[Here’s a little light (1,900 words) reading for the weekend. I banged it out rather quickly so I apologize for any typos, misspellings or poor grammar. I’ll monitor this thread over the weekend so I don’t end up posting a hot-button topic and then ignoring it like I did last time.]
Robert Wright has a new book out “The Evolution of God“. [h/t Instapundit] The Amazon description says:
In this sweeping narrative that takes us from the Stone Age to the Information Age, Robert Wright unveils an astonishing discovery: there is a hidden pattern that the great monotheistic faiths have followed as they have evolved. Through the prisms of archaeology, theology, and evolutionary psychology, Wright’s findings overturn basic assumptions about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and are sure to cause controversy. He explains why spirituality has a role today, and why science, contrary to conventional wisdom, affirms the validity of the religious quest. And this previously unrecognized evolutionary logic points not toward continued religious extremism, but future harmony.
I haven’t read the book yet, but based on his previous works I can guess where he is going with this. I’ve been thinking about this subject as well for some time, and I ‘ve been writing up my thoughts on the matter in detail, but since Wright may have beaten me to the punch I thought I would try to get my tiny bit of priority in. (Besides, I owe him for that bar fight in Tucson.)
I believe that religions and all other facets of human culture are subject to and created by natural selection. Even though I am a philosophical agnostic and a functional atheist, I have come to a science-based understanding that religions serve an evolutionary purpose, and that they provide a vital mechanism for enhancing and maintaining cooperation that no secular mechanism can duplicate.
Traditionally atheists have argued that religions cannot have any functional foundations because there are many different religions with so many different stories about how the universe works. They commonly point out that since most religions contradict each other, the vast majority of religions have to be wrong even if we were to assume that one is right. Science produces just one best explanation for each phenomenon. We don’t have hundreds of different, equally valid models of the solar system. How could religion be any different? Therefore, the existence of many different religions proves that religions are arbitrary, fictional, fabrications like novels. It follows that religion has little to teach us about life and cannot serve as any kind of rational guide for humanity.
This seems like a plausible argument. I used to believe it myself but in the last 15 years my ongoing study of evolutionary theory convinced me that atheists have missed one crucial piece of evidence: We don’t have a vast variety of contradictory religions, we have a vast variety religions that all teach the same thing.
In one critical functional area, all religions are identical.
(Some caveats: This is blog post not a book. To present the ideas in condensed form, I assumed the reader has some knowledge of different religions, cultures, philosophies, etc. and can fill in gaps and qualifiers on their own. When I say atheists, I mean most atheists. I just don’t want to have to load up the post with qualifiers. If you have doubts, set aside for now the question of whether culture is subject to natural selection. Atheists have to assume that it is and that is relevant to my argument. When I talk about natural selection or any other natural behavior “choosing”, “making” “forcing”, etc. these are just useful anthropomorphizations. I am well aware that natural selection does not choose anymore than gravity chooses to pull a stone to the ground.)
When atheists offer up religion’s diversity as proof it is fictional and arbitrary, they make an evolutionary-theory rookie mistake. Evolutionary Theory 101 states that natural selection selects solely for the phenotype and ignores the genotype. The phenotype is the actual observable physical characteristics of an organism, such as proteins, eyes, wings etc. The genotype is the actual genes that code for those physical characteristics and pass them along to the next generation. It is important to remember that natural selection selects only for the phenotype, because many different genotypes can create the same phenotype.
This happens in convergent evolution when two entirely separate species evolve the same functional characteristic. The structurally identical bills of flamingos and the mouths of baleen whales serve as the canonical example of convergent evolution. Hundreds of millions of years have elapsed since birds and whales shared genotypes, yet the bills and mouths both contain not only the same baleen structures inside but also the distinctive curve that gives the flamingo its appearance of having a smile. They differ only in size and the tissues used to form them. The bills and mouths share the same phenotype because they share the same function of filter feeding on plankton. The laws of physics mandate an optimum form for filter feeding with a mouth-like structure, so natural selection uses different genes to create the same functional shapes. It’s like making a sword. A bronze sword and an iron sword share the same functional shape even though made of different materials.
How do the concepts of phenotype, genotype and parallel evolution apply to religion? Simple, the stories that religions tell, the cosmology/creation stories, the moral parables, the models of moral consequence etc serve as the genotype. The behaviors that those stories foster in a religion’s adherents are the phenotypes.
Looking at religion it becomes clear that while the genotypes are massively diverse, the phenotypes are virtually identical. Religions are the result of parallel evolution as natural selection seeks to use diverse genotypes to create the same functional phenotype.
Do all religions produce the same behaviors? Yes, this is quite clear, once you strip out all the ritualistic elements and minor adaptations to local environments. The primary behaviors that all religions seek to fosters are cooperation between individuals in the group and the willingness of individuals to sacrifice their immediate desires and benefit for the long term good of their group.
All religions condemn personal pleasure seeking with sex, intoxicants, gambling etc that impinge on an individual’s responsibility to the group. All religions require adherents to treat at least the other adherents fairly, honestly and compassionately. All religions treat obligations to children and family as a primary obligation. All religions hold self-denial in general as a virtue. There isn’t any longstanding religion that stigmatizes self-denial, honesty, family, etc.
The absence of any self-indulgent religions provides strong evidence that religions are subject to natural selection. At any given time in history, right up to the modern day, myriad little sects have existed that sell religious justifications for self-indulgent behavior. Many cults have exploited the obvious appeal of “free love” or other pleasures to recruit members. Despite this obvious marketing advantage in the marketplace of ideas, such cults never survive long enough to evolve into religious sects. Given that new religions evolve fairly regularly, this suggests that religions’ suppression of self-indulgent behavior has long served a critical function in the vast majority of (if not all) human cultures.
