Jonathan Haidt: Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence

So, Belle asked my opinion on this TED talk.

Rather than derailing the thread it was mentioned in, I figured we might as well make a conversation out of it, so, anyone who feels like giving the video a watch and wants to give their thoughts on it, feel free to do so.

So, below are my thoughts on the video. I will use the transcript of the 3 minute version of the talk to be more to the point for those who don't feel like watching the thing.

(Video) Jonathan Haidt: We humans have many varieties of religious experience, as William James explained. One of the most common is climbing the secret staircase and losing ourselves. 

The secret staircase doesn't necessarily need to have a religious tone whatsoever.

The staircase takes us from the experience of life as profane or ordinary upwards to the experience of life as sacred,or deeply interconnected.

It often takes religious thinking to even consider life as "profane and ordinary." Which just goes to show what I was telling you, Belle, that religion preys on doubt, weakness and fear.

 We are Homo duplex, as Durkheim explained. And we are Homo duplex because we evolved by multilevel selection, as Darwin explained.

I agree with this, we do pursue our own goals and ideals (the lower level) and also work together for bigger things (the upper level), but Darwin's explanation is much more elegant and makes more sense than Durkheim's. Darwin simply put it as nature doing its thing, we profit more as a group, and the individual tends to grow stronger when part of the group (due to the weaker falling off), whereas Durkheim felt the need to associate the individual, ordinary life as profane. I agree with Durk that the function of religion might have been to unite people into a moral community, buuuuut, on the same hand, just because something had good intentions, doesn't make that thing good. Especially when your moral community starts killing other moral communities.

 I can't be certain if the staircase is an adaptation rather than a bug, but if it is an adaptation, then the implications are profound. If it is an adaptation, then we evolved to be religious.

Absolutely disagree with this. We evolved to work as a group and to find answers about things we don't understand. Religion is one of many branches on that evolutionary tree of humanity, not the purpose of it.

I don't mean that we evolved to join gigantic organized religions. Those things came along too recently.I mean that we evolved to see sacredness all around us and to join with others into teams and circle around sacred objects, people and ideas.

Which =/= religion. Religion = believing in the supernatural, gods, magic, ect. What he is calling religion sounds like ordinary teamwork and community to me.

 This is why politics is so tribal. Politics is partly profane, it's partly about self-interest, but politics is also about sacredness. It's about joining with others to pursue moral ideas. It's about the eternal struggle between good and evil, and we all believe we're on the good team.

And most importantly, if the staircase is real, it explains the persistent undercurrent of dissatisfaction in modern life. Because human beings are, to some extent, hivish creatures like bees. We're bees. We busted out of the hive during the Enlightenment. We broke down the old institutions and brought liberty to the oppressed. We unleashed Earth-changing creativity and generated vast wealth and comfort.

Nowadays we fly around like individual bees exulting in our freedom. But sometimes we wonder: Is this all there is? What should I do with my life? What's missing? What's missing is that we are Homo duplex,but modern, secular society was built to satisfy our lower, profane selves. It's really comfortable down here on the lower level. Come, have a seat in my home entertainment center.

Incredibly stupid statement. The modern, secular society is built to satisfy both levels. We strive to make the world a better place by improving the quality of life for all, not just our moral community, and the pursuit of that goal is the sacred cow of the "upper" self. This guy seems to be seeing only half of the picture (the half that helps his talk).

One great challenge of modern life is to find the staircase amid all the clutter and then to do something good and noble once you climb to the top. I see this desire in my students at the University of Virginia.They all want to find a cause or calling that they can throw themselves into.

Which people do by simply helping others have a better "profane" life. Going out of your way for another person at no gain to self is the sacred staircase he talks about, just minus the gods and religion.

They're all searching for their staircase. And that gives me hope because people are not purely selfish.

Unless they are part of a secular society apparently.

Most people long to overcome pettiness and become part of something larger. And this explains the extraordinary resonance of this simple metaphor conjured up nearly 400 years ago. "No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."

Thank you.

You're welcome.

(Applause)

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No man is an island,
Entire of itself
Every man is a piece of the continent
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea
Europe is the less
As well as if a promontory were,
Or a manor of thy friends
Or thine own were.
Any man's death diminishes me
For I am involved in mankind
Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
It tolls for thee.
(John Dunne)

This is a wonderful poem, and I think it demonstrates the strong social bonds that developed in order to enable our "tribes" to flourish. Humanity can only develop through shared experiences and community living. DNA wants us to continue to procreate so that it can vary it's strands. The sum of human knowledge vastly exceeds the capacity for a single individual to retain, or even a small group. We need the collective sum to progress.

Religion wants to perceive humans as individuals connected only through its deity. The poem cited indicates a collective without pointing at any deity.

I find it mildly amusing when people say they are looking for a purpose or meaning to their lives. It indicates they wish to either be useful to another entity (in this case, a god) or at least to have significance in the grand scheme of things. I also find it astonishingly egocentric to want to believe that humanity is the final product of evolution. I'm pretty sure we are just a link in the chain, probably quite insignificant overall.

