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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

%851 %America/Chicago, %2011

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Freethought Heroine 2011

Strong resistance to God’s existence

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, gave this speech Oct. 8, 2011, at FFRF’s 34th national convention in Hartford, Conn., where she was named Freethought Heroine 2011.

Thank you so much for that introduction. Not only do you have the best music of all freethinking organizations, but you also have the best way with words: “Freedom from Religion Foundation,” “The Emperor Has No Clothes Award,” “Freethought Heroine.” These words have a playfulness to them that only underscores their seriousness and honesty.

Actions are very important, but so are words. I’m a writer, so I would never say that words are cheap. Searching for the right words — words that are precise but also startling — certainly costs me dearly. So I just want to savor, for a moment, the flavor of these words that you’ve applied to me: freethought heroine. They’re very sweet on my tongue.

My being named a freethought heroine is a small vindication of one of the core assertions of Steven Pinker, who just spoke to you and humorously described himself as the warm-up act for me. Steve, in his defense of human nature and his rejection of the blank-slate metaphor for the human mind, has stressed the genetic contribution not only in our generic human nature but in our individual natures as well.

When it comes to nature or nurture, it’s not a matter of either/or, as Steve has told us again and again in his best-selling books, but nevertheless nature does often exert a very surprising hegemony over nurture. It turns out to be nature over nurture in numerous surprising ways.

This assertion of Steve’s means a lot to me because there was absolutely nothing in my nurturance that would have led me to have ever been associated with an organization like FFRF, much less being honored by it. I was reared to look in horror at all of you godless people. In fact, in some sense, the a priori improbability of such an honor being conferred on me has induced in me a strong feeling of imposterhood in accepting this award. I’m reeling from the sense of unreality.

My sense of unreality derives from my birth family, which is Jewish and strictly Orthodox. I come on my paternal side from a long line of rabbis and of rabbis’ wives. I never want to forget the rabbis’ wives. I like to fantasize that maybe there were some freethought heroines hidden among them.

My father, who was from Poland, had rabbinical ordination but he was too self-conscious about his accent to sermonize for American worshippers and in general lacked confidence. So he became a cantor instead, as a result of which he could barely support his family. We were as poor as synagogue mice. We were four children. I was inauspiciously positioned in the middle of three girls, and the oldest was a boy, which has great significance in a family like mine.

There were high intellectual expectations placed on my brother, who was expected to carry on the family tradition of producing Talmudic scholars, and my brother did, in fact, become a rabbi, which reminds me of one of my favorite jokes. Question: “Why was Jesus the perfect Jewish son?” Answer: “He lived at home for a long time, he went into his father’s line of work, his mother thought he was god, and he thought his mother was a virgin.”

Unlike my brother, I was a girl, and as a girl there were no expectations for me other than that I be sweet and docile, unassuming and modest. Modesty, or tzniut as it’s called in Hebrew, is the premier virtue indoctrinated into Orthodox females.

Girls gone mild

I’d attended an all-girls school in Manhattan, an extreme all-girls school, by which I mean extremely backward. It was a member of a loose confederation of schools that were started in Europe about 100 years ago called Bais Yaakov schools. These schools were considered progressive at the time when they were first instituted, since, although Orthodox, they instructed girls in some of the sacred texts. This was considered radical. One medieval sage had written that, rather than have girls ever study from the holy books, it would be better for the books to be burned.

We didn’t study the Talmud, which is the intellectual zenith in Orthodox Judaism. It’s the menfolk’s highest pride, the very means of conferring status, so that the best in Talmud are simply the best, full stop. Talmudic brilliance is the standard used even in arranging marriages. An outstanding Talmudic scholar, no matter what his other failings, can get a very desirable bride.

Especially when I was younger, I would play in my mind with the counterfactual: “What would it have been like if I had been born a boy?” I know that I might have become immersed in the world of Talmudic scholarship, which happens to be a world of intellectual ethereality and deftness in splitting a hair at least 20 different ways — which is, I confess, just the sort of intellectual exercise that I’ve often enjoyed as an analytic philosopher. I think I would have made a rather good Talmudic scholar, but, being a girl, I didn’t get the chance, which I’m now grateful for.

Tzniut, female modesty, on the other hand, was stressed to such an extent that in my high school instead of having pop quizzes we used to have pop hemline inspections. This was in the late ’60s, so hemlines were showing plenty of leg. We were supposed to be wearing our skirts down to mid-calf. Teachers would come in to check our hemlines, and if it was a little too short, you were sent home.

But this was only the external tzniut, the external modesty — inducing body shame, of course, but that was not the worst of it. Far more invidious was the internal inculcation of female modesty, which meant doing nothing to attract undue attention to oneself, including in one’s very speech. I mentioned how hard I struggle for the words that manage to be both precise and startling. Well, this inclination of mine, especially the startling part, was actively discouraged.

There is a Talmudic prohibition against a woman’s voice; the prohibition is known by the Hebrew phrase kol isha, the voice of a woman. Men outside her family can’t hear her voice because it is in itself, the Talmud says, an instrument of seduction. The law has been interpreted by almost all scholars to cover only the singing voice of women.

In my family, this was a very active issue. Since my father was a cantor, we were all musical. My older sister in particular had a voice that might have made her known in the greater world had she not been born an Orthodox female.

