1. John W. Morehead May 1, 2012 at 8:17 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this.The consideration of the psychology
    of religious belief is very important. As to critical considerations
    related to this presentation, Dr. Nagel’s lack of formal training in
    this specific discipline is problematic, and this will need to be
    factored into reflection on his material. A lack of formal training in this area does not, of course, mean
    that the conclusions are invalid. It just means we need to assess the
    arguments carefully.In addition, it must be
    remembered that atheism should be factored into the pie chart of
    beliefs, and it too is subject to critical scrutiny regarding
    epistemology as is religious belief. My hope is that we can be consistent in being
    skeptical of irreligious claims, just as we are of religious ones.
    Atheism is part of the spectrum of metaphysical commitments, and not
    immune from epistemological skepticism.

    • JTurn May 5, 2012 at 1:58 pm - Reply


      With respect to your statement:

      “Atheism is part of the spectrum of metaphysical commitments, and not 
      immune from epistemological skepticism”
      Definitionare important.  For instance

      Positive atheism (or strong atheism) is a term used to describe the form of atheism that asserts that no deity exists. Negative (or weak) atheism refers to any other type of atheism, wherein a person does not believe in the existence of any deity, but without asserting there to be none.

      Your comment applies to positive atheism.  Perhaps  

      Now, what we might flip the question and consider positive (or strong) atheism versus negative (or weak) theism.

      Now what’s the difference between weak atheism and weak theism?  A metaphysical commitment?  A respect for evidence (including the evidence of the frailty of human cognition?


    • Larry Ballard March 13, 2019 at 7:26 pm - Reply

      I just listened to the first podcast in this series. I too have spent a great deal of time in this arena of social psychology not just in religion, but government and other constructs. Not sure if Dr. Nagel will discuss The Milgram Experiment of the Stanford Prision experiment. These were the two social experiments that turned me on to the reality of how mind controlled humankind actually is. This issue is large. The first episode was more than outstanding. This knowledge is spot on and wonderful! Thank you for sharing. I can’t wait to find space to begin to share this with some special people when they are ready and some who are already ready. Wonderful! Christ suggested a marvelous concept when those around him asked where they could find the Kingdom of God. What did he say? He showed them how to extricate themselves with ego identification with their outside construct in Judaism and obedience to the Sanhedrin. He directed them on the inner direction to the individual self which had been obfuscated by their mind controlled indoctrination scheme. He gave them a methodology…a direction of the mind and heart…to free them from the yoke and burden of being mind slaves. Conformity bias is a big deal isn’t it?

  2. Syphax May 2, 2012 at 12:19 pm - Reply

    As someone who studies the psychology of religion on the graduate level, I feel somewhat obliged to make a few comments.

  3. Syphax May 2, 2012 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    Continued –

    These facts should be troubling to religious people (and non-religious people) because they seem to strike deeply at the reasons why we do things and believe things.  I have to admit that, as a religious person, they made me look deeply and re-evaluate the reasons why I am LDS, and I do question my membership in the church these days.That having been said, I take issue with the idea that a psychological discussion about motivators for belief has anything to do with the actual truth-values of these beliefs.  That’s not really in the realm of psychology actually at all.  Psychology assumes naturalism as a methodology, borrowed from the natural sciences, and since psychologists are not metaphysicians there has been little re-evaluation of that methodology (though this may be starting to change).  Questions about truth-values lie more in the realm of philosophy, so I worry that psychology is being mis-used if it is being used to “prove” the falseness of religious belief.  As the above poster said, we should approach ALL truth claims (including naturalism and atheism) with the same acknowledgement.  I think there are really good reasons to think that naturalism is not true, and it wasn’t until I separated the social pressure I get from the LDS church AND academia (both of which are philosophically materialist) before I could really objectively evaluate the arguments against it.

    • johndehlin May 2, 2012 at 1:00 pm - Reply

      Glad you are weighing in, Syphax. I am certain that your perspective will be helpful in this discussion.

    • JamesNagel May 2, 2012 at 3:47 pm - Reply


      Thank you for speaking up.  You make some great discussion points.

      ” I take issue with the idea that a psychological discussion about
      motivators for belief has anything to do with the actual truth-values of
      these beliefs.”

      Philosophically speaking, you are correct in what you are trying to say.  Namely, that the mechanism by which someone came to a belief is not necessarily an indicator of the truth behind that belief.  However, there is an important practical aspect that needs to be acknowledged.  Specifically, what does it mean when the entire epistemological foundation of something is grounded in methodologies that are designed more to propagate beliefs rather than correct errors?  Is this something that can be relied upon to accurately reflect the truth?  Or if I may put it another way, can you name a single context, outside of religion, where anyone would take such a system seriously as a reliable means for understanding reality?

    • JamesNagel May 2, 2012 at 3:54 pm - Reply

       Another great talking point:

      “Psychology assumes naturalism as a methodology, borrowed from the
      natural sciences, and since psychologists are not metaphysicians there
      has been little re-evaluation of that methodology (though this may be
      starting to change).”

      You are certainly right about the assumption of naturalism.  But if this is something you do not agree with, then what alternative do you have to offer?  Supernaturalism?  Because as far I can tell, the moment you go down this road, you might as well just say “magic” and be done with it. 

      To put it another way, if methodological naturalism is flawed, then how do you propose we fix it?  What alternative basis do you have for measuring the truth-value of a given claim?

      • Syphax May 2, 2012 at 6:42 pm - Reply

        To answer your first question, I would say that the belief that humans have value, are worth helping, and should not be harmed unnecessarily are simply axiomatic social programs that admit NO tampering with, no matter what science eventually discovers.  So yes, I think there is a social “reality” that must exist wherever there are social creatures that cannot be violated by any future scientific endeavors.  We program this reality into our children at a very young age and expect them to believe it until they die.  People that violate this program are punished – sometimes executed.

        To answer your second question, I personally think a broadly Aristotelian metaphysics with its “moderate realism” is a great alternative to methodological naturalism – it contradicts none of the findings of modern science, and even solves lots of sticky problems of consciousness like intentionality, qualia, the “is-ought problem,” and the problem of induction that inevitably arose when a mechanistic, non-teleological conception of nature took hold of the hard sciences.  Embrace formal and final causes and you have your answer!  Science chugged along happily without them because they assumed they could shove all those tricky issues into the realm of psychology.  That means psychologists like us inherited the “mind-body” problem without the tools to solve it!

        To think that the only choices are methodological naturalism or “magic” shows how far off the rails modern science has gone away from its philosophical underpinnings.  But hey – that’s what the early psychologists wanted:  “Those time-honored relics of philosophical speculation need trouble the student of behavior as little as they trouble the student of physics. The consideration of the mind-body problem affects neither the type of problem selected nor the formulation of the solution to that problem. I can state my position here no better than by saying that I should like to bring my students up in the same ignorance of such hypotheses as one finds among the students of other branches of science.” – John B. Watson.  The Behaviorists and Structuralists banished “metaphysics” from psychology in favor of associationism, behaviorism, and positivism, and when those ventures collapsed, psychology never really filled the void very well.

        The point is, go find Oderberg’s “Real Essentialism” for an alternative to naturalism that fits what we experience far better, and would really go a long way in experimental psychology if people are bold enough to use it.  Actually there’s a psychologist named James Grice who has even developed an “Observation Oriented Modeling” statistical methodology for psychology based on Aristotelian assumptions and it’s worth looking into, as well.

        • JamesNagel May 3, 2012 at 10:28 am - Reply

          You make an interesting point here:

          “I would say that the belief that humans have value, are worth helping, and should not be harmed unnecessarily are simply axiomatic social programs that admit NO tampering with, no matter what science eventually discovers.”

          While this is certainly a very noble belief to hold, you are simply making a dogmatic assertion based on nothing more than your mere say-so.  So even though I may not disagree with the statement you are making (that human beings have value, etc), it is an extremely dangerous precedent to form beliefs in this way.  

