Turning to God for reassurance in the face of wonder

‘Agency detection’ – seeing purposeful minds at work behind seemingly random events – is a powerful human instinct that is thought to play an important role in the generation of religious beliefs.

There’s quite a body of research that shows that a persons ‘agency detection’ can be turned up in circumstances where they are made to feel uncertain or confused. Piercarlo Valdesolo (Claremont McKenna College, USA ) and Jesse Graham (University of Southern California) reckoned that giving people a sense of awe might just unsettle them enough to start detecting agents at work in the world around them.

They ran a series of experiments, all of which involved showing their subjects videos that induced feelings of awe or other emotional states.

For example, to induce awe they showed a dramatic footage from the BBC nature documentary ‘Planet Earth’ or (just in case ‘Planet Earth’ made people think of God, rather than awe) an advert for an LCD TV with amazing imagery, such as waterfalls tumbling through city streets.

As controls, they showed a light-hearted BBC nature documentary (Walk on the Wild Side) or, bizarrely, a 1959 interview conducted by Mike Wallace (this latter was expected to induce zero emotional reaction).

In some experiments, they then simply asked directly about their subjects' belief in supernatural control. In others, to ensure that they were measuring agency detection rather than belief in god, they showed their subjects series of random numbers and asked them to pick out the ones that had been put together by humans rather than computer (none of them had been).

What they found, repeatedly, was that watching an awe-inspiring video increased the tendency to see agents at work. So, for example, they were more likely to believe that the strings of random numbers had been put together by humans (see Figure).

They also measured their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty “I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life”. What they found was that watching the awe-inspiring videos did indeed increase their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty.

Watching these videos also affected other emotions (like joy, contentedness, and gratitude). But, running a statistical approach known as ‘mediation analysis’, they found that the balance of probabilities strongly suggested that awe increase agency detection both directly and through increasing intolerance of uncertainty.

They point out an interesting observation from other studies. It seems that in individuals who are prone to feelings of awe , this emotion doesn’t trigger intolerance of uncertainty. If you feel awe a lot, you get used to its effects.

And this lead them to conclude that what they unveiled here is a short-term, immediate response to awe-inspiring events:

Although the chronic relation between experiences of awe and uncertainty tolerance (Shiota et al., 2007) suggests that uncertainty tolerance can be strengthened over time, the present results suggest that in the moment of awe, some of the fear and trembling can be mitigated by perceiving an author’s hand in the experience

Valdesolo P, & Graham J (2014). Awe, uncertainty, and agency detection. Psychological science, 25 (1), 170-8 PMID: 24247728

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Atlas Shrugged: Publish or Perish

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter I The last few industrialists of Colorado are disappearing, and the John Galt Line has been reduced to mostly-empty trains pulled by rickety, coal-burning locomotives. Having run out of leads in her quest for the magic motor, Dagny has finally resorted to contacting Robert Stadler. He comes to New York [Read More...]

American lawmakers are sabotaging their own Constitution

A new law in Mississippi will give businesses the right to refuse to serve people on religious grounds. It's a clear violation of the US First Amendment, says Ralph Jones

Public overwhelmingly agrees that ‘faith’ schools should teach sex education and not teach creationism

A new YouGov survey for the Jewish Chronicle has found the vast majority of the public agreeing that state-funded ‘faith’ schools should not ‘be allowed to refrain from any form of sex education in lessons’ (82% to 9%), and disagreeing with ‘the idea that faith schools should be allowed to teach creationism — “that the world was created in broadly its present form by God”’ (67% to 18%). The British Humanist Association (BHA) has welcomed the findings of the survey, which has been conducted in the wake of Ofqual and awarding bodies together agreeing that no school should be allowed to censor exam questions for religious reasons. Last year Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School, a state funded Charedi school in Hackney, was found to have censored GCSE science questions.

BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson commented, ‘We welcome the findings of this survey, reflecting the view that this is not a question of religious freedom but of the fundamental right, as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, of young people to basic knowledge about science. Evolution is overwhelmingly supported by the scientific consensus, with huge amounts of evidence in support of it and no reliable evidence against it. It is a central topic in biology and is core to understanding how humankind came to be.

