Monday, July 28, 2008

Correlation between cultural complexity and moral gods

I have just been checking some references from Darwin’s Cathedral. A 2001 article by Stark caught my attention. It investigates the type of correlation religion has to moral order. The basic finding is that religion only sustains the moral order if it is based on a belief in morally concerned gods. Stating Stark’s (pp. 621) hypotheses may lessen the apparent tautology.

“H1 In many societies, religion and morality will not be linked.
H2. This linkage will tend to be limited to more complex cultures.
H3. The effects of religiousness on individual morality are contingent on images of gods as conscious, morally-concerned beings; religiousness based on impersonal or unmoral gods will not influence moral choices.
H4. Participation in religious rites and rituals will have little or no independent effect on morality.”

For data Stark referenced Murdock’s Atlas of World Cultures (1981 as cited in Stark, 2001)*. The following table was produced.

According to Stark, all four hypotheses were strongly confirmed. For me, the most interesting hypotheses are H2 and H3.

It would be interesting to see how the third hypothesis could be investigated in quasi-religious organizations. For instance, do similar classes of quasi-religions have a correlation between their cultural complexity and the group’s mean belief in fundamental moral directing codes? (On a further note, is belief in a divine moral being needed or just belief in self-existing moral directing codes?)

For instance, formal education seems to have some very resilient core moral like structures. Education is very resistant to change. On average it takes 20 years for any educational change to be broadly diffused and 50 years to be ubiquitous (Tyack & Cuban, 1994). One possible explanation is that those involved in education protect deep seated core values. These values tend to be informed by the larger societal factors in which educators are raised. Correlating the cultural complexity of organizations to their belief in fundamental moral directing codes would be interesting. (For those who are interested, discourses on the importance of vision in large organizations provides some good background). I would suspect that individuals in culturally complex organizations have greater group morality when they believe in self-existing organization moral codes.

To explain this simply, if you believe that there are some fundamental moral codes in an organization it is likely you will be less tolerant of people who are breaking the organization’s supposed morals. The more you believe the moral codes are real, the less tolerant you will be of deviance from them. Actions that affirm the reality of the moral codes have no significant influence.


*Of course one would be very wise to do a sample of the original coding to test for accuracy. I also wonder whether distinguishing between religions with an implicit moral function instead of just overt moral function would prove significant?

Stark, R. (2001), Gods, rituals, and the moral order, Journal for the Scientific study of Religion 40(1), pp. 610-636.

Tyak & Cuban (1995) Tinkering toward utopia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Religion from the perspective of economics and rational choice theory

After encountering numerous references for Rodney Stark's work, I thought I would just bring up a couple of short thoughts about approaching religion from the perspective of economics and rational choice theory. Wilson (2002, pp. 48) summarizes this approach nicely in his book Darwin's Cathedral;

"Religion is envisioned as an economic exchange between people and imagined supernatural agents for goods that are scarce (eg., rain during a drought) or impossible (e.g., immortal life) to obtain in the real world. Religious belief is therefore rational in the sense of employing cost-benefits reasoning."

One question that arises from this approach is whether exchanges with imagined entities for impossibly given products has practical benefits? While it is possible to discuss the spin off benefits that come from emergent structures, I think the question is much more interesting when narrowed. Are there any benefits directly related to this class of exchange?

To answer this from a religious perspective, I suspect a history of exchange experiences is necessary before nuance and weight emerge. In lieu of this religiously focussed discussion, I think the question continues to get more interesting when focussed to the level of quasi-religious organizations. For example, in terms of the quasi-religious aspects of formalized education, what benefits emerge when educational players enter into exchanges for results that are essentially random or impossible to produce?

The following examples may be parallels.

Religion: A folk religion may involve dancing to end a drought.
  • An indirect effect of this action may be a changed potential for group cohesion.
  • Individuals may be indirectly affected by changing personal commitments.
  • Individuals may be directly affected by the imagined exchange by altered perceptions of religious utility.
Education: A motivational speaker gives some advice at a conference whose effects, when implemented at the level of detail understood, are essentially random.
  • An indirect effect of this action may be a changed potential for group cohesion.
  • Individuals may be indirectly affected by changing personal commitments.
  • Individuals may be directly affected by the exchange by initiating a learning cycle that produces measurable effects.
So, on one level, the question to ask is whether an altered perception of religious utility has results that are as real as a work place learning cycle? They both can spur pragmatic investigation which find practical applications. The former may be subject to greater idealistic fantasy than the latter, but is the controlling variable the degree to which practical results can be knowingly leveraged, or is the controlling variable the degree to which practical results end up being leveraged?

I suspect many people heavily weight actions whose benefits are weakly dependent on deep awareness. You shouldn't have to know sophisticated linguistic discourses to produce benefits from an elementary reading program. However, religious actions may require sophisticated cognitive awareness in order to leverage direct benefits on an individual level. (I don't think you need to really know what is going on to leverage group benefits).

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Darwins Cathedral Chapter 1 pt 2

As I finish up chapter 1, Wilson mentions how genetic evolution does not only lead to closed ended processes. He references Plotkin`s (1994, as cited in Wilson 2002) concept of Darwin machines. As I understand it, these are processes which have evolved to certain levels of adaptability. The immune system and anti-body creation is cited as an example. Since Wilson`s book is about an evolutionary approach to religion, here is a quote with some far reaching implications (pp. 31, Wilson 2002),

"When physical and social environments become sufficiently variable, juke-box solutions are inadequate and the only recourse is to evolve Darwin machines."

