Posts Tagged ‘Oxford University’

My friend Paul Sandstone over at Café Philos has a thread going now that ties in … a bit … with that World Ends Next Saturday nonsense I wrote about a couple of days ago.

Beginning with the the question, “Belief in God is Natural?”, Paul sites early reports on a Cognition, religion and Theology project at Oxford, and carries on from there with what I consider appropriate skepticism.

There are, at this hour, a handful of early reports that the Centre for Anthropology and Mind, which is associated with the prestigious University of Oxford, has concluded its Cognition, Religion and Theology Project — and that the Project has found it’s natural to believe in God.

But I doubt those reports are true. I cannot be certain and this in only a hunch — but it seems like the early reports have misinterpreted the Project’s findings.

The reports are saying such things as, “Human beings have natural tendencies to believe in God…“, and, “Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings…“, and, “Holding religious beliefs may be an intrinsically human characteristic…“.

Curiosity drove me to dig into the roots of the Oxford study which revealed it is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, an organization whose slogan is “Supporting Science — Investigating the big questions”.


So, who was this Templeton dude? Seems an apt question, since getting an idea of the roots of what are considered “the big questions” may have a lot to do with whatever answers come out of the project.

Well … turns out Mr. Templeton just may have had an agenda when he set up his foundation.

He was a lifelong member of the Presbyterian Church. He served as an elder of the First Presbyterian Church of Englewood (NJ). He was a trustee on the board of Princeton Theological Seminary, the largest Presbyterian seminary, for 42 years and served as its chair for 12 years.

Meanwhile … back at Café Philos …

Now, let’s return to the early reports of the Project’s findings. When those reports say things like, “Human beings have natural tendencies to believe in God…”, they might be subtly misinterpreting the findings. That is, I would not at all be surprised if the Project found a natural human tendency to see agency behind events. But, for a number of reasons, I would be greatly surprised if the Project actually found a natural human tendency to see God behind events. Or even a natural human tendency to see any deity — let alone the deity that gets capitalize as “God” — behind events.

Paul goes on to make many valid points and interesting observations on humans, religion and gods of all shapes and sizes, which brought me to thoughts about apes. (Go figure … )

In the world of brilliant science and big questions, I have a few heroes, one being Frans de Waal, professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University and all-around smart guy.

Dr. de Waal was recently interviewed by a publication called “Religion Dispatches”, during which the subject of religion was raised … or religion as a moral dictate, guidebook, whatever.

Dr. de Waal’s take differs from, say, that of well known atheist … and smart guy … Richard Dawkins … another Paul refers to at the café … addressing the “big question” of tending toward religion as an offshoot of an evolutionary mandate toward compassion. (Waters that have been considerably muddied by what calls itself religion.)

Regarding Dawkins:

Atheists—some of them, at least—have talked themselves into a corner and they don’t know how to get out of it, because we need to find a way of explaining where morality comes from. I think the way to do that is to return to Darwin. Darwin tried to place morality within human evolution. And that’s what I’m trying to do, at least with my primate studies. I’m trying to say, look at the behavior of other primates—there are enough indications that they have what Darwin would call the social instincts needed to get to morality. They don’t exactly have it, but they’re close enough for me to see that there’s a continuity. I think that’s the way out of the dilemma. Talking about whether God exists or not just really doesn’t do any good for that problem.


A study at Oxford may come up with all sorts of illustrations of why humans believe in god, subscribe to religions, drink the Kool-aid, but unless some redefining is done when it comes to either what is god or what is human or what counts where how, what good does it do, and what does it mean?

Frans de Waal:

Where everything started for me was maternal care. It’s advantageous for female mammals to be sensitive to the mood states of their offspring, so they react when their offspring are distressed or in danger. That also explains why empathy is more developed in females than males in many species, including humans. From there it spread to other areas of social life. It’s contagious: if you have a cooperative society, you need to be concerned about the well-being of those you depend on.

If I live in a society where I depend on others, I need to be concerned if those others are doing well, and that’s where empathy and altruism come in. It’s also why we think you find empathy in all mammalian species. It’s not limited to humans, and it’s not limited to primates. It’s probably universal in mammals.

It seems if there is A God guiding Earthlings toward altruism through whatever means, it might be hairy. After all, there were Monkey Gods B.C..

Do we need them, though? Until a chimp waves from a balcony in Rome, I’m thinking … not …

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