The similarities in religion extend to the means by which they shape adherents’ behavior. All religions use an inescapable, supernatural mechanism of moral consequence. Every religion creates a story that explains that every negative action has a supernaturally enforced negative consequence which no human can escape. Christianity, Judaism and Islam have the judgment of God. Hinduism and Buddhism have Karma. Most religions have some variant on of the concept of hell, i.e., extensive pain in the afterlife triggered by immoral acts while living. Adherents believe that no matter how clever, powerful or immune from human action they might be they cannot escape the supernatural consequences of their actions.
The function of the mechanism is obvious. As humans are creations of natural selection, we have the selfish imperatives of natural selection hardwired into us. All humans seek advantage for themselves and will be tempted to commit acts for their own benefit that will harm another individual or the group. If individuals believe they face only the chance of human discovery and material consequence, they may commit the act if they think they can escape discovery of its consequences. Conversely, if the individual believes that supernatural forces monitor every action they take and punish them inexorably, the individual is less likely to take the action.
In this way, religion can promote cooperation-enhancing behaviors far more effectively than any secular mechanism. For example, the fear of God’s judgment or karma could restrain the behavior of powerful sociopathic ruler accountable to no human agency but no secular mechanism could do so.
(Note that the mechanism need not be perfect to provide advantage, just as the parts of organism need not be physically optimal to do so. Better than the immediate competition is all that is required.)
I think that for all of human history, we’ve been looking at the question of religious diversity backwards. The history of religious debates and conflict has conditioned us to think of religions as being defined by their story genotypes. We’ve been pointlessly parsing the minutia of their genotypes instead of examining the adaptive value of their phenotypes. It’s as if Darwin had started with a detailed knowledge of genes and then tried to figure out their function without paying any attention to the actual structures the genes created in the organism or those structures’ interactions with the environment.
For a religion to function, it doesn’t matter if the religion says that the earth was created in 7 days 6,000 year ago by a single omnipotent god or whether it says the universe exists because we wish it to. It doesn’t matter if a religion’s adherent believes that if he doesn’t cooperate he will face inescapable consequence by the judgment of God or the operation of a supernatural moral version of Newtons Third Law. It merely matters that he believes that he will inescapably suffer a consequence he fears and that he adjust his behavior to be more cooperative.
There you have the outline of my (probably not terribly original) idea. One could write entire books on this idea (and I suspect Wright has) but I think I’ve outlined the idea enough for people to start thinking about it. I think we need to seriously reexamine our secular assumptions about the behaviors that religions seek to foster. We have long defaulted to the idea that unless a behavior fostered by religion had an immediate and obvious benefit in the short term, then the behavior had no benefit. We have assumed that, like the genotypical fictional stories of religion that foster them, the behaviors were usually arbitrary and without any rational basis. However, if the same religions, evolving independently in widely diverse physical and cultural environments, all evolve the same group of phenotypical behaviors, then the only rational, scientific conclusion is that these behaviors are necessary for human survival in a wide range of environments.
Instead of defaulting to the idea that each individual and even each generation can apprehend the long-term consequences of all behaviors and can therefore safely disregard the evolved behaviors of religion, we should assume that the universal behaviors that all religions share are necessary for a functioning society. We should only abandon that assumption after careful, long-term experimentation.
40 thoughts on “The Evolutionary Function of Religion”
There is also quite a bit of similarity in foundation myths suggesting that the origins of the religions have common characteristics. Many of them are adopted from more primitive religions, such as celebration of seasons turning into Christmas and Easter. Michener did a pretty good job of this with his novel “The Source.” For those that haven’t read it, it is still worthwhile.
Hayek said pretty much exactly this in his last book The Fatal Conceit.
After reading this, I say…so, to what end is this evolution of fear-based behavior control? If evolution teaches us one thing it’s that we don’t have to stay tethered to the attributes we inherit from the past. Even if you are correct that all religion is the same, it doesn’t make it any more valid as an explanation for the universe or as an effective means to control society.
I also take overall issue with the use of biological evolution as a template here. Biological evolution doesn’t think. Stuff survives or it doesn’t. Religion, because it involves a cognitive process, is subject to analysis and architecture (clearly, look at what man has created in 2000 years). When humans evolve to the point where primitive fears of death are no longer so controlling of our behaviors and beliefs, religion will die a naturally selected death. In the meantime, I’ll continue to make fun of the silly sects that dot our planet and loathe the impossible toll that religion takes on the minds and bodies of those it touches.
Prey species which have survived the evolutionary process all instinctively presume conscious motivated purpose (“agency”) behind any threat. If you see a saber toothed tiger if improves your chances of survival is you assume he is out to get you. Similarly for wind, lightning, disease…., invisible agents become defined as “gods”. As growth in understanding strips godhood from individual natural phenomena, shamans and priests gradually postulated a unified “god” which punishes sin and to which they have special channels of communication.
The same “presumption of agency” explains why processes of spontaneous order (from evolution to free markets) are counterintuitive to the average human.
After reading this, I say…so, to what end is this evolution of fear-based behavior control?
All control uses carrots and sticks. You can’t control people’s genetically programmed impulses without making them afraid of the consequences. This is very hard to do in the real world.
The great advantage of religions that have evolved over long periods is that they control everybody, including a society’s elites. Nobody escapes. The religion and the greater culture itself becomes like an autonomous program guiding the behavior of the cultures members and changing through evolutionary trial and error.
Even if you are correct that all religion is the same, it doesn’t make it any more valid as an explanation for the universe or as an effective means to control society.
Explaining the universe is not religion’s evolutionary role. Creating a cosmology is part of its regulatory mechanism. The fact that so many creation myths share similarities without sharing heritage suggest that a common psychological desires in humans causes natural selection to choose certain stories that people find more emotionally gratifying.
Religions are obviously an effective means for managing a society because they have been doing so for the whole of history. Recent attempts to use atheism as the basis for societies has ended in bloody failure. Might as well stick with what works while we experiment on something else.