          If I may ask this in another way, why do we have to simply assert this idea axiomatically?  What is wrong with formulating an empirical justification for such a belief?  What if the statement is only, say, 95% accurate?  Are there any exceptions to this rule?  If there were errors in such understanding, do you want to root them out and correct them?  Or do you want to just insist on staying true to your axiomatic assertion no matter how flawed it may or may not be?  

          This is one of the ultimate points I tried to make at the end of the podcast.  Religion itself is not a good or bad thing, and neither is your statement that humans have value.  The only thing that is dangerous is the idea that we can just make stuff up ad-hoc and then pretend it is true without going through the usual process of justification, tentativism, evaluation, and correction.  

          • Syphax May 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm

            If you can think of some sort of empirical way to test whether humans should be treated kindly, I’d like to hear it.  I simply don’t think statements of value are amenable to the Scientific Method.  Furthermore I don’t think the Scientific Method itself can be subjected to the Scientific Method to test for its accuracy, without logical circularity.  For instance, when you say “The only thing that is dangerous is the idea that we can just make stuff up ad-hoc and then pretend it is true without going through the usual process of justification, tentativism, evaluation, and correction,” can you think of a non-circular way to test for the truth of that statement?  I can’t.  Your position is self-refuting.  So there is a logical terminus that has to take place at some point in order to make any truth-statements at all, and it can’t be based on the Scientific Method.  That the external world is real.  That the regularities we perceive are not illusions.  That our cognitive faculties are at least reliable enough to make accurate predictions about reality.  That the external world is understandable and reflects formal logic.  None of these are amenable to the Scientific Method because the Scientific Method presupposes these things just to get off the ground.

            Again, this is why scientists should at least study philosophy a little – especially when they claim a degree called a “Doctor of Philosophy of…”  You’ll see that there are some areas that are, and will forever be, completely inaccessible to science, not for the emotional, “burning in the bosom” reasons that John talked about in the last video – but for strict logical reasons.

          • JamesNagel May 3, 2012 at 9:03 pm

            Great discussion.  Just a few counter-points to think about.  For example, you say

            “I simply don’t think statements of value are amenable to the Scientific Method.”

            I hear this sort of sentiment often, but I think it underscores a fundamental distinction that needs to be emphasized more often.  Namely, that science is a tool for understanding the physical nature of reality.  Science cannot empirically determine any sort of “value” because value is not an objective property of physical things.  By definition, “value” is a subjective determination made by agents with regard to the relative worth or importance of objects, actions, and ideas.  Value is, by its very nature, whatever people arbitrarily decide they want it to be!  You might as well criticize science because it can’t determine the ideal flavor of ice cream or which color of the rainbow is the better than the rest.  

            That being said, there is still plenty of room for science to offer insights into human morality.  All we have to do is decide what our goals are.  Do we want to minimize suffering?  Do we want to maximize cultural survival?  National prosperity?  All of these choices are completely arbitrary.  However, once the choice is made, science is the tool we would turn to for understanding which choices lead to the desired outcome and which do not.  Again, science does not set your goals; it merely tells you which decisions work better at achieving them.

            One other point you made:

            “can you think of a non-circular way to test for the truth of that statement?”

            Yes I can.  After all, the ultimate goal for most human beings is to make choices that lead to such results as a better overall understanding of the world, control over our environment, elevation of our well-being, etc.  We therefore need to establish some sort of epistemological rule set for guiding our decisions in achieving these goals.  Scientific method has a remarkable track record of giving us abundant food, functional medicine, the internet, and space travel.  To date, there does not exist a single alternative epistemology that is capable of producing equally dramatic results.  So you can debate philosophy and epistemology all you want, but until you can produce the goods then anything you have to offer is functionally irrelevant. 

            To put it another way, the ultimate challenge for you is to not just declare that you have a superior epistemology based on purely academic standards.  Show that your methodology can produce a meaningful relevance in our physical existence.  How would your epistemology improve the space program?  Will it get us to Mars faster?  Will it allow us to grow more food? Will it cure diseases?  Sell products?  Produce energy?  Predict human behavior? 

          • Syphax May 3, 2012 at 10:08 pm

            “You might as well criticize science because it can’t determine the ideal flavor of ice cream or which color of the rainbow is the better than the rest.”

            I’m not criticizing science at all, I rather like it actually.  I’m just demonstrating that it has limits – which was my point to begin with.  It seems you concede that point.  It seems that you also concede my point that the starting points for human inquiry are arbitrarily chosen (or, in your words, they are just “asserted axiomatically”).  I am also picking up an implicit acknowledgement from you that the statement that empiricism should be the only way to establish truth is logically self-defeating, so we don’t need to go over that.  I’m not sure that you are fully acknowledging, however, that because of this arbitrariness, science cannot really modify those values recursively, given that they are arbitrary.  If science can modify them, then they are not arbitrary, but then you deal with the circularity problem again.  I’m not sure if you’re also implicitly conceding (or aware) that this arbitrariness undercuts your claim that it is “dangerous” to just pick a set of axioms and hold to them without empirical investigation – because you admit that’s what we have to do at the end of the day about all our arbitrary starting points.

            However, at the end you seem to have forgotten your previous concessions by stating “the ultimate challenge for you is to not just declare that you have a superior epistemology based on purely academic standards.  Show that your methodology can produce a meaningful relevance in our physical existence.  How would your epistemology improve the space program?  Will it get us to Mars faster?  Will it allow us to grow more food? Will it cure diseases?  Sell products?  Produce energy?  Predict human behavior?”

            I’m not exactly why you would just axiomatically assert that the “ultimate challenge” for an epistemology is not establishing that it is superior based on “academic standards” but through producing “meaningful relevance” in “physical existence” – perhaps this assertion is just as arbitrary as the other values you have admitted we have.  I’ll try to boil my surprise in this statement down by first stating that, for all your bluster about reason, truth, empiricism, and testing claims in all those videos up there, I am surprised that you would retreat into a crude sort of pragmatism, or throw “academic standards” under the bus so easily (because you’re admitting that you’re less concerned with what is true and more concerned with what is useful – very interesting).  Well, maybe not so surprised – any honest person who is shown through logic that their worldview is self-defeating has little choice but do this.  But let me now take it point-by-point.

            1. You state that the ultimate challenge of an epistemology is to produce physical results.  WHY is that the ultimate challenge?  Because you say so?  Seems like a bold, (arbitrary) axiomatic assertion without a reason why this should be the case.  Where is the evidence that the truth of an epistemology should be determined by physical results?  Do you feel you need evidence at all to back this statement up?
            2. You define “meaningful relevance” as concrete physical achievements – going into space, curing diseases, and so forth.  WHY should that be the definition of “meaningful relevance?”  Another (seemingly arbitrary) axiomatic assertion.  Religion defines “meaningful relevance” in a completely different way, but it doesn’t seem any more or less arbitrary than your definition.  The only difference is that your definition stacks the deck in favor of empiricist naturalism.  You’re saying that religion (or Aristotelian metaphysics, or whatever) should be evaluated in terms of sending people to space or finding cures for diseases, when those were never the objectives of religion to begin with nor is it the definition of “meaningfulness” that religion ever used.  Should poetry or music be evaluated in terms of curing diseases or building power plants?  WHY should the value of religion or an epistemology be measured in sending people to space, when this was not a game that religion was trying to play in the first place?

          • Syphax May 3, 2012 at 10:13 pm

            I’m in the middle of finals for the semester, so I’m not sure how much longer I can discuss this matter (though it’s been fun).  I guess my point here is just to point out that, when pressed, it seems that many naturalists end up doing exactly what they criticize religion-ists of doing – making arbitrary assertions based on emotional reasons and not bothering to prove them using any sort of scientific or empirical inquiry.  The only difference is that the religion-ist denies that science is the only valid method of inquiry, and the naturalist extols it as the best thing humans have while simultaneously throwing it under the bus.

          • JamesNagel May 5, 2012 at 11:17 pm

            I’m going to start a new thread to continue this if you have time.  You make very good points of discussion.

