Jun 20 2016

Re-Religionization: Secularization Can’t Stop Human Nature

Category: books,cosmology,Evolution,parenting,religion,scienceJames @ 2:35 pm

Summary: Religiosity is an inescapable part of human nature. Secularization won’t—can’t—overcome it. Instead, the growing trend of secularization has just led those professing no religion to express their innate religious natures in sub-optimal, ill-thought-out, ad hoc ways. My book, The Triple Path, offers a better alternative that integrates our modern scientific understanding of the world with the wisdom of the world’s great religions.

I just finished reading Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions by Catherine Bell. It is an academic work surveying the field of ritual studies, describing the role rituals play in human existence, and discussing the various types of rituals. I found particularly interesting this passage analyzing the causes and consequences of secularization in society:


“A more moderate position suggests that secularization is neither a linear developmental process that spells the demise of religion nor a mere interpretive bias on the part of Western scholars. Rather, it can be seen as a type of self-limiting process at work in all ongoing religious systems both ancient and modern. It is self-limiting because it can stimulate religious revival and innovation. As such, secularism may result from some critical degree of contact with different cultures—afforded by travel, conquest, immigration, or competition with neighbors for access to limited resources. If the exposure to plurality—that is, to other value systems and alternative forms of social organization—is intense and sustained or occurs at times of internal social chaos, it can begin to undermine the coherent sense of a unifying order that underlies a traditional society. Some people opt for new and foreign ways of doing things, especially if they are not the ones benefiting from the old ways. People have choices they never had before, whether they want them or not. The mere existence of choices among ways of thinking and acting relativizes what was once deemed absolute, raises questions, necessitates decisions, and promotes experimentation. In this context, some groups become more defensive of tradition, attempting to shun all new options while preserving the old without any change whatsoever. They may even attempt to ignore or retreat from the world around them. Yet older customs strictly maintained in the face of change do not function the way they used to, when they never needed to be asserted and defended. As a society tries to hold together increasingly diverse points of view, one effect is the institutional differentiation that comes with secularism. For example, as Catholics and Jews moved into small, traditionally Protestant New England towns and claimed their rights as full citizens, the explicit and implicit role of Protestantism in the fabric of the town’s social and economic activities was forced to retreat. What was a loss for some was a gain for others. As a result there is a shift of religion from the public and communal sphere to the private and personal, leaving some institutions shorn of all involvement in religion, while others become more explicitly the bastion of religious practice, values, and even public outreach and political lobbying….[A] view of secularism as a theory of institutional differentiation precipitated by the force of pluralism has come to dominate, in part because it recognizes that religion does not die out in secular cultures. On the contrary, in the form of autonomous institutions, religion may have a much sharper profile, it may demand more personal commitment, and it may even exercise more single-minded influence on other institutions.”

Secularization doesn’t mean the end of religion, as some fear. But it does create winners and losers and changes the nature of religion and its role in society.


The key phrase in the passage is that secularization “is self-limiting because it can stimulate religious revival and innovation.” The Second Great Awakening is a great example of this—America’s Founding Fathers were mostly Deists who disbelieved in many parts of Christianity and weren’t big on organized religion. But the next generation after them brought the Second Great Awakening, a period of great religious fervor and religious innovation. Something similar will happen in response to the current trend of secularization.

Some anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists point to cultural universals that are found in every human culture, and which appear to be an innate part of human nature (and thus a part of nature rather than nurture). For example, in every culture on Earth, humans speak languages to communicate and use personal names to identify themselves. Religion is another one of those cultural universals. It is found in every human society on earth.

The current trend of secularization won’t change human nature and eliminate religion, just like if a group decided to give up using language it wouldn’t eliminate language in future generations. If a group did that, refusing to teach language to their children, the kids would end up inventing their own language. In fact, this has happened among deaf children growing up in countries where a sign language wasn’t taught—when deaf children were brought together in an institution for the deaf, even though no one taught any language to them, they naturally and spontaneously invented their own sign language to be able to communicate with each other. Similar things happen when kids who speak different languages are all brought together (say, because their parents are migrant workers)—they invent a new creole language to communicate.

Something similar is inevitable with religion. Even with the growing trend of secularization, even if parents refuse to teach any religion to their kids, religiosity and religion will still continue in some form. It may be transformed (either in content or in its role in society), but you can’t change human nature.

It hasn’t even taken one generation for this process of re-religionization of secular people to already start happening. Among the “nones” who claim no religious affiliation, you can see a lot of quasi-religious behaviors about taboos and orthodoxies and sacralization of values. This haphazard, unconscious re-religionization of their lives often leads to suboptimal results. More often than not, they invent bizarre values to make sacred and barren orthodoxies devoid of much content and that fail to provide any deep, long-lasting meaning to their lives.