Religion, because it involves a cognitive process, is subject to analysis and architecture (clearly, look at what man has created in 2000 years).
Don’t delude yourself. Our minds do not encompass reality. Neither we nor our ancestors understood why some behaviors and some forms of social organization work while others fails. All ideas especially religion and ideology clearly show a pattern of evolving via natural selection not conscious human choice. Every year, a vast number of ideas get advanced and put to paper yet only a small number of those ideas survive and propagate. However, the ideas do not have to be true to propagate. They can be utter nonsense but survive if they fulfill some other function.
We do not have to look at religion to see this effect. Look at Marxism or Freudianism. In retrospect, they are both gibberish but they gave justified the self-esteem and self-importance of articulate intellectuals so they propagated. Some of the most intelligent and educated people of the last century fell spent a lot of intellectual horsepower arguing themselves into believing this nonsense and they produce millions of books defending their decisions and trying to spread them.
Marxism and Freudianism passed the test of intellectual rigor but failed the test of making working in the real physical world. Marxist couldn’t create humane societies and Freudian therapies did nothing to help anyone and actively hurt a lot of people. Yet, 40 years ago most atheist on earth still fervently believed in both.
It is hubris bordering on delusion to believe that you actually understand how to order a society based on your own intellect. . You can’t use logic and reason to find an answer until you have good data. The only source of firm information is trial and error experimentation. Until we’ve actually had experience with a set of moral rules in a real world society for a few generations, any moral system we come up with is pure conjecture. Yet most atheist feel no qualms at all about declaring just how everyone should live and just what longstanding moral rules are crap based on no experiments save the ones they conduct in their imaginations.
Human beings cannot grasp the subtle complexities of the physical function of morality anymore than we grasp the real-time complexities of economy. We have to tease the answers out with long term trial and error experimentation.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to make fun of the silly sects that dot our planet and loathe the impossible toll that religion takes on the minds and bodies of those it touches.
Meaning you’ll continue to make fun of their genotype while stupidly ignoring their functional phenotype. In doing so, your the one being silly and the one who risk doing great harm all the while feeling smug about your intellectual superiority.
Which is the emotional mechanism that atheism uses as its primary modus of propagation.
In the last 200 years, atheist and others who turned their back on the universal phenotype of religions have cut a bloody swath across the world. You should at least take a little pause from your genotype mocking to think about what I’ve said.
Prey species which have survived the evolutionary process all instinctively presume conscious motivated purpose (”agency”) behind any threat.
I think we inherently see agency because we base our model of the apparent choices of other systems on our own experience. We move by choice so we assume everything else does as well. Our brain default to the teleological because our brains evolved just to tell with information that affect us directly. So our default world model is one in which personalities cause the environment to change and everything is ultimately about us.
This probably explains much of the pattern seen in the genotype.
The big error that to many people have made is assuming that since the genotype is made up to appeal to our innate psychological desires that therefore the phenotype has no real function.
I think Leo Strauss would be a good person to look at here. He is noted for talking about “Noble lies”, where you can overlook the truth of something, and focus on the real-world consequences.
Wikipedia: “Although Strauss espoused the utility of religious belief, there is some question about his views on its truth. In some quarters the opinion has been that, whatever his views on the utility of religion, he was personally an atheist.”
I am convinced that humans are hard wired for religion. It is not a matter of choice. The intensity with which so many atheists advocate their point of view suggests that they are following the same neurobiology, just calling it logic. The same applies to modern cults like global warming. It has many of the necessary attributes of a religion; it requires faith although advocates are convinced that no faith is required. It proposes immense power on the part of humans. Anyone who has sailed through a hurricane has his doubts about the power of human society vs nature. It requires major sacrifice on the part of adherents to prove their devotion. They are not being asked to sacrifice their first born but they are planning the destruction of modern society, not a bad trade off for salvation from the deadly CO2.
Or, Voltaire’s pocket edition “If there were no God, it would have been necessary to invent him.”
People are pattern-recognition machines – we can’t help seeing familiar shapes in clouds, and meaning in random events. We reduce the number of ‘bits’ required to process our view of the world by breaking it down into patterns. (Truly random data requires the most ‘bandwidth’ to encode. If data follows a pattern it is easier to encode). I suppose religion could be seen as a way of bringing structure to what would otherwise be a fairly haphazard process of information encoding.
If the universe is, in fact, fairly random – and recent scientific developments suggest even ‘our’ basic physical laws are the result of random selection – then science will never be able to provide an overarching pattern to satisfy our need to simplify the chaos of reality in our own minds.
WOW, that’s all I can say. It takes a Lot of Faith, Shannon, to believe all that.
Of course as one who DOES believe God is maker and creator of all things this whole parallel thing is easy to explain. All spiritual root starts in the fact that in the beginning GOD created and all men knew it… Everything that has morphed since is divergence. There is only the worship of the one true God.
BUT, I won’t take you to task over this. I guess like global warming, atheism is just another religion with reason and self as it’s god.
Good luck with all that.
It takes a Lot of Faith, Shannon, to believe all that
Well, this isn’t faith. These ideas could be confirmed or refuted by experimentation. Technically, I’m not an atheist but an agnostic i.e. someone who believes that knowledge of the ultimate reality or the universe is unknowable.
I’m explaining behavior by restricting myself to information generated by direct observation and experimentation. Whether any particular religion’s genotype turns out to be true or not in a cosmic sense is largely irrelevant.
Of course as one who DOES believe God is maker and creator of all things this whole parallel thing is easy to explain. All spiritual root starts in the fact that in the beginning GOD created and all men knew it… Everything that has morphed since is divergence.
So your saying that religions evolve away from the original true story? What drives the process drives the evolution? If the original religion provides perfect truth, why incentive would people have to modify it? Wouldn’t that imply that ancient religions are closer to the truth than modern ones?
I think we can dispense with the idea that all religions share a common root because religions don’t show a pattern of being more similar in the distant past and more diverse now.