          • fbisti June 26, 2012 at 10:29 am

            Have enjoyed the (mostly) illuminating discussion between Syphax and Nagel. I say mostly because I don’t have sufficient understanding to grasp some of it. However, regarding the age-old conflict between science and religion regarding what are the best values, it seems that a recent book by Harris, Sam (2010-10-05), “The Moral Landscape” puts forth a potential answer. Maybe not, since I am not at all confident I understand the disagreements Nagel and Syphax are discussing.

            In gross summary: Harris’ posits that “The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science. [By which, he means logic, critical thinking, and universal facts.] While the argument I make in this book is bound to be controversial, it rests on a very simple premise: human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain [Not some external “God”]. A more detailed understanding of these truths will force us to draw clear distinctions between different ways of living in society with one another, judging some to be better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less ethical.

            Clearly, such insights could help us to improve the quality of human life.”

            In other words, the “morality” of a belief and its subsequent actions/consequences does not derive from its origin from some seeming diety, but in whether or not/how it affects human–and all conscious beings–well being. In other words, the highest and best “value” can be addressed rationally and scientifically.

            I bring this up because the ideas in this book fascinated me, seemed to bear, at least tangentially, to your discussion.

  4. Christopher Höglund May 2, 2012 at 1:41 pm - Reply

    I loved it! But I am already an atheist so there is not really anything spectacular about that. Thank you for making this podcast. I feel that a lot of us sceptics, atheists, agnostics and so on have to hold back and be a little too diplomatic in our comments in the different forums (which is fine by me). But since there seems to be a large number of disaffected who are drawn toward non belief, can you get the ball rolling on a special forum for us where we don’t have to be so diplomatic in verbalizing our feelings and findings.?

  5. YC May 2, 2012 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    John, I enjoyed your podcasts thoroughly.  In the last part when you ask James about non-religious societies, I highly recommend this book by Phil Zuckerman:
    “Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment”

    • johndehlin May 3, 2012 at 5:09 am - Reply

      Thanks, YC! So glad you enjoyed!!!

    • JamesNagel May 6, 2012 at 11:33 pm - Reply

      Great recommendation.  Sounds like a good read.

  6. Kyle May 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm - Reply

    John –

    Mormon Stories has been a lifeline for me for the last several years and has
    been a great help during my faith crisis.  About a year or two ago I
    stopped my monthly contribution and gradually moved away from the
    podcast.  In the beginning, as a TBM, I very much appreciated the unbiased
    approach you tried to take with each podcast; there was the view point of your
    guest(s) and then you come in with a great Mormon style perspective that would
    balance the podcast and give the struggling Mormon something to latch on to in
    order to relate to (or feel safe with) the content of the episode. 

    A million thanks for this…

    (Grain of salt taken here)

    This recurring theme was the ultimate undoing of the podcast for me.  In
    February of this year, NPR made an official statement that it would be
    “Fair to the Truth” instead of simply reporting both sides of an
    issue.  This episode was wonderful on so many levels, but there was a
    constant derailment as you tried to qualify each of James’ statements with “in
    your view” or “in your opinion” etc. 
    Here we have very solid theory (which could possibly be disproved in 100
    years, nonetheless it’s the best we have now) that uses empirical evidence to
    support itself, the majority of which is testable and falsifiable.  The only counter arguments that the religious
    world has to offer (none of which has any sort of empirical evidence) are
    couched in racism, nationalism, and elitism. 
    And yet, in the interest of being unbiased and in support of Mormonism, you
    nonchalantly posited the opposing theory of the diversity of religions
    throughout the world, complete with the implicit racism, elitism, and
    nationalism.  I’ve listened to enough episodes
    to know that you are absolutely not a racist, so I was surprised that you didn’t
    qualify your own statement and left James to flounder and how shocking and offensive
    the Mormon position inherently is. 


    From the observations of just one person, you might consider
    taking the NPR approach on some of the podcasts: give your John Dehlin-esque
    voice of approval for truth, especially when the unbiased counter argument
    takes a more exclusionary and uncharitable position.



    • johndehlin May 3, 2012 at 5:41 pm - Reply

      Kyle – This is very good feedback. I will try to take this to heart. Thanks for taking the time to write.

      • Kyle May 4, 2012 at 10:18 am - Reply

         Thanks John. I worried after posting that my comment seemed negative or overly critical; I’m the fat guy in the nosebleeds yelling at Lebron James.
        You walk a fine line in trying to please both ends of the Mormon spectrum and I think you a pretty bang up job. 

        • johndehlin May 4, 2012 at 10:26 am - Reply

          Don’t worry. Super grateful.

  7. CG May 4, 2012 at 1:24 am - Reply

    James & John,

    It was so fun listening to your converstation! James, seems you take the postion of a classic positivist whereas John seems to be more of a post-modern. James, I am sure that you will have better things to do than to blog an answer to my inquiries, but if you have any quick comments to share, I would be very interested in any of your thoughts related to three points of interest to me. I am framing these as challenges to your teachings, but in the spirit of friendship!

    Question #1:

    James, you said:  “Remember what religion is, it is a cultural phenomenon that has to adapt to its environment in order to survive” (Part 5, 16:15 min). “Science is not really a cultural thing; it is a process” (Part 5, 17:14 min).

    I agree that religion is a cultural phenomenon, but it seems that “cultural phenomenon” also an apt description for the emergence and continuation of science. Why do you think it is not?

    Question #2:

    I think you said: “Most people are better off, once they stop believing so strongly”

    You offered anecdotal evidence to answer this great scientific question! What does the scientific research say about loss of religious faith and human well-being?

    Question #3:

    In an ultimate sense, can science ever answer the question about what people SHOULD do? If it can, will  you please provide one practical concrete example that illustrates this?

    Thanks again for your willingness to put yourselves out there to keep us thinking!

    • johndehlin May 4, 2012 at 6:44 am - Reply

      Great questions CG!!!!

    • JamesNagel May 6, 2012 at 11:54 pm - Reply

      Hi CG, 

      Thanks for participating!

      “I agree that religion is a cultural phenomenon, but it seems that “cultural phenomenon” also an apt description for the emergence and continuation of science. Why do you think it is not?”

      That’s an interesting question.  In a sense, there is probably some truth to the idea that science is a cultural phenomenon.  But the thing to remember is that science is just a methodology designed to understand the world.  A great contrast between science and religion would be to consider the world map like the one at the end of Part 4.  Clearly, religious beliefs fall within very distinct cultural boundaries.  But what if we drew a similar map with respect to the demise of the dinosaurs?  For example, how many people believe that the dinosaurs were killed by a meteor impact?  How many believe that the dinosaurs were killed by a plague?  Or volcanoes?  Do these beliefs fall within cultural boundaries like religions do?  Or do paleontologists around the world tend to converge onto the same set of beliefs?

      We could repeat this process for all sorts of scientific theories and the result would be the same.  Scientists generally converge onto the same set of conclusions independently of any cultural heritage.  This heavily suggests that science is not in the same class of cultural phenomenon that religion is because scientific discoveries do not divide themselves along cultural boundaries.

      “You offered anecdotal evidence to answer this great scientific question! What does the scientific research say about loss of religious faith and human well-being?”

      That is a great question.  I’m not sure if there is yet a clear answer.  Perhaps a good place to start is the book suggested by another listener on this same forum.  See, “Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment”

      “In an ultimate sense, can science ever answer the question about what people SHOULD do? If it can, will  you please provide one practical concrete example that illustrates this?”

      Yes and no.  As I told another listener, science does not set your goals for you.  It merely tells you which actions are better at achieving them.  For example, if your goal is to minimize travel time from A to B, then science can help you determine the optimal mode of transportation.  If your goal is to maximize physical exercise within a 1-hour span, then science can tell you an ideal route to take around town.  If your goal is to maximize fuel economy, then science can again help you with driving habits and engine design.  But the goals you set are entirely arbitrary.  There are no “right” or “wrong” goals.  There are merely right and wrong choices to take in achieving them.