‘Similarly, it is vital that every young person receives full and comprehensive sex and relationships education as the evidence shows that it is this that leads to the best outcomes in terms of sexual health, consent, and preventing unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Sex education does not make young people more promiscuous, but simply ensures that when people have sex it is more likely to be safe and consensual. Those who oppose such education are in fact achieving the opposite of what they hope to.’


For further comment or information, please contact Richy Thompson at richy@humanism.org.uk or on 020 7324 3072.

Read the Jewish Chronicle’s article: http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/117450/faith-schools-must-teach-sex-say-82

Read the ‘Teach evolution, not creationism!’ statement, coordinated by the BHA, from 30 scientists including Sir David Attenborough, Professor Richard Dawkins, Sir Paul Nurse and Professor Michael Reiss, the Association for Science Education, the British Science Association, the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Ekklesia at http://evolutionnotcreationism.org.uk/

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on countering creationism: http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-schools/countering-creationism

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on sex and relationships education: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/school-curriculum/pshe-and-sex-and-relationships-education/

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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The Qur’an’s Extra Apostrophe

Quran_ApostropheMany English readers’ will pause when reading the title of this post thinking there is a mistaken apostrophe. But as many of you know, the vogue way of spelling “the Koran” has become “the Qur’an” so two apostrophes are needed.  For though English does not allow non-possesive apostrophes we use them occasionally when transliterating words from other languages, in this case Arabic. But what the heck does the apostrophe do for pronouncing “the Qur’an”?

My diagram above shows the breakdown of the Arabic letters in the phrase “the Qur’an”. Arabic reads right to left and omits some vowels in common writing — here, the “u”. Many Arabic sounds (phonemes) are different than English sounds and thus can be transliterated in a variety of fashions.  There is not standard transliteration system: here is a list of the main ones.  Due to these complications, several common Roman spelling permutations can be seen for any given word. I grew up with “the Koran” as the standard spelling. You can see in the below google ngram that “Qur’an” is actually a new popular spelling and with this has come a change of pronunciation.  In my day, we pronounced Koran as “core – an”, but for Qur’an, the “o” was changed to a “u” and the sound is more accurate.  The “a” was kept, but is no longer the “a” in apple (or “an”) but is pronounced like the “a” in “father”.  However, the “a” in “apple” actually sounds closer to the Arabic on google translate (you tell me). And though the K became a Q, it is merely a cosmetic change with no one attempting the real lingual-glottal intended with the Q. But almost no English speaker will attempt true glottal Q least best they be thought a snob or at worse laughed at.   I am not an Arabic speaker, so corrections are welcome.


The apostrophe is called the maddah and signals a glottal stop and lengthening of the “a” and thus those permutations in spelling where the “a” is doubled (“aa”) or has a long mark over it (“ā”).  So the new Romanization, “Qur’an”, tells us a bit more about the actual underlying Arabic orthographics, but is correct pronunciation important?

Actually, the pronunciation of “al-Qur’an” even varies between dialects of Arabic. So who cares if we don’t do it right, for there is no real “right”.  Below I list the top Arabic dialects in order of number of speakers:

  • Egyptian – 50 million
  • Algerian – 22 million
  • Moroccan/Maghrebi – 19.5 million
  • Sudanese – 19 million
  • Saidi – 19 million, spoken by some people in Egypt
  • North Levantine – 15 million, spoken in Lebanon and Syria
  • Mesopotamian – 14 million, spoken in Iraq, Iran and Syria
  • Najdi – 10 million spoken in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria

Between the pronunciations differences and these varieties of romanizations options, what is the right way to spell, “the Qur’an” in English? Well, like the myth of definitions, spellings change and are not stable or fixed except by particular groups. If you wish, you can arbitrarily choose an authority to prescribe a spelling for you: Webster’s Dictionary, The Chicago Manual of Style, The New York Times Style book, the Associated Press Stylebook.  But even their prescriptions will change over time.

The masses may not have power over much, but they certainly do over language — the only place where democracy rules.


How do you spend your days when you’re an ex-pope?

