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What do we mean by a Primitive Belief? December 17, 2013

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Questions, Responses.
Tags: , , , ,


Recently I was responding to a longwinded xian commenter on a lengthy comment thread on Friendly Atheist.  At the end of a really preachy comment, he finished with:

“Think about it, God abhors human sacrifice, and yet he decided to go against his own feelings and permitted the death of his only son for your salvation. Sounds like a pretty generous God to me.”

To which I replied:

“Sounds like a bunch of mythology made up by primitive humans to me.”

In the following comments on that thread he took exception to his beliefs being described as “primitive”, and there was some discussion among other commenters about the idea.  But that got me to thinking about what we mean when we describe a person, or especially a belief system as “primitive”?  I’d like to have a good definition worked out, so the next time I describe something like creationism as a “primitive belief” and I’m challenged on it, I’ll have a good response.

An example of why this is tricky:

In a reverse of the usual anthropological studies, six representatives from a “primitive” tribe in New Guinea visited Britain.  They were not impressed with most of what they saw of modern culture, and had no interest in adopting western ways, except for two things. First, they loved the idea of adding feathers to arrows to make them fly straighter, and planned to adopt that innovation immediately. The second thing they decided to adopt?



So are we dealing with primitive people here or not?

We could restrict the definition of “primitive” people to those who lived a long time ago.  But that’s not necessarily a help, since there were decidedly non-primitive philosophers living in Athens at the same time that Judea was full of superstitious goatherders.  We could include “uneducated” in our definition, except that I’m sure ancient priests spent years studying their holy texts, and would have considered themselves educated, but I’d still probably describe many of them as “primitive”.

So maybe we should see if we can come up with a definition of a “primitive belief system” instead.

The fact that a belief is old doesn’t necessarily relegate it to being “primitive”.  The beliefs that things fall when you drop them, that tigers are dangerous, and that killing members of your social group is bad are all very old ideas, but we still think they are valid.  And I’d want to have a definition that we could apply to tribal superstitions, cargo cults, and long-dead religions, as well as to old institutional beliefs still held by modern people.

So how about this to start:

A “primitive belief system” includes:

  1. Belief in some kind of supernatural forces actively working in the world, that substitutes confirmation bias and wishful thinking in place of concrete evidence.
  2. Belief that those supernatural forces want specific things from humans.
  3. Belief that those supernatural forces can be propitiated by sacrifice or ritual.

That’s my first stab at a definition, but I’d like to throw it open to discussion to refine the idea. What would you add or change?


This article has also been posted on ex-christian.net on 12/19.  Please see http://new.exchristian.net/2013/12/what-do-we-mean-by-primitive-belief.html#.UrMHx6go6po for additional discussion on this topic.


1. N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ - December 17, 2013

A primitive belief system that involves attachment to a god, deactivates neural networks in the forebrain (critical thinking — critical social assessment), and primarily utilizes the oldest parts of the brain (primitive), the hindbrain and midbrain (fear, fight or flight).

A primitive belief system is reward based. Without neurotransmitter reward — no belief.


2. P Yew - December 17, 2013

Good answer, Neuro- I would only add that things are primitive when they are unable to change to meet current societal norms. As with all religion, when the conclusions are sacred, facts must be ignored. [Or simply unable to change]
Your christian friend must have not read any of the old testament. A notable example would be Abraham and Isaac. Gen 22


N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ - December 18, 2013



3. john zande - December 18, 2013

I’d say its anything which presents a physical (observable) response to Terror Management Theory (TMT).


ubi dubium - December 18, 2013

I was not familiar with TMT. Now I have something new to go read up on. I love when I ask a question and get to learn a bunch of new stuff!


john zande - December 18, 2013

I’m new to TMT, too. First heard of it just last week and its blown my mind. There’s a documentary on it, and you can view a clip on Youtubby. Type in “flight from death clip4.” Fascinating experiments.


ubi dubium - December 18, 2013

I’ll watch that. From the first little bit of reading that I’ve done this morning, I think that this is going to work right in with Rebecca Goldstein’s ideas on “mattering” that I picked up at WIS2 last year. I’ll be looking for a recommendation for a good book on the subject (for an informed layman).


john zande - December 18, 2013

When you find it let me know! I think TMT explains an awful lot. Of course, its quite obvious, but when you see the results of the experiments they conduct its quite striking.


