Monthly Archives: May 2012

The God Issue: Born believers

New Scientist, March 17-23, 2012,

God – Can’t live with him, can’t live without him

In our enlightened world, god is still everywhere. In the UK, arguments rage over “militant atheism” and the place of religion in public life. In the US, religion is again taking centre stage in the presidential election. Try as we might, we just don’t seem to be able to let go.

Perhaps that is because we have been looking at god the wrong way. Atheists often see gods and religion as being imposed from above, a bit like a totalitarian regime. But religious belief is more subtle and interesting than that. Over the some pages we lay out a new scientific vision that promises to, if not resolve ancient tensions, at least reset the terms of the debate.

Like it or not, religious belief is ingrained into human nature. A a good thing too: without it we would still be living in the Stone Age.

Viewing religion that way opens up new territory in the battle between science and religion, not least that religion is much more likely to persist than science.

Of course, the truth or otherwise of religion is not a closed book to science: the existence of a deity can be treaty as scientific hypothesis.

Meanwhile, society is gradually learning to live without religion by replicating its success at binding people together. This is something secularists ought to take seriously. Only by understanding what religion is and is not can we ever hope to more on.

Our minds solve fundamental problems in a way that leaves a god-shaped space waiting to be filled, says Justin L. Barrett

By the time he was 5 years old, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could play the clavier and had begun to compose his own music. Mozart was a “Born Musician”; he had strong natural talents and required only minimal exposure to music to become fluent.

Few of us are quite so lucky. Music usually has to be drummed into us by teaching, repetition and practice. And yet in other domains, such as language or walking, virtually everyone is a natural; we are all “born speakers” and “born walkers”.

So what about religion? Is it more like music or language?

Drawing upon research in developmental psychology, cognitive anthropology and particularly the cognitive science of religion, I argue that religion comes nearly as naturally to us as language. The vast majority of humans are “born believers”, naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive and easily acquired, and to attain fluency in using them. This attraction to religion is an evolutionary by-product of our ordinary cognitive equipment, and while it tells us nothing about the truth or otherwise of religious claims it does help us see religion in an interesting new light.

As soon as they are born, babies start to try to make sense of the world around them. As they do so, their minds show regular tendencies. From birth children show certain predilections in what they pay attention to and what they are inclined to think.

One of the most important of these is to recognise the difference between ordinary physical objects and “agents” – things that can act upon their surroundings. Babies know that balls and books must be contacted in order to move, but agents such as people and animals can move by themselves.

Because of our highly social nature we pay special attention to agents. We are strongly attracted to explanations of events in terms of agent action – particularly events that are not readily explained in terms of ordinary causation.

For instance, Philippe Rochat and colleagues at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, conducted a series of experiments showing that in the first year of life children distinguish between the movement of ordinary objects and the movement of agents, even if the objects and agents in question are only computer-animated coloured discs. By 9 months old, babies showed that they are not just sensitive to the causal relationship between two discs that appeared to chase one another, they could also tell who was chasing whom (so to speak). The babies first watched either a red disc chasing a blue one or vice versa until they got habituated – good and bored in other words Then the experimenter reversed the chase. The babies noticed the difference and started watching again (Perception, Vol. 33, P 355).

Many of these experiments used animated discs that did not remotely resemble a human or animal. Babies do not need a person, or even an animal, present to get their agency reasoning up and running – an important point if they are good to apply their reasoning about agents to invisible gods.

Babies also seem sensitive to two other important features of agents that allow them to understand the world but also make them receptive to gods. First, agents act to attain goals. And second, they need not be visible. In order to function in social groups avoid predators and capture prey, we must be able to thing about agents we cannot see.

The ease with which humans employ agent-based reasoning does not end with childhood. In an experiment I did with Amanda Johnson of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we asked college students to narrate their actions while placing ball bearings over holes on a board. Periodically an electromagnet sent the ball bearing racing around in violation of intuitive physical expectations. Almost two thirds of the students spontaneously referred to the ball bearing as if they were agents, making comments such as “That one did not want to stay”,”Oh, look. Those two kissed”, and “They are not cooperating” (Journal of cognition and Culture, Vol 3, p 208).

Their hair-trigger agent reasoning and a natural propensity to look for agents in the world around us are part of the building blocks for belief in gods. Once coupled with some other cognitive tendencies, such as the search for purpose, they make children highly receptive to religion.

What’s a tiger for ?

Deborah Kelemen of Boston University has shown that from childhood we are very attracted to purpose-based explanations of natural objects – from monkeys and people to trees and icebergs. Four and 5 year olds thought it more sensible that a tiger was “made for eating and walking and being seen at the zoo” than that “though it can eat and walk and seen at the zoo, that’s not what it’s made for” (Journal of Cognition and Development, vol 6, p3).