Book review: The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

If your Nordic knowledge is limited to ABBA, snow and Vikings, read this book, says Anna Vesterinen

Book review: Zealot by Reza Aslan

David Cameron should stop playing politics with religion

My impression of a blank profile picture.

My impression of a blank profile picture.

Hop into your ship of the imagination. #OGCosmos #CarlSagan

Hop into your ship of the imagination. #OGCosmos #CarlSagan

Another piece by Kseniya Simonova titled “Epic...

Another piece by Kseniya Simonova titled “Epic China”



Kseniya Simonova’s 2013 Sand Art film, Beautiful...

Kseniya Simonova’s 2013 Sand Art film, Beautiful Morocco

Stop what you’re doing and watch this now!

It’s always refreshing to see something new, innovative and creative. It’s even better when it’s as stunningly beautiful and captivating as Kseniya Simonova’s sand art. 

Sand and light. What an incredible medium for art. I think what I really find interesting about this medium it’s so fleeting. It’s not something you can hang up on a wall and display forever. Sand’s form, like water, is dependent on the circumstances of the moment. A simple gust of wind can destroy the work forever. And Simonova’s control over such a malleable substance is outstanding. 



Religious Education teachers invited to day conference on including non-religious perspectives

The British Humanist Association (BHA) is presenting a free day conference for teachers on exploring Humanism and non-religious perspectives within Religious Education (RE) lessons.

The professional conference is designed to increase the confidence of RE teachers, head teachers, Local Authority advisors and subject specialists in planning and delivering RE lessons which include humanist perspectives.

Confirmed speakers for the event include Dr Mark Charter of Culham St. Gabriel’s Trust speaking on the national picture of RE, Beth Stillings Cohen and Saara Quested from 3FF (Three Faiths Forum) speaking about the ways to weave humanist perspectives into a rich and diverse RE curriculum, and Local Authority RE Advisor Nora Leonard speaking on local support for teachers and the development of agreed syllabuses.

Head of Education and Promotion at the BHA, Sara Passmore, said, ‘We are seeing an increasing demand for high-quality resources and professional support from RE teachers who want to ensure that RE is broad and balanced, and reflects the range of beliefs in our society. Many teachers recognise the importance of teaching Humanism alongside religions within RE, but need training and support to confidently include Humanism in lessons.

‘This conference is a first for the BHA, and is our way of supporting teachers. A growing majority of young people in Britain today are non-religious, and it’s important that they are able to explore their own beliefs and develop a moral and ethical framework which will adequately prepare them for adult life. Teachers who come to the conference will be able to hear directly about practical ideas and classroom activities which can improve pupils’ learning in RE, and how to deliver fully inclusive Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development (SMSC) for all young people.’

The conference will take place on Wednesday 16 July, from 10am to 4pm, at Conway Hall in central London. The event is supported by the Conway Hall Ethical Society. Registration is free at www.humanism.org.uk/REconference – book now to reserve your place.

For further comment, detail or information, contact Sara Passmore by email at sara@humanism.org.uk . Guests are encouraged to visit www.humanism.org.uk/REconference and register early to reserve their place at the conference.

Statistics on religion and belief and young people
The 2011 Census found 31% of 0-19 year olds having no religion, with a further 8% not stated; the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey records 65% of 18-24 year olds as not belonging to any religion; a 2004 Department for Education report found 65% of 12-19 year olds are not religious; and the 2003 Citizenship Survey found 46% of 11-15 year olds not having a religion (44% were Christian).

About the British Humanist Association
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

About our work in education
The British Humanist Association aims to ensure that Humanism is understood as an ethical and fulfilling non-religious approach to life involving a naturalistic view of the universe. Humanism has been included in Religious Education for over 50 years. We provide teachers with guidance and resources to help with planning lessons on Humanism at our dedicated website at humanismforschools.org.uk.

About Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development (SMSC)
The Department for Education’s statutory guidance National curriculum in England: framework for key stages 1 to 4 states that: Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based* and which:

  • promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society
  • prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life

However, ‘spiritual’ is a problematic word for non-religious people. ‘Spiritual’ development became established in the Education Reform Act 1988 as one of the essential components of the curriculum, and was further established in the Education Act of 1992 as part of ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural development’ (SMSC). The 1994 OFSTED Handbook stated that ‘spiritual’ was not synonymous with ‘religious,’ and this was further confirmed in OFSTED guidance in 2004.