4. muggleinconverse - December 18, 2013

I agree with everyone else. I’d also add that specific tenants of a primitive belief either shrink or contradict when faced with modern science.


5. anglophiletoad - December 18, 2013

I don’t disagree with the post in general, but (at the risk of a couple of the above commenters never speaking to me again), I wonder if perhaps we don’t sometimes allow “primitive” to stand in for anything we don’t find believable ourselves. Having spent a lot of years immersed in very strong, very conservative religious work (again, like some of the above commenters), I have to say that, while the original beliefs may have been dreamed up by primitives, the system that incorporates those beliefs today (and, I would argue, even by the time Paul created Christianity) is extremely sophisticated in its logical construction. I, personally, do not believe that the Christian religion, metaphysically speaking, is true, but I balk at the word “primitive”. A bit childish and simple-minded, perhaps, but not “primitive.”

That being said, if you’re going to punch me, just…not the face. A guy’s got to make a living…


N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ - December 18, 2013

Vance, how would you define the term primitive?

a. Of or relating to an earliest or original stage or state; primeval.
b. Being little evolved from an early ancestral type.
c. Of or relating to a nonindustrial, often tribal culture



anglophiletoad - December 18, 2013

This is a good question, V. Perhaps your definition of “primitive” (in your original comment above) is correct, but I question whether Christianity (as it exists today) fits that definition very well. Does it deactivate critical thinking and social assessment, or does it merely produce critical thinking and social assessments the results of which we don’t agree with? I hesitate to accuse Christians of lacking critical intelligence based on a belief in God for the same reason that it irritates me when they accuse me of the same for not believing in God.

Furthermore, if a primitive belief system is determined by its reward-base, that covers half the stuff we do on a daily basis. Some even say that the only reason we do anything is because of the neurotransmitter rewards involved. Which I suppose means we’re all a little primitive, deep down somewhere. :0)

The problem with Christianity is not that it’s primitive (although perhaps it did start out that way), but the exact opposite: it, like all other social phenomena, has evolved. Not only does it respond to scientific discovery and philosophical development, it takes these things over, subsumes them, and makes them its own. Which is why we’ve got things like po-mo theology, queer theology, feminist/womanist theology, theistic evolution, and even, as some point out, religious atheism.

And now I’m the long-winded one, so to wrap up, I might agree with any of the three definitions you listed above, but I don’t know that any of them apply to Christianity as it stands TODAY (which seems to be the target of the original post). It is highly evolved (and highly adaptable) from its original form, 12 dudes wandering around Palestine. Two thousand years of systematic theology are proof of that. As for (a) and (c), that’s just historical exigency: anything that’s old will by definition stem from a more primitive time, chronologically and developmentally speaking.

You know I love you, V, and I promise this isn’t an attack, and I’m not going back on my word. I’m still an atheist; I still find Christianity highly questionable in a lot of its particulars (as all religions, to some extent). I’m just feeling debate-y today. Seriously, love you to pieces. Don’t hate me because I’m ornery…


N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ - December 18, 2013

Vance, my dear friend, I enjoy debate, and I’m not so shallow to assume that if you disagree with me that it’s an attack. That would be primitive thinking? 😉

But addressing the critical social assessment part, the research shows that devout believers, such as Christians who believe in and promote the Bible and biblical god, appear to be unable to assess the psychopathic behavior from their ‘Father God’, Jesus daddy. I do not mean to insult them. Gaining this understanding has helped me to find understanding towards those who promote it; though I do find myself, at times, affected by their lack of awareness which perpetuates suffering on a mass scale.

As far as neurotransmitters go, it is also important to note that belief in authoritarian religions affect the brain like hard drugs, i.e., cocaine, by hijacking the brain’s reward system. Studies also show that too much dopamine can disrupt normal cognition and emotion, leading to gross errors of judgment, mperviousness to risk, egocentricity and a lack of empathy for others.