It was such an extraordinary voice that she was actually given voice lessons by my parents, very peculiar in our background. When her teacher heard her sing, she said, “I have very little to teach Minda. God taught her how to sing.” But that voice, which was professionally trained, was never heard outside our house or outside her own household when she got married. She used her voice strictly to sing lullabies to her children, or to sing her prayers in synagogue under her breath, trying hard not to let her love of music take over so that her voice might soar.

Kol isha is almost always interpreted as referring to a woman’s singing voice, but there is a Talmudic discussion as to whether it extends even to a woman’s speaking voice. I quote here from the Journal of Halacha (Jewish law): “Perusal of the Talmudic sources thus establishes the undisputed principle that a woman’s voice is erva” (an instrument of sexual incitement), “but leaves unclear whether a speaking or a singing voice is intended. And, in fact, some authorities do ban even the speaking voice of a woman.”

To come from a background like that, in which such questions are even debated, even if the more liberal interpretation which prohibits only a woman’s singing voice is accepted, is to have a very special set of problems in attaining one’s personal freedom from religion.

Imagine, if you can, how difficult it is for me to speak up, the special hurdle of convincing myself to overcome the embarrassment of undue attention, whether it’s in the fray of philosophical combat — and philosophy happens to be one of the most combative academic fields — or before an audience such as this one. Then, of course, I’m a writer, and writers are supposed to be engaged at least as much in self-promotion as they are in writing. This business of self-promotion is an especially difficult aspect in the life that I’ve chosen for myself, given my background. This was my nurturance, and it was intensified in that high school, that abominable high school that I went to.

Forget about evolution

It was, however, a state-accredited school, which meant — and I have to say hallelujah — that we were required to take the New York State Regents exam. I am so grateful for that accreditation, because it meant that there was some control over the secular curriculum. I consider those religious schools which don’t have accreditation, and there are a slew of them, to be a form of child abuse. I wish they could be outlawed.

In 10th grade, when I took biology, our rabbi/principal came in and solemnly spoke to us on the first day of class to warn us that the teacher, who was a moonlighting public school teacher — almost all of the secular teachers were moonlighting public school teachers — was required to teach us the theory of evolution because it was going to be on the Regents’ exam, but it was only a theory, which means unproven, and since it contradicted the story of creation that we all knew was true, we should learn the theory for our test and then we should forget all about it. But instead I promptly forgot all the holy nonsense I had to learn just as soon as the test was over, while the theory of evolution shined on in me as the luminous model of a thoroughly satisfying explanation.

We were actively discouraged from going on to college, especially those among us who were considered the best students. Instead we were urged to go to a seminary that was connected with the high school and was a sort of way station to bide our time until the all-important event in our lives, which would be getting married. But I did go to college, and eventually, after I got married — I got married very young the first time — I transferred to Barnard College, Columbia University, which is the place where I was born into consciousness. It was the first time I experienced what it was like to have my nature nurtured.

I could study anything I wanted, even the subjects considered mostly for boys, which were math and physics. I have to say I was a little disappointed that that category — subjects that were considered mostly for boys — existed even outside of that insular world that I was trying so hard to escape from, but at least I could study those subjects. Nobody was saying I couldn’t, nobody was going to burn the books before I got to study them, and my professors were encouraging.

Then there was philosophy, which I got into because I was interested in philosophy of science and philosophy of math. I was learning very strange and baffling things in my physics classes, especially quantum mechanics, and I wanted to understand what these theories meant, what they were saying about reality. There are outstanding questions in the foundations of quantum mechanics — they exist still — and often when I would ask my professors, I would get a version of the answer that you sometimes get in physics classes when you ask what does this all mean: Don’t ask what it all means; shut up and calculate.

I was also interested in questions about foundations of mathematics. Mathematics is so different from all other knowledge. It’s a priori — we can prove things conclusively. Mathematical results are immune to empirical revisions, and this delighted but also baffled me. So math, too, led me to seek out some philosophy classes.

But I found far more in these classes than I could ever have anticipated. I found a way to completely distance myself from religion, to lose it and never mourn the loss. While I was studying philosophy, I came to understand (and I have to say for me this understanding had the feel of salvation), that it is no sign of moral or spiritual strength to believe that for which one has no evidence, neither a priori evidence as in math, nor a posteriori evidence as in science. Quite the contrary. Religious epistemology has it all backward.

What I took from my philosophy classes, the persistent if unstated norm, is that it’s a violation almost immoral in its transgressiveness to shirk the responsibilities of rationality. There are obligations that are placed on us by being propositional creatures who are able to formulate truth-valued propositions, to consider them, to reflect on them, to assert them or deny them, and then to act on our considered beliefs when those beliefs are such as to support actions.

Bertrand Russell said about the practice of postulating in mathematics: “The method of postulating what we want has many advantages. They are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil.”

One can very easily adapt Russell’s statement about postulating in mathematics — and it’s an adaptation I know that he wouldn’t mind (uncompromising atheist that he was) — so that it describes not what’s so wrong about postulating in mathematics but what’s so wrong about an epistemology that sacralizes faith, which is what religious epistemology does. So to paraphrase Russell: The practice of believing on faith what we want has many advantages. They are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil.

I’ve been hanging around these atheist circles for a while now, and it seems to me, especially coming from the background I do, that some of my fellow atheists sometimes underestimate the intellectual sophistication of religious believers, speaking of them all as if they’re just dimwitted. They’re wrong in this, and I know that they’re wrong, because there are people in my family whose IQs I would match against anyone’s. They’re not dimwitted, and they know how to reason.

