Agustín Fuentes — Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being [Science salon/Skeptic]


Agustín Fuentes — Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being

Agustín Fuentes — Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being

Why are so many humans religious? Why do we daydream, imagine, and hope? Philosophers, theologians, social scientists, and historians have offered explanations for centuries, but their accounts often ignore or even avoid human evolution. Evolutionary scientists answer with proposals for why ritual, religion, and faith make sense as adaptations to past challenges or as by-products of our hyper-complex cognitive capacities. But what if the focus on religion is too narrow? Renowned anthropologist Agustín Fuentes argues that the capacity to be religious is actually a small part of a larger and deeper human capacity to believe. Why believe in religion, economies, love? Fuentes employs evolutionary, neurobiological, and anthropological evidence to argue that belief — the ability to commit passionately and wholeheartedly to an idea — is central to the human way of being in the world.

The premise of the book is that believing is our ability to draw on our range of cognitive and social resources, our histories and experiences, and combine them with our imagination. It is the power to think beyond what is here and now in order to see and feel and know something — an idea, a vision, a necessity, a possibility, a truth — that is not immediately present to the senses, and then to invest, wholly and authentically, in that “something” so that it becomes one’s reality. The point is that beliefs and belief systems permeate human neurobiologies, bodies, and ecologies, and structure and shape our daily lives, our societies, and the world around us. We are human, therefore we believe, and this book tells us how we came to be that way.

Shermer and Fuentes also discuss:

– what it means to “believe” something (belief in evolution or the Big Bang is different from belief in progressive taxes or affirmative action),
– evolution and how beliefs are formed…and why,
– evolution of awe, wonder, aesthetic sense, beauty, art, music, dance, etc. (adaptation or exaptation/spandrel?),
– evolution of spirituality, religion, belief in immortality,
– Were Neanderthals human in the “belief” sense?
– human niche and the evolution of symbolism/language,
– evolution of theory of mind,
– how to infer symbolic meaning from archaeological artifacts,
– components of belief: augmented cognition and neurobiology, intentionality, imagination, innovation, compassion and intensive reliance on others, meaning-making,
– dog domestication and human self-domestication,
– Göbekli Tepe and the underestimation of ancient peoples’ cognitive capacities,
– the development of property, accumulation of goods, inequality, and social hierarchy,
gender role specialization,
– monogamy and polyamory, gender and sex, and continuum vs. binary thinking,
– violence and warfare,
– political and economic systems of belief, and
– love as belief.

Agustín Fuentes is a Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. He is an active public scientist, a well-known blogger, lecturer, tweeter, and an explorer for National Geographic. Fuentes received the Inaugural Communication & Outreach Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the President’s Award from the American Anthropological Association, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“Does Darwinism Conflict with Religion?” By Jamie Milton Freestone [Areo Magazine]

“Does Darwinism Conflict with Religion?


Jamie Milton Freestone

Jamie Milton Freestone is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He studies contemporary Darwinism as well as narrative, and is writing a book about non-supernatural meaning.


To some extent, a conflict is based on perception. If disputants think they’re in conflict, they are. And perhaps religious visions of the world are metaphysically incompatible with a worldview built out of basic science. But if this is true, most people haven’t heard the bad news and happily believe in whatever combination of ideas they hold, without marching in the streets or attacking one another for their views. Religious authorities aren’t actively trying to crucify biologists or ban evolution. Admittedly, in certain school districts in America they are trying to ban the teaching of evolution, but that’s something of an anomaly. Overall, people’s views are insulated from the content of scientific theories—as we can see with attitudes towards climate change.

This disconnect between the rhetoric of spokespeople for Darwinism or intelligent design and mainstream attitudes raises a bigger question. Rhetoric generally has less impact than we often suppose. The Darwinism versus intelligent design debates are just one example of the way in which commentators often mistake what is written by experts—who are, by definition, more interested in and motivated by a topic than the general populace—for a reflection of public opinion. Either that or they assume that any reader who encounters these books will be helplessly swayed by their framing of the argument. It’s the same impulse that makes people worry about the influence of video games, pornography, fake news, conspiracy theories, school syllabuses, advertising, politicians’ gaffes, etc. Those things may have some effect, but a growing body of research is sceptical of the basic model whereby people simply imbibe what they’re exposed to.

