Moralizing Gods And… Kissing?

Here’s a relationship I bet you didn’t see coming.

A while back I posted a summary of Ara Norenzayan’s findings about the relationships between prosociality and religious belief. Here are some of the bullet points I took note of in his video:

* Small foraging societies typically don’t have moralizing gods. Big societies generally have moralizing gods. Causal or correlational?

* Economic games and small/big religions: Big religions, that is, the world religions, show more cooperative behavior in economic games. Small religions are more selfish. Again, causal or correlational?

* Belief in god in and of itself doesn’t correlate with any behavior in monetary generosity (belief in god per se doesn’t lead to moral behavior; you need to go to church to reap the benefits! And you get those same benefits being an atheist in church). Though in the context that Norenzayan was mentioning this fact, it was in the context of religious priming. Just declaring theism didn’t make someone more cooperative, but religious priming does. On the other hand, being non-religious makes you sort of impervious to religious priming; though secular priming has the same cooperative effect on the non-religious.

* Prosocial behavior correlates with a belief in a punishing god. Belief in a forgiving god correlates with cheating. Same for hell/heaven belief, respectively (though belief in hell seems to make people less happy).

* Religions are also correlated with extreme rituals for possibly belief in belief (i.e. costly signaling) reasons.

These are the social things that are correlated with types of religious beliefs. Religions that are spread across large areas (i.e. the eponymous Big Gods) are associated with different prosocial behavior than small gods.

Now, one of the concepts I kept with me when I joined the military 20 years ago and had to learn statistics/hypothesis testing was that, if you see a correlation, there are three possible causes you should automatically think of, and see if any of them make sense. So if you see that A and B have a correlation, then:

1. A causes B

2. B causes A

3. A and B are caused by C

There are others, but this is the simplest way of looking at the data since all of the variables to work with are already there. You just move them around and see which formulation fits.

It turns out that romantic kissing is correlated with large societies

From pop culture to evolutionary psychology, we have come to take kissing for granted as universally desirable among humans and inseparable from other aspects of affection and intimacy. However, a recent article in American Anthropologist by Jankowiak, Volsche and Garcia questions the notion that romantic kissing is a human universal by conducting a broad cross cultural survey to document the existence or non-existence of the romantic-sexual kiss around the world.

The authors based their research on a set of 168 cultures compiled from eHRAF World Cultures (128 cultures) as well as the Standard Cross Cultural Sample (27 cultures) and by surveying 88 ethnographers (13 cultures). The report’s findings are intriguing: rather than an overwhelming popularity of romantic smooching, the global ethnographic evidence suggests that it is common in only 46% (77) of the cultures sampled. The remaining 54% (91) of cultures had no evidence of romantic kissing. In short, this new research concludes that romantic-sexual kissing is not as universal as we might presume.

The report also reveals that romantic kissing is most common in the Middle East and Asia, and least common of all among Central American cultures. Similarly, the authors state that “no ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan African, New Guinea, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported having witnessed any occasion in which their study populations engaged in a romantic–sexual kiss”, whereas it is nearly ubiquitous in northern Asia and North America.


Among the indigenous Tapirapé people of Central Brazil, Wagley (1977) found that “couples showed affection”, but “kissing seems to have been unknown”. He explains,

When I described it to them, it struck them as a strange form of showing physical attraction … and, in a way, disgusting. It was common, instead, to see a married couple walking across the village plaza with the man’s arm draped over his wife’s shoulder. A couple might stand close to each other during a conversation with the man’s arms over his wife’s shoulders and she holding him around the hips (Wagley 1977: 158).

Across the Pacific Ocean in Melanesia, Bronislaw Malinowski’s (1929: 330) classic account describes the impression of kissing among Trobriand Islanders, who were equally bemused by the foreign custom:

Certainly it never forms a self-contained independent source of pleasure, nor is it a definite preliminary stage of love-making, as is the case with us. This caress was never spontaneously mentioned by the natives, and, to direct inquiries, I always received a negative answer. The natives know, however, that white people “will sit, will press mouth against mouth–they are pleased with it.” But they regard it as a rather insipid and silly form of amusement.

The Tsonga people of Southern Africa are also openly disgusted by the practice: “Kissing was formerly entirely unknown… When they saw the custom adopted by the Europeans, they said laughingly: “Look at these people! They suck each other! They eat each other’s saliva and dirt!” Even a husband never kissed his wife” (Junod 1927: 353-354).