  8. JTurn May 5, 2012 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    Near the end of the final part John pressed James with questions that seemed intent
    of affirming his own belief that that “meaningfulness” in life requires some form of external
    validation from a “higher” realm to counted profound or


    Consider a child playing in a sandbox. She’s deeply absorbed in her discovery of the emergent
    properties of tiny rocks – they flow when dry but pack when damp. From this she discovers
    the joy of creative self-expression when she makes real the miniature castle in her mind’s eye. Then she is treated to the joy of accomplishment affirmed by her dad’s wide-eyed
    smile, and later experiences the joy of sharing her knowledge with a friend who in turn experiences the joy of sharing her candy.  

    Man evolved that he can experience joy.  Is it really
    necessary to search for meaning elsewhere?  What can be more wonderful than joy emerging from bags of organic molecules interacting with a big box of inorganic ones? Why complicate life with metaphysical baggage?  

    Every imaginative depiction of eternal kingdoms I’ve ever heard doesn’t do the real world justice. And making up for all the
    crap that unfortunately goes along with make believe compensation seems the very least that humans can do about it.

    The perceived need for “ultimate” meaning to located beyond what the 90 odd naturally occurring elements plus sunlight can supply is to suffer from the “nothingbuttery” fallacy.   

  9. GlenFullmer May 5, 2012 at 7:13 pm - Reply

    Enjoyed the podcast.  Thanks, John and James.  Also the conversation between James and Syphx has been enlightening.  Thanks to both of you.

    I had a number of questions that I posted on YouTube, but thought this might be a better forum to restate them and condense my questions.

    James commented that “Mohammad and Joseph Smith can’t both be prophets” and I would ask as a skeptic of the both some religious claims and some of the claims that James has made, and having been accused of being a “black and while” dogmatist, what lead you to make that comment?  Isn’t that like saying that Moses and Jesus can’t both be prophets? Didn’t James say that proving a negative is problematic?  Guess I better define my terms prophet – one that is inspired of God in both communication, foretelling and behavior.

    James, you corrected yourself on the youTube site when I questioned your comment that “All events in the Koran (or Bible) can not be instantiated outside those texts” by saying:

    ‘By “all events,” I am mainly referring to the miraculous ones. It is one ting to say that there existed a guy by the name of Jesus of Nazareth who wandered the Middle East circa 30 AD. It is another thing entirely to say that he healed the sick by merely touching them, that he could walk on water, or that he rose from the dead.’  

    Thanks for clearing that up as you stated in the podcast, one must be very careful when trying to prove a negative.  Which events to you think miraculous and why?  Isn’t conscience (self-awareness) miraculous?  Does one need science to prove that?  Or walking, for that matter.  Didn’t Paul say we all walk by faith.I stated, “Wonder if Jesus was given the Cost before Commitment or the Commitment before the Cost? ;-)”

    And I liked your dialogue:

    “God: “Who wants to be the savior of mankind?”
    Jesus: “Oh, I’ll do it!”
    God: “Great! All you have to do is live a life of poverty, absorb all the sins of the world into yourself, and then slowly doe after three days on a cross.”
    Jesus: “Did I just get low-balled?”

     You also state, “I hear voices all the time when I am tired and falling asleep. Optical illusions are another form of visual hallucination that cause us to see shapes and motions that aren’t really there.
    It is good that you bring up NDEs. I probably should have spent some time on these. The short answer is that roughly 15 % of us will experience some form of NDE due to oxygen deprivation from the brain. Ketamin hallucinations have also documented to mimic NDE effects”.

    Do you really hear voices?  We all have thoughts that come out of no where, but do you hear voices that sound different than your own? John, how about you?  We aren’t talking about feelings, or intuition, but do you hear vocal hallucinations? Where are the guys in the white coats when you need them?  ;-)

    A couple of NDEs that I found really intriguing are Betty Edie’s:


    And one with a little more intriguing case is Pam Reynolds:


    In both cases they were able to describe events and conversations that if they were just their physical bodies they should not have been able to see or hear.  In the case of Pam, she was brain dead – that is with no describable brain activity.  These don’t prove the existence of a life-after death, but they have been yet to be explained by science.  I’ll keep an open mind.  I will ask you, as I ask most of my atheist friends “What would it take you to believe in life after death, or in a God”?  Most atheists that I know are as dogmatic as my TBM friends when asked to explore what it would mean if God did not exist.  They won’t even explore the possibility.

    As an EE and your interest in Physics, your expertise would be interesting here, I am sure you are aware of David Bohm’s work with his explicate and implicate (physical and non-physical) multidimensional model of reality. The 1982 Aspect Experiment in France, as I understand it, took two once-connected quantum particles separated by vast distances remained somehow connected.  If one particle was changed, the other changed – instantly, faster than the speed of light.  Would you agree that there is so much that we don’t understand, that we should keep an open mind in all areas of our life? Being aware of how susceptible we are to mind tricks as your presentation showed so nicely, wouldn’t it be appropriate not to be too dogmatic about existence or non-existence of a Higher-Being?  You compared religion to politics, when it came to going along with previous accepted beliefs, but I would also ask you the same about science.  How long did it take before Newtonian physics was enhanced with quantum physics?  Sure there was a mechanism to get there, but I am not sure if it was much quicker than some of the religious and political transformations. 
    Thanks again.

  10. […] noticed an interesting series of video interviews done by John Dehlin over at Mormon Stories about the psychology of religion and felt […]

  11. Mike Michaels May 5, 2012 at 8:49 pm - Reply

    John Dehlin:  Thanks for bringing such an excellent series to the MS community.  This is first rate material.  I thought you were a bit pushy in part five.  I find myself in the same camp as Dr. Nagel.  I don’t have any belief in God nor do I find that life requires a supernaturally driven purpose as you seemed bent on asserting.

    Think of how you feel when a TBM tells you that they “know the church is true” strongly implying if not explicitly stating that there is something wrong with you.  That’s how you came across – as if there’s something wrong with Dr. Nagel and like-minded people who don’t have emotions or feelings toward there being a divine being.  We simply don’t.  My “spiritual” experiences are often related to wonderment at the miracle of life or the beauty of a particular landscape, but neither strike me as the hand of God.  Biology, yes.  Geography/Geology/Earth Science/Climatology, yes.  God, no. 

    That’s not to say that I believe religion is bad.  I share the view of Dr. Nagel that as long as religion adapts to fit the needs of society, it can be a constructive component of a community.    I have often asserted that the primary problem with Mormonism is that it has not changed enough rather than it having changed too much.

    We are just one more step from where you are in your beliefs.  You didn’t ask to become an unorthodox Mormon.  Likewise, we didn’t ask to stop believing in God.  It was the product of a complex series of events, education, and human interaction that sum to the outcome that it is.   

  12. kcn May 6, 2012 at 3:24 am - Reply

    I enjoyed the podcast and I’m glad that it was produced; that said I think that the discussion between Syphax and James begins to touch on many of the problems I have with James’ approach.  Maybe I’ll be able to pinpoint the dispute.

    Like Syphax said, listing a bunch of empirically demonstrated errors associated with religious thinking has absolutely zero impact on the truth of any particular religious belief, unless those beliefs are logically incompatible with the fact that the biases exist (and the vast majority are not, as God might have planned us to be biased in his favor).  When pressed, James tried to advance something like an epistemology of usefulness, where epistemology would be built around “what works.”  Unfortunately, many reasonable people would conclude that religious beliefs are extremely useful (even at getting people to Mars), and James wouldn’t like that.
    Furthermore, James’ moral philosophy seems deeply wrong for the same reasons his epistemology is deeply wrong.  Naturalistic explanations for why humans actually do things are not very useful in discovering what we should do.  If we took a survey on common mathematical intuitions in human populations, and attached the best evolutionary explanations for those intuitions, it wouldn’t change mathematics at all.  The rules of mathematics and certain branches of philosophy are logically independent of physical accidents in human thought like hyperbolic discounting or change blindness.  They are logically prior to empirical science; science needs them to get off the ground.  Granted, we might be interested in the psychology to shield ourselves from error, but this is because we are looking beyond our origins here.  So there is no empirical test we can do to confirm the law of non-contradiction; the only thing we can do is philosophize in the realm of basic principles like epistemology and ethics.  Once one is on board with science in a specific area, then the biases become relevant.