This boils down to an is versus ought question. Is there a conflict today between Darwinism and religion? The answer seems to be no. Ought there to be one? The answer is evidently yes for most of the people who spend a lot of time thinking and writing about it. This is fitting because the whole debate hinges on an is–ought dilemma of another kind. Science is said to provide answers to the is-questions, the ones that concern neutral facts about how the world is. Religion is said to be in the business of oughts: how should we live? what are our values? how do we want the world to be?

Stephen Jay Gould, a more irenic Darwinian, tried to separate science and religion into “non-overlapping magisteria,” arguing that they simply answer different questions, so they needn’t be in conflict. This is wildly wrong for multiple reasons. First of all, religions clearly pronounce on factual questions all the time. Second, science often pronounces on ought questions. Third, what about all the other domains, like the arts, humanities and social sciences, where do they fit in? Fourth, is it even possible to separate is and ought?

These are tricky questions, but they get to the heart of what science is and whether it is a worldview or religion in its own right. Let’s take Dawkins’ view. He thinks that the worldview offered by modern science is a constraint on what other kinds of knowledge we can have. Darwinism, for him, says that the blind mechanism of natural selection accounts for everything complex in the universe. Does that extend to human designs and purposes? Not exactly. He certainly thinks it rules out religious and folk ideas about the world. But he also thinks that humans, and only humans, have reached some kind of escape velocity and can now rebel against the otherwise binding orders of our genes. People can decide on their own goals, purposes or values beyond those of mere survival and replication. So, for Dawkins, the facts of science tell us what is and isn’t possible in the world of human concerns. Or, as some critics have argued, Dawkins starts with a liberal ideology of individualism and projects that onto the nature he studies, conveniently finding that the actions of self-interested genes control everything, except human freedom.

There is a long and proud history of this kind of projection. Consider Gould. His politics—a soft Marxism—seem to have informed his view of evolution, as he sparred with Dawkins over the primacy of adaptation in life’s history. Gould always emphasised the environment side, the historical contingency of evolution. This seemed to align with his dialectical materialism, which says that real world economic conditions determine social reality, more than the drives or consciousness of individuals.

Evolution is a particularly spiky issue. Not only is it a field in which you can find support for many different ideologies, but it arguably determines what ideology, morality, politics and the entire normative realm can be. Dawkins says it’s natural selection all the way up, until you hit human purposes. But other Darwinians say that the acid burns through everything. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett argues that the Darwinian algorithm (replication plus variation) accounts not only for the origin of species but for the origins of anything interesting: cultures, languages, technologies, reasons, norms, meanings. Alex Rosenberg takes an even starker view. He says Darwin’s algorithm explains all the seeming design in nature—including that which is expressed in our thoughts and actions—in a purely physical way, thereby precluding all the human stuff we care about. In a Darwinian world, even human purposes are illusory.


Most science communicators would defend a version of 1 or 2. A lot of science communication is underwritten by a democratic ethos. The public ought to be informed about science so that they can have more agency in their lives and participate in a scientifically advanced democracy. Admirable. But this is exactly the kind of ought statement that science is supposed to be silent about and also the kind that Darwinism—if the hard cases are right—eliminates. That democratic ethos works well for something like vaccinations, where the public clearly benefit from knowing that they’re safe and from being equipped to debunk conspiracy theories. There is a clear policy application. Amazingly, in the case of Darwinism, it’s not considered to be in the public’s interest to know whether or not most of what they believe in is a mirage.

The Future

For more mundane reasons, I think the traditional science outreach position is misguided because it’s very difficult to get the public engaged in anything—rhetoric generally doesn’t work. So why bother writing this article? Frankly, because I assume that my readers are self-selected, already interested in the topic and probably have an opinion on it. That makes science outreach something of an elite discourse, communicating only with a group who already have access to roughly the same information as the communicators.


If this stark reading is the best way of thinking about evolution, does it conflict with religious views and is it incompatible with secular life philosophies? I believe it is.