I would point out that the concept of an eternal omniscient, omnipotent god is a relatively recent invention. The universes of shamanistic and polytheistic religions do not begin with a creator god but with a formless chaos that somehow generates the the first god. The first god then creates the earth. If we wanted to assume that all religions diverge from a common ancestor we would have to assume that the shamanistic and polytheistic religions are closer to the root religion than monotheistic religions or beliefs like Buddhism which are not god centered.
The main conclusion of my argument is that religious people aren’t stupid or deluded. Instead, they are more likely to make good decisions about morality than non-religious people.
“Don’t delude yourself. Our minds do not encompass reality.”
If so what do you mean to be saying? Clearly not anything about reality.
“Marxism and Freudianism passed the test of intellectual rigor but failed the test of making working in the real physical world.”
First they did not. Mesis had shown socialism to be fundimentaly flawed by the 1920s and von Bohm-Bawerk had shown Marx’s theory of profit to be self contradictory in the late 19th century. Marxism is in essence a religion. Secondly, what do you mean by “real physical world” if our minds including presumably yours “do not encompass reality.”
If so what do you mean to be saying? Clearly not anything about reality.
I mean we don’t understand everything, even about ourselves. Specifically in the context of this discussion, no human being can predict the long-term consequence of a new moral rule. Yet all criticism of traditional religious or secular morals begin from the premise that we can. We don’t have a scientific predictive model of human individual or collective behavior but for centuries people have been arguing as if we do.
If we used the same standards of predictive power in our scientific debates as we do in our moral debates, Aristotle would still be considered just as correct as Einstein.
Mesis had shown socialism to be fundimentaly flawed by the 1920s and von Bohm-Bawerk had shown Marx’s theory of profit to be self contradictory in the late 19th century.
And yet they thrived for many decades afterwards. My point is that false ideas, the story genotypes, can survive and propagate as long as the phenotype serves some purpose and that purpose need not be what the story genotype says it is. The story genotype of Marxism is that it a scientific explanation of how to create a materially wealthy and socially equal and just society. It’s phenotype function, however, is that it creates an emotional appeal for articulate-intellectuals because it justifies them struggling for a more dominant and respected position in society.
Marxism is in essence a religion
I would agree in spirit but not in form. Marxism doesn’t postulate any mystical forces indeed it makes a point of denying their existence. However, it’s adherents to act like members of a religion and it does survive, evolve and propagate like a religion, which was my point.
Secondly, what do you mean by “real physical world” if our minds including presumably yours “do not encompass reality.”
It’s the difference between a computer simulation and the actual object or event. It is the difference between a hypothesis and an empirical fact. Ideas can survive indefinitely in our brains as long as they don’t generate behavior that creates a physical test of their validity.
Aristotelian physics was accepted and survived for nearly 2,000 years because no one who propagated the ideas ever used them to carry out actual physical task. For example, Aristotle held that a projectile flew at an angle in a straight line until stopped and feel straight down to the earth. Philosophers accepted this idea without question even though people who fired arrows, catapults and cannons knew that projectiles traveled in a parabola. Only when Galileo and others put Aristotle to empirical test did people accept his ideas a false.
Marxism and Freudianism survived the same way. As long as they remained mere hypothetical constructions with no physical manifestations, they could survive indefinitely. They were no more prone to natural selection than a gene sequence written out on paper. However, once Marxist actually had the opportunity to create physical systems based on Marxist ideas, the falseness of the Marxist story genotype became evident to almost everyone. As long as non-Freudian treatments could not produce any better results than Freudian analysis, Freudianism survived, Once they could, it failed.
Likewise, the criticisms of traditional evolved moral codes and any novel moral codes could be every bit as fallacious as Marxism and Freudianism but we won’t be able to determine that until we try to live under them and fail unambiguously.
If all you meant was that we are good at deceving ourselves and the corect observation and deduction is hard work and that our means are some times limited, then fine, but please say that in the future. The idea that we cannot preceve reality is usually a precursor to some silly theory that can’t stand up to testing, like marxism. The Marxists propogated the whole class idea of consiousness so that they did not have to deal with critisism. Like wise the Nazis and the idea of racial logics etc. It is an idea that puts by back up.
that corect etc.
Well put Shannon, thanks. Two questions:
1. Since science has helped to prove that many of the superstitious claims of religion are false, and competing religion’s claims to be contradictory, then how can people go on teaching their kids to believe obviously false religious stories? My kids watch a lot of science shows and find things like the story of genesis to be ridiculous, and makes them suspect of the rest of religious claims – regardless of what I tell them. I don’t really have a choice, I have to come up with an alternative to religion regardless…and I imagine others are in a similar situation. Clinging to old religious tradition may not be a viable option anymore.
2. Group cooperation is often only offerred to other members of their religion or potential converts, and outsiders can be classified negatively and not deserving. In some cases wouldn’t this reduce cooperation to below that between secular societies? And now that we have the ability to cause armageddon doesn’t religion create more risk of societies with differring religions annihilating eachother? Again, a model that had worked well in the past may not necessarily work well in the present/future….
Wade, although you addressed Shannon with your question let me take a shot at your question re. teaching your children from the Bible.
One can explain that the book was written by men, inspired and wise men perhaps, but in the end they were people and it can seen to be largely fiction used to guide simpler people in an earlier time. Still, fiction can teach. The basic Christian believes that Christ was the best of teachers, an ideal that we would like to emulate, if we can. Hence the name Christian. Contradictory passages and views in the Bible are of far, far, smaller import than the belief that what Christ was (or even was portrayed as being) is a very good thing.
As for your second question: mercy and tolerance are rather central themes that Christ preached about and is core Christian doctrine, I believe.
Certainly a religious belief, acted upon by the believers, in daily life can lead to the survival and death of the believers and hence to the survival of the religion itself (social Darwinism, no?)