  13. Jonah May 6, 2012 at 7:21 am - Reply

    Infographic of world religions.

    • JTurn May 6, 2012 at 10:46 am - Reply

      Thanks Jonah,

      I had to blow it up quite a bit to find Mormonism.  Comforting to find it tucked between Jehovah’s Witnesses and New Thought. :)



  14. JTurn May 6, 2012 at 10:08 am - Reply

    In a previous post I asked the rhetorical question, “Why do we need to appeal to this metaphysical baggage?”  In asking this I was clearly suggesting that religious belief isn’t necessary. But I admit that this reveals more about my peculiar nature than anything else since it ignores the nearly universal incorrigibility of religious belief in our species.  

    Indeed, scientific evidence suggests that religious belief was an inevitable byproduct of our environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA), which included our primate social structures.  Religious ideas may have enabled humans to take that fateful step beyond small kin-based hunter-gather groups to cultural chiefdoms that out-competed the former (along with the discovery of agriculture).  

    In other words, religion fed group-selection, which molded the human brain to find it “sticky” – which led to a powerful feedback loop. Religion’s group-selective utility led to innovations (and diversity) from which nature selected its most fit forms.  As Dr. Nagel showed, these were the forms that tapped into our cognitive biases and innate moral emotions.  It got us calling people born a continent away “Brother Jones. ”  In addition to extended group altruism, group selection also molded the human brain to express altruistic punishment of defectors and the discounting of moral status of out-group members.

    So religion was adaptive in our EEA.  But that leaves the question about whether religion is adaptive in a modern world which is a product of a hyper-driven cultural evolution that outpaced genetic mutation? – which was one of Dr. Nagel strongest points.  

    Maybe yes, maybe no.  Who knows what might be left standing after competing dogmas battle their way toward self-fullfilling apocalyptic prophesies.  Or mayber religions will naturally evolve toward into more broadly benevolent forms as secular societies come up for technological solutions to the scarcities that lead to competition and conflict.

    My hope is that human societies will get better ar using reason and science to help us work toward breaking ourselves free of our incorrigible religious myth commitments that are clearly maladaptive.  I think this will be helped along by a broad understanding and appreciation of an how evolution has molded human psychology to form of tightly-knit groups that tend to contract rather than expand their moral circles.  It is my hope that humanity replaces competing exclusive dogmas that bind, blind, and divide in-groups with substantive knowledge of the world that promotes a “broader tent” humanity.

    But as Dr. Nagel so clearly outlined, this requires overcoming all those cognitive biases that privilege supernatural “way of knowing” that is so comfortably intuitive, that so readily allows us to “love the one [group] you’re with,” and (3) that provides compelling emotional “meaning tags” that are too deeply felt to simply chalk up to an evolved brain doing what comes naturally.  As Dr. Nagel pointed out, the danger comes when this “way of knowing” makes a bad idea part of one’s identity and is then exploited by the group  toward nefarious in-group ends.

    Or maybe there will arise a powerful religious adaptation that can create harmony even amidst diversity its pre-exiting forms.  Maybe this would be a negative (or weak) theism – the flip side of negative (or weak) atheism, that I mentioned above in my response to John W. Morehead’s comment.  This would be the form of theism that humbly acknowledges the lack of evidence for God but professes a hope that singularly motivates living the golden rule above all else.  John Dehlin seems to be an example this approach.  James Nagel seems to exemplify the weak atheist position, which I share.

    Speaking for myself, weak atheism simply means I no longer experience a need for hope in a God, which I suspect has a lot to do with coming to terms with there probably being no life after death.  I alluded to this “naturalistic sufficiency” in my sand box allegory. This innate disposition dawned on me after trying on Mormonism, which I got into only because of strong family ties.  But it simply didn’t fit – in part because I find I am not innately disposed to seek group identity or affiliation.  Does this leave me free to evaluate the evidence for the existence of God is a less biased way?  I’m not certain.  

    I’ve traveled a similar road of discovery as Dr. Nagel. I am an engineer by training and several years ago discovered social psychology.  I’ve read every book he mentioned and at least read about every study he presented.  I don’t know whether I can say I find the evidence compelling.  I can only say that limiting myself to a purely naturalistic view of the world makes the most sense – it makes me feel I am no longer pretending my way through life.  

    I am not sure whether a naturalistic world view is even a metaphysical stance.  I once thought of my loss of faith as a “clearing of my metaphysical decks” with no inclination to start over.  If naturalism is accused by theists as being no better a metaphysics than supernaturalism, so be it. At least it’s more economical.

    This is way too long and self indulgent.

    Thanks John Dehlin for taking Mormon stories in this direction.  Thanks Dr. Nagel for putting this together.  I’d love to share reading lists with you.


    • Syphax May 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm - Reply

      Yes, as a matter of strict definitions, anytime you make a positive claim about what exists in reality and what doesn’t (natural, supernatural, forms, essences, matter, spirit, quantum wave functions, etc.), you are making a metaphysical claim.  There is an erroneous notion that naturalism is some kind of “default” metaphysics that doesn’t need arguments that support it – or even worse, that it’s not a metaphysics at all.  Reminds me of the saying that floats around philosophy message boards – “If you think you’re not doing philosophy, you’re probably just doing it very badly.”

      • JTurn May 6, 2012 at 6:09 pm - Reply


        Well, I hope that a life spent making educated guesses based on more or less carefully considered tentative and incomplete findings of methodological naturalism produces more joy than suffering, even if it means slipping up and doing some bad philosophy once and a while.  I’m counting on that being better than the years I spent under the spell of orthodox Mormon metaphysics.

        Thanks for your response.



  15. JamesNagel May 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm - Reply


    Just stating a new thread since the threads apparently squish down with each reply.

    “I am surprised that you would retreat into a crude sort of pragmatism, or throw “academic standards” under the bus so easily.”I was actually intending to use the word “academic” in the pejorative sense, as in “it’s all just academic in the end.”  Being an academic myself, I should probably have chosen my words more carefully.The point I was trying to make is that without some ultimate physical relevance, then anything you have to say is just a bunch of empty words.  Perhaps this is just the engineer in me biasing my perspective, but I see this sort of problem floating around in philosophical discussions all the time.  People spend hours debating back and forth about subtle nuances without ever bothering to ask how we would even measure the difference between the conclusions in the first place.  That is to say, it makes no physical difference whether you are right or wrong about something when there is literally NO PHYSICAL DIFFERENCE between the two outcomes.”You state that the ultimate challenge of an epistemology is to produce physical results.  WHY is that the ultimate challenge?  Because you say so?  Seems like a bold, (arbitrary) axiomatic assertion without a reason why this should be the case.  Where is the evidence that the truth of an epistemology should be determined by physical results?Because again, no one cares about your epistemology if it does not do anything.  It is not because I say so, but because anything less is literally just words spoken into the air for no reason.  For example, suppose you write an entire treatise on your ultimate standard for truth and knowledge.  You can even publish it in books and share it with scholars around the world.  But unless your ideas help us solve real problems with real, practical relevance, then who is going to care?  Maybe if your are lucky then a few professorly types will kick your ideas around for a while, but what reason do the rest of us have to even give them a second thought?  This is what I meant by the perjorative “academic” standard.  People kick ideas around all the time, but the only ones that survive are the ones that have actual influence.Think of it this way.  By definition, “knowledge” is nothing more than information, and information generally has no use whatsoever except in the context of decision making.  So unless your standard of knowledge allows us to modify our decision-making process in some way that produces more desirable consequences, then what is the point?  Who is going to care?”You’re saying that religion … should be evaluated in terms of sending people to space or finding cures for diseases, when those were never the objectives of religion to begin with nor is it the definition of “meaningfulness” that religion ever used.  Should poetry or music be evaluated in terms of curing diseases or building power plants?  