Similarly, when it comes to speculation about the origins of natural things, children are very receptive to explanations that invoke design or purpose. It seems more sensible to them that animals and plants were brought about for a reason than they arose for no reason. Margaret Evans of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has found that children under 10 tend to embrace creationist explanations of living things over evolutionary ones – even children whose parents and teachers endorse evolution (Cognitive Psychology, vol 42, p 217). Kelemen has also done experiments with adults that suggest we do not simply outgrow this attraction but that it must be forcibly tamped down through formal education (Cognition, vol 111, p 138).

It appears that we all share an intuition that apparent order and design such as we see in the world around us requires an agent to bring it about. A recent experiment by George Newman of Yale University supports this view. Twelve to 13-month old babies viewed two animation: a ball knocking over a stack of blocks (obscured by barrier during the actual striking), and vice versa with the blocks starting in a disordered heap and finishing in a neat stack. Adults would immediately see something unexpected in the second scenario: balls cannot stack blocks. babies were also surprised, in that they looked longer at the second animation. This suggests that babies find a ball creating order more surprising than a ball creating disorder.

More interesting still was a second experiment. In this, a bass-shaped object with a face moved purposefully behind the barrier and either apparently ordered or disordered the blocks. In this case, the babies found neither display more surprising (Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences, vol 107, p 17140).

The most straightforward explanation is that babies have the same intuitions as adults: people, animals, gods or other agents can create order or disorder, but non-agents, such as storms or rolling balls, only create disorder.

Of course gods do not just create or order the natural world, they typically possess superpowers: super knowledge, super perception and immortality. Surely these properties of gods – because the differ from and exceed the abilities of people – are difficult for children to adopt?

If anything the opposite appears to be the case. In a series of studies with other researchers, children appear to presume that all agents have superknowledge, super perception and immortality until they learn otherwise.

For example, in a study in Mexico led by Nicola Knight of the University of Oxford, Maya children aged 4 to 7 were a shown a gourd that usually holds tortillas. With the opening covered, the experimenter asked children what was inside. After answering “tortillas”, they were shown — much to their surprise – that it actually contained boxer shorts. The experimenter then covered the opening  again and asked whether various agents would know what was inside. The agents included the Catholic god, known as Diyoos, the Maya sun god, the forest spirits, a bogeyman-like being called Chiichi’ and a human. In Mayan culture, Diyoos is all seeing and all knowing, the sun god knows everything that happens under the sun, the forest spirits’ knowledge is limited to the forest and Chiichi’ is just a nuisance.

The youngest children answered that all the agents would know what was in the gourd. By age 7, the majority thought that Diyoos would know that the gourd contained shorts but the human would think it contained tortillas. They were also sensitive to the shades of difference in other supernatural agents’ level of knowledge (Journal of Cognition and Culture, vol 8, p 235). Similar things have been found with Albanian, Israeli, British and American children.

I may be wrong, but my interpretation of these findings is that young children find it easier to assume that others know, sense and remember everything than to figure out precisely who knows, senses and remembers what. Their default position is to assume superpowers until teaching or experience tells them otherwise.

This assumption is related to the development of a faculty called “theory of mind”, which concerns out understanding of others’ thoughts, perception, wants and feelings. Theory of mind is important to social functioning but it takes time to develop. Some 3-years-olds and many 4-years-olds simply assume that others have complete, accurate knowledge of the world.

A similar pattern is seen with children’s understanding of the inevitability of death. Studies by my collaborator Emily Burdett at the University of Oxford suggest that the default assumption is that others are immortal.

The finding that the younger Maya children thought all the gods would know what was in the gourd is important for another reason: simple indoctrination cannot account for it. Whatever some people say, children do not need to be indoctrinated to believe in god. They naturally gravitate towards the idea.

My contention is that these various features of developing minds – an attraction to agent based explanation, a tendency to explain the natural world in terms of design and purpose, an assumption that others have superpowers makes children naturally receptive to the idea that there may be one or more god which helps account for the world around them.

It is important to note that this concept of religion deviates from theological beliefs. Children are born believers not of Christianity, Islam or any other theology but of what I call “natural religion”. They have strong natural tendencies towards religion, but these tendencies do not inevitably propel them towards any one religious belief.

Instead, the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born.