“Heightened disgust sensitivity is associated with greater fear of sin and fear of God” [PsyPost]

“Heightened disgust sensitivity is associated with greater fear of sin and fear of God


MAY 14, 2020



“This started my interest in politics. As an outsider, I was in a position to see and experience things differently, especially how individuals used religion to increase their personal wealth and power. I was also able to see religion, with its organization of humans and rules regarding correct behavior, as distinct from faith, which is personal and seen in one’s behavior. The questions became: ‘Why is this the case?’ and ‘how does it benefit group members enough to put their self-interest aside?’”

“Studying the adaptive qualities of emotional response, both predispositions and contextual influences, has long been my focus; disgust – which is connected with many discriminatory behaviors – is one of those key emotions for understanding human behavior,” Stewart explained.

Stewart and his colleagues examined the relationship between disgust sensitivity and the fear of God using a scientific survey and an experiment.

The survey assessed religious fear, disgust sensitivity, anger, and anxiety in 523 participants who were recruited from a large southern American university. The researchers found that sexual disgust and pathogen disgust were associated with fear of sin and fear of God, respectively.

In other words, people who reported being more disgusted by the thought of casual sex or hearing strangers having sex were more likely to agree with statements such as “I am afraid of having immoral thoughts.” People who reported being more disgusted by stepping in dog poop or seeing mold were more likely to agree with statements such as “I worry that God is upset with me.”


Stewart told PsyPost he hopes the findings highlight the importance of the concept of the human behavioral immune system (HBIS), which “refers to a variety of psychological processes that serve to protect us as individuals and society from real or perceived pathogens.”


“Chief amongst these is the emotion of disgust, which helps to prevent the contact with and ingestion of things that might make us ill. Importantly, the human behavioral immune system influences a variety of social and political behaviors, including – as demonstrated in our paper – religious behaviors.”


“Religion is behind some of most beneficial actions humans have engaged in to help their fellow human; it is also behind some truly horrific behaviors. Understanding the roots of these behaviors, and what might lead to both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of religion is important for those who want individuals to live their best lives.”

“Perhaps most important for right now, we live in a time where, as more people become sick with coronavirus, higher levels of disgust will likely be prevalent; understand the actions through the human behavioral immune system will be important in avoiding political predations such as those occurring in the wake of the Spanish flu in 1918 (e.g., the spread of fascism and communism – both authoritarian governing institutions),” Stewart said.”


Frontiers in Psychology

29 January 2020

The Effect of Trait and State Disgust on Fear of God and Sin

Patrick A. Stewart [1], Thomas G. Adams Jr.[2] and Carl Senior [3]

[1] Department of Political Science, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, United States
[2] Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, United States
[3] School of Life & Health Sciences, Aston University, Birmingham, United Kingdom

There is a growing literature suggesting disgust plays a major role in religiosity. However, the relationships between specific domains of disgust sensitivity and general religious fundamentalism or religious scrupulosity remains unknown and a lack of experimental data prevents the drawing of causal inferences about the potential effects of disgust on religiosity. Two studies are reported that examined the relationship between specific types of disgust sensitivity (i.e., pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust) and specific religious beliefs (i.e., fear of sin and fear of God). In the first study it was found that sexual disgust and pathogen disgust were significantly correlated with fear of sin and fear of God, respectively. In the second study the experimental induction of disgust led to greater fear of sin but not to the fear of God. These findings suggest that pathogen and sexual disgust sensitivities may serve as effective mechanisms for inflated scrupulosity. Taken together the outcomes from both studies converge on a greater understanding of the ‘Human Behavioral Immune System’ model that can account for social behavior with the evolution of adaptive benefit and perhaps more importantly highlights the possible drivers of specific religious behavior.

“Does Science Lead to Atheism? Alex Rosenberg discusses his views on atheism, science, and Bas van Fraassen By Walter Veit [Science and Philosophy | Psychology Today]

“Does Science Lead to Atheism?

Alex Rosenberg discusses his views on atheism, science, and Bas van Fraassen.

Walter Veit


Walter Veit: In your book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, you argue that there is not much reason to provide arguments against God’s existence. Nevertheless, you don’t shy away from debating creationists. Did you regret your discussion with William Lane Craig? I imagine that you might have received a lot of reactions from committed theists. Did you get any positive reactions or were you able to convince anyone of a naturalist worldview?

