alternative scarcity is coming back with vengeance and so will religion. Religion is a survival advantage (suffer due to scarcity with patience now and be rewarded in heaven). Religion will also return with a vengeance if scarcity returns.

      Mansoor H. Khan

      1. nonclassical


        thank you for your many insights on money and manufacturing of….

        here it appears you are questioning fact man has evolved OUT of nature…rather
        than, for example, cetaceans, millions of years further evolved, who have evolved further INTO nature…

        1. Mansoor H. Khan


          this may come to you as a shock…

          but i don’t believe we came from monkeys. I believe in the biblical/islamic narrative (literally).

          Per Islam all nature is for man to use and enjoy (and not screw it up). So we are NOT the same as other living beings. Other living beings don’t have souls.

          mansoor h. khan

          1. nonclassical

            …sorry Mansoor,

            ..have experienced far too much with far too many “other species” as well as human..cetaceans being only one example..categorically, you are wrong-all beings share the same genetic content..(on this planet) exceptions.

            Your statement is of similar content to christians who believe they were given “nature” to shepherd…

            study other species-you will find nearly all species share similar needs…I could become much more specific..

            here’s an exception for you:


            …more representative of “god”, or “godliness”, than humans…

            what is true?-not what do you believe…

          2. Nathanael

            Mr. Khan,

            Unfortunately you are simply wrong, about a matter of empirical fact.

            I’m sure you haven’t studied biology. I have. The great chain of being is real: every living creature on the planet is, quite literally, related — we are all cousins. If you actually go study the evidence of biology and geology for a couple of years, you will, sooner or later, realize the truth.

            I think that’s kind of amazing: we are literally all cousins, from the pine tree to the bacterium to the fly to the whale to the monkey to humans. Some would say that that is a sign of the miraculous wisdom of God; others would simply talk about the wonder of the universe.

            Others remain ignorant and deny reality. This is usually not wise.

    1. Mansoor H. Khan

      Yes. He does get angry but his mercy is a lot bigger than his anger.

      One major reason he created the universe is to have us worship him and glorify him and his prophets. In a sense the reason for the creation is for a very small number of people (the prophets) to be glorified.

      And yes when that is not happening he will put a stop the human soap opera (eventually).

      mansoor h. khan

      1. nonclassical


        as you have conflated “man” and “god” (Joseph Campbell’s final evolution of),
        I’m certain one of the two will in fact “end it”…

    2. LifelongLib

      Surely the angels could give God all the worship and glorification He needs? Maybe we’re here because He wants an honest second opinion (or at least the potential for it).

  35. Peter Gowen

    Religion currently holds a monopoly on the ability to force people, en masse, to critique themselves (which anyone familiar with confronting someone else, lovingly, with hard evidence, would recognize as very rare), forcing them to think about whether they live up to some of the highest ethical standards (though that will inevitably include some things many others find offensive/heinous). That part of religion, at least, is a very good thing. There’s no secular alternative yet.

  36. felix

    Religions in general have one and just one single cause: our fear of death or, more generally, of that what may lie beyond. My proof? If, by scientific investigation, collective illumination, contact with the world beyond, we came one day to know what exactly is waiting for us on that world, and if we suppose there is nothing trascendental or definitive, or divine, or even moral about it; if life on the other world possessed the same trivial, matter of fact qualities of this one, all religions would become extinct. Where would be the need then for abstract constructs, for imaginary supreme beings, for morals that trascend this world, if we know that absolutely nothing of that really exist? So, religion is born out of uncertainty about the after life and it’s doomed to die with it, provided that we won’t need it anyway when arriving over there.

    1. diptherio

      The First Church of Diptherian Ontology-Orthodoxymoronic (Reformed) offers on-line courses in Being a Prophet for Fun and Profit. Only $276, if anyone’s interested…

      1. LifelongLib

        If being a prophet is such a good gig, why (in the Bible at least) is their first response to God usually “get somebody else”. Moses argued it so effectively that you can tell God was getting pissed at him. Jonah had to be swallowed by the whale. If it was such a great moneymaker they’d leap at the chance.

        1. Mansoor H. Khan


          Have you ever had real job? A real smart boss will push the best under him to his/her limits for the boss’s benefit for the business’s benefit and for the benefit of the talented person being pushed. Even though the talented person will be uncomfortable with the greater responsibility and may even resist it.

          It is a win, win, win situation. The creator wants to show these people what he has given them in terms of talent and guidance for their deep belief.

          Mansoor H. Khan

  37. Progressive Humanist

    It all depends on the religion; like the religion of economics, certain “churchs” attract certain types of followers.

    Kalama Sutra







    -Kalama Sutra of Siddhartha Gautama, aka Sakyamuni Buddha

  38. Frank L. Cocozzelli

    Even Keynes, an atheist, came to understand the positive role religion plays in society. Beyond that, many of us who are religious are neither fundamentalist nor strident in our beliefs.

  39. JTFaraday

    “Does Religion Serve a Purpose?”

    Around here it does. Around here analogizing something to “religion” serves as a quick and dirty means of denigrating things people don’t like so they don’t have to be specific about what it is they don’t like about it.

    See Pilker, Phil. For whom everyone’s ideology is “religious” except his.

  40. craazyman

    Religion might serve a purpose, other than a boring hour in the pew struggling to feign a passable attentiveness while fighting off sleep, if we had men like Samuel Treat, Calvinist pastor of Eastham Mass. in the 1670s or 80s, here among us to favor our foolish sloth with the wisdom of the righteous.

    Here is a man who could acquaint the sinner with God. Not like today’s preachers — who soft pedal the flames of hell as if it was merely a sauna, where the Lord is politically correct enough to keep the heat manageable, as if in a gentle reprobation. Even women preach today! Soft blessings upon those who lack all merit for them, and the touches of a motherly concern are not favors for a lost soul.

    No. Reverend Treat’s is the wisdom a lost man needs to hear if he would save his soul. And then religion could serve a purpose, a purpose that a lazy remonstrance or a loving nudge can in no wise effectuate on the stiff-necked soul who would turn away from God, at his peril . . .

    “Some think sinning ends with this life; but it is a mistake. The creature is held under an everlasting law; the damned increase in sin in hell. Possibly, the mention of this may please thee. [editor’s note: the Reverend obviously knew his audience haha] But, remember, there shall be no pleasant sins there; no eating, drinking, singing, dancing, wanton dalliance, and drinking stolen waters: but damned sins,bitter, hellish sins; sins exasperated by torments, cursing God, spite, rage, and blasphemy. — The guilt of all thy sins shall be laid upon thy soul,and be made so many heaps of fuel….” – Rev. Samuel Treat, Calvinist Pastor, Eastham, MA. 1670s or so.

    1. craazyman

      A severe error of editorial judgment relegated the Rev. Treat to the Appendix of Henry Thoreau’s CAPE COD, where the famous writer, wandering north across the plains of Nauset, encountered a historical document in which Rev. Treat was manifest and recorded, in his journal, several of the Reverend’s more illuminating sermons. Thoreau also relates the Reverend’s effect upon his Sunday flock. We have no men of God today who can reach this power of persuasion. And so our sinners only feign an interested but soporifical blank stare at the forgettable droning about the love of Christ and leave the church bound as headlong for hell as when they entered . . .

      “His voice was so loud, that it could be heard at a great distance from the meeting-house, even amidst the shrieks of hysterical women, and the winds that howled over the plains of Nauset; but there was no more music in it than in the discordant sounds with which it was mingled. . . The effect of such preaching,” it is said, “was that his hearers were several times, in the course of his ministry, awakened and alarmed; and on one occasion a comparatively innocent young man was frightened nearly out of his wits, and Mr. Treat had to exert himself to make hell seem somewhat cooler to him”; yet we are assured that “Treat’s manners were cheerful, his conversation pleasant, and sometimes facetious, but always decent. He was fond of a stroke of humor, and a practical joke, and manifested his relish for them by long and loud fits of laughter.” -Thoreau, CAPE COD

    2. nonclassical

      …as with any weapon, the “purpose” serves interest of those who wield it…

      and should be so adjudged…purpose and interest…

      better to wield neither…

  41. carpenter joe

    “Why contemplate beyond death, when you don’t even know life, God when you don’t know man, man when you won’t even look at yourself?” Confucius

    Jung said that as infinitely hard as it would be to imitate Christ, that it was infinitely harder to be yourself.

