EBA: Dr. Sarah Strand on "The Evolution of Religion"

This month East Bay Atheists features Dr. Sarah Strand speaking on "The Evolution of Religion." The talk examines why religion has been present in human society since the dawn of mankind.

It begins with a review of Charles Darwin, including his upbringing and religious beliefs. His theory of natural selection not only explains genetic evolution, but also clarifies the evolution of ideas, culture, and religion.

Next, she discusses the psychological origins of religion, showing that human brains are built to believe that "agents" are at work in the world.  For example, "the sun god smiles on us today" or "the sea god is angry today."  The presentation concludes with evidence of how religion has "survived" by expanding and adjusting to changes in culture, a.k.a. it's "environment."

Dr. Strand is a Behavioral Neuroscientist, a Psychology professor at Cal State Sacramento and a triathlete. And her talks are very popular with atheist groups.

Afterwards we will go to dinner at King Dong at 2429 Shattuck Ave at Haste.

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When: Sunday, May 4th at 1:30

Location: Public Meeting Room, Third Floor, Berkeley Public Library, Main Branch, at 2090 Kittredge at Shattuck

BART Access: Less than one block from the downtown Berkeley BART Station.

Parking: All day parking is available for $7 on the weekend at the lot at Allston & Harold Way, a short block from the library.

Information: Larry Hicok, Coordinator:[masked]

Ski Grabowski, Treasurer:[masked]


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  • Ming L.

    So glad people are conversing via this meetup venue.

    The big question for me is this...
    If we learn about scientific theories & laws & methodologies in school and understood its reasoning or proof, did we just not learned its reasoning by mere memory? Before you rush to answer, consider this. What if you were given the same observation data alone, without the reasoning, could you have come up with the same exact reasoning?

    For most of us the answer is clearly no. If so, is there a difference between learned reasoning vs the ability to do raw original reasoning from observation alone?

    The answer to this question is at the very root of all human understanding (or misunderstanding) leading to conflict & divisions..... and in our case to what atheism means. Please read Michael Shemer's the Believing Brain. It is not in his book but it comes awfully close... that is if you deliberate and ponder.

    Sarah Strand understood too.

    For when the mind cannot understand it believes.

    May 10

  • Joe H.

    In the late 1970's to late 1980's there were some well-known scientists who claimed they observed deviations from the law of gravity. I was peripherally involved in that discussion, which eventually ended with vindication of Newton's law at a conference in San Francisco. It was fun while it lasted.

    May 9

  • cheri m.

    the scientific method:
    1. observe a problem/state an observation.
    2. create an hypothesis (an educated guess); note: only a measurable experiment may be coupled w a scientific hypothesis.
    (this is what theist's don't get; their explanation is actually an untested hypothesis. a scientific hypothesis that wishes to test to presence of a deity is not measurable).
    3. test that hypothesis. fun.
    4. if hypothesis and experimental results agree, write a plausible explanation. if not, formulate a new hypothesis & experiment again. theists would be stuck in this loop if they used the science-method.
    5. after one gets enough experimental evidence that their theory (plausible explanation) is true they can state a scientific law. for ex, since we have no deviations from the theory of gravity or the conservation of energy, now we can write scientific laws for the same.

    May 9

  • Joe H.

    If you want to have some sort of understanding about a large body of believers, read "When God Talks Back" by T. M. Luhrmann. For me, this book describes why many people benefit greatly by a belief in God. I have wondered if perhaps because people benefit so much, we really evolved to have such a belief. That's why I asked my question about that.

    May 7

    • Michael

      Actually, everyone is "mentally ill" to some degree. Myself included. It's a continuum. Our "default" position tends to be supernaturalism. A hard understanding of science is the only way to fight against this.

      1 · May 9

    • Michael

      I'm open to reading Shermer's book. However, I know very well what a belief is, because I have held them myself. I struggle every day with the very "beliefs" that (if this percentage can be believed, which I don't think it can) 80% of the population struggles with. I used to believe what many of them believe. I know very well how they think. I fight every day against the indoctrination I received. It's a daily struggle to be a part of reality. I have no problem talking with you, but I think we fundamentally disagree on what the "truth" is. My truth is simply the real, physical world and the scientific laws we are all bound by. By the way, if we are all part of a continuum, your 80 & 90% figures don't make any sense. It wouldn't be that sharply divided.

      1 · May 9

  • Bonnie J B.