Justin L. Barrett is a director of the Thrive Center for Human Development at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. His latest book is Born Believers: The science of children’s religious belief (Free Press)


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Posted by on May 22, 2012 in Paranormal, Religion


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Start a Self-Sufficient 1-Acre Homestead

By John Seymour
Mother Earth News, August/September 2011

Expert Advice on How to establish self-sufficient Food production, including guidance on Crop rotations, Raising livestock and Grazing Management

Everyone will have a different approach to keeping a self-sufficient homestead, and it’s unlikely that any 1-acre homesteads will follow the same plan or methods. Some people like cows; other people are afraid of them. Some people will not slaughter animals and have to sell their surplus stock off to people who will kill them; others will not sell surplus stock off at all because they know that the animals will be killed; and still other will slaughter their own animals to provide their family with healthy meat.

For myself, on an acre of good, well-drained land, I would keep a cow and a goat, a few pigs and maybe a dozen hens. The goad would provide me with milk when the cow was dry. I might keep two or more goats, in fact. I would have the daily cow (a Jersey) to provide the pigs and me with milk. More importantly, I would keep her to provide heaps and heaps of lovely cow manure to increase my soil fertility, for in order to derive any sort of living from them 1 acre without the application of a lot of artificial fertilizer, it would have to be heavily manure.

Raising a Dairy Cow

Cow or no cow? The pros and cons are many and various for a self-sufficient homestead. In favour of raising a cow is the fact that nothing keeps the health of a family — and a farm — at a high level better than a dairy cow. If you and your children have ample good, fresh, unpasteurized, unadulterated dairy products, you will be well-positioned to be a healthy family. If your pigs and poultry get their share of the milk by-products, especially whey, they likely will be healthy too. If your garden gets plenty of cow manure, your soil fertility will continuously increase, along with your yields.

On the other hand, the food that you buy in for this family cow will cost you hundreds of dollars each year. Compared with how much money you would spend on daily products each year, the fresh milk supply from the cow plus the increased value of the eggs, poultry and pig meat that you will get, along with your ever-growing soil fertility, will quickly make a family cow a worthwhile investment. But a serious counter-consideration is that you will have to take a responsibility of milking a cow. (for different milking plans and estimated savings, see “Keep a Family Cow” at  Milking a cow doesn’t take very long — perhaps eight minutes — and it’s very pleasant if you know how to do it and if she is a quiet, docile cow — but you will have to do it. Buying a daily cow is a very important step, and you shouldn’t do it unless you do not intend to go away very much, or unless you can make arrangements for somebody else to take over your milking duties while you’re gone. So let’s plan our 1-acre farm on the assumption that we are going to keep a daily cow.

1-Acre Farm With a Family Cow

Half of you land would be put down to grass, leaving half an acre arable (not allowing for the land on which the house and other building stand). The grass half could remain permanent pasture and never be ploughed up at all, of you could plan crop rotations by ploughing it up, say, every four years. if you do the latte, it is best done in strips of a quarter of the half-acre so that each year you’re planning a grass, clover and herb mixture on an eighth of your acre of land. This crop rotation will result in some freshly sown pasture every year, some 2-year-old field, some 3-year-old field and some 4-year-old field, resulting in more productive land.

Grazing Management

At the first sign the grass patch is suffering from overgrazing, take the cow away. The point of strip grazing (also called intensive rotational grazing) is that grass grows better and produces more if it is allowed to grow for as long as possible before being grazed or cut all the way down, and then allowed to rest again. In such intensive husbandry as we are envisaging for this self-sufficient homestead, careful grazing management will be essential.

Tether-grazing on such a small area may work better than using electric fencing. A little Jersey cow quickly gets used to the tethered and that was, indeed, the system that the breed was developed for on the island of Jersey (where they were first bred). I so unequivocally recommend a Jersey cow to the 1-acre farmer because I am convinced that, for this purpose, she is without any peer. Your half-acre of grass, when established, should provide your cow with nearly all the food she needs for the summer months. You are unlikely to get any hay from the half-acre as well, but if the grass grows faster then the cow can eat it, they you could cut some of it for hay.

Intensive Gardening

The remaining half of your homestead — the arable half — would be framed as highly intensive garden. It would be divided, ideally, into four plots, around which all the annual crops that you want to grow follow each other in a strict crop rotation.