    Poetry and music do not ultimately ground themselves in making statements of knowledge about reality.  Poetry and music are merely tools designed to aid us in the expression of ideas (whether they happen to be right or wrong).  In the other hand, religions across all cultures base themselves on some general set of truth-claims about the world.  Converts are literally measured by the number of individuals who hold to a positive belief in those claims.  This places religious doctrine in the same boat as any other set of truth-claims you might encounter, and therfore subject to the same set of rules for sorting out the good from the bad.”Finally, you sound to me as if you are nit-picking my epistemological foundations rather than addressing any particular points of the video.  While I do love a good philosophical discussion, I should probably try to keep us on track with the original discussion about psychology and religion.  Please state again what exactly is your main beef with the conclusions we rendered in this interview.  Is religion a cultural phenomenon?  Is this fact relevant in your mind to the ultimate truth-claims of various religious denominations?

    • JamesNagel May 6, 2012 at 5:42 pm - Reply

      Argh… formatting errors.  No “edit” button!  :(

    • Syphax May 6, 2012 at 7:23 pm - Reply

      Your replies are good/sufficient for the questions I had.  I have time to briefly reply on a more personal note.  I do think religion is a cultural phenomenon inasmuch as it is an expression of the relations between sentient beings.  However, I don’t think this is as relevant to the truth-claims of those religions as you do.

      I don’t see “nitpicking” about “epistemological foundations” as detached from drawing the actual conclusions.  If you can’t show through some kind of logic or reason why uncovering the social origins/aspects of religion actually shows that they are not true, then I don’t see any reason why I should come to that conclusion.  Just like if someone shows me that history is in a sense a social construction (which it is), and that people are emotionally invested in history, and that they build their social identities with history, and that they want desperately to believe that some things in history actually happened, that really isn’t a reason by itself to reject historical events.  In fact it doesn’t have anything to do with determining the truth-value of historical events.  Now I’m not saying that determining the truth of history uses the same methods as determining whether there is a “ground of all being,” but it provides an analogue to religious historical events.

      And for me, if religion was only content-free dogmas about historical events or super space-beings or whatever, that would be one thing.  But when you have guys like Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, Averroes, Maimonides, al-Ghazali, etc. using metaphysical proofs to demonstrate the existence of something like God (some of whom – Aristotle and Plato among others – who certainly had no theological ax to grind), then suddenly you can’t just dismiss it all as some kind of social construction.  Once a philosopher like Aquinas throws down a gauntlet like the Summa, suddenly we’re not talking about cognitive dissonance theory or social identity, we are talking about the laws of reality itself and what they ultimately reflect, if anything.  And if (say) Aquinas’ proofs are right, then wouldn’t we expect a constructed reality in which the social influence/interaction/intuition/psychology that sentient beings operate in (all the stuff in your videos) would lead the majority of people to a belief in God?  God’s universe would reflect him, wouldn’t it?

      • JamesNagel May 7, 2012 at 5:21 pm - Reply

        “But when you have guys like Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, Averroes, Maimonides, al-Ghazali, etc. using metaphysical proofs to demonstrate the existence of something like God (some of whom – Aristotle and Plato among others – who certainly had no theological ax to grind), then suddenly you can’t just dismiss it all as some kind of social construction.”

        It almost sounds like I need to do a whole other podcast wherein we simply address every philosophical argument for God every written. I’ve spent a great deal of time studying these arguments myself, but tried to avoid spending too much time on them in this interview. I could personally go on for hours about all of the major popular ones. Hey John! Whaddya say? ;)

        Something else to think about is that many of the popular arguments for God are nothing more than glorified arguments based on either ignorance or perceptual bias. For example, a very common argument for God is the teleological argument (i.e., the “Watchmaker” Argument). The universe has the apparent features of “design,” so therefore there must be a “designer.” However, as we learned in Part 4 of this very podcast, we human beings tend to see design in virtually everything, even when it is a demonstrable fact that no design exists at all! We therefore cannot go around drawing conclusions from teleology when we know for a fact that such a concept is an intrinsically biased flaw in human perception. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, et al may be been smart guys, but they were still plagued by the same perceptual distortion that affect the rest of us.

        • Syphax May 8, 2012 at 8:49 am - Reply

          No offense, but I think if you really understood what Aquinas and Aristotle said about teleology (hundreds and thousands of years before Paley) you wouldn’t be quite so flippant about it. It’s about final causality. I have not yet seen a commentary anywhere that refutes final causality without question-begging.

        • Syphax May 8, 2012 at 9:25 am - Reply

          Tell you what – it’s easy and free to start a blog. Even if John doesn’t want to talk about the arguments for God’s existence (since actually Mormons don’t use them because most establish a very different conception of God than the Mormon one), I encourage you to start one. I’ll let my Thomist/Aristotelian friends know about it and we’ll have a conversation about arguments for God’s existence. I’m serious about this. I think it would be a learning experience – for both of us.

          • John Dehlin May 8, 2012 at 9:27 am

            I’d be happy to host a podcast discussion of this…as long as you guys can “bring it down” to the common folk in terms of your level of discourse. I think it would be awesome.

          • JamesNagel May 8, 2012 at 10:53 am

            I do have a cheap little blog set up already. I even have a rough draft of my own critique against the Moral Argument for God’s Existence. If you don’t mind waiting a few days I can put it all up and link it to you.

  16. JTurn May 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm - Reply

    It is very difficult to come to grips with all the quirks of human cognition that Dr. Nagel described as causing people to misattribute various perceptions to “spiritual” manifestations.  One reason that experimental psychology is required to expose these is because people are biologically incapable of introspecting the complex processing of all the independently operating brain circuits that control our bodies and produce our cognitions.  In other words, human cognition is mostly unconscious, including the cognitions that get collected, integrated and sent “up” to the conscious – which isn’t much.

    Dr. Nagel alluded to the role of the unconscious in the social psychological underpinnings of religious feelings and belief, but did not explore the full implications.  A ton of research during the last 20 years on the adaptive unconscious has overwhelmed Freudian speculations.  The extent to which we unconsciously select, interpret, evaluate, and set goals – i.e. perform high order cognitive tasks – has led one leading psychologist to describe consciousness as a mere “snowball on the tip of the unconscious iceberg [1]”.  Indeed, figuring out what’s left for consciousness to do is a tougher problem than analyzing unconscious functions. Some psychologists (and neurophilosophers) go so far as to propose that consciousness is an epiphenomenon.

    One example of our inability to introspect the working of our own minds is that we are intuitive dualists – we “feel” like we have this little homunculus, or “soul-self,” residing somewhere behind our eyes. Throughout history this has made it difficult to imagine ourselves winking out of existence (even though we experience it most nights).  And, notwithstanding some of Descartes’ brilliant work, his impoverished intuition about mind being independent of brain matter was dead wrong. There is no more reason to suppose that mind (conscious and unconscious) is anything more than a sustained dynamic pattern of electrochemical interactions than living things possess a vital force. The empirical evidence is found in the manipulation of conscious states through manipulation of the brain and through the study of lesions.

    There is a scene in my favorite movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou” in which the three main characters pick up the bluesman “Tommy Johnson” at a “cross-roads.”  Tommy describes how he sold his soul to the devil to play guitar the night before.  When a horrified Delmar asks him why Tommy answers, “I wasn’t doing anything with it.”  This is likely the reason why academic psychologists and psychiatrists are the least religious of any field.[2]


    [1] Wilson, Timothy D.  Strangers to Ourselves, Exploring the Adaptive Unconscious

    [2] https://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2009/05/psychologists-are-least-religious-of.html

  17. Paul Belfiglio May 6, 2012 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    I have only viewed Part One so I may be premature in my conclusions, but my impression so far is that the agenda of this podcast is to cast doubt on religious claims. It’s billed as “The Psychology of Religion” but it’s more like “The Polemics of Religion”. Perhaps this is a poor re-titling, but I trust you understand what I mean to some degree.