They don’t require that we enlightened ones point out the fallacies of their religious arguments, because they eschew religious arguments. They’ve got an epistemology that makes religious arguing appear as naive in their eyes as it is in ours.

My last book was called 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. When I was on my book tour, they would often leave off that very important subtitle, so it was just, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, and I would often have very enraged audiences. They thought I was going to be delivering a rejoinder to Dawkins and Hitchens.

I actually had interesting discussions with the audience, and there was one woman, in the Free Library of Philadelphia, who said, “Are you actually saying that you’re an atheist? Why would you just come out and say something so terrible about yourself?” It was as if I had just said that I eat babies for breakfast.

I ended up having probably one of the greatest dialogues of my tour, or maybe of my life, with that outraged woman. As we went back and forth, it became clearer to her that she and I had common ground, that both of us believed in objective morality and had similar ideas about what was right and wrong. Babies for breakfast was definitely out.

At the book signing at the end, she handed me a little scrap of paper and said, “Well, I don’t agree with what you say, so I’m not going to buy your book, but you seem like a nice lady so I want your autograph.” I considered that a great triumph. She came away thinking that she’d met a a nice, albeit godless, lady.

Three dozen arguments

In this book, although it’s a novel, I attach an appendix which gives 36 arguments for the existence of God, but with all of their fallacies. I lay them out in the way that we philosophers like to do, very clearly, stating the premises and then showing what’s wrong with each of the arguments.

There are all the classic arguments that philosophers and theologians have been debating for a long time: the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument. I also wanted to formulate the vaguer and more emotive lines of reasoning that I’ve never seen explicitly formulated, so I have — for example, the “argument from answered prayers” and the “argument from the intolerability of insignificance.”

The point of the novel, the storytelling that precedes the appendix, is that religious faith and religious adherence, at least in my quite intimate experience with them, very often have little to do with arguments. None of the Talmudic scholars in my family put much faith in any arguments. There are believers who see through these arguments just as well as you and I do. Rather, they put their faith in faith, which is what I mean by “religious epistemology.”

Epistemology is the area of philosophy that has to do with knowledge itself. What counts as knowledge, what kinds of grounds we need in order to have license to believe. There’s an almost ethical or normative component to epistemology, just as in questions of ethics, having to do with the evaluation of standards, of what counts as right. In ethics, we consider the standards for evaluating actions and determining the right sorts of actions. In epistemology, the normative questions revolve around the standards for evaluating beliefs. What counts as the right sorts of grounds for beliefs? Do you have to have grounds at all, and for all one’s beliefs?

Philosophy has been concerned with these sorts of questions from the very beginning, from Plato 2,500 years ago. It was Plato who stressed, as philosophers have continued to stress, how conscientious we ought to be in these matters of belief, as much as in our actions — and not only because beliefs are implicated in our actions but because the truth itself is important, and there are so many ways in which we get duped.

Plato stressed how many irrational and subjective forces are always lying in wait to take the place of good grounds, these dark forces of the ego that incline us toward wishful thinking and fantasizing, coming up with visions of the world that flatter our own senseless sense of self-importance in this world, so that we come up with worldviews, with weltanschauungen, that, flattering our own egos, incline us toward divisiveness.

The demand for compelling and objective reasons to believe arises as a way to combat these self-deluding tendencies. Religious epistemology, with its enshrining of faith, rejects the epistemology shared by both science and philosophy, demanding compelling reasons, that are compelling to everybody who submits herself to reason, which get at what “objectivity” means.

Beware of philosophy

Here’s something that Bertrand Russell really did say, without any paraphrasing: “A habit of basing convictions upon evidence and of giving to them only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world suffers.”

There’s an ethics to epistemology, there’s an ethics to taking our beliefs seriously to demand objectivity. This is a continuous theme in philosophy, from Plato on, and it’s why the spirit of philosophy has always been seen as inimical to the spirit of religion.

These epistemological and ethical considerations are part of the sphere of reason even though they’re not strictly part of science, but rather of philosophy. We shortchange reason when we identify reason only with the empirical sciences. Reason has science at its disposal, but it has more than only science. We have more in our arsenal. We have philosophical reasoning as well. And realizing the greater resources of reason undermines the great chasm which is supposed to exist between facts, on the one hand, and values, on the other.

Many religious accommodationists exploit this alleged distinction, most famously, Stephen Jay Gould, who magisterially proclaimed the existence of the “nonoverlapping magisteria” (often abbreviated as NOMA). I think this phrase is nonsense, but it sounds awfully good.

These two nonoverlapping magisteria that Gould laid out are both, he said, mutually exclusive and co-jointly exhaustive categories of propositions. On the one hand we give to the authority of the empirical science the dominion over all facts, facts of the matter, propositions which are either true or false.

On the other hand, we give over to the authority of religion dominion of all values, which presumably do not concern propositions which are either true or false. This distinction between facts and values lines up, Gould says, with the distinction between science and religion. It’s religion, in other words, which is to tell us how we are to live our lives, what are the values that matter, what it is to live a life well-lived.

According to NOMA, there is no work for reason to do here at all. So we have to leave it to the authorities of religion and religious codes of ethics.

Someone like Gould can think that reason has nothing to say on matters of value only because, with a certain degree of arrogance not unknown to scientists, he equates reason with the empirical sciences, which makes it almost unavoidable then to hand over to the authority of nonreason, also known as religion, all things having to do with value.