In mormon circles, most members tend to take the approach that a restored religion will be quite similar to post iterations of the same. Now, I don`t think this implies the structure or appearance of the a church will or even should be the same. Aplogetics certainly do try and cite the similarities between early mromonism and the early Christian church - with some successes and some failures in my estimation. People tend to have an easier time projecting tight correlations between Book of Mormon religions and modern Mormonism. The viability of this approach gets clouded a bit depending the degree to which Joseph Smith`s own understandings affected his translation process.

One can dichotomize the restoration issue into two branches; 1) chruch structures should be congruent over time 2) only fundamental religious elements should be congruent over time. The first option meshes well with a positivist approach to religion. Religion is designed to reveal essential behaviour, rules, or standards. I will ignore this option as I find it rather problematic when taken to logical extremes. The second option forces a hard look at what is immutable over restoration cycles. I think such an approach would also be well informed from a universalist approach to religion. However, I think one needs to look beyond *what essential elements are common in religions" to "what essential elements are common in religions where distincitions between normal and extra-normal influence are overt".

This light takes some leverage from Wilson`s ideas. Religion should look different in different iterations because the conditions to which it responds are different. One can think of religion as a tool that allows the growth of sucessful developmental adaptations. However this doesn`t distinguish between what is momentarily beneficial and what benefits are more time independent. I think practical mormon theology is quite informed by the latter question.

For practical people, I suspect the following personal question emerges, to what extent does the learning associated with religion depend on leveraging what Darwin Machines can spit out?  Is religion about learning absolutes, or is it about knowing how to leverage fundamental routines?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Darwin's Cathedral Part 1

I have just started reading Darwin's Cathedral (Wilson, 2002).  I will pull out a few closely spaced quotes

"The belief that group selection can be categorically rejected belongs on the rubbish heap of history, alongside the earlier belief that groups always function as adaptive units," (pp.17).

"As we have seen, group selection can produce altruistic traits, but it must be exceptionally strong to oppose the strong selective disadvantage of altruism within groups. In contrast, the mechanisms that allow organisms to function as adaptive units do not appear very altruistic," (pp. 18)

"Social control, rather than highly self-sacrificial altruism, appears to solve the fundamental problem of social life at the individual level," (pp.19).

"Social control can be regarded as a form of low-cost altruism that evolves to promote behaviors that would qualify as high-cost altruism if they were performed voluntarily," (pp. 19).

Compared to other books I have read as of late, it is refreshing to read a nuanced author.  I have, unfortunately, grown accustomed to the prescriptions of amateur authors convinced of the validity of their own pet ideas.

The guidelines Wilson portrays on the valid use of multi level selection evolution theory create a strong base for discussion.  It seems like it will be extraordinarily difficult to rigorously discuss religion on these footings.  I think most people will fall into the functionalist thinking that Wilson infers doomed 60's group evolutionists.  As I explore more of this book, it will be interesting to see the extent to which social control informs religious function.

Givens' "People of Paradox" (2007), will be an interesting foil in this exploration.  To what extent do religions truly embrace the Mormon ideal represented by Brigham Young, "in these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular," (pp. 65 as cited in Givens, 2007), or Joseph Smith, "intelligence is the great object of our holy religion," (pp. 65 as cited in Givens, 2007)?  It seems as if religion is really several different characters.  It may involve a search for group benefits, personal growth through shared meaning & experience, the gift of placebo-like (or real) assurance.  One thing that seems correct to me, is that if one doesn't take the road of religious fundamentalism, religion grows in the weightlessness that exists with the tensions between fuzzy anchor points.

Now I may be projecting here, but I don't think practical religion can be separated from learning.  Of course in practice, learning can't be separated from leadership, which in these contexts, can't be separated from training.  Because of the circular nature of the situation, I would suspect one would need to be well informed on pragmatics to make much headway.

Givens, T. (2007).  People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Wilson, D. (2002).  Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society, Chicago, University of Chicago.

The next iteration

Well, it has been quite a while since I posted anything on this blog. In looking at my stat counter, a few random visitors still appear -surprising

The LDS bloggernacle has changed quite a bit in the last two years. The volume of blogs has grown exponentially. My blog has tapered dramatically. Since I don’t read for content as much as for the opportunity to delve into new ways of thinking, I found I was getting nearly the same benefit letting new ideas gel as I was reading detail.   Content for content's sake has just never been my thing.

Nonetheless, I have found it important to leverage the space that occurs when balancing tensions between new ideas, nuance, and the solidification of thought patterns occur. In this light, I am hoping to take some time to put some more of my thoughts down on paper.

My motivations for writing differ from my older posts. My older posts were mainly self serving attempts of fun.  It was quite liberating not having to make things overly coherent, logical, or especially understandable.  My old posts were more a journal of my own thoughts written to help me along the journey to difficult knowledge (Pitt & Britzman, 2003). This time around, I hope to explore social dynamics of group commitment. In particular, I hope to play with the kernels from which religious or quasi-religious thoughts arise.  

Pitt, A. & , Britzman, D. (2003). Speculations on qualities of difficult knowledge in teaching and learning: an experiment in psychoanalytic research. Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(6), 755-776.