On the other hand, my book—The Triple Path—methodically and consciously sifts out the best parts of the world’s religions and puts them together into something new that provides a coherent, credible response to the secularizing pressures of our modern age, something that can allow religion to thrive again in our modern era. It’s a free download. Go read it.Front cover_smallest-EBOOK

Jun 06 2014

Read my new book!

I’ve written a book summarizing my thoughts on life, truth, morality, and religion. About half of the book contains material from this blog (revised, re-written, and greatly improved), while the other half is new material never released before. The book is called The Triple Path. You can download it here (available in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, or mobi format).

Aug 03 2011

Do It Yourself Genetics

Category: Brazil,Evolution,genetics,multiculturalismJames @ 5:05 pm

A new industry of direct-to-consumer genetic tests is springing up which let you get information about your ancestry and genetic traits. For Christmas, I ordered a test from 23andme. I’ve discovered interesting information about my health (such as that I am unlikely to get Parkinson’s disease when I get old) and my ancestry.

The ancestry part of it has been particularly fascinating, given my mixed ethnic background (my mom is Brazilian, and Brazil is a real melting pot of races and cultures). The first interesting thing that I discovered is that my mitochondrial DNA is from the L3 haplogroup, which means that four or five hundred years ago, my direct maternal ancestor was probably living in what is now Mozambique, and she was almost certainly brought to Brazil as a slave — it has been interesting to get little bits of information about my ancestors that I never could have known before. The 23andme data also showed that I had some indigenous ancestry as well (listed as “Asian” in 23andme’s results, but Native American DNA shows up as Asian, since Native Americans are descendants of Asians who came across the Bering Strait ).

The Dodecad Project is an online project which collects and analyzes samples of people who have done tests from places like 23andme. They have just released a tool which you can use to analyze your 23andme data to get an idea about the percentages of admixture from 12 different ancestral groups in your own genotype. It is an interesting way to get an idea about where your ancestors came from.

Here are my results from the tool:

East_European                 11.17%
West_European                42.00%
Mediterranean                  28.65%
Neo_African                    1.02%
West_Asian                     7.05%
South_Asian                    0.88%
Northeast_Asian               2.16%
Southeast_Asian               1.71%
East_African                    0.39%
Southwest_Asian              1.92%
Northwest_African           2.78%
Palaeo_African                 0.27%

As you can see, I’m mostly European / Mediterranean, with added admixture of a little bit of everything else. I wonder if the Northwest African / West Asian / Southwest Asian indicate some Moorish ancestry from my Portuguese ancestors who moved to Brazil.

I can’t wait until it is cheap enough for anyone who wants to sequence their entire genome. Until then, all of these tools are very interesting indeed.

May 06 2011

Judging by appearances: sometimes it works

Category: Evolution,Evolutionary Psychology,law,policy,PsychologyJames @ 7:37 am

We’ve all heard that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But a recent psychology study indicates that we may be able to make accurate judgments about certain aspects of people’s character “after minimal exposure to [their] physical appearance.” The study is titled “The Accuracy of Inferences About Criminality Based on Facial Appearance”1 and was performed by Jeffrey M. Valla, Stephen J. Ceci, and Wendy M. Williams of Cornell University and published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology.

I learned about it from a blog post by Satoshi Kanazawa titled Criminals Look Different From Noncriminals.2 Kanazawa says the following about the study:

[C]ontrary to popular belief, you can assess people’s character and personality by simply looking at them. Nice people look nice, and nasty people look nasty, and it appears that humans have innate psychological mechanisms to tell them apart. Now, . . . a truly groundbreaking study, recently published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology . . . show[s] that people can tell criminals and noncriminals apart simply by looking at their still photos. Criminals, it appears, look different from noncriminals.

In their experiments, [they] show pictures of the faces of 32 young Caucasian men in their 20s, without scars, tattoos or excessive facial hair, all in neutral expressions. Sixteen of them are convicted criminals, and the other sixteen are not. . . . [They] ask their experimental participants to indicate how likely they think it is that each man is a certain type of criminal . . . on a 7-point scale . . . .Their results from two experiments consistently show that individuals can tell who is a criminal and who is not, by indicating that they believe the actual criminals have higher probability of being a criminal than actual noncriminals.

However, their results also show that individuals cannot tell what type of criminals they are. . . . [C]riminals do not specialize. Men who commit one type of crimes are more likely to commit other types of crimes. . . . In empirical reality, there are men who commit (all types of) crimes, and there are men who do not. And Valla et al.’s experiments show that individuals can tell them apart because the two types of men look different.

There is one seemingly anomalous finding in their paper. In both experiments, women are unable to spot rapists. Women consistently rate convicted rapists to be less likely to be criminal than not only other types of criminals but noncriminals as well! While this may be initially puzzling, upon further reflection, it makes perfect sense. . . . In order to be a successful rapist, the man has to be able to fool the woman and earn her trust initially. Men who ‘fit the bill’ by looking like a rapist or otherwise criminal and dangerous would not be able to do that. They would not be able to get close enough to the women to rape them. This may be why women, but not men, are unable to spot rapists, even though women are equally good as men at spotting other types of criminals.