    To wit:

    On another website (about this podcast) I made a comment about the statement:

    “philosophers are a lot better at making claims about philosophical truths than psychologists.”

    Instead, to my way of thinking a more accurate statement would be: philosophers are a lot better at making philosophical claims than psychologists.

    It’s similar to avoiding the error of saying that science ‘proves’ or ‘has proven’ this or that.

    Okay. RE: science, of which Psychology is considered as such.

    I think it is more accurate to say that science ‘demonstrates’ or ‘has demonstrated’ that this or that ‘claim’ has valid merit (from a human being’s perspective).

    Someone may say that I am being too semantically rigid because science has most definitely proven a lot of things.  For example, that the earth is a round sphere and not a flat disk like most people used to claim.

    I would still rather think in terms that science hasn’t proven or disproven anything, even that the earth is a sphere because ***the earth is what it is notwithstanding what science or religion or philosophy affirms***. All that science has done is demonstrate what appears to be a sphere and not a flat disk from a normalistic, mortal human perspective. “What?!” you say, “That’s shooting way beyond the mark.”

    Well, I am not ***absolutely*** positive that the earth is a spherical rock ‘floating’ in ‘empty space’ in the sense that this IS the absolute TRUTH.  When I die, I no longer will be a physical human being or anything what I appear to be now. But let’s assume that there is life after life. If (a) you have had a personal, religious phenomenological experience, (b) you have read 15 or so books on NDEs, SDEs experiences (c) you have read works like Lynne McTaggart’s “The Field” etc, then there are plausible reasons to believe that we do in fact ‘survive’ death. In any event, what will I be and where will I be at that juncture in my existence — on a spherical rock floating in empty space? To my way of thinking, when I am in that state it is very plausible that I will ‘see’ or ‘perceive’ the earth that I lived ‘on’ in a totally different way, and not just the earth, but even ‘time’ or ‘space time’ as well. Maybe in that dimension (a higher one?) the earth and empty space, up and down, solid matter, energy, light, etc, is altogether a lot different than what we ever could have imagined let alone still affirm what we had at one time ‘proven’ to be ‘true’.

    This is why I retain the rational belief that many aspects of religion (not all) are just as valid as many aspects of science (not all). We are mere mortal, ephemeral, presumably sentient beings made of crude matter with limited perceptual capacities existing in a *perceived* three dimensional state (or more if you are someone like Étienne Ghys).  Nevertheless, I think there is a lot more ‘out there’ beyond us and about us than what we currently know, or think we (science) have ‘proven’ or even demonstrated. The scripture in Corinthians: “… Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them…” still gives me pause to wonder.

    So, this podcast is interesting and has valid merit pertaining to certain aspects with regard to the science of how we think, group think, etc, and perhaps even about how Mormonism ‘operates’ (for the lack of a better term) to a certain degree, but in no way does it prove or even adequately demonstrate religion(s) to be ‘false’. That’s very dogmatic and/or simplistic thinking.

    • JT May 17, 2012 at 6:03 am - Reply


      I think you’ll appreciate this lecture by Justin Barrett, a preeminent researcher in the field of the cognitive science of religion (CSR), but also a believing Christian. In this lecture he gives an excellent overview of CSR, but also discusses the issue you bring up here.

      He is also author of a short and accessible book on the subject: Why Would Anyone Believe in God? and includes a discussion of his faith position. He also has a new book out: Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief, which I have not read.



      • JT May 17, 2012 at 6:07 am - Reply

        Oops, forgot to paste the Justin Barrett Lecture link. Here it is

  18. CanuckAussie May 7, 2012 at 4:00 am - Reply

    John  – I loved this podcast. I learned a lot about how TBMs think, but also was forced to confront some of my own ways of thinking.  I was not convinced at all by the final tying together of all these concepts to totally explain away religion, but I can see some of the logic in much of it. Most of all though John, I loved your statements defending religion in the fourth podcast. That very much represents my own thoughts.  Humans, nature, the world and the universe are too complex to be explained away by random accident. I took too much probability and statistics in university to every believe that lame explanation. To believe that is a form of religion itself, but one that can be mathmatically proven to be impossible.   Like you , I think there is both beauty and utility in religion. Overall, I think religion has done more good than harm. I love the wonder and beauty of uncertainly that is outside of the 19th century farm-boy explanations. 

  19. Eric May 9, 2012 at 5:07 am - Reply

    Fantastic stuff! Keep it going!

  20. Jon May 11, 2012 at 9:35 am - Reply

    Interesting material. I think one thing that should have been mentioned is the religion of science, which is different from actual science itself. We must remember those who are doing science have personal beliefs and biases, when this is mixed with the state we tend to get pseudo-science. So we much approach science very skeptically also.

  21. JT May 17, 2012 at 6:21 am - Reply

    For anyone interested, here are two excellent review articles – just Google the titles, they can be downloaded as pdfs

    The Cognitive and Evolutionary Psychology of Religion, Joseph Bulbulia (2004)

    The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions, Scott Atran and Joseph Henrich (2010)

  22. Duwayne Anderson May 17, 2012 at 9:30 am - Reply

    This was, possibly, the best podcast I’ve listened to on Mormon Stories. Excellent, excellent work.

    If I may, I’d like to offer a couple of comments. I think it was during the fourth segment that there was a discussion about evolution selecting for religion. As I recall, the suggestion was made that religion is widespread and ubiquitous, and so evolution must have selected for religion; religion must have an evolutionary advantage, or it wouldn’t be so common. This is a common line of thinking that is based on a misconception of evolution, to the effect that every allele selected by evolution has only *positive* benefits for the organism. In fact, this is virtually never the case. Rather, evolutionarily selected alleles apply both positive and negative benefits to the organism, and evolution selects based on the *overall* benefit.

    Take, for example, the human brain. Compared with other mammals, the human brain is enormous. This enormous brain has very obvious benefits, but it *also* has significant disadvantages. Among the disadvantages includes the fact that human babies are born prematurely (relative to most mammals) and are helpless at birth, requiring many years of carful (and biologically expensive) rearing. Human babies are born prematurely because, otherwise, they could not exit the birth canal. Even with our premature births, mothers experience extreme pain and there is a relatively high maternal death rate during the birthing process. It would be a mistake to suggest that birth pains (more ubiquitous than religion, even) have been “selected” by evolution. Rather, large brains should be seen as having advantages (tool making, for example) and disadvantages (high maternal mortality rate, for example) with the advantages outweighing the disadvantages. Thus (since evolution selects on the basis of overall benefit) we have large brains in spite of the fact that our large brains entail several serious disadvantages.

    The same can be said of religion. The podcast did an excellent job of showing how religion is an emergent feature, arising because of half-a-dozen (or so) characteristics of our brains. Our brains are good at finding faces, they anthropomorphize, the brains of children are very adept at following authority, etc. All these evolved characteristics have obvious survival advantages outside the scope of religion. But it is a fallacy to assume that there are no *disadvantages* associated with them, and, in fact, the podcast did an excellent job of illustrating those disadvantages. Within this context, religion certainly can (and, I think, *should*) be viewed as one of the disadvantages of the way our brains work – a disadvantage that is out-weighted by the advantages. Thus, one can expect religion to be as ubiquitous and the pains of child birth, and as dangerous to the species, yet still be the product of evolution simply because the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

    • JT May 17, 2012 at 10:18 am - Reply

      Duwayne Anderson

      Indeed, there is some interesting work being done on the evolutionary origins of religion. In addition to the evolutionary psychology/cognitive science angle I referenced earlier (articles by Bulbulia and Atran/Henrich and video lecture by Barrett, Jared Diamond (of Guns, Germs and Steel fame) presents it from the anthropological/cultural angle.