NOMA ignores the long history going back to Plato and Aristotle and onward to Spinoza and Hume and Kant and into our own day, which has been steadily offering us trickle-down arguments establishing the foundations of morality in reason. Steve gave away a little bit of how I think that this is accomplished in his own talk, the sorts of arguments which don’t belong to the empirical sciences but rather to moral reasoning, that professional philosophers have been developing and expanding upon, building on each other’s work — just as scientists build on each other’s work. And just as practitioners in the sciences have had their practical and beneficial effects, furthering the flourishing of human lives, so too have practitioners in the abstract work of moral reasoning, furthering the flourishing of human lives.

Philosophers have been hard at work, laying out arguments that clarify the objective nature of morality, laying out arguments that extend the intrinsic value of life to previously excluded groups — women, people of different races and religions, children, even animals — using rigorous reason, showing the inconsistency of conferring intrinsic value on some lives — certainly one’s own! — and not on others. And the force of the rationality of these rigorous arguments gradually trickles down.

People may not be able to reproduce the exact abstract logic of the philosophers, but their moral sensibilities have been transformed nevertheless. This process has helped to move us along, painfully slowly and often regressing, but still slowly going further in the process of moral progress. It’s a lovely aspect of our species that we don’t enjoy the feeling of being caught in inconsistency, and so much of our moral abominations involve inconsistency, which it has fallen to philosophers to point out.

Secular moral arguments

There’s a lot of disagreement among philosophers, who are split into the camps of Kantian deontologists and Millsian utilitarians. The two camps argue whether there are certain acts — torture, for example — which are intrinsically immoral, no matter what good results might ensue from them, or whether an act’s moral character derives from its consequences.

There is substantive controversy here, but that shouldn’t blind us from seeing the far more fundamental consensus. Both the deontologists and the utilitarians are joined to a common sense of what the moral point of view is--an entirely secular understanding of the moral point of view as requiring an effort of distancing from one’s own particular identity. That you happen to be you -— as important as that is to you ­— is of minimal moral consequence. Everybody else happens to be themselves as well, and feels about that self as fervently as you do about yours. Kant’s famous categorical imperative — that before you perform any action, you should try to perform this test in your mind: could you universalize it, make it a rule for everybody to follow — is getting at the distancing from the strong pull of the self, a distancing which is of the essence of the moral stance. If you want to perform some act­ — say cheating somebody out of his fair share — and you find you wouldn’t be able to universalize it, then what you’ve revealed is that you’re giving too much weight to your own identity in the situation. You only think the cheating is justifiable because it’s you who will be performing it. And utilitarians, in asking us to consider the greatest good for the greatest number, ask us to perform a similar distancing from the pull of the self, in which you view yourself as just one among many, and it’s the consequences for everybody — not just yourself — that constitutes the moral aspect. So deontologists and consequentialists, as divided as they are on important issues, still build on a common understanding of the nature of morality. Just as there are disagreements among scientists on the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics, but still they all know how to use it, and nobody but a fool would say there’s no established knowledge here just because controversy remains; so, too, there’s a tremendous amount of agreement among philosophers, and nobody but a fool would deny that there is shared genuine knowledge about the nature of morality secured through philosophical reasoning. And this secured knowledge has impacted on the world outside of professional philosophers, gradually changing opinions and sensibilities. It’s impacted even the moral sensibility of religion, so that people read the bible differently now, according to moral arguments that have been brought to them through secularism. It’s because of secular philosophy, at least as much as because of secular science, that all but the most fundamentalist of religious believers resort to claiming that the bible is, in various places, to be interpreted metaphorically, as much when it talks in moral ignorance about slavery as when it talks in scientific ignorance about the creation of the world in six days.

The division between facts and values that Gould’s touted NOMA supposedly rests on is a false division. Facts have been established in the world of values, secured through sound ethical reasoning. For example, it’s a fact that slavery is wrong. It’s a fact despite the fact that no religion was able on its own, without the input of secular philosophical arguments, to discover that fact.

It’s a fact that slavery is wrong despite the many laws concerning the keeping of slaves that are to be found in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, just as it’s a fact that the voice of a woman, whether speaking or singing, is not to be regarded as in itself a sexual incitement. And if it is so regarded, that’s not the moral problem of the woman who’s speaking. It is, rather, the problem of the men who can’t hear it as anything but sexualized.

In any case, I thank you very much for listening to this woman’s voice.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist. She received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University and taught philosophy for most of her life. She is the recipient of many awards for both her artistic and scholarly works. In 1996 she was named a MacArthur Fellow (the “genius” award). She is the author of six novels, including 36 Arguments For the Existence of God, The Mind-Body Problem and Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal and Quantum Physics, a book of short stories, Strange Attractors, and two award-winning nonfiction books: Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, and Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. She has retired from teaching to write full time and lecture.

%759 %America/Chicago, %2004

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker -- Emperor Has No Clothes" Honoree"

The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion

By Steven Pinker

Presented at the annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Madison, Wis., on Oct. 29, 2004, on receipt of The Emperor Has No Clothes" Award.

Thank you very much; this is a tremendous honor. I look forward to displaying the Emperor proudly in my office at Harvard. It's a special honor to be here on the occasion that is recognizing the accomplishments of Anne Gaylor, and I'd like to express my appreciation for the wonderful work that she has done in this Foundation.