I’ve been interested, lately, in the time (+ -) of the reign of Elizabeth I. Eliz I permanently took England away from the Catholic religion. The Protestants largely settled N. America and Catholics largely took to S. America. Without wanting to be too jingoistic (or an annoyance to my Spanish speaking friends) I can’t help but note that N. America blossomed over the next couple of centuries to become an extraordinarily innovative and productive society. Not so much in South America. To what extent did the two religions play a part? Other factors such as differences in the natural resources played their part I’m sure. Did the religions produce different sorts of people and results?
A religion that emphasized internalizing responsibility, universalizing the concept of soul and therefore universalizing membership led to much that is good about the last two thousand years. Perhaps another path would have led to that same end, but I don’t think we can assume it. We all know cultures – sometimes the cultures of our friends and neighbors – that have one word for their tribe (one sometimes and roughly meaning “human beings”) and another for those not of it (one sometimes and roughly meaning “not human beings”). As warm as our relationships may be, we recognize we remain outsiders in certain ways; as warm as those relationships may be, we recognize a gut level sense that this division is true of our feelings as well – even if we hope (and perhaps pray) to reduce that feeling.
Instincts like that can only be tamed by a powerful feeling, ritual and tradition. Maybe these secular religions can work, but it certainly seems to me that assuming that the soul of their opposition is important – indeed, as important as their own – does not seem all that characteristic of the believers in secular “religions.” And if your answer is, sure, that’s because we don’t believe in that ghost, the soul, I can respond, that’s fine. But tell me what makes you honor yourself and them as religious people do by speaking of souls. Believing that our rights are god-given may not work for you and I don’t care. I do care, however, if you think they are not innate in the nature of man but rather the gift of your fellow citizens or of your government – or merely a momentary fiction characteristic of a short-lived time and place.
If all you meant was that we are good at deceving ourselves and the corect observation and deduction is hard work and that our means are some times limited, then fine, but please say that in the future.
That’s partially what I meant. I used the “encompass” to convey that we are anything close to omniscient. Most secular criticisms of religious moral rules contain the implicit assumption that any human can understand enough of the universe to predict the long-term consequences of adopting new moral codes. This is clearly incorrect. Logic is subordinate to data. Garbage in, garbage out.
For example, the standard argument against traditional morality usually takes the form of, “I can’t logically discern any harm in traditionally forbidden behavior X therefore no such harm exist.” It’s actually something of the inverse of the “God of the Gaps” argument used by theist which says that “If we don’t understand how a natural phenomena works, then that indicates god did it.” In both cases, the users of the argument turn their lack of information into confirmation.
We can probably eventually puzzle out the function of the behaviors that traditional moral codes foster but that will take time and experimentation. I think we’re just beginning to get an understanding of the basis of human behavior. Yet, the primary arguments against traditional morality have existed for centuries and they all assume that we can evaluate the utility of moral codes without experimental data.
Marxism is based upon this concept.
Since science has helped to prove that many of the superstitious claims of religion are false, and competing religion’s claims to be contradictory, then how can people go on teaching their kids to believe obviously false religious stories?
Science only shows the some religious cosmologies false if you start with the assumption that the divine has to operate though natural law. Modern science does not conflict with Buddhist cosmology and one can explain a literal Biblical creation by saying that God created the universe with the appearance of being old. Alternatively, one can view creation stories as allegory.
The more important effect, however, is that since the phenotype behaviors work in the real-world, people assume that the genotype stories are valid. We use this kind of reasoning in science as well. Since Newton’s equations for gravity worked, people assumed that his story i.e. that gravity was an instantaneous “force” that pulled objects with mass together, must have also been correct. Einstein showed that Newton’s story was incorrect and replaced it with one of his own. Future scientist will replace Einstein’s story with one of their own.
Group cooperation is often only offerred to other members of their religion or potential converts, and outsiders can be classified negatively and not deserving.
Remember that we shouldn’t think in absolute terms of cooperation but only relative advantage. Historically, religions with wider bounds of cooperation replace religions with narrower bounds.
In some cases wouldn’t this reduce cooperation to below that between secular societies?
I see no reason based on empirical evidence why we would expect secular societies i.e. societies in which most citizens are non-religious, to be more cooperative than religious societies. There are many types of exclusion and secular societies can fall prey to them. The very powerful forms of racism that we saw in the from roughly 1820-1945 was based on secular, pseudo-scientific ideas. Eugenics was a mainstream idea from the 1890’s until the 1930’s. Only religious groups like the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention opposed eugenics laws. Communism is a secular philosophy and they spent almost as much time fighting each other as non-Communist.
Secular societies might be more prone to anti-cooperative fads because secular ideas have no psychological inertia. Each generation believes that it can rewrite everything on the fly. People do not feel constrained by a moral authority greater than themselves.
Again, a model that had worked well in the past may not necessarily work well in the present/future….
Yeah, there’s the rub. Times and conditions change and behaviors that work in one environment will fail in another. Clearly, we have to change but the critical question is the mechanism of that change. To date, we have used mere logical deductions based highly incomplete information to decide which old behaviors to jettison and which new behaviors to adopt.
Shannon – some peripheral comments (hopefully followed by a more substantive observation in another comment).
I think that for all of human history, we’ve been looking at the question of religious diversity backwards.
What do you mean, “we,” Kemo Sabe?
Your observation about the common behavioral aspects of religions has been made before, most significantly by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. In fact, it’s the basis for his whole argument. From the first chapter:
Lewis wrote this in 1952, and it’s based on a series of radio talks he gave ten tears earlier, so it’s not a new or revolutionary idea. Obviously the inference Lewis drew from this idea was theological instead of evolutionary or memetic, but his observation on common behavioral codes is identical to yours.
The idea that religion is an evolutionary adaptation is not brand new either. David Sloan Wilson lays out his ideas on the subject here, referring to his 2003 book Darwin’s Cathedral.