About Conway Hall Ethical Society
Conway Hall is owned by Conway Hall Ethical Society and was first opened in 1929. The name was chosen in honour of Moncure Daniel Conway (1832 – 1907), anti-slavery advocate, out-spoken supporter of free thought and biographer of Thomas Paine.

The post Religious Education teachers invited to day conference on including non-religious perspectives appeared first on British Humanist Association.

On Retconning Biblical Violence

In 2009, I wrote “The Twisted Moral of Passover“, about how this major Jewish holiday is really a celebration of genocide: the mass killing of the Egyptian children that preceded the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery. (The very name of the holiday refers to how the Israelite slaves supposedly marked their doors with blood so that [Read More...]

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BHA President Jim Al-Khalili delivers 2014 Voltaire Lecture

The room was heaving in Conway Hall last night as British Humanist Association (BHA) President, physicist and broadcaster Professor Jim Al-Khalili gave this year’s Voltaire Lecture on the theme of ‘Lessons from the past: science and rationalism in medieval Islam.’ The lecture was chaired by his predecessor as President, and current BHA Vice President, the journalist Polly Toynbee.

Jim delivers Voltaire 2014

Jim took his audience on a tour of the medieval world and told the story of a golden age of science written in Arabic, and of famous scientists such as Ibn al-Haytham, whom he declared stood alongside Archimedes and Sir Isaac Newton as one of  history’s three greatest physicists.

Early Baghdad, and the Arab World at large, he explained, was a place of deep and rigorous learning at a time when Europe was in the Dark Ages. The contributions of its many scholars were well known then around Europe; but their legacies have not been well remembered in the West, or indeed in the Arab World.

Jim explained that in many cases, the West was later to rediscover many scientific developments first understood by scientists writing in Arabic, including the scientific method itself, which would be formulated once again by European Renaissance scholars some centuries later.

He also set out to look at why the Islamic world today produced so few scientists compared to the West, and which factors contributed to this, showing that Muslim countries have fewer than 10 scientists per 1000 of the population, compared to 140 out of 1000 for the developed world. He ended his lecture with a positive reflection on what appeared to be signs that the Arab World was shaking off its modern suspicions of science, and that scientists were once again beginning to flourish in the Middle East, albeit in isolated bubbles of academia.

In the Q&A session which followed, notable questions from the floor touched on whether limits placed upon the role of women has influenced the decline of science in Muslim countries, and how close scholars in the medieval Arab World came to approaching a theory of natural selection.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

About Jim Al-Khalili
Jim Al-Khalili is an Iraqi-born theoretical physicist, author and broadcaster. He is a professor at the University of Surrey where he teaches and carries out his research in quantum physics. He currently presents The Life Scientific on Radio 4 on Tuesday morning, where he interviews prominent scientists about their life and work. His 2010 book Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science (published as The House of Wisdom in the United States) was the basis for this year’s Voltaire Lecture. 

About the Voltaire Lecture
The Voltaire Lectures Fund was established by the legacy of Theodore Besterman, biographer of Voltaire, for lectures on ‘any aspect of scientific or philosophical thought or human activity as affected by or with particular reference to humanism.’ The British Humanist Association now oversees the fund.  Previous Voltaire lecturers have included: Herman Bondi, Bernard Crick, Richard Dawkins, Antony Flew, Michael Foot, Robert Hinde, Ludovic Kennedy, Simon Blackburn, Robin Ince, Kenan Malik, Steven Pinker, Ray Tallis and Dick Taverne.

The event was live-tweeted by the BHA. See this link for a Storify of this year’s lecture: storify.com/BHAhumanists/voltaire-lecture-2014.

This year’s lecture was recorded and will be uploaded to youtube.com/britishhumanists soon.

The post BHA President Jim Al-Khalili delivers 2014 Voltaire Lecture appeared first on British Humanist Association.

Boyer: Is there such thing as religion?