    Nietzsche got pretty close. Freud said that Nietzsche knew more about himself than anyone “who ever lived or was ever likely to live.”

    Whether or not the divine exists–whatever form it takes (or doesn’t take), you won’t go wrong by beginning your quest wih self-examination. Socrates had it right all along–know thyself, and maybe Jesus’s “know ye not that ye are gods” as well.

  42. Hugh

    Shouldn’t we also be asking: Does religion serve a porpoise, and if not, why not?

    Seriously though, the question is not so much one of belief or unbelief but tolerance as in not inflicting one’s beliefs on others. This is easier said than done. Evolution should be taught in the classroom. What one wishes to believe, one can believe at home. A woman should have the right to control her own body. The focus for me is not there, but that all the children we do have should be loved and well cared for. Beyond a few areas like these, I see the interests of religion, both singular and plural, to be similar to those of our public society: a commitment to each other to build together a decent, fair, and just society.

      1. nonclassical Monsoor, you are conflating “law” with “order”…

        better the uncarved block… “government” (or religion) is that which is never heard..(doesn’t bother the people’s lives)

        …next best is known and loved…

        …next best is known but bothersome…

        …next best is known and despised..

      2. Hugh

        Nice strawman. Tolerance is allowing for difference out of respect for others. It is not anything goes. Saying that a woman should not have the right to control her own body is about the most intolerant thing I can imagine outside of slavery. If a woman believes in a right to abortion, that is her affair. If she does not believe in one, that is also her affair. In either case, it is no one else’s. Where religion conflicts with basic human rights, it is precisely there that religion must cede.

        The case of evolution is different. It isn’t an individual “right”. It is common knowledge. Society has the right to see that all citizens are exposed to it through public education. Society does not have the right to demand that everyone believe it.

  43. psychohistorian

    To me, the purpose of religion is as a palliative for those that can’t deal with uncertainty. Religion is the creation of man to provide certainty for those who abdicate their personal humanity.

    I think that we all should strive to take personal responsibility for not knowing because, IMO, that is the basis for humility, compassion and community. When you KNOW you have the answer of religion, those that don’t share your FAITH are lesser humans….hence all the isolated “communities”. How about a community of those that know they don’t know and are not ashamed to admit it?….sounds like a pretty inclusive community to me.

    I will take Feynman’s cosmological view of what we don’t know over any other man made religion

    1. skippy

      Compounding lies… assisted by discovery’s retardation… well just look at the derivative finance debacle.

      Skippy.. one planet… one data point… in a minimum of 100 billion galaxies… the cognitive impairment is of equal distribution.

      PS. Classical Religion is fears application expressed for personal gain of the few over the many… its a national security issue… eh.

  44. H. Alexander Ivey

    “does religion serve a purpose?”
    if you have to ask the question, you are talking about the group aspect of “religion”, not the individual belief aspect, and so the answer you get is usually “no”. And in this video, the speaker is indulging in being a dry-as-dust Samuelson speaker, inspite of talking about a subject that is full of human feeling.

  45. SubjectivObject

    Religion has a purpose: To be a practical means within culture for suppoting ths spriitual evolution of the human entity, in the individual’s life time and for the culture over time. Needless to say, given what is palpably obvious, none of the popularly known religions have any authentic understanding of the origin and scope for being of the human entity, and thus essentially nothing fundamentally evolutionary can be gotten through them: That some mammals and their liturgical alpha mammals have got religion is the sum of what we have.