Critical thinking is generally absent when supporting an authoritarian belief system such as the Abrahamic faiths. In the grand scheme of things, these beliefs are antisocial, which is unnatural and most certainly disadvantageous. IMO, it doesn’t matter if they are able to adapt — or in my line of thinking — manipulate to survive. It’s still using the primitive parts of the brain to keep such belief systems thriving. Hope that made sense.


N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ - December 18, 2013

Vance, I would also like to note that baboons are a textbook example of life in an aggressive, highly stratified, male-dominated society. Sound familiar? 😉


ubi dubium - December 18, 2013

My target was certainly christianity as it stands today (along with other so-called “modern religions”), but christianity is far from monolithic. There’s a big difference between the arguments of modern theologians, and the preacher who declares “God said it, I believe it, end of story”, and those people whose entire take on religion is “believe in Jesus or you’re going to hell, but I can’t be bothered with actually reading the book I claim to believe in.”

I’m also not sure that the complexity of a religion points to it not being primitive. The ancient Egyptians had an enormous pantheon of gods drawn from the local gods of all the small nomes that were united to form their country, and they wove all those into an amazingly complex polytheism. Yet, I still think I’d call it primitive.


anglophiletoad - December 18, 2013

Everything both you and Victoria have said about religion is true, and I’m not arguing that it’s some sort of trespass to point these things out. I spend a good deal of the time doing it myself. My question is still whether primitive is the right word (or even a necessary one). My guess would be that the adverse reaction you got from your original interlocutor stemmed from the image this word conjures of cavemen sitting around a campfire scratching their nether regions and pondering pea-sized things with their pea-sized brains. It’s not a word conducive to conversation (assuming that’s what we’re after).

You have described Christians who are autocrats and hypocrites, and I say fair enough. But none of that predicates the “primitive” label.

I don’t know what the correct word is, mind you. Perhaps there isn’t one. Maybe “mistaken” will do. If that’s the case, if the religious mind is mistaken, then what difference does it make whether that mistake is primitive, uneducated, unsophisticated, etc.? A mistake is a mistake, willful or otherwise, harmful or otherwise. Enough said.


N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ - December 18, 2013

Vance, I totally get where you are coming from with regard to having constructive discourse without turning off your ‘opponent’. But I do think that the term primitive applies. I’d like to use an analogy. You stated that their behavior is ‘childish’ — ‘simple-minded.’ I agree.

As I mentioned previously, the forebrain is the newest part of the brain. In teenagers, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. They are greatly motivated by reward, and their ability to assess the risks of their behavior is inhibited. A fully developed PC allows for critical assessment and serves to curb impulse behavior because the possible negative outcomes outweigh any potential thrill of the reward. In other words, teenagers may try things (take risks) because they’re seeking a buzz (dopamine) to satisfy that reward center, while their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex can’t register all the risks.

In adults over age 25 (in general), various parts of the brain work together to evaluate choices, make decisions and act accordingly in any given situation. Imaging scans show that the teenage brain doesn’t appear to work like this. The prefrontal cortex also forms judgments and controls impulses and emotions. It communicates with the other sections of the brain through connections called synapses.

An area of the teenager’s brain that is fairly well-developed is the nucleus accumbens, the older midbrain that seeks reward. Imaging studies have shown that most of the mental energy that teenagers use in making decisions is located in the back of the brain, whereas adults generally do most of their processing in the front. The imaging studies compared brain activity between adults and teenagers. When the subjects received a small, medium or large reward, teenagers exhibited exaggerated responses to medium and large rewards compared to adults.

So, again, based on the research, it appears that belief (as in an authoritarian god) is like having an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, primarily using the older parts of the brain like teens do — with anticipation of a reward (heaven) — the assumption of acknowledgement from a higher power (reward), and a sense of entitlement, e.g. ‘God’s chosen’ (reward). All the while seemingly unable to recognize negative behavior and outcomes of such reward-based beliefs; behaviors and teachings clearly demonstrated in the Old Testaments and various passages in the New Testament.


N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ - December 18, 2013

Correction: I meant to write “the nucleus accumbens, an older part of the midbrain.”


6. Phil - December 18, 2013

A primitive belief system is one which lacks sophistication. It is basic in its content



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