Do we have a "God gene," or a "God module"?

I'm referring to claims that a number of you may have noticed. Just last week, a cover story of Time magazine was called "The God Gene: Does our deity compel us to seek a higher power?" Believe it or not, some scientists say yes. And a number of years earlier, there were claims that the human brain is equipped with a "God module," a subsystem of the brain shaped by evolution to cause us to have a religious belief. "Brain's God module may affect religious intensity," according to the headline of the Los Angeles Times. In this evening's talk, I want to evaluate those claims.

There certainly is a phenomenon that needs to be explained, namely religious beliefs. According to surveys by ethnographers, religion is a human universal. In all human cultures, people believe that the soul lives on after death, that ritual can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by a variety of invisible person-like entities: spirits, ghosts, saints, evils, demons, cherubim or Jesus, devils and gods.

All cultures, you might ask? Yes, all cultures. I give you an example of a culture we're well familiar with, that of the contemporary United States. The last time I checked the figures, 25% of Americans believe in witches, 50% in ghosts, 50% in the devil, 50% believe that the Book of Genesis is literally true, 69% believe in angels, 87% believe Jesus was raised from the dead, and 96% believe in a god or a universal spirit. You've got your work cut out for you!

Admiring the "Emperor Has No Clothes" award statuette, 
presented by Foundation staffer Dan Barker, is honoree Steven Pinker. 
Photo by Brent Nicastro.

So what's going on? In many regards, the human mind appears to be well-engineered. Not literally well-engineered, but it has the signs or appearance of engineering in the biologist's sense. That is, we can see, think, move, talk, understand, and attain goals better than any robot or computer. You can't go to Circuit City and buy Rosie the Maid from "The Jetsons" and expect to it to put away the dishes or run simple errands. These feats are too difficult for human-made creations, though they're things that a five-year-old child could do effortlessly. The explanation for signs of engineering in the natural world is Darwin's theory of national selection, the only theory we've come up with so far that can explain the illusion of design in causal terms.

The question is, how can a powerful taste for apparently irrational beliefs evolve? H.L. Mencken said that "the most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It's the chief occupation of humankind." This poses an enigma to the psychologist.

There is one way in which religious belief could be an adaptation. Many of our faculties are adaptations to enduring properties of the real world. We have depth perception, because the world really is three-dimensional. We apparently have an innate fear of snakes, because the world has snakes and they are venomous. Perhaps there really is a personal, attentive, invisible, miracle-producing, reward-giving, retributive deity, and we have a God module in order to commune with him. As a scientist, I like to interpret claims as testable hypotheses, and this certainly is one. It predicts, for example, that miracles should be observable, that success in life should be proportional to virtue, and that suffering should be proportional to sin. I don't know anyone who has done the necessary studies, but I would say there is good reason to believe that these hypotheses have not been confirmed. There's a Yiddish expression: "If God lived on earth, people would break his windows."

There have been other, more plausible attempts to explain religion as a biological adaptation. Even though I'm far more sympathetic to Darwinian explanations of mental life than most psychologists, I don't find any of these convincing.

The first is that religion gives comfort. The concepts of a benevolent shepherd, a universal plan, an afterlife, or just deserts, ease the pain of being a human; these comforting thoughts make us feel better. There's an element of truth to this, but it is not a legitimate adaptationist explanation, because it begs the question of why the mind should find comfort in beliefs that are false. Saying that something is so doesn't make it so, and there's no reason why it should be comforting to think it so, when we have reason to believe it is not so. Compare: if you're freezing, being told that you're warm is not terribly soothing. If you're being threatened by a menacing predator, being told that it's just a rabbit is not particularly comforting. In general, we are not that easily deluded. Why should we be in the case of religion? It simply begs the question.

The second hypothesis is that religion brings a community together. Those of you who read the cover story of Time might be familiar with this hypothesis because the geneticist Dean Hamer, whose new book The God Gene inspired the cover story, offered this as his Darwinian explanation of religion. Again, I think there's an element of truth in this. Religion certainly does bring a community together. But again it simply begs the question as to why. Why, if there is a subgoal in evolution to have people stand together to face off common enemies, would a belief in spirits, or a belief that ritual could change the future, be necessary to cement a community together? Why not just emotions like trust and loyalty and friendship and solidarity? There's no a priori reason you would expect a belief in a soul or a ritual to be a solution to the problem of how you get a bunch of organisms to cooperate.

The third spurious explanation is that religion is the source of our higher ethical yearnings. Those of you who read the bookRock of Ages by Stephen Jay Gould, who argued that religion and science could co-exist comfortably, are familiar with his argument: since science can't tell us what our moral values should be, that's what religion is for, and each "magisterium" should respect the other. A big problem for this hypothesis is apparent to anyone who has read the bible, which is a manual for rape and genocide and destruction. God tells the Israelites invading all Midianite villages, "Kill all the men, kill all the kids, kill all the old women. The young women that you find attractive, bring them back to your compound, lock them up, shave their heads, lock them in a room for 30 days till they stop crying their eyes out because you've killed their mom and dad, and then take her as a second or third or fourth or fifth wife."

So the bible, contrary to what a majority of Americans apparently believe, is far from a source of higher moral values. Religions have given us stonings, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, fatwas, suicide bombers, gay-bashers, abortion-clinic gunmen, and mothers who drown their sons so they can happily be united in heaven.