Not that there may not be much more that could be written on the subject, and perhaps I’m missing part of the significance of you post, Shannon, but the basic idea seams to have been out there in the public discourse for several years now.
Unfortunately, it seems that many of the more insightful commentators like Wilson have been crowded out by Dawkins’ rantings. He may have actually succeeded in removing critical ideas from the discussion. Jerk.
Shannon: Congratulations, you have shown an understanding of religion that very few contemporary commenters have shown.
I an article: “One World, Under God” by Robert Wright in the Atlantic Monthly for April 2009. I was not impressed. I think he did not show the same level of understanding that you have.
“Instead of defaulting to the idea that each individual and even each generation can apprehend the long-term consequences of all behaviors and can therefore safely disregard the evolved behaviors of religion, we should assume that the universal behaviors that all religions share are necessary for a functioning society. We should only abandon that assumption after careful, long-term experimentation.”
What exactly is the proposal here? Some weird elite cabal who believes that religion is ultimately irrational but dupes the rest of us into keeping religion until it’s had time for “careful, long-term experimentation?”
The truth is, even if religion is functionally useful, each religion generally rests on a set of empirical assertions that have no relation to reality. Often discovering scientific truth means undermining religion because religious assertions, like most superstitions, are not generally careful to comport with reality. See evolution, the Copernican system, or more ancient examples, the discovery that the sun is not actually someone in a chariot flying around the world.
So I ask again: even if you’re right that religion is evolutionarily useful or even necessary, what exactly do you think we should do to avoid “abandoning” it until there’s been some experimentation?
What exactly is the proposal here? Some weird elite cabal…?
Well, okay, here’s some practical steps just off the top of my head:
* Don’t try to use the force of law to eliminate religious expression or ideas from the public square. Speak out and vote against any advocacy group or politician that tries to do so.
* Speak out, publicly and privately, against the pseudo-scientific idea that atheism or agnosticism inevitably implies that all religious traditions are useless or harmful. When someone defends atheism based on illogical, ascientific, or ahistorical arguments, call them on it.
* Look carefully at the ways in which various religious traditions encourage useful or adaptive behavior. Consider how those behaviors can be encouraged in your own life and in the lives of others in your sphere of influence. Share your successes (and failures) with others, both atheists and religious believers.
As Shannon has pointed out before, given that the number of dead bodies left behind by the explicitly atheist political systems of the 20th century pushes nine figures (far worse than even the ugliest religious atrocities, even if you count the Nazis as “Christians”), it’s pretty clear that any honest atheist needs to concede that some very important element has been left out of atheist thought and action. Just about any attempt at discovering that element seems a step in the right direction.
A lot of what I said is not original. The idea that all religions promote the same behaviors is not original, neither is the idea that religions serves some adaptive purpose.
The only possibly original idea I put forth is that the stories that religions tell, their genotypes, are wholly unrelated to their adaptive function. In principle, there are an unlimited number genotype stories but only a few specific phenotype behaviors. Any genotype story will work as long as it produces the necessary behaviors.
This is important because it shifts the debate away from the stories. Even the most devout person of any faith has to admit that most religious stories are fiction. They can’t all be correct because they contradict each other. This means that if we assume that the behaviors are adaptive only if the stories that create them are true, then we will abandon necessary behaviors for no good reason.
The truth is, even if religion is functionally useful, each religion generally rests on a set of empirical assertions that have no relation to reality.
Which is irrelevant. The stories do not have to be true in any sense in order to promote adaptive behaviors. Any debate centered on whether the stories are true is simply a pointless waste of time.
… even if you’re right that religion is evolutionarily useful or even necessary, what exactly do you think we should do to avoid “abandoning” it until there’s been some experimentation?
How about starting with morality pertaining to the responsibilities of adults towards children? In the past 40 years, we’ve seen the rise of a narcissistic morality that holds that (1) adults have no responsibility to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of their children and (2) rationalizes this by claiming that if the children won’t be happy unless the children are happy. We’ve conceptually separated marriage from children and instead centered the institution around making the individual adult happy. We’ve also become a culture with prizes impulsive, self-gratifying behavior over thoughtful self-denying behavior.
We’ve only been able physically to go as far as we have already due to technology mitigating the immediate harms of such behavior. The long-term harm we can only guess at but we can get a clue by looking at the contemporary poor. The traditional family has all but disappeared from the lives of the poor and it is the principle causes of persistent poverty. (Illegal Immigrants move out of poverty much faster than native born poor largely owing to the formers stronger families.)
We abandoned our previous behaviors based on the premises that (1) Since the genotype stories of religion and culture had no basis in fact that therefore the behaviors were not adaptive and (2) that if we could not see an immediate short-term harm then no harm existed.
Which is irrelevant. The stories do not have to be true in any sense in order to promote adaptive behaviors. Any debate centered on whether the stories are true is simply a pointless waste of time.
My point is not that the stories must be true to change behavior, but that people must believe they are true in order for it to affect their behavior. You can’t tell a Christian “listen, the Bible is completely made up but you should still continue to live as if it were true because it is useful generally for society.”
That being said, is it really true that debating whether the stories are true is a pointless waste of time? I think you may be right it is a waste of time to go around disputing the truth of these stories just to do it. But the point I was trying to make was that it is often unavoidable! The evolution debate is a perfect example. We have this scientific understanding of life that conflicts directly with the literal Christian reading. So yes, maybe it’s a waste of time to debate over whether Jesus Christ really existed, or was really crucified, or said what he said. But unless you think it’s a waste of time to understand the origin of life, it cannot be a waste of time to debate over whether God really did create Adam and Eve out of dust, or whether we evolved from other primates.
Finally, I think debating one inherently means debating the other. Again using Christianity as an example, in some abstract sense there’s no reason that disproving the creation story has to undermine the story of Jesus Christ. However, the whole basis of the religion is that the Bible is the word of God and contains perfect truth. When one part of it is disproven, it becomes unclear why the rest of it continues to hold validity.