Alex Rosenberg: I said I didn’t need to provide arguments against god’s existence because there were already so many good ones, and lots of evidence against god’s existence too. The aim of the book was to sketch out what else we atheists should endorse, if we endorse atheism owing to scientific considerations. I debated Craig for the money and the chance to plug my book. I only wish I had taken a more mocking tone and had a lighter touch. There were some non-theists in the crowd, and I think I did move one or two people who reached me afterward by email.”

“How Did Belief Evolve?” – Agustín Fuentes [Sapiens]

“How Did Belief Evolve?

An anthropologist traces the development of Homo sapiens’ most creative and destructive force, from the making of stone tools to the rise of religions.

Agustín Fuentes
is the chair of the anthropology department at the University of Notre Dame.

About 20 years ago, the residents of Padangtegal village in Bali, Indonesia, had a problem. The famous, monkey-filled forest surrounding the local Hindu temple complex had become stunted, and saplings failed to sprout and thrive. Since I was conducting fieldwork in the area, the head of the village council, Pak Acin, asked me and my team to investigate.

We discovered that locals and tourists visiting the temples had previously brought food wrapped in banana leaves, then tossed the used leaves on the ground. But when plastic-wrapped meals became popular, visitors threw the plastic onto the forest floor, where it choked the young trees.

I told Acin we would clean up the soil and suggested he enact a law prohibiting plastic around the temples. He laughed and told us a ban would be useless. The only thing that would change people’s behavior was belief. What we needed, he said, was a goddess of plastic.

Over the next year, our research team and Balinese collaborators didn’t exactly invent a Hindu deity. But we did harness Balinese beliefs and traditions about harmony between people and environments. We created new narratives about plastic, forests, monkeys, and temples. We developed ritualistic caretaking behaviors that forged new relationships between humans, monkeys, and forests.

As a result, the soils and undergrowth were rejuvenated, the trees grew stronger and taller, and the monkeys thrived. Most importantly, the local community reaped the economic and social benefits of a healthy, vigorous forest and temple complex.

Acin taught me that science and rules cannot ensure lasting change without belief—the most creative and destructive ability humans have ever evolved.


In my recent book, Why We Believe,* I explore how we evolved this universally and uniquely human capacity, drawing on my 26 years of research into human and other primates’ evolution, biology, and daily lives. Our 2-million-year journey to complex religions, political philosophies, and technologies essentially follows a three-step path: from imagination to meaning-making to belief systems. To trace that path, we must go back to where it started: rocks.


By 500,000 years ago, Homo had mastered the skill of shaping stone, bone, hides, horns, and wood into dozens of tool types. Some of these tools were so symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing that some scientists speculate toolmaking took on a ritual aspect that connected Homo artisans with their traditions and community. These ritualistic behaviors may have evolved, hundreds of thousands of years later, into the rituals we see in religions.

With their new gadgets, Homo chopped wood, dug deeper for tubers, collected new fruits and leaves, and put a wider variety of animals on the menu. These activities—expanding their diets, constructing new ecologies, and altering the implements in their environment—literally reshaped their bodies and minds.

In response to these diverse experiences, Homo grew increasingly dynamic neural pathways that allowed them to become even more responsive to their environment. During this time period, Homo’s brains reached their modern size.


The advent of cooking opened up a new landscape of foods and nutrient profiles. By boiling, barbecuing, grinding, or mashing meat and plants, Homo maximized access to proteins, fats, and minerals.

This gave them the nutrition and energy necessary for extended childhood brain development and increased neural connectivity. It allowed them to travel greater distances. It enabled them to evolve neurobiologies and social capacities that made it possible to move from imagining and making new tools to imagining and making new ways of being human.


Once groups are attributing shared meaning to objects they can manipulate, it is an easy jump to give shared meaning to larger elements they cannot change: storms, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, eclipses, and even death. We have evidence that by at least a few hundred thousand years ago, early humans were placing their dead in caves. Within the past 50,000 years, distinct examples of burial practices became more and more common.”