To understand the source of moral values, we don't have to look to religion. Psychologists have identified universal moral sentiments such as love, compassion, generosity, guilt, shame, and righteous indignation. A belief in spirits and angels need not have anything to do with it. And moral philosophers such as Peter Singer (one of tomorrow's honorees) who scrutinize the concept of morality have shown that it is logically rooted in the interchangeability of one's own interests and others. The world's enduring moral systems capture in some way the notion of the interchangeability of perspectives and interests, the idea that "I am one guy among many;" the golden rule; the categorical imperative; Singer's own notion of "the expanding circle;" John Rawls' "veil of ignorance," and so on. A retributive, human-like deity meting out justice doesn't have a role in our best explanations of the logic of morality.

To answer the question, "Why is Homo sapiens so prone to religious belief?," you first have to distinguish between traits that areadaptations, that is, products of Darwinian natural selection, and traits that are byproducts of adaptations, also called spandrels or exaptations. An example: Why is our blood red? Is there some adaptive advantage to having red blood, maybe as camouflage against autumn leaves? Well, that's unlikely, and we don't need any other adaptive explanation, either. The explanation for why our blood is red is that it is adaptive to have a molecule that can carry oxygen, mainly hemoglobin. Hemoglobin happens to be red when it's oxygenated, so the redness of our blood is a byproduct of the chemistry of carrying oxygen. The color per se was not selected for. Another non-adaptive explanation for a biological trait is genetic drift. Random stuff happens in evolution. Certain traits can become fixed through sheer luck of the draw.

To distinguish an adaptation from a byproduct, first of all you have to establish that the trait is in some sense innate, for example, that it develops reliably across a range of environments and is universal across the species. That helps rule out reading, for example, as a biological adaptation. Kids don't spontaneously read unless they are taught, as opposed to spoken language, which is a plausible adaptation, because it does emerge spontaneously in all normal children in all societies.

The second criterion is that the causal effects of the trait would, on average, have improved the survival or reproduction of the bearer of that trait in an ancestral environment--the one in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history, mainly the foraging or hunter-gatherer lifestyle that predated the relatively recent invention of agriculture and civilization.

Crucially, the advantage must be demonstrable by some independently motivated causal consequences of the putative adaptation. That is, the laws of physics or chemistry or engineering have to be sufficient to establish that the trait would be useful. The usefulness of the trait can't be invented ad hoc; if it is, you have not a legitimate evolutionary explanation but a "just-so story" or fairy tale. The way to tell them apart is to independently motivate the usefulness of the trait. An example: Via projective geometry, one can show that by combining images from two cameras or optical devices, it is possible to calculate the depth of an object from the disparity of the projections. If you write out the specs for what you need in order to compute stereoscopic depth, you find that humans and other primates seem to have exactly those specs in our sense of stereoscopic depth perception. It's exactly what engineers would design if they were building a robot that had to see in depth. That similarity is a good reason to believe that human stereoscopic depth perception is an adaptation.

Likewise for fear of snakes. In all societies people have a wariness of snakes; one sees it even in laboratory-raised monkeys who had never seen a snake. We know from herpetology that snakes were prevalent in Africa during the time of our evolution, and that getting bitten by a snake is not good for you because of the chemistry of snake venom. Crucially, that itself is not a fact of psychology, but it helps to establish what is a fact of psychology, namely that the fear of snakes is a plausible adaptation.

Our sweet tooth is yet another example. It's not terribly adaptive now, but biochemistry has established that sugar is packed with calories, and therefore could have prevented starvation in an era in which food sources were unpredictable. That makes a sweet tooth a plausible adaptation.

In contrast, it's not clear what the adaptive function of humor is, or of music. I think the explanations of religion that I've reviewed have the same problem, namely not having an independent rationale, given an engineering analysis of why that trait should, in principle, be useful.

The alternative, then, is that just as the redness of blood is a byproduct of other adaptations, so may our predisposition to religious belief. A crucial corollary of the theory of evolution is that conflicts of interests among organisms, of different species or of the same species, lead to the biological equivalent of an arms race. An organism evolves more clever or lethal weapons, another organism evolves even more ingenious defenses, and so on, spiraling the process. At any given stage in an arms race, a feature can be adaptive for one organism but not for its adversaries, as long as the first is overcoming the defenses of the second. That's another reason why not everything in biology is adaptive, at least not for every organism. What's adaptive for the lion is not so adaptive for the lamb.

So a way of rephrasing the question "Why is religious belief so pervasive?" is to ask, "Who benefits?" Another way of putting it is that one must distinguish the possible benefits of religion to the producers of religious belief--the religious establishment of shamans and priests and so on--from the benefits to the consumers of religion--the parishioners, the flock, the believers. The answer might be different for the two cases. One must distinguish the question, "What good is an inculcation of religious belief by priests, shamans, and so on?" from the question, "What good is an acceptance of religious belief by believers?"

A number of anthropologists have pointed out the benefits of religion to those causing other people to have religious beliefs. One ubiquitous component of religion is ancestor worship. And ancestor worship must sound pretty good if you're getting on in years and can foresee the day when you're going to become an ancestor. Among the indignities of growing old is that you know that you're not going to be around forever. If you plausibly convince other people that you'll continue to oversee their affairs even when you're dead and gone, that gives them an incentive to treat you nicely up to the last day.