Upon a second, more careful reading of the post, I think my comment is a little off-point. However, I think I can save myself (somewhat) here.
You seem to be arguing for preserving religiously motivated behavior as opposed to preserving religion. Please forgive me if I’m wrong, but a simplistic way of phrasing what you’re arguing for would be:
1) Behavior A is supported by all religions, so it must be desirable; BUT
2) We cannot (or perhaps just have not yet) articulated a rationale separate from religion for why this particular behavior is useful; AND
3) The religious reasons for this behavior are totally irrelevant; THEREFORE,
4) We should continue to engage in this behavior because it is likely that this behavior is socially desirable because all religions supported it.
I just don’t think this line of logic is particularly convincing. By that, I do not mean simply that I am not convinced (because I am actually somewhat convinced). Instead, I mean that I’m not sure this kind of reasoning can effectively change behavior.
Anonymous: And the need to prove the entire bible to be true leads to things like the Creation Museum and the purposeful closing of the minds of youths to experimental inquiry. For example, a friend is the chief curator of our city’s science museum, and he says his most challenging task is trying to answer the questions from the kids on the creation tours who have been told that all the museum’s displays are lies. What are the costs of such beliefs? How many of those youths could have contributed to the advancement of knowledge thru open inquiry instead? Clearly, we need something new….
I just don’t think this line of logic is particularly convincing. By that, I do not mean simply that I am not convinced (because I am actually somewhat convinced). Instead, I mean that I’m not sure this kind of reasoning can effectively change behavior.
Yes, I agree. I am not at all sure that an intellectual understanding of consequences is sufficient to control behavior. If it was, we’d all be thin, exercise a lot and use condom whenever we had non-monogamous sex. These are all behaviors that have firm scientific evidence today and yet people find it had to control their base impulses. It might be that you can’t control base behavior except with some kind of mystical carrot and stick. I like to think not but then the universe has demonstrated repeatedly it doesn’t give a damn about what I think.
I don’t think, however, that science dooms religion. Religious people and religions adapt to changing scientific reality. The Catholic Church believes that evolutionary theory is in keeping with its doctrine. Other sects take view that the genotype stories in the bible are allegories and that the real revealed truth of the bible is the phenotype behaviors. Buddhism is largely immune to scientific refutation because of its vague cosmology and mechanism of moral consequence. Chinese culture also has a fairly unique way of handling the intersection between mystical and secular matters that might prove useful.
If I’m right, then any long-term deviation from adaptive behaviors will autocorrect via natural selection. Communities that lack the adaptive behaviors will fail. We are already seeing that to a great extent among the poor. If maladaptive behaviors become associated with the poor and adaptive ones with the rich, then people will copy the adaptive behaviors. People also see the negative consequences of certain behaviors and change their own behavior accordingly. This is a big part of what happened in the 80’s as people reacted to the excesses of the 60’s-70’s.Of course, a lot of damage could be done before the correction kicks in.
Thanks, Shannon. That was useful. Though agnostic, I can’t help noticing how badly many unchurched people behave.The religious, at the least, pay lip service to proper behavior. I think people who push atheism are damned fools.
“It might be that you can’t control base behavior except with some kind of mystical carrot and stick. I like to think not but then the universe has demonstrated repeatedly it doesn’t give a damn about what I think.”
I’m just not sure employing mystical incentives is really all that possible in any conscious sort of way. Well I guess it’s possible and probably has happened, but I think we start experiencing a lot of additional costs if religion is deliberately used by some who don’t believe in it with the express purpose of controlling other people.
“I don’t think, however, that science dooms religion. Religious people and religions adapt to changing scientific reality. The Catholic Church believes that evolutionary theory is in keeping with its doctrine. Other sects take view that the genotype stories in the bible are allegories and that the real revealed truth of the bible is the phenotype behaviors. Buddhism is largely immune to scientific refutation because of its vague cosmology and mechanism of moral consequence. Chinese culture also has a fairly unique way of handling the intersection between mystical and secular matters that might prove useful.”
Well that is I think both true and false. I’m no expert on the history of the decline of religion, but I think it’s safe to say that the ancient Greek religion could never have survived the discovery that the sun was not actually a chariot being pulled around by flying horses. Of course Christianity has shown itself highly adaptable (though not with executing some scientists along the way) to new science, but if, for example, it were discovered that Jesus Christ was not actually a real person, that would be a pretty difficult blow for Christianity to recover from.
“If I’m right, then any long-term deviation from adaptive behaviors will autocorrect via natural selection. Communities that lack the adaptive behaviors will fail. We are already seeing that to a great extent among the poor. If maladaptive behaviors become associated with the poor and adaptive ones with the rich, then people will copy the adaptive behaviors. People also see the negative consequences of certain behaviors and change their own behavior accordingly. This is a big part of what happened in the 80’s as people reacted to the excesses of the 60’s-70’s.Of course, a lot of damage could be done before the correction kicks in.”
I guess I am not sure how much you can link religion to these adaptive behaviors, actually. At least not in a natural selection sense. I have no real background in the science of the issue, but what I have read as a layman convinces me that it is more likely that religion is somewhat inherent to humans as a byproduct of our biology and our intelligence. In that case, religion is a constant, not really a variable among societies. At that point, only the kind of religion would matter, not the fact of religion itself. Obviously it would be uncontroversial to assert that it is more beneficial for a religion to encourage social cooperation instead of random murder.
And, I guess, to take it on another tack, I’ll undermine my last paragraph. I’m also just not entirely convinced that the empirical basis of your argument is true. My understanding has been that China and the countries that were under its cultural influence do not really have religion in the sense that you’re talking about – a carrot and stick type thing. I know you indicate Buddhism and karma, but my understanding has been that Buddhism has not been integrated into the culture of that region in the same way Christianity has been integrated into Western culture. I would say the more accurate analog in Eastern culture would be Confucianism, which I do not think would qualify as a religion in the sense that we are discussing it here.