…and thus, romantic kissing is correlated with Big Gods. Check out the religion of the Tapirapé people, or the religion of the Trobriand Islands peoples, or the religion of the Tsonga people: No romantic kissing, and no large moralizing gods.

So I have to ask, is belief in a large universal god the thing that causes kissing to have a romantic component? Or is it that romantic kissing causes people to believe in large, moralizing gods? Or is it that both are being caused by some other factor? I lean towards C, but who knows.


Posted by on August 4, 2015 in economics/sociology


Objective Morality: Not Even Wrong

a disgusted woman

If you’re not familiar with the term not even wrong, go read that link and come back.

Back? Good. I think the concept of objective morality, in the Sam Harris sense that we can use science to determine moral values, is not even wrong. It fails at a fundamental level; that level being that it assumes moral reasoning that people do is the same as mathematical reasoning. Hell, it assumes moral reasoning follows the neatly logical “if-then-else” sort of reasoning.

It doesn’t. Rather, people don’t reason morally this way.

I wrote a post about this a while ago. Just look at the title of this blog post to see my point: intuition / morality changes by gender. Or, even take a look at this recent post at from Epiphenom:

Using an online questionnaire, they showed that people think that justice stems from at least 6 different sources: from ‘nature’ and from God, and also from other people and from yourself, as well as just plain chance. Using an online questionnaire, they showed that people think that justice stems from at least 6 different sources: from ‘nature’ and from God, and also from other people and from yourself, as well as just plain chance.


They were also interested in inaction. It probably won’t surprise you to know that the most common human response to minor criminal behaviour is inaction. So what the researchers wanted to know is whether the reasons given for inaction varied according to people’s beliefs about why the world was just.

Sure enough, people who believed in God gave God-related reasons for inaction (e.g. “There’s little we can do to help these people, as what happens to them is God’s will”). Similarly, people who believe in nature-related justice felt that we can’t help criminals because it’s in their nature, people who believe in self-related justice felt that it was up to the individuals concerned to help themselves, while those who believed in chance-related justice felt that it was just their dumb luck.

Once again, however, people who believe justice is down to other people were different. When offered an ‘other people’ related reason for inaction (“With society and the justice system the way it is, there’s nothing we can do”), they rejected it. And it’s not because only an idiot would agree with that statement – it was quite attractive to those who believed in nature- and self-related justice.

This study from Epiphenom is what made me think of Harris’ thesis of scientific morality. The people in this survey are rationalizing their morality by appeals to what they see is the source of justice in the world. In effect, Harris is forcing a certain type of moral thinking on people that doesn’t come naturally. Slate Star Codex put this more eloquently:

Democrats don’t really care about helping the poor, they only care about increasing government’s ability to take your money. We can prove this, because Republicans consistently give more to charity than Democrats – and because if Democrats really cared about the poor they would stop supporting a welfare system that discourages lifting yourself out of poverty. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd Democrats in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased labyrinthine bureaucracy as a terminal moral value.

No, wait, sorry! That wasn’t it at all. They were saying that civil rights activists don’t really want to prevent hate crimes against Muslims, they only care about supporting terrorism. We can prove this because they seem pretty okay with the tens of thousands of Muslims who are being killed and maimed in wars abroad that they don’t promote any intervention in – and because they refuse to ban Muslim immigration to America, a policy which would decrease hate crimes against Muslims but also decrease the chance of terrorism. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd civil rights activists in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased terrorism as a terminal moral value.

No, wait, sorry again! That wasn’t it either! They were saying that pro-lifers don’t really care about fetuses, they just support government coercion of women. We can prove this because they refuse to support contraception, which would decrease the need for fetus-murdering abortions – and because they seem pretty okay with abortion in cases of rape or incest. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd pro-lifers in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased oppression of women as a terminal moral value.

No, wait, still wrong! I’m totally breaking apart here! They were saying that atheists don’t really doubt the existence of God, but they are too proud to worship anything except themselves. We can prove this because atheists sometimes pray for help during extreme emergencies, – and…

No, wait! It turns out it was actually third one after all! The one with the pro-lifers and abortion. Oops. In my defense, I have trouble keeping essentially identical arguments separate from one another.


In saying pro-lifers should support contraception, Alas is making exactly the error that The Last Superstition warned against. Ze’s noticing that Christians do things that don’t agree with modern moral philosophy, and so assuming Christians are either stupid or evil, instead of that they have a weird moral philosophy ze’s never heard of.