An ideal crop rotation might go something like this:

  • Grass (for four years)
  • Plot 1: Potatoes
  • Plot 2: Legumes (Pea and Bean family)
  • Plot 3: Brassicas (Cabbage family)
  • Plot 4: Root vegetables (Carrots, Beets and so on)
  • Grass again (for four years)

Consider the advantages of this kind of crop rotation. A quarter of your arable land will be a newly ploughed-up, 4-year-old field every year, with intensely fertile solid because of the stored-up fertility of all the grass, clover and herbs that have just been ploughed-in to rot for four summers’ worth of cow manure. Because your cow will be in-wintered, on bought-in hay, and treading and dunging on bought-in straw, you will have an enormous quantity of marvellous muck and cow manure to put on your arable land. All the crop residues that you cannot consume will help feed the cow, pigs or poultry, and I would be surprised if, after following this crop rotation and grazing management plan for a few years, you didn’t find that your acre of land had increased enormously in soil fertility, and that it was producing more food for humans than many a 10-acre farm run on ordinary commercial lines.

Half-Acre Crop Rotation

Some might complain that by having half your acre down to grass, you confine your gardening activities to a mere half-acre. But actually, half an acre is quite a lot, and if you garden it well, it will grow more food for you than if you were to “scratch” over a whole acre. Being under grass (and grazed and dunged) for half of its life will enormously increase the half-acre’s soil fertility. I think you will actually grow more vegetable on this plot then you would on a whole acre if you had no cow or grass break.

Tips for Self-Sufficient Homestead

A dairy cow will not be able to stay outdoors all year. She would horribly overgraze such a small acreage. She should spend most of the winter indoors, only being turned out during the daytime in dry weather to get a little exercise and fresh air. Cows do not really benefit from being out in winter weather. Your cow would be, for the most part, better if kept inside where she would make lovely manure while feeding on the crops you grew for her in the garden. In the summer you would let he out, night and day, for as long as you find the pasture is not being overgrazed. you would probably find that your cow did not need hay at all during the summer, but she would be entirely dependent on it throughout the winter, and you could plan on having to buy her at least a ton. If you wanted to read her yearly calf until he reached some value, you would likely need a further half-ton of hay. I have kept my cow this way for years, and the perfect milk made good butter and cheese, and stored well. Although more labour-intensive, you could keep your cow on a concrete floor instead (insulated if possible), and give her a good bed of straw every day. You would remove the solid straw daily, and carefully pile it into a muck heap that would be your fount of fertility for everything on your acre.

Pigs would have to be confined in a house for at least part of the year (and you would need to provide straw for them), because, on a 1-acre farm, you are unlikely to have enough fresh land to keep them healthy. The best option would be a movable house with a strong movable fence outside it, but you could have a permanent pigpen instead.

The pigs would have a lot of outdoor work to do: They would spend part of their time ploughing up your eighth of an acre of grassland, and they could run over your cultivated land after you have harvested your crops. They could only do this if you had time to let them do it, as sometimes you would have to buy in some wheat, barley or corn. This, supplemented with the skim milk and whey you would have from your daily cow, plus a share of the garden produce and such specially grown fodder crops as you could spare the land for, would keep them excellently.

If you could find a neighbour who would let you use a boar, I recommend that you keep a so and breed her. She could give your 20 piglets a year, two or three of which you could keep to fatten for your bacon and ham supply. The rest you could sell as weanlings (piglets eight to 12 weeks old), and they would probably bring in enough money to pay for the food you had to buy for all your other livestock. If you could not get the service of a boar, you could always buy wealings yourself – just enough for your own use – and fatten them.

Poultry could be kept in a permanent house in one corner of your garden, or, preferably in mobile coops on the land, so they could be moved over the grassland and improve soil fertility with their scratching and dunging. I would not recommend keeping vary many birds, as just a dozen hens should give you enough eggs for a small family with a few to occasionally sell or give away in summer-time. You would have to buy a little grain for them, and in the winder some protein supplement, unless you could grow enough beans. You could try growing sunflowers, buckwheat or other food specially for them.

Goats, if kept instead of a dairy cow (or in addition to), could be managed in much the same way, however you would not have as much whey and skim milk to rear pigs and poultry on, and you would not build up the fraction of the manure from goats, but on the other hand you would not have to buy nearly as much hay and straw – perhaps not any. For a farmer wanting to have a completely self-sufficient homestead on 1 acre, dairy goats are a good option.

Crops would be all the ordinary garden crops (fruits and vegetables), plus as much land as you could spare for fodder crops for animals. Bear in mind that practically any garden crop that you grew for yourself would be good for the animals too, so any surplus crops would go to them. You would not need a compost pile – your animals could be your compost pile.

Half an acre, farmed as a garden with wheat grown in the other half-acre, is worth a try if you keep no animals at all, or maybe some poultry. You would then practice a crop rotation as described above, but substitute wheat for the grass and clover field. if you are a vegetarian, this may be quite a good solution. But you could not hope to increase the soil fertility, and therefore the productiveness, of your land as much as with animals.

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Posted by on May 3, 2012 in Eco Nature

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