Food taboos are also common in religious belief, and might be explained by the psychology of food preference and dispreference, in particular, disgust. If you withhold a food, especially a food of animal origin, from children during a critical period, they'll grow up grossed out at the thought of eating that food. That's why most of us would not eat dog meat, monkey brains, or maggots, things that are palatable in other societies. There are often ecological reasons why food taboos develop, but there are probably also reasons of control. Since neighboring groups have different favored foods, if you keep your own kids from having a taste for the foods favored by your neighbors, it can keep them inside the coalition, preventing them from defecting to other coalitions, because to break bread with their neighbors they'd have to eat revolting stuff.

Rites of passage are another intelligible feature of religion. Many social decisions have to be made in categorical, yes-or-no, all-or-none fashion. But a lot of our biology is fuzzy and continuous. A child doesn't go to bed one night and wake up an adult the next morning. But we do have to make decisions such as whether they can vote or drive or buy a gun. There's nothing magical about the age of 13 or the age of 18 or any other age. But it's more convenient to arbitrarily anoint a person as an adult on a particular, arbitrarily-chosen day, than to haggle over how mature every individual is every time he wants a beer. Religious rites of passage demarcate stages of life, serving the function that we have given over to driver's licenses and other forms of ID. Another fuzzy continuum is whether someone is available as a potential romantic partner or is committed to someone else. Marriage is a useful way of demarcating that continuum with a sharp line.

Costly initiations or sacrifices are also present in almost all the world's religions. A general problem in the maintenance of cooperation is how to distinguish people who are altruistically committed to a coalition from hangers-on and parasites and free-riders. One way to test who is genuinely committed is to see who is willing to undertake a costly sacrifice. To take an example close to home: To see whether someone is committed to an ethnic group I am familiar with, you can say, "You've just had a baby. Please hand over your son so I can cut some skin off his penis." That's not the kind of thing that anyone would do unless they took their affiliation with the group seriously. And there are far more gruesome examples from the rest of the world.

Yet another explicable feature of religion is signs of expertise in occult knowledge. If you're the one who knows mysterious but important arcane knowledge, then other people will defer to you. Even in non-religious contexts, most societies have some division of labor in expertise, where we accord prestige and perquisites to people who know useful stuff. So a good strategy for providers of religion is to mix some genuine expertise--and indeed, anthropologists have shown that the tribal shaman or witch doctor really is an expert in herbal medicine and folk remedies--with a certain amount of hocus-pocus, trance-inducing drugs, stage magic, sumptuous robes and cathedrals, and so on, reinforcing the claim that there are worlds of incomprehensible wonder, power, and mystery that are reachable only through one's services.

These practical benefits take away some of the mystery over why people like to encourage religious belief in others, without committing oneself to a specific biological adaptation for religion. The inculcation of religious belief would be a byproduct of these other, baser, motives.

What about the other side of these transactions, namely the consumers? Why do they buy it? One reason is that in most cases we should defer to experts. That's in the very nature of expertise. If I have a toothache, I open my mouth and let a guy drill my teeth. If I have a bellyache, I let him cut me open. That involves a certain amount of faith. Of course, in these cases the faith is rational, but that deference could, if manipulated, lead to irrational deference, even if the larger complex of deference can be adaptive on the whole.

There are also emotional predispositions which evolved for various reasons and make us prone to religious belief as a byproduct. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict summed up much of prayer when she said, "Religion is universally a technique for success." Ethnographic surveys suggest that when people try to communicate with God, it's not to share gossip or know-how; it's to ask him for stuff: recovery from illness, recovery of a child from illness, success in enterprises, success in the battlefield. (And of course, the Red Sox winning the World Series, which almost made me into a believer.) This idea was summed up by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary, which defines "to pray" as "to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy." This aspect of religious belief is thus a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they've exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success.

Those are some of the emotional predispositions that make people fertile ground for religious belief. But there also are cognitive predispositions, ways in which we intellectually analyze the world, which have been very skillfully explored by the anthropologists Dan Sperber, Pascal Boyer, and Scott Atran. Anyone who is interested in the evolutionary psychology of religion would enjoy Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained and Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust. Hamer's The God Gene is also good, but I am more sympathetic to Boyer and Atran.

The starting point is a faculty of human reason that psychologists call intuitive psychology or the "theory of mind module"--"theory" here not referring to a theory of the scientist but rather to the intuitive theory that people unconsciously deploy in making sense of other people's behavior. When I try to figure out what someone is going to do, I don't treat them as just a robot or a wind-up doll responding to physical stimuli in the world. Rather, I impute minds to those people.

I can't literally know what someone else is thinking or feeling, but I assume that they're thinking or feeling something, that they have a mind, and I explain their behavior in terms of their beliefs and their desires. That's intuitive psychology. There is evidence that intuitive psychology is a distinct part of our psychological make-up. It seems to be knocked out in a condition called autism: autistic people can be prodigious in mathematics, art, language, and music, but they have a terrible time attributing minds to other people. They really do treat other people as if they were robots and wind-up dolls. There's also a concerted effort underway to see where intuitive psychology is computed in the brain. Part of it seems to be concentrated in the ventromedial and orbital frontal cortex, the parts of the brain that kind of sit above the eyeballs, as well as the superior temporal sulcus farther back.