So instead of excusing pro-lifers, start by tarring them further. They don’t hate women. They don’t love oppression. It’s much worse than that. Pro-lifers are not consequentialists.

Consequentialism is a moral philosophy that says it’s okay to do a lesser evil if it leads to a greater good. I have argued for it at length elsewhere, but one of the reasons I argue for it is that most people don’t believe it. Only about a quarter of philosophers are consequentialists, and all the evidence shows that even fewer ordinary people do. Studies of the famous fat man problem show only 10% of people are willing to kill one person in order to save five others, something a true consequentialist would do in a heartbeat.

One group particularly heinous in their rejection of consequentialism is Christians. In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul argues that “One may not do evil that good may come”.

The Christians agree with me, against Alas, that their rejection of consequentialism is fundamental to their rejection of abortion.

Whenever we talk about moral reasoning, we have to take into account that not everyone reasons the same way morally. Moreover, that people aren’t even aware of how they reason, they just get a feeling of certainty (or disgust, or fear, or…). Most fatally, people think that their way of reasoning morally is how other people (should) reason morally. That’s just not gonna fly. You’re not going to convince a deontologist how they should act via consequentialist logic, and vice versa. It might help to try to convince said person of the consequentialist worldview via deontology (or vice versa) but you have to actually think of that meta step first.

What’s really jacked up is that even though most people aren’t consequentialists, many people use consequentialist reasoning to back up their moral reasoning after the fact. Think about something like gay marriage. The argument is that gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage. This is obviously nonsense, but this happens because the initial moral reasoning was something else (denotological, or maybe just disgust), but it’s rationalized with consequentialist reasoning.

Don’t think for a second that only conservatives do this. You, yes you, probably do this too. What’s the easiest way to prevent rape? Sex segregation; having women drink less around strange men; or any number of (consequentialist!) solutions that conservatives concoct. But those won’t work, because the initial moral impetus for equality wasn’t consequentialist, so we wind up with inefficient signaling that postures as consequentialist instead.

Where have we seen this rationalization behavior before? Oh yeah, the intuitionists and the rationalists. I love quoting myself:

There are a few experiments that show that when communication is physically severed between the two halves of the brain, each side of the brain gets different information. Yet, the part of the brain that does the speaking might not be the part of the brain that has the information. So you end up with rationalizations like split brain patients grabbing a shovel with their left hand (since their left eye was shown snow) while their right eye sees a chicken. When asked to explain why they grabbed the shovel, they — well, the side of their brain that only sees the chicken — make up an explanation, like the shovel is used to scoop up chicken poop! That press secretary, pretty quick on his feet.

But this doesn’t just happen with split brain patients. It seems to happen a lot more than we think, in our normal, everyday brains.

So for example, there was one experiment where people were asked to pick their favorite pair of jeans out of four (unbeknownst to them) identical pairs of jeans. A good portion of the people picked the jeans on the right, since they looked at the jeans from left to right. But they were unaware that that was their decision algorithm, and they rationalized their decision by saying they liked the fabric or the length or some other non-discriminating fact about the jeans. Liking the fabric of one pair of jeans more than the others was demonstrably false since the jeans were identical, yet that was the reason they gave. There’s still no persistent across the isle partisanship in your fully functioning brain, so the press secretary has to still come up with a good, socially acceptable story about Congress’ decision for the general public’s consumption.

This is one reason why it is inefficient to flat out ask someone something controversial. People make decisions based on information they don’t even know they’re using, and from there the entire existence of bias (the flip side of that is if you get someone to admit to some group identity or position publicly, they”ll be biased to act more in line with that group identity or proposition in the future without even realizing it). They’re not going to give you their “real” answer, they’re going to give you the socially acceptable answer since that is the entire job of the press secretary, and any psychological study that simply asks people questions has a fatal flaw.

Or this

We have little idea why we do things, but make up bogus reasons for our behavior…

Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester playe[d] traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.

Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them.

In other words the part of our brain that ‘reasons’ and explains our actions, neither makes decisions, nor is even privy to the real cause of our actions…

Let me emphasis this last sentence: In other words the part of our brain that ‘reasons’ and explains our actions, neither makes decisions, nor is even privy to the real cause of our actions. Moral reasoning is no different.

In principle, we might be able to discern objective moral values if we could get everyone to be a consequentialist. But… yeah, good luck with that. I’ll just say that I hate talking about how people should behave morally, mainly because of this wall of separation between how people actually reason morally and their rationalizations for it. It’s such a headache. I’d rather stick with the bird-watching view towards morality.