Pascal_Boyer-2Most of you have a full reading list, but if you don’t read anything else by anthropologist Pascal Boyer, please read these short paragraphs I have copied below from the opening to his new book, “The Fracture of an Illusion: Science and the Dissolution of Religion.” (free on-line).

On reading it this morning, I heard a succinct version of what I often try to communicate here on Triangulations. Maybe Boyer will make it clearer for some of you.

The point of this book is not to argue that religious ideas are creations of the mind. That point was conclusively argued more than two centuries ago byvKant and other Aufklarung scholars. We are all in debt to the Enlightenment - and conscious enough of that debt, that we need not restate what was so lucidly demonstrated at the time.

No, the point here is to carry on where these scholars left off- this time with the use of a better science – and show that the very existence of some thing called “religion” is largely an illusion. What I mean by “illusion” is actually very simple, but also rather counter-intuitive and therefore difficult to present in a succinct yet persuasive manner. Most people who live in modern societies think that there is such a thing as “religion”, meaning a kind of existential and cognitive “package” that includes views about supernatural agency (gods), notions of morality, particular rituals and sometimes particular experiences, as well as membership in a particular community of believers. In all this, each element makes sense in relation to the others. Indeed, this is the way most major “religions” - Islam and Hinduism for instance – are presented to us and the way their institutional personnel, most scholars and most believers think about them. By considering, studying or adhering to a “religion” one is supposed to approach, study or adhere to that particular package : an integrated set of moral, metaphysical, social and experiential claims.

All that is largely an illusion. The package does not really exist as such. Notions of supernatural agents, of morality, of ethnic identity, of ritual requirements and other experience, all appear in human minds independently. They are sustained by faculties or mechanisms in the human mind that are quite independent of each other, and none of which evolved because it could sustain religious notions or behaviors. What would seem to be integrated wholes, the Shinto system or the Islamic world-view, are in fact collections of such fragments.

So why do religions, and by extension religion, appear to be such integrated wholes, such systems? That is largely a matter of stipulation. That the package is a package is not a fact but the wish expressed, or rather the slogan put forth with great animus by the members of many religious institutions – the priests, the ritual officers, the office-holders in religious institutions. There is no reason to take this postulate at face-value. Indeed, there is every reason to think that the notions of a religion (the Hindu religion, the Islamic religion) and of religion in general, are the main obstacles to the study of why and how people come to have what we generally call “religious” notions and norms, that is, why and how they find plausible the existence of non-physical agents, why they feel compelled to perform particular rituals, why they have particular moral norms, why they see themselves as members of particular communities. These phenomena cannot be understood unless we first accept that they do not stem from the same domain, they do not actually belong together, except in what amounts to the marketing ploys, as it were, of particular religious institutions.

The notion of “religion” as a package seems so plausible that even people who intensely dislike what they see as the supernatural fantasies, odd rituals or extravagant moral exigencies imposed by religious institutions, still assume that there is such a thing as religion – which they see as nefarious set of thoughts and institutions, the influence of which has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. Framing the conflict as a struggle of reason or lucidity against the obscurity, indeed obscurantism, of a single enemy, “religion”, simply perpetuates the illusion that there is a domain of religion – a single fortress for the militant rationalist to assault. That it is an illusion may explain why the best efforts in this epic struggle are often in vain.

Pascal Boyer is a French anthropologist who teaches and researches at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He is presently finishing a leave in France where he is working at the “Evolution, Cognition & Culture” team at the University of Lyons.

Boyer has written many articles (see here) and his book have been.

  • 1992 Tradition as Truth and Communication
  • 1992 Cognitive Aspects of Religious Symbolism
  • 1994 The Naturalness of Religious Ideas
  • 2001: Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (amazon)
  • 2009 Memory in Mind and Culture
  • 2010: The Fracture Of An Illusion: Science And The Dissolution Of Religion (amazon)

See my other posts on “Defining Religion“.


TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 6

(I’ve decided to review the new Cosmos series hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson that’s airing on Fox. If you missed it, you can stream full episodes online.) Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 6, “Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still” After the last two strong episodes, there was bound to be a clunker sooner or later, and I’m [Read More...]