    The spriritualization of the human entity is the primary purpose for for its duration in life, and a religion is an arbitrary tool in the work of spiritualization. Conventional socialized religions fail in not emphasizing that its work should be to support the individual to evolve beyond the need for religion; the realizations of spiritualization provide the force and content for what is needed to continue development. An authentic religion would be an aid for the individual toward perceiving, facing, and organizing the non physical unknown as it occurs within themself, for themself, rather than being the presumptive authority for all things subjective about that unknown.

    Thinking about it, what hubris to propose in so many ways that a non physical realm of experience should be described …. with words. Good luck with that literalism; Ha!, the emotionally polarized mammals have got words now.

    At best, popular religions are little more than crowd control in the hope that mammalian intellectual hubris does not, after a fashion; throw the evolutionary baby out with the genocidal bath water.

  46. Abe, NYC

    It seems only American competitions such as Super Bowl, are decided by divine will. Otherwise Soviet or East German teams couldn’t have been so successful. Also, Britain has done extremely well in the last Olympic Games, and it’s not exactly the most religious nation, while Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is not known for its sports prowess.

    So it appears the divine laws only apply to US-based sports, another sign of just how exceptional America is.

  47. nonclassical

    ..noone appears to wish to approach the issue of truth…as such.

    Truth-all discipline is self-discipline..

    ..comparing this one against that one, one against the other is self-deception…

    Self-expression, without self-discipline, is self-deception, through self-interest..

  48. djrichard

    When I’m rational, I subscribe to Julian Jaynes’s theory on bi-cameralism as the origin of religion.

    And when I’m drowning, I subscribe to what Leonard Cohen wrote in “Suzanne”

    And Jesus was a sailor
    When he walked upon the water
    And he spent a long time watching
    From his lonely wooden tower
    And when he knew for certain
    Only drowning men could see him
    He said “All men will be sailors then
    Until the sea shall free them”

  49. roger erickson

    It helps to look at eytomology

    We’ve come full circle? Or never left?
    originally, people believed that sporting events demonstrated who’s gods were more powerful (or happy with their people)

    same old same old?

    the origins of the concept are inseparable from calling a game (or a life)

  50. Kurt Sperry

    Given the ubiquity of supernatural beliefs, it’s hard for me to imagine that we aren’t hardwired to fill in the blanks in our knowledge with made-up stuff, even lacking any rational basis for so doing. Add in the political and economic utility of creating supernatural belief systems for controlling and exploiting our fellow humans and it’s no wonder they are universal. If you aspire to the top of the social, political and economic hierarchies, you’d be stupid not to invent a god or gods if they didn’t already exist as a purely practical matter.

    And I think religion still serves its original use–that of a useful shared cultural/tribal commonality of belief to maintain group cohesion and differentiation. I think all religion’s essentially random irrationality is perhaps useful as well, as if belief functioned on purely rational criteria there would be a real danger of the belief systems gravitating towards some common consensus which would negate its tribal differentiation and cohesive functions. That is to say that human society is probably not suited to or best served in an evolutionary sense by a broad consensus of beliefs. A diversity of competing parallel approaches is probably a more robust evolutionary adaptation, and rationality works contrary to this end so in a real sense it could be that the structured irrationality of false religious belief confers an overall evolutionary advantage.

  51. Chris Engel

    “You and I are the same, Darien. We are smart enough not to buy into the oldest myth running: love. A fiction created by people to keep them from jumping out of windows.”


  52. F. Beard

    There’s a strategy in Bridge that states “If the only way you can win is if the cards lay a certain way then assume that the cards do lay that way and play accordingly.” And then there’s Pascal’s Wager …

  53. Kunst

    Religion is adaptive, because people working together are stronger than people operating as individuals. One of religion’s main appeals is the social cohesion it engenders. My group, as opposed to not-my group. Justification for hostility and conflict with “other”, justification for aggression, killing, taking. Same as its first cousin, nationalism, or second cousin, gangs. Not very nice, but historically rather effective. Religion, possibly mankind’s worst invention, right up there with war, torture, slavery, and rape, its alter egos.

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