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Posted by on July 31, 2015 in cognitive science, morality


PDF Is One Of The Top Four Fastest Growing Religions


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Posted by on July 19, 2015 in Funny


The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod and the Gospels: Some Comparanda


In my earlier essay “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” I contrasted the canonical Gospels with the genres of ancient historiography and historical biography. To be sure, historiography and biography were not the same genre in antiquity, as the former was based on the history of a broader period or event, while the latter was based on the life of an individual. Nevertheless, the two can both be sufficiently described as “historical writing,” especially since many of the narrative conventions between the two are similar. Plutarch, for example, compares his source material and makes historical judgements in a manner very similar to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, even if he was writing historical biographies while Dionysius wrote a Roman history. In the essay, I show how the Gospel authors do not follow the narrative conventions of historical biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius.

I likewise discuss in my essay…

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Posted by on July 15, 2015 in religion


Love for enemies — it’s so BC

The most radical aspect of Jesus’ teaching is supposedly his instruction to love one’s enemies. But compare the explicit teaching of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus . . .

Epictetus . . . calls for a sort of “love of enemies”: the sage (i.e., the ideal philosopher and human being) “must needs be flogged like an ass, and while he is being flogged he must love [φιλεῖν] the men who flog him, as though he were the father or brother of them all.”

(2010-11-01). Stoicism in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 875-877). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Not that the Stoics were the first to conceive of the idea, either.

Avalos takes us farther yet, however. The concept of loving enemies is found in Near Eastern and other texts long before the Roman era. In the Akkadian Counsels of Wisdom we find

Requite with kindness your evil doer. Maintain justice to your enemy. Smile on your adversary.

Avalos further cites similar a passage in ancient Egyptian wisdom literature, and finds the comparable ethic expounded at length by the Jewish philosopher Philo. In fact, Philo extrapolates a “wider human kinship” from passages in the Pentateuch that require kindness towards animals owned by enemies. This gives the lie to those who have tried to make Jesus’ teachings unique by insisting that the Old Testament was not so understood by Jewish interpreters of the day.

Read more at Vridar

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Posted by on July 6, 2015 in early Christianity


Study: Even Atheists Distrust Atheists

From Epiphenom:

Leah Giddings and Thomas Dunn, of Nottingham Trent University in the UK, set out to replicate some of the earlier work on atheism and trust, but with a twist.

They gave a group of 100 people a short story to read about Richard. It’s the same story that’s been used in previous research, and it goes as follows:

Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.

Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can.

Half the participants were asked whether they thought Richard was a teacher, or a teacher and a Christian. The other half were asked whether he was a teacher, or a teacher and an atheist.

Now of course there’s nothing in the story to indicate Richard’s spiritual beliefs, so if they claim it does that’s evidence of prejudice.

As expected, Christians were likely to be prejudiced against atheists. But once again, so were the atheists (albeit to a lesser degree – nearly 50% of atheists and over 75% of Christians associated atheism with untrustworthy behaviour).

So here we are in one of the most secular countries on earth, and even atheists think that other atheists aren’t to be trusted.
To follow on from this, the researchers gave the participants some statistics on the number of atheists in the country. Some of them got accurate statistics, and some got statistics that inflated the number of atheists.

It didn’t make much difference. Pro-christian prejudice went down, but anti-atheist prejudice did not.

As usual, this is only one study, so don’t take it as the definitive say on the matter. It’s more likely that this study is descriptive for the environment it was created in instead of it describing some fundamental human nature.

I only put that caveat there because I kinda get tired of people pointing to one study and claiming it is the be all end all of all argument. But this study is still interesting nonetheless!

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Posted by on June 26, 2015 in cognitive science


Διαριθμέω / Diarithmeo

to list

A roundup of some stuff I found interesting pertaining to religious belief!

Meditation has slightly different effects on the brains of men and women:

To our knowledge, this is the first study examining potential modulating effects of biological sex on hippocampal anatomy in the framework of meditation. Our analyses were applied in a well-matched sample of 30 meditators (15 men/15 women) and 30 controls (15 men/15 women), where meditators had, on average, more than 20 years of experience (with a minimum of 5 years), thus constituting true long-term practitioners. In accordance with the outcomes of our previous study of meditation effects on hippocampal anatomy by pooling male and female brains together (Luders et al., 2013b), we observed that hippocampal dimensions were enlarged both in male and in female meditators when compared to sex- and age-matched controls. In addition, our current analyses revealed that meditation effects, albeit present in both sexes, differ between men and women in terms of the magnitude of the effects, the laterality of the effects, and the exact location of the effects detectable on the hippocampal surface.