I have no real background in the science of the issue, but what I have read as a layman convinces me that it is more likely that religion is somewhat inherent to humans as a byproduct of our biology and our intelligence.
I think the basic form of religion might be hardwired. I don’t think we are hardwired to believe in supernatural forces. After all, if it was hardwired, agnostics and atheist would have to constantly suppress the feeling that something divine existed. I think that a lot of people examining the biological roots of religious belief reverse cause and effect. Religions don’t exist because of hardwiring, they exist because of natural selection operating on behaviors. Hardwiring merely influences the form of the genotype story.
I think the idea that religious behavior is hardwired is simply an attempt to reduce religious people to the status of mere animals and to elevate atheist to the status of the only truly human. We should hope that religious behavior is not hardwired because if it is we will simply replace religions with some kind of dangerous secular dogmatism.
My understanding has been that China and the countries that were under its cultural influence do not really have religion in the sense that you’re talking about – a carrot and stick type thing.
China’s and the rest Confucian Asia has a religious culture that is much different from that seen elsewhere but the same basic mechanism of supernatural moral consequence still functions. You can see this most clearly in the concept that a ruler who governs incompetently or cruelly will “lose the mandate of heaven.” Taoism uses a moral physics mechanism like Buddhism. China is simply stuffed with Gods of all sorts and most believed that the spirits of ancestors rewarded and punished good behavior.
The major difference between Confucian Asia and the Western world is that it tolerates a multiplicity of religious beliefs not only for society but also for individuals. Before communism, most Chinese governments paid little attention to religion as long as adherents acknowledge the legitimacy of the government. This maybe because China has always been an empire ruling diverse peoples. The anti-christian elements of the Boxer Rebellion were an exception. Korea has traditionally enforced fairly strict religious conformity to to Korea’s native religion but that religion has a loophole that lets people also adopt tenets from other faiths. Shinto and Buddhism integrated flawlessly in Japan but Christians were ruthlessly suppressed.
I realize that this comments thread is getting stale by now, but I still want to make the “more substantive” comment that I mentioned earlier.
You touch briefly in several places on the relationship between genetic behavioral drives and memetic/religious imperatives, but I don’t see where you say why cooperation and self sacrifice shouldn’t be in our genes to begin with. If the religious phenotype is so advantageous, why shouldn’t it be one of our biological drives, rather than requiring a set of ideas that frequently have to battle against those drives.
So here’s my idea (or maybe it’s your idea and it’s taken me four days to grasp it):
Genetic selection by definition only operates on an individual and his/her direct descendants. Accordingly, genetic selection is inherently “selfish”; the adaptive fitness of the population or culture at large only affects my genetic success insofar as it affects the survival of me and my family. Given this set of evolutionary pressures, cooperation will only be adaptive in some cases, and true self sacrifice will be selected against in all but the most extreme circumstances, such as saving the lives of one’s children.
Ideas, in contrast, spread by “contagion” and therefore have a much more complicated environment for determining fitness. If my beliefs prompt me to sacrifice myself in the defense of others, I won’t have any more biological children, but countless people may be more receptive to my ideas — in part because their own genetic drive for self preservation predisposes them to think well of me.
Because of these different fitness functions, our genes and our memes are naturally adversarial. The ideas that I receive from society are primarily a function of how effectively they allowed groups or cultures to survive and prosper, while the mind that receives those ideas is primarily the result of the selective survival of individuals.
So why are our consciences so often at war with our desires? Yes, in part it’s because some biological drives are no longer adaptive — preference for high fat foods, for example. But also it’s because our minds and our bodies really are at war. Our genetic ids and our memetic superegos disagree so often because they’re playing by two different sets of rules. Neither one can “win” in the long run, since human survival requires both viable individuals and viable societies; sacrifice either one and you won’t have many offspring or followers a hundred years from now. In the mean time, however, we’re stuck in the middle while the two forces struggle interminably to find an optimum balance point.
Part of me thinks this idea is absurd and part of me finds it a compelling insight into the human condition.
Our genetic ids and our memetic superegos disagree so often because they’re playing by two different sets of rules.
Freudian nomenclature aside, you are substantially correct. We require cooperation to survive but our genes are inherently selfish. We do have genes that foster cooperation but selfish genes predominate. In nature, selfishness and cooperation have at best a 51%-49% split.
We have culture in the first place in order to override our genetic impulses. If our genes could guide us in all circumstances, we would have wasted the energy on evolving giant brains whose primary function is the manipulation of other humans.
I don’t think that physiology generates a belief in the supernatural. Instead, the story genotypes evolve to forms most easily accepted by the hardwire of the brain. It would be just like our art only uses colors the hardwire of our eyes can easily discern and separate. Different animals can see different colors and different range of spectra. Bees see in ultraviolet and flowers look much different to bees. If we encounter aliens who see in a different spectra their art will be much different than ours.
The idea that our biology and our genes are at war with each other dates back to the first Aldous Huxley. I think that the idea of Original Sin (and similar ideas that are universal) reflect this struggle. The idea of Original Sin holds that all humans are inherently prone to selfish act. This is reflects the selfish nature of the genes that create the foundations of our behavior.
I’ll write a post about this idea in the future.
You might want to look up a small book which recounts a debate between Habermas and Ratzinger. They debated:
Does the free secularized state exist on the basis of normative presuppositions that it itself cannot guarantee? This question expresses a doubt about whether the democratic constitutional state can renew from its own resources the normative presuppositions of its existence, it also expresses the assumption that such a state is dependent on ethical traditions of a local nature.
It seems like you’d suggest the answer is … no, and that argued from a secular viewpoint.
Sorry, I think that “no” should be “yes”. I missed the “cannot”.
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