Some of us find that thought liberating, and others intimidating.

The term "monophobia" or "autophobia" reflects this intimidation element of a fear of being alone, and an invisible friend fits the slot. Well more specifically it has been tailored over the centuries to fit this slot. All that tailoring is most likely why the perception that Jesus is your personal friend and that god loves you (or Mohammed and Allah, etc) doesn't actually match anything that's written in the bible (or other ancient texts).

I was curious about this 'spiritual' magic, but after some reflection, I think it's simply the manifestation of the overcoming of a fear that doesn't actually harm DNA's procreation mission, and does encourage social mingling and bonding, which advances the DNA mission.

If you read John Dunne's poem in full, as quoted above, you can see that it fits the Humanist movement far more accurately than it might a religious concept.

I have to also admit it's one of my favorite poems :)
Thank you Sir Emperor, your Majesty, lol! I will have to ponder your response for a while..... I appreciate the thought you put into your response!!!!!!

Just one thing for now jumped out:

Jonathan:
I can't be certain if the staircase is an adaptation rather than a bug, but if it is an adaptation, then the implications are profound. If it is an adaptation, then we evolved to be religious.

His majesty:
Absolutely disagree with this. We evolved to work as a group and to find answers about things we don't understand. Religion is one of many branches on that evolutionary tree of humanity, not the purpose of it.


Of course we evolved to understand the world around us. I think what he was driving after was what role on our evolutionary past the development of religious ideologies and behaviors has played, and whether it became part of what has allowed us to survive. If the development of religion has served as an adaptation, then it is no different than our development of a large brain, or our ability to make tools/weapons.

That is profound.

And if it were true it would challenge the belief of some (many on this site perhaps) that religion is an "illness." It would become more along the lines of a genetic barrier, to which we would always have a part of us that strives towards religious thinking. Could that mean that further understanding of our brains, and what "triggers" the religious response is the first (or next) step towards bringing awareness of how and why the vast majority of the human race clings to god?

And if it were true it would challenge the belief of some (many on this site perhaps) that religion is an "illness." It would become more along the lines of a genetic barrier, to which we would always have a part of us that strives towards religious thinking.

I sort of agree with your statement, Belle. I wouldn't call religion an illness, but I would, just like Dr. Ray, link its spread to a virus.

I wouldn't however agree that we will always have a part of us that strives towards religious thinking. We might have a part of us that tends to find answers where there are none, or that strives to find some community and solace in tradition (repetition), but like I said in my comment on the TED talk, religion is an accidental result of that path in our social evolution, not the only outcome.

In time, as religion becomes less relevant, I wouldn't be surprised if it altogether disappears.

As to why people cling to god... That is a very broad subject. There are many, many factors that play into that. Anything from tradition, culture, education (lack of), financial and social standing, peer pressure, etc.

RE: I sort of agree with your statement, Belle. I wouldn't call religion an illness, but I would, just like Dr. Ray, link its spread to a virus.

....Wouldn't call religion and illness
.....Would link its spread to a virus.

Sorry, but to me, those two statements are the exact same thing.

Sorry, but to me, those two statements are the exact same thing.

No need to apologize, but it does share a lot of similarities to a virus, especially the survival mechanism.

Religion is spread through interaction, its core purpose is to spread (go out to all the corners of the world), and it alters the mind of the person to ignore other viewpoints, and in extreme cases to kill those who aren't a part of it in order to secure its own survival.

But the way you are describing religion there is the same tired argument we've heard over and over. So this video is pleading you to consider a different perspective. Instead of taking the stance that "religion" spreads like a virus, what if we have simply adapted to survive in part due to the benefits that can come from a so-called "spiritual" experience or belief system? Keep in mind in the video he isn't talking about "religion" per se. But you are automatically jumping to a conclusion that we couldn't have possibly developed an adaptation of spiritual perceptions, when really there is some evidence to support his claim.

Here is one (of many)

http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/rel/S/1/3/

It is one of many articles showing some health benefits of spirituality. We are NOT discussing whether or not religion is dangerous but whether or not humans have evolved to experience spirituality, and so the question becomes (at least for me personally) "Are those people who advocate that spirituality of all kinds is a delusion, failing to ask the right questions?" The question isn't whether a spiritual experience is a delusion but "WHY" was this adaptation necessary and what are the implications for us if it is driven by evolution? It would cause you to consider even more profound questions..... I can already think of many

I think the human propensity to team up for a "group cause" and transcend into a feeling like a spirit is a product of our evolution and a survival tool.

My father was a closet atheist in a sea of Catholics, but when he talked about his combat buddies it was like they walked on water. He suddenly seemed "spiritual".  His company from the 45th Infantry Division that fought battles such as Pork Chop Hill was a mix of mostly New York city kids and Oklahoma farm boys.

My uncle told me that my father cold-clocked some unfortunate guy in a bar for making a derogatory comment about "Okies".

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