      • Duwayne Anderson May 17, 2012 at 10:55 am - Reply

        I think there’s little doubt that religion arises as a result of evolution. In fact, I thought Dr. Nagel demonstrated the point rather well. Simply put, religion is an emergent property that results from several evolutionarily selected traits.

        But that theory of origin for religion doesn’t mean that religion itself is beneficial to the species, because it’s possible for emergent properties to have a deleterious effect on the species,and still be selected by evolution, provided the advantages of the traits (that give rise to the emergent property) have advantages that outweigh the disadvantages (of the emergent property).

        This point was made rather nicely by Dr. Dawkins https://godbegone.blogspot.com/2008/09/evolutionary-origin-of-religion.html

        Thus, one must show more than an evolutionary origin for a trait in order to show that the trait is beneficial to the species.

        • JT May 22, 2012 at 10:05 am - Reply

          Some aspects of religion may be adaptive, others not, and this depends on the environment (including cultural).

          David Sloan Wilson has a nice overview of the different levels of selection and the issues of genetic and cultural evolution and adaptation vs. nonadapatation. He broadens the concept by talking about the evolution of “Meaning Systems.”

          See particularly about 29 minutes into the video below.

          I agree that evolution is the best way to account for religion but the story is complex and still much be worked out. It’s a young field of research, but is making great strides.


          Consider also Wilson’s website “Evolutionary Religious Studies.”


          • Duwayne Anderson May 22, 2012 at 10:55 am

            Thanks for your note, and the links.

            I agree that religion is a consequence of evolution. I don’t think anyone really disagrees with that. I believe that conclusion as one of the obvious outcomes from the podcast.

            I also agree completely that “some aspects of religion” are adaptive.

            I think our point of disagreement (if we have any) is with regard to timing. I would argue that the major “adaptive” components of religion evolved before religion, and independently of religion.

            For example, I would posit that things like face recognition, deference to parental/societal authority, pattern recognition, belief/memory, etc. all evolved (substantially)before religion, because they have evolutionary value. These evolved traits then became important later components in the evolution of religion.

            I would argue (and, I think, the archeological evidence supports this) that religion was a relatively late development (on an evolutionary time scale) that developed *out* of those earlier adaptive properties.

            Within that context, it is completely possible that religion has overall *negative* evolutionary value, and that it only survived (evolutionarily speaking) because the advantages of its adaptive components (which evolved first) have enough value to compensate for the negative values of religion.

            Of course, all this presupposes that we even have a common agreement on what religion is. Some might water down religion to the notion of simple community. That’s not what I’m talking about — I’m speaking more specifically about authoritarian systems built around a deity. I would agree that community is an adaptive property that was probably well established in our species well before we came down from the trees and learned to walk erect across the great rift valley — and well before our early ancestors had developed any conceptual idea of a “god.”

        • JT May 23, 2012 at 11:48 am - Reply

          Thanks Duwayne,

          We’re on the same page – no disagreement in the timing either (I’m referring to your last comment, which ran out of room direct reply).

          Jared Diamond (I think – see video above) talks about the co-evolution of theism with the structure of human societies – from hunter-gather groups to chiefdoms to nation states. Monotheism is a late development. This holds for the “religions” found among existing primitive societies.



    • James Nagel May 17, 2012 at 2:31 pm - Reply

      “evolutionarily selected alleles apply both positive and negative benefits to the organism, and evolution selects based on the *overall* benefit.”

      That is a great description. Well said.

  23. Stuart Jensen May 21, 2012 at 11:29 am - Reply

    I enjoyed the podcast. Thank you.

    One question. It seems to me that one could argue that God “created” us and thus “instilled” in us these innate behaviors that might “lead us back” to him. Has that argument had any traction?

    Background: I work as a systems engineer and I understand the axiom that a good system “administers” itself. If I were creating a world, I would create as many “automated” aspects as I could. Prayer, for example, is a construct that works as advertised even if nobody is listening. Near death experiences are scientifically explained as brain functions during the death process, but provide a “spiritual” experience. So is it possible to argue that our built-in tendencies, as explained in this podcast, could be explained through simple scientific evolution and/or through a more divine creation. Any comments?

    • Duwayne Anderson May 22, 2012 at 7:35 am - Reply

      I think a good scientist would listen to that explanation, and then ask you to explain how it might be scientifically tested. Specifically, what experiment or test might be applied that would be capable, in principle, of falsifying that explanation?

    • JamesNagel May 22, 2012 at 10:01 am - Reply

      I’ve heard similar arguments before about how maybe this sense of cognitive bias is just God’s way trying to get us to believe in him more readily. But then you have to wonder a few things:

      1) This stuff works to make you believe in just about anything. What does it mean when Pentecostals use the same tricks to speak in tongues? Or when Mennonites live without electricity? Or when people claim to get abducted by UFOs? The same standard of evidence cannot be used to arrive at completely different conclusions.

      2) If God is going to hard-wire your brain into doing things, then what does this say about free will?

      3) What does this say about a God who should theoretically want to make his mechanism “idiot proof?” Consider that if the LDS faith is true, then 98% of the world is exploiting God’s telepathic broadcast for their own misguided ends. Can’t God maybe insert some kind of failsafe for this?

    • JT May 22, 2012 at 10:16 am - Reply

      Justin Barrett, makes this type of argument. This guy is a leading scientist in the field of the cognitive science of religion and he pulls no punches – he works from a naturalistic evolutionary framework. And yet, he is a believing Christian – though seemingly far from dogmatic. I referenced a lecture of his above in which he goes into his apologetic – a sort of compatibilist (non)argument. I too would also recognize such a position as not falsifiable (and therefore not scientific). Personally that puts it in the realm of faith/wishful thinking. Barrett claims it is a reasonable position, which I question. I say, if you are going to have faith in the existence God, just own it and stop trying to bolster it with untestable hypotheses.

      • JT May 22, 2012 at 10:18 am - Reply

        And even if it were a good argument, to then connect that dot with the particular flavor of you happened to grow up with or adpot … well, let’s say that a whole other problem.

  24. Zara June 5, 2012 at 1:19 am - Reply

    Fantastic podcast! Any thoughts about our need for a Satan figure? I’d be interested in some of the mythology implications, and how certain figures, such as angels and demons and saviors and angry/jealous deities, fulfill certain human psychological needs. Why do we respond to, and for some, even seem to crave, the dose of guilt that comes from some of these myths? Why do we seem to need to believe in our inherent sinfulness?

  25. Larry Ballard March 14, 2019 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    Just finished #3. Fantastic graphics. Time has been spent in formulating and compiling a syllogistic chain of reasoning leading to several graphics that verge on hieroglyphic. I was leavened regarding the actual hearing of voices not just being limited to schizophrenia by reading Julian Jaynes book The Origin of Consciousness In The Bicameral Mind in which he gives an historical and somewhat philosophical thesis regarding the evolutionary process of the mass mind moving and developing. This work is monumental. An aspect of scientifically attaining “truth” and “reality” has to do with understanding the moral-science of Natural Law. Science without moral consideration is incomplete. I have a page on Natural Law on my web page Agenda21InUtahCounty.com.

  26. Larry Ballard March 14, 2019 at 11:30 pm - Reply


    After listening to the last in this series, I would suggest that there is a simple sequence and flowing balance between the above aspects of the self in action that can afford a better chance to find truth and reality over lies and illusion. Thoughts must be open, objective, scientific based on a logical thought process. Few of us have been taught Cicero’s Trivium and Quadrivium methodologies from our youth. We live in a “dumbed down” society within an outcome based educational system that is woefully deficient in giving us the proper tools for thought. Emotion is there to endorse proper thinking and should drive our actions in in an individual determination that leads towards adherence to Natural Law. If feelings precede thoughts, we run the risk of being imprinted with an erroneous dying of the mind and heart. Feelings should never be shy of further scrutiny. The greatest issue with humankind is that so many are unwilling to admit that they could be wrong. I won’t go on. Just some thoughts. This has been an exceptional series. Thanks again.

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