Perhaps the ubiquitous belief in spirits, souls, gods, angels, and so on consists of our intuitive psychology running amok. If you are prone to attributing an invisible entity called "the mind" to other people's bodies, it's a short step to imagining minds that exist independently of bodies. After all, it's not as if you could reach out and touch someone else's mind; you are always making an inferential leap. It's just one extra inferential step to say that a mind is not invariably housed in a body.

In fact, the 19th-century anthropologist Edward Tyler pointed out that in some ways, there is good empirical support for the existence of the soul, or at least there used to be, until the fairly recent advent of neuroscience, which provides an alternative explanation for how minds work. Think about dreams. When you dream, your body is in bed the whole time, but some part of you seems to be up and about in the world. The same thing happens when you're in a trance from a fever, a hallucinogenic drug, sleep deprivation, or food poisoning.

Shadows and reflections are rather mysterious, or were until the development of the physics of light with its explanation of those phenomena. But they appear to have the form and essence of the person but without any of their actual matter.

Death, of course, is the ultimate apparent evidence for the existence of the soul. A person may be walking around and seeing and hearing one minute, and the next minute be an inert and lifeless body, perhaps without any visible change. It would seem that some animating entity that was housed in the body has suddenly escaped from it.

So before the advent of modern physics, biology and especially neuroscience, a plausible explanation of these phenomena is that the soul wanders off when we sleep, lurks in the shadows, looks back at us from a surface of a pond, and leaves the body when we die.

To sum up, the universal propensity toward religious belief is a genuine scientific puzzle. But many adaptationist explanations for religion, such as the one featured in Time last week, don't, I think, meet the criteria for adaptations. There is an alternative explanation, namely that religious psychology is a by-product of many parts of the mind that evolved for other purposes. Among those purposes one has to distinguish the benefits to the producer and the benefits to the consumer. Religion has obvious practical effects for producers. When it comes to the consumers, there are possible emotional adaptations in our desire for health, love and success, possible cognitive adaptations in our intuitive psychology, and many aspects of our experience that seem to provide evidence for souls. Put these together and you get an appeal to a mysterious world of souls to bring about our fondest wishes.

Steven Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist. After 21 years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he became Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard in 2003.

Born in Montreal, he earned his B.A. at McGill in 1976 and his Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard in 1979. He has also taught at Stanford. Pinker is author of The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1998), Words & Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999), and the bestseller The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002). He has received many teaching awards and academic honors. TIME named him among its 100 "most influential people" (April 26, 2004).

The Freedom From Religion Foundation assisted a non believing applicant to become a U.S. citizen after she encountered a religious test for a citizen oath.

Adriana Ramirez, an applicant for naturalization, was recently denied citizenship because her moral unwillingness to bear arms is not based upon religion. This is a flagrant violation of Supreme Court precedent, however the USCIS is not budging.

All naturalization applicants are required to swear an oath, “to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law, to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law, or to perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law.”

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services' (USCIS), would only exempt a prospective citizen from taking this oath for religious reasons.

Ms. Ramirez, after being persecuted in her native Columbia for her pacifism and nonreligious beliefs, was granted political asylum. As a journalist in Columbia, she covered politics and the courts and even founded a journal dedicated to peace journalism.

Ms. Ramirez had asked for an exemption to the oath because, “The strength of my moral and ethical convictions in this matter is greater than any religious training or indoctrination that I may have had in my upbringing.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote USCIS a strong letter on Feb. 21 noting that US Supreme Court precedent does not require any religious test to receive an exemption to bear arms. “It is shocking that USCIS officers would not be aware that a nonreligious yet deeply held belief would be sufficient to attain this exemption. This is a longstanding part of our law and every USCIS officer should receive training on this exemption,” Seidel wrote.

On March 20, FFRF was informed that Ramirez received a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials stating that her application has been accepted and providing information on attending a naturalization ceremony.

In 2013, FFRF helped Margaret Doughty become a U.S. citizen, surmounting a nearly identical situation at the Houston USCIS office. The office relented and let her take the oath without the bear arms requirement, as required by law. The repeated issues FFRF has had with USCIS led Seidel to write a comprehensive letter to USCIS director Alejandro Mayorkas.

Seidel asked Mayorkas to issue a policy memoranda to prevent future nonreligious citizens from going through similar ordeals. Seidel also took issue with prayers at citizenship ceremonies and those ceremonies occurring in Catholic institutions, citing another complaint he addressed on Feb. 21.

“We thought this discriminatory policy was dropped, and here another applicant encounters the same barrier. The U.S. government must resolve this problem permanently,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

A school in New York will no longer show the Christian film, “How to Save a Life,” in a sophomore health class. FFRF received the complaint from a parent of a high school student at Jamesville-DeWitt Central School District, DeWitt, N.Y.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the Jamesville-DeWitt Central School District pointing out the constitutional problems with showing Christians films to a captive audience of students:

“The film tells the story of a high school basketball star named Jake who loses a former friend to suicide, and Jake’s path to saving another friend from committing suicide by joining a church group and thus reforming his ways. The film also involves acts of premarital sex, drug and alcohol use, cutting, discussion of abortion and so on. Other films these companies have been involved with have had overt Christian messages, primarily involving accepting Jesus Christ and the Christian religion.”

On March 14, the district informed FFRF that although the film had indeed been shown during the school day, it was an “isolated incident” that does not represent and is not consistent with the school policy.

The district added, “After speaking with the teacher in question, be assured that this film will not be used as a resource in the future.”

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