Thursday, September 22, 2022

How Religion Evolved (again) - the Wide Open Air Podcast

Back in June I blogged a review here of Robin Dunbar’s excellent book ‘How Religion Evolved And Why It Endures’.  This led to my being asked to contribute some material to an online seminar with the author produced by Christine Gallagher of Wide Open Air Exchange.

The podcast of the seminar has just been released and you can find it here:

The whole thing is an excellent, wide-ranging discussion on religion, social groupings, friendship, families, celebrity and artificial intelligence.  The questions I asked of Professor Dunbar can be found between approximately 1:06:30 and 1:20:00, but I strongly recommend listening from start to finish.

The topics I specifically asked him about were –

1:  The book mentions Extinction Rebellion & the fact we live in an age preoccupied by the likely end of human society.  And you point out that religion has evolved as a means of managing profound social and economic change, and its expression is constrained by the size of social groups.  So my question is – in an age of a globalised economy, where technology has made social groupings effectively boundless, what sort of religious experience is going to develop as a response to the human condition in an age of climate change and mass extinction?

2:  In John Geiger’s book ‘The Third Man’, the author documents the phenomenon of the phantom ‘other’, a presence experienced by mountaineers and polar explorers in extreme privation.  This seems analogous to the experience of the spirit world you identify among hunter-gatherers. I wondered if you were aware of this or had considered it as another expression of the ‘mystical stance’.

3:  Another question about the future – if the human neurology that underlies the mystical stance could be mimicked in an artificial neural network, do you think it would be possible for AIs to experience religion – and what would it mean for the test to distinguish humans from machines originally proposed by Alan Turing?

I’m grateful to Robin Dunbar for giving them his time and consideration – and to Christine Gallagher for the chance to participate.


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