    Someone asked me the other day “so, when did you become an atheist”? I tried to explain…. One does not become an atheist, we are all born atheists. We “become “whatever our parents, community, etc. indoctrinate us to be, i.e., babtist, methodist, muslim. We remain atheists in regards to all other gods to which we are not indoctrinated. The only reason for the word and idea of atheism is the fact that someone conjured up gods from their imagination and now we, who don’t ascribe to that notion, are obliged to use the word 'atheist' to define a part of ourselves. I was not taught to be an atheist nor do I "believe" in atheism, I do believe however, we non-believers have a long way to go just to be understood. By the way, my childhood indoctrination was in the methodist church. This was in a small town in California, that was strictly divided along religious and socio-economic lines. The other church in town was catholic. Sadly, there was no escape!

    1 · May 8

    • Ming L.

      Atheism is simply - without belief in god.

      May 9

  • Ming L.

    Heard David Silverman for the first time at Stanford yesterday. I am generally against silly atheist activism such as removing religious monuments; instead he advocates adding atheist monuments (benches) next to religious monuments & adding atheist presence everywhere the religious go. Brilliant!

    Europe with its wealth of religious monuments & symbolism; and less atheist activism has a much higher % of atheist. France leads with 40%. Do we take note or do mindlessly forge ahead with our atheist beliefs & activism? What if we remove beliefs all together? from politics, economics, health & medicine too? Understanding is such an elusive concept. It varies greatly from individual to individual when it comes to context & meaning. Hence the ability to reason must first equal the ability to understand. If understanding is defective, so will the reasoning.

    When the mind cannot understand it believes..... regardless if you are religious or atheist or PhD.

    May 7

    • Larry H.

      Dave Silverman and American Atheists are totally into atheist activism. You reason that secular Europe has less atheist activism and more atheism; therefore we should do less activism to be more like them. That is a logical fallacy. Dave is advocating atheist monuments beside Christian monuments on government property when it is the best we can get. The original lawsuit that precipitated the Stark atheist monument demanded the removal of the Ten Commandments. For many of us the monuments are not silly but insulting; they say that this country is only for Christians.

      1 · May 7

    • Ming L.

      Not a problem, we have differing views. Ultimately more atheists has got to be better, regardless of the differences. Good job by the way of keeping the movement going and bringing great speakers. Thanks Larry. The only point I was trying to make is simply we got to recognize the 80% in USA and 90% the rest of the world - to put ourselves in their shoes, how they think with less reasoning with regards to feelings in religion and belief.

      May 7

  • Ming L.

    Agree fully with Dr. Strand that we should not fear the religious & that most are peaceful social folks who happen to be simple believers. My own observation is that the vast majority of atheists are believers too - more complex believers in science with reasoning learned from teachings rather than original reasoning & conclusion. Atheism should have been non-event result of logical conclusion based on truth & evidence - rather than a silly celebration. Sadly most had to be taught to be atheist. We should be more tolerant of the religious whom are incapable of understanding reason rather than making fun of them & stoking their naive anger. After all they are 80% of the population & every politician recognizes this obvious fact... but not atheists. It is great to learn the neuroscience behind the religious mind; but the evidence had been clear all along that most cannot be converted to atheism. It is a matter of reasoning based on observation. A big thumbs up for Sarah.

    May 4

    • Michael

      To say that 80% of the population is "incapable of understanding reason" is quite arrogant. That's like saying they are all stupid, which was not what Sarah was suggesting. It IS possible for religious people to discard their religion if they're motivated to do so. It's happening more and more, as we become more culturally sophisticated and scientifically savvy. It's not okay to NOT attack religion, because religion traumatizes and confuses young children. It may be too late to help many adults whose beliefs are deeply ingrained, and who don't want to change, but it's not too late to help the next generation of future adults. Our country is way behind in science because of religion, so it's not okay to be silent and dismiss 80% of the population. Anyone can change if they are motivated to do so. Most religious people choose to be ignorant because it's easier to believe in childish fairy tales than to comprehend complex scientific laws. That doesn't mean it's not possible, though.

      May 6

    • Ming L.

      Yes do agree that without explanation it not only sounds arrogant, but wrong. As both space & interest (wide range of atheist & atheist definition) are limited, it gets reduced to sound bites. First of all it is a continuum between the 2 extremes - religious & atheist instead of just 80%. Incapable of understanding refers to the specific area of religious beliefs vs rational reason in 2014 despite an abundance of scientific evidence in both archaeology & neuroscience research that explains religious myths. So the question one must ask is why? Why do the smartest from Harvard still believes in silly fairy tales? 'Incapable' can be substituted with 'refusal' if it makes it more palatable. It does not mean they are not smart. In fact many religious are also very successful meaning they have got to be very smart.

      May 7

  • David D.

    I enjoyed this talk and the perspective a lot. I was impressed with how much data was squeezed into a short time. There may be some issues but perhaps subsequent talks will illuminate the dark corners.

    May 4

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