Although existing mindfulness research seems to lack sex-specific analyses—at least with respect to addressing brain anatomy—the observed group-by-sex interactions seem to be in accordance with a recent study reporting sex-divergent outcomes when assessing the impact of a mindfulness intervention on behavioral measures/psychological constructs (de Vibe et al., 2013). More specifically, administering a 7-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, that study detected significant changes in mental distress, study stress and well-being in female students but not in male students.

The hippocampus is a small brain structure integral to the limbic (emotion-motivation) system. It plays important roles in learning, mood, and the formation of memories.

Meditation and prayer have some of the same effects on the brain, so we might see the same results with people who pray regularly. This might be another reason why men are less religious than women: Do women benefit more from religious practices?

Next, type of belief in free will linked to performance in self-control based tasks:

The first task used to measure self-control is known as the “Stroop task,” which requires participants to resist the urge to name a word on a colored background rather than simply saying the name of the color, which requires a degree of self-regulation to stifle the incorrect response. The second, an anagram test, gave participants seven letters and unlimited time to make as many English words as they could with the letters, which measures persistence despite boredom or fatigue.

Both tests are considered “seminal indices of self-control,” according to Clarkson, although the skills required to perform each are different.

“So it is not simply a matter of conservatives being more efficient or liberals being overly analytical,” he said.

In their performance on both tasks, however, conservatives outpaced their liberal counterparts. At the same time, both groups were shown to have similar levels of motivation and effort.


[Next], a group of study participants was told that the belief in free will has been shown to be detrimental to self-control by causing feelings of frustration, anger or anxiety that inhibit concentration. Under these circumstances, the effects were reversed. Liberals outperformed conservatives, suggesting that a belief in free will can undermine self-control under certain conditions.

“If you can get people to believe that free will is bad for self-control, conservatives no longer show an advantage in self-control performance,” Clarkson said.

So, if one believes in free will then one will perform better on tasks that test free will. But if you poison the concept of free will, and you believe you have this poisoned trait, then you’ll do worse on tests of free will! Pretty wild stuff. Reminds me of stereotype threat and growth mindset.

Next on the rationality front, expert philosophers are just as irrational as the rest of us [pdf]:


We examined the effects of order of presentation on the moral judgments of professional philosophers and two comparison groups. All groups showed similarsized order effects on their judgments about hypothetical moral scenarios targeting the doctrine of the double effect, the action-omission distinction, and the principle of moral luck. Philosophers’ endorsements of related general moral principles were also substantially influenced by the order in which the hypothetical scenarios had previously been presented. Thus, philosophical expertise does not appear to enhance the stability of moral judgments against this presumably unwanted source of bias, even given familiar types of cases and principles.

Seems as though expert philosophers are subject to framing effects just like some other experts in their field. This is why one needs to learn to just shut up and multiply. But not too much.

And then, being told about naive realism and experiencing an optical illusion makes people doubt their certainty:

Nearly 200 students took part and were split into four groups. One group read about naive realism (e.g. “visual illusions provide a glimpse of how our brain twists reality without our intent or awareness”) and then they experienced several well-known, powerful visual illusions (e.g. the Spinning Wheels, shown above, the Checker Shadow, and the Spinning Dancer), with the effects explained to them. The other groups either: just had the explanation but no experience of the illusions; or completed a difficult verbal intelligence test; or read about chimpanzees.

Afterwards, whatever their group, all the participants read four vignettes about four different people. These were written to be deliberately ambiguous about the protagonist’s personality, which could be interpreted, depending on the vignette, as either assertive or hostile; risky or adventurous; agreeable or a push over; introverted or snobbish. There was also a quiz on the concept of naive realism.

The key finding is that after reading about naive realism and experiencing visual illusions, the participants were less certain of their personality judgments and more open to the alternative interpretation, as compared with the participants in the other groups. The participants who only read about naive realism, but didn’t experience the illusions, showed just as much knowledge about naive realism, but their certainty in their understanding of the vignettes wasn’t dented, and they remained as closed to alternative interpretations as the participants in the other comparison conditions.

“In sum,” the researchers said, “exposing naive realism in an experiential way seems necessary to fuel greater doubt and openness.”

I imagine doing something like this, and then teaching some other rationality concepts (like my feeling of certainty) might be a good overall teaching tool. Might.


Posted by on June 25, 2015 in cognitive science, rationality

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