The photos and answer key are at the bottom of this post. Test yourself and see how well you do. My average rating for a non-criminal was 3.625, whereas my average rating for the criminals was 5.125. As the averages indicate, I was able to correctly categorize the faces most of the time.

Of course, there are other possible explanations why study subjects were able to differentiate between criminals and non-criminals. The sample size of people rating the photos was small (44 people), and as with many psychology studies, the study subjects who were rating the photos were college students, and were thus not a representative sample of the American public, let alone of humanity. Also, there may be subtle differences between the photos. Since the non-criminal photos were all taken as part of the same photo database; the offender photos appear to be mugshots from criminal offender databases. It could be that people were picking up on subtle cues stemming from the photos’ different origins, such as the quality of the photo, different lighting, different cameras, etc. The authors tried to measure and eliminate these extraneous factors. They asked the study participants if they thought it was obvious that certain photos were mugshots; none of the participants thought so. The authors of the study also tried to equalize the photos by removing the background and editing the photos to “maintain a consistent photo quality, and remove differences in lighting, graininess, photo quality, etc.” They also controlled for the level of attractiveness for each person.

It seems that the study authors tried to do all they could to account for all of the extraneous factors to remove, or control for, possible reasons for bias. I’d like to see the results of more studies like this to find out if they yield consistent results (the authors do cite a few old studies which had similar results). This study, though, at least offers some compelling results which we should consider.

I disagree with Kanazawa’s summary of the study when he makes the absolutist statement that “[n]ice people look nice, and nasty people look nasty, and it appears that humans have innate psychological mechanisms to tell them apart.” I had false positives and false negatives. I rated 6 of the 16 non-criminals as looking like they were criminals (meaning I gave them a rating of 5 or higher, on the 7-point scale); I also rated two of the non-criminals as neutral (a 4 on the 7 point scale), meaning that I thought it was equally likely they could be criminal or non-criminal. I rated two of the criminals as looking like they were non-criminal (rating them  a 3 or lower on the scale), and one criminal as being neutral. I identified all of the rapists as looking criminal. Taking the null hypothesis3 to be that a person is a non-criminal, I had therefore had 6 false positives and 2 false negatives.

Presumably, the evolutionary psychological explanation for our ability to categorize people by appearance is that our capacity to make visual distinctions between the criminals and non-criminals evolved so that we can protect ourselves. People with criminal tendencies pose a greater threat to our safety. We will thus naturally be more wary of someone who we suspect of having criminal tendencies, and take extra steps to protect ourselves. It makes sense, then, that that sort of capacity to differentiate would be biased in favor of false positives — protecting oneself from being harmed by a criminal would confer a greater evolutionary benefit than falsely believing someone to be a criminal since the harm from being victimized by a criminal would be more likely to cause death or serious injury than wrongly believing a non-criminal  to be a criminal. Since death or serious injury at the hands of a criminal would make it difficult or impossible to pass on one’s genes to the next generation, a capacity to tell the difference between criminals and non-criminals would likely evolve in favor of making false positives rather than false negatives.

What are the implications for this research? In day-to-day life, it probably means that you should put greater trust in your visual evaluation of someone’s danger to you. It also means that women shouldn’t trust their ability to tell whether a man poses a risk of sexually assaulting them, and take precautions accordingly.

More importantly, it means that juries in criminal trials are probably subconsciously biased against men who look “criminal.” It is difficult to remove such cognitive biases that are rooted in our biology and evolutionary history. Remember that in my case I incorrectly judged over one-third of the non-criminals to be criminal. Innocent people shouldn’t go to jail just because they look like a criminal. I think that one of the big implications for this research is that we need to study how we can make changes to the criminal justice system to make sure that juries aren’t unfairly prejudiced against defendants just because they look criminal.

And now, here are the pictures for you to rate yourself. Rate each person on a 1 to 7 scale, with  1 being people who look the least criminal and 7 being people who look the most criminal. The answer key is at the end. If you try it yourself, please post in the comments 1) your average rating for non-criminals vs. criminals; 2) how many false positives and false negatives you had; 3) whether you classified the rapists as looking criminal or not.


Answer key:
Non-Criminal: 1, 2, 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 22, 25, 26, 30;
Criminal: Arson – 5, 10, 16, 20; Assault – 4, 24, 27, 28; Drug Dealing – 8, 11, 21, 29; Rape – 3, 23, 31, 32


The images and answer key come from Jeffrey M. Valla, Stephen J. Ceci, and Wendy M. Williams, “The Accuracy of Inferences About Criminality Based on Facial Appearance,” Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. They are reproduced in conformity with  the fair use exception in U.S. copyright law, 17 U.S.C. § 107.



1 Jeffrey M. Valla, Stephen J. Ceci, and Wendy M. Williams, “The Accuracy of Inferences About Criminality Based on Facial Appearance,” Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology