Giving religion its evolutionary due

December 29, 2007 | By | 12 Replies More

If you’re tired of hearing heated yet worn-out arguments regarding religion and science, check out this intellectually nimble and energized exchange published by Responses by David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, P. Z. Myers and Mark D.  Hauser to Jonathon Haidt’s “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.”  Here’s a link to Haidt’s original article (“Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.”).

David Sloan Wilson sets the tone by challenging “the new atheists” to answer all four of the following questions:

1. Is there any empirically verifiable evidence for the existence of supernatural agents?
2.  If not, how can we explain the phenomenon of religion in naturalistic terms?
3.  What are the impacts of religion, good or bad, on human welfare?  and
4.  How can we use our understanding of religion to advance the goals of a stable and peaceful society?

Wilson argues that the new atheists sometimes neglect questions 2, 3 and 4.  “This is like a debater leaving the debate after the opening round.”

For his part, Sam Harris reaches even deeper than usual in two his arsenal of weapons to present the many stupidities exhibited by many religions.  In the process, Harris suggests that Haidt had incorrectly argued that all religious ways of life contains some wisdom and insights.  In his response, Haidt makes it clear that he is suggesting no such thing.  I won’t review the challenges and criticisms issued by the other reviewers point by point, but I’ll skip to Haidt’s response. 

Those who have followed my readings on Haidt already know that I think that he (energized by the ideas of David Sloan Wilson) is especially interesting on the topics of religion and morality in that he makes a more serious effort than most writers to explore whether evolutionary functions can be gleaned from the ubiquitous displays of religion.  Here is an excerpt from Haidt:

I used to dislike all religions, back when I thought of them as systems of belief that help individuals understand the world and cope with the unknown.  After reading Durkheim and D.S. Wilson, I now think of religions first and foremost as coordination devices that bind people together into moral communities with effects that are mostly good for the members, although sometimes terrible for deviants and for neighboring groups.

Haidt agrees with David Sloan Wilson that scientists and evolutionary theorists need to reconsider groups as “emergent entities that have unique properties and regulatory mechanisms.”  The dispute over group selection is a long and hotly contested one and evolutionary circles.  The issue is one of whether “tribes really do compete.”  Haidt argues that there is now a thriving field of behavioral economics and that scientists are now starting to look in the right places for group level effects (e.g., mechanisms that bind people together and suppress free riders).

There is much evidence to consider on the issue of whether religion truly benefit society, as described by Michael Shermer.  On the “good side,” a study by Arthur Brooks shows that “religious conservatives donate 30% more money than liberals and nonreligious people, they get more blood and logged more volunteer hours.  By a wide margin they report that they are much happier than nonbelievers.  On the “evil side,” Gregory Paul’s 2005 data from the Journal of religion in society demonstrates “an inverse correlation between religiosity and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, a life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and teen pregnancy).

Haidt is convinced that the charitable imbalance between atheists and believers is enormous and that religious communities are akin to a hive full of bees who, more readily than nonbelievers, “toil to build their common hive” and to build churches in faraway lands to “found new colonies.” Religious communities are undoubtedly more highly coordinated than most secular communities.  “Religions, generally speaking, work to suppress our inner chimp and bring out our inner bee.”

I respect many of Haidt’s ideas because I have also witnessed what he has witnessed about many religious communities:

I have gained new respect for religion as I came to see it as a complex of coevolved jeans and cultural innovations for binding people together and in viewing them with a sense of community and collective purpose, immune to the sense of pointlessness and isolation that engulfed me in high school. 

Haidt, an avowed atheist, adds a huge asterisk to this observation when he notes that the “suppression of selfishness within groups is purchased by the increased likelihood of righteous nastiness across groups and toward internal deviants.”

The tribal tendencies that accompany religious belief create powerful feelings of belonging that create enormous benefits for the participants.  Religious communities “idealize interdependence and try to raise their kids that way.  They want them to be enmeshed in extended kin networks and congregations where everyone can ask for help from anyone and everyone is expected to give such help.” It is because of this cohesive power of religions that Haidt would be hesitant to wave a magic wand (assuming he has such a wand) to turn all believers into atheists.

Contrast the cohesiveness of believers with the typical groups of skeptical nonbelievers, who “idealize independence, which maximizes our freedom and creativity.”  For nonbelievers, self-sufficiency is often considered to be a good thing.  “But when you don’t expect to need others, you are less likely to be generous to others.”

I’ve seen it over and over.  A member of a religious congregation is in an accident or becomes sick or loses his or her job. What follows is quite a spectacle: dozens of people who barely know this person, except that they are members of the same congregation, come forth to bring food, money and support.  How many times have have you seen nonreligious intellectuals, those who espouse high principles, consciously ignoring the needs of human beings who live in their community, or even in the same building?

For me, the above evidence requires us to take a serious new look at religion through the viewpoint of group selection.  For further readings on this topic, consider the recent article by David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology,” from the Quarterly Review of Biology.  See also this earlier post I wrote on Haidt’s analysis of conservative versus liberal sources of morality. and this post on David Sloan Wilson’s evolutionary analysis of religion.


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Category: Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (12)

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  1. Years ago I was an intern in Egypt and of course I couldn't help noticing the smell of religion in the air that pervades everythings. You can't miss morning prayer with the muezzin calling the believers from the mosque in the neighboring parallel street. The majority of people who live and grew up there take religion seriously. When the secretary for our project, an Egyptian who had gone to a German school and if I remember correctly experienced a more Western education through nuns, told me that she prayed five times a day I was surprised. I didn't expected it.

    Egypt is a poor country with no state supported welfare system to catch you. I remember having a talk with an Egyptian who told me something like, "Nobody here will die of hunger. There's is always someone from his family or another Egyptian who will give him some food. It's part of our religion and faith." Giving to the poor is part of the five pillars of Islam and people are faithful and do it. They also seem way more acceptable of people with disabilities and do not exclude them from the public.

    Concerning petty crimes it's also a quite safe place. I've never worried about bag-snatcher as I might in Italy. Rape was also not really one of my worries. People just don't do these things. We still have the hustlers and scammers, who are one of the worst people I've ever met personally, but people in general are ok.

    So, while I'm personally not fond of religion I think it can be useful and be the kind of social glue that makes a society more human, in that case it has a genuine practical purpose. Actually, I just remembered an article I read a long time ago where the author explained how many religious traditions and commandments had their origin in practical reasons that eased the burdens of everyday life and that maintaining some of these traditions actually didn't make that much sense, because their raison d'être had ceased to exist. One example he gave was the kosher butchering of animals in Judaism and Islam (I know it does not have the same name, but they also cut the throat of the animal and let it bleed). I don't remember his explanation why this is an outdated tradition anymore though.

  2. Alison says:

    I think there are a couple of mistaken assumptions here. First of all, religion is not the same as community. The phenomenon you've seen about church members helping others stems quite a bit from the fact that the community is made aware of the needs of others across the board. The information is publicly disseminated, but you will find that the altruistic acts are done over and over by a core group of people. Many of these people are also known outside of their churches as people who are equally willing to help in their other communities – families, friends, clubs, etc. Were the religion itself the motivator, there would be even more people donating their help. Without the religion, many of these people would still be inclined to help when they discovered a need. The key is that a community provides a network for those who wish to help to find those who need it. As for a moral reason, is it superfluous yet to point out the Westboro Baptist Church is a community based very strictly on religious morals; or that much of the teaching of morality in religious communities is identical to the morality of a geographic population or is passed on from its leaders by convoluting sacred text – or avoiding portions of it – to fit what the group was already inclined to believe?

    The studies about the monetary generosity or number of volunteer hours of religious community members vs. nonreligious individuals is also factually skewed. It's very easy to count up the monies received by organizations that receive a religious tax exemption and label it all as charitable giving by believers. As well, their records would show estimated man-hours donated for various causes, and the simplest calculation would be to assume that the volunteers are the same or similar denomination as the organization. Then. . ."whatever's left is what the atheists gave," a specious, misleading calculation. Not only does money and time that benefits only the reporting organization become "charitable", but the religious affiliation of donors of time and money is almost never asked, and therefore impossible to track with any accuracy.

    The true cause of good works and moral actions is rooted in the community and the attachment to it by motivated individuals. Religion is simply one of many glues that can hold a group of people together. It can be good in the same way that many secular groups will use a shared talent to benefit people who need it (Sewing guilds, knitting guilds, and quilting guilds regularly provide items to people in need) or bad in the same way that it gathers people of a similar mind to reinforce their negative feelings or goals (like the Aryan Nation, or Army of God).

    As a community, religious groups have been around longer, have established physical presences, network across geographical limits, and are therefore easier to point to as a source of good, even though there are other communities that demonstrate the same type of moral cohesion. To give them credit on the basis of their dogma rather than their function as a community grants them too much, and takes away the value of community itself.

  3. Ben says:

    [Sam Harris] 

    The point is not that we atheists can prove religion to be the cause of more harm than good (though I think this can be argued, and the balance seems to me to be swinging further toward harm each day). The point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it.

    As luck would have it, Haidt comes to this debate in the guise an increasingly familiar "straw man"—that of the liberal, atheist scientist who would deliver us to the threshold of moral relativism, if not across it, with the best of intentions.

    Haidt concludes his essay with this happy blandishment: "every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing." Surely we can all agree about this. Our bets have been properly hedged (the ideology must be "longstanding" and need only have "some" wisdom). Even a "new atheist" must get off his high horse and drink from such pristine waters. Well, okay…

    Anyone feeling nostalgic for the "wisdom" of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there's nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to "suppress selfishness" and convey a shared sense of purpose.

  4. Jonathan Haidt: "I am motivated neither to convict nor to acquit, but if religion is to be subject to trial by science, I want the trial to be fair. Until we acknowledge a latent prejudice, however, we will have trouble understanding the accused." I found this statement to be refreshingly honest, but still lacking authority. I am reminded of the man that came to Jesus and asked him to tell his brother to do what was right about a matter of their inheritance. Jesus' response was, "Who made me a judge or divider over you?". My question, drawing on Haidt's statement: Who made scientists, especially the so-called New Atheists, judges and dividers of religious matters, much less spiritual matters?

  5. Vicki Baker says:

    Ben, Sam Harris once again misses the point of what Haidt is saying about the importance of religion in creating communities that promote altruism. And once again, Harris feels free to refute those who provide actual data with nothing more than his opinion and appeals to emotion.

    Allison, I agree with you that religion and culture completely interpenetrate each other, so trying to tease out what behavior is caused by religion and which by culture is completely useless. Consider for example how a Nigerian Catholic is probably going to have much more in common with her fellow Nigerians than with an American Catholic. The achievement of religion is to create the possibility of a community where the Nigerian and the American are bound together.

    Allison also says:

    "religion is not the same as community"

    Who said that it was? It's easy to say, well we can have all the beneficial effects of religious community without the dogma, but who is stepping up to the plate to create secular organizations with anything approaching the binding force of religion? And will these organizations be as radically non-merit based as religious groups? Churches do hold out a potential welcome to the smelliest, weirdest, most outcast members of society. (I remember how I used to hate it when my dad would invite the smelly drunks who wandered into church back home with us for Sunday dinner)

    My sense is that the nearer any secular group approaches to the binding force of religion, the more it will be troubled by the very same dangers we see in religion-based communities.

    And the fact is that many religious organizations have defused these dangers in terms of their impact on people outside their community.

  6. I'm not sure if I have fully understood Alison's criticism. I saw Erich's post as a reminder that religion in communities can have a meaningful purpose, namely to create a powerful community spirit, and that's something that you do not always achieve with other group denominators. Not everybody is drawn to sewing, quilting or knitting. Groups can be exclusive and unbalanced regarding gender or age. A mutually shared idea of spirituality is probably stronger to create a sense of community if you want to encompass various groups.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Ben: Harris came roaring in with LOTS of evidence that many religions are rife with silly beliefs, violence, bigotry and violation of basic human dignity.

    In his response, Haidt agreed. It's a non-issue (in this discussion) that many religions are so dysfunctional. For every destructive thing people do in the name of religion (and, again, there are many such things), people do wonderful self-sacrifice in the name of religion (though it SOOOO often happens to be self-sacrifice to benefit members of the in-group).

    I'm not completely convinced that Haidt solves the problem by making the distinction between "fundamentalist" and "non-fundamentalist" religions, but it's a distinction that makes good sense to me.

    I set out some of Haidt's discussion of fundamentalism here:

  8. Alison says:

    The reason I pointed out a couple of nonreligious groups was simply to make an example of how a community formed by a commonality other than religion often does the same good as a community joined by religion (and the flip side, like isolationist or hate-based organizations) The arguments that religion itself was the root cause of the good things that sprang from the community struck me as false, so I was trying to point out that it's not the thing that creates or holds the community together that makes it good, but the community and the people within it. By saying that religion is good because it creates a community of people who do good works you're misleading by giving only a tiny part of the picture, just as you do when you state that religious people are more generous to charity because charitable donations to religious organizations outnumber those to specifically secular ones. (I mean you in the generic sense, of course, not indicating anyone in particular, dontchaknow.)

    I have been an active volunteer, and donater to charities, both as a church member and as an atheist. I've seen where the money goes, who gets the help, and who puts in the man-hours, and this is not an issue that can be painted with a broad brush. When it is, and is presented as a clear, inarguable benefit of religion, I'm afraid I have difficulty keeping quiet about it.

  9. Vicki Baker says:

    Alison, it seems that you're defining religion as a set of propositions, and insisting that the community created around those beliefs is somehow separate. I don't think it makes sense to do that. How the community is organized, how decisions are made, how teaching takes place, the rituals that bind the community together, the daily practices required of believers – these are all part of what defines a particular religious group. I think Haidt is simply saying that if Harris and co. want to confront religion, they should be willing to look at real data on the role of religion in society and not keep sputtering about how "science must destroy religion, blah blah blah"

    you’re misleading by giving only a tiny part of the picture, just as you do when you state that religious people are more generous to charity because charitable donations to religious organizations outnumber those to specifically secular ones

    I don't think Brooks is basing his claim completely on the total number of donations to religious vs. secular organizations. I'm not sure how he conducted his research but one of his claims is that, on an individual basis, religious conservatives give more to secular organizations.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Allison: Thank you for your thoughtful comments regarding this post.

    I am sympathetic with many of the arguments you make. Here is how I would resolve one apparent difference: I think that many religions and many informal clubs (such as sewing guilds) have a lot in common. They can both serve as "glues that can hold a group of people together."

    I visualize the various kinds of social organizations (religious and otherwise) as lying along a continuum. At one extreme we have informal groups where people sometimes come together to engage in a common endeavor that might even be whimsical or recreational. On the other hand, we have religions, which come in two extremes. Sometimes they are loosely-organized, essentially-consensual and friendly gatherings akin to social clubs, where people "hang out" without any deep commitment to the literalness of ancient writings or any inclination to dramatically change their lives by reference to any rules promulgated by the religion. Other religions are guilt-inducing terror-mongering highly-structured organizations where ostentatious authority figures promulgate rigid rules pertaining to lifestyle and where members are required to pledge unwavering allegiance to oxymoronic and unsubstantiated articles of faith.

    In my mind, then, religious moderates can be a lot like those people you mentioned in the sewing and knitting clubs. In my mind, however, fundamentalists (and I understand that the distinction is not always an easy one) are a different kind of animal. There is something about that cocktail those fundamentalist churches serve up (the dogma, the terror, the presentation by unabashed authority figures) that completely stifles skepticism and turns the members into something that reminds me of zombies.

    Religion-lite doesn't have this effect of dramatically shutting down the intellect whereas fundamentalism does. For better or worse, high-octane religion has the effect of taking a group of individuals and channeling their energies toward group purposes. A good analogy would be the trillions of cells in one's body. They have evolved to work together, in most cases forfeiting their rights to replicate new bodies (most of cells can only create specialized cells like themselves, not entire bodies-this privilege is reserved for the gametes). So how was it that this deal was cut? David Sloan Wilson would suggest that much like natural selection plays a key role in turning trillions of cells into a coordinated body, natural selection also plays a key role in turning numerous individual humans into a "super organism" that often takes the form of a religious community. His recent writings challenge the new atheists to take his proposal seriously. After all, religion is ubiquitous and it can require a huge investment of time and energy. Whenever you see this tandem, you should ask the question seriously: is the phenomenon functional in an evolutionary sense? Is religion adaptive, at least in some of its manifestations?

    By the way, David Sloan Wilson is not suggesting that religious doctrines need to be literally true in order for this dramatic effect to occur. Even with oxymoronic and unsubstantiated supernatural claims, the power of religions can be amazing.

    So I think you're right about some religions-they do seem to be a lot like casual social clubs. Other religions, however, are more successful at getting their members to turn off their individual wants and needs and turning those energies toward the alleged common good. Members of sewing clothes do pursue group endeavors, but they don't do so "religiously." When a member of a sewing club falls ill, the members might visit that member in the hospital and they might bring some food over for awhile while the person recuperates, this is true enough. There is something extra going on, however, when the more virulent forms of religion take hold. I've seen it repeatedly, where people who don't know each other (except by being members of the religious organization) will drop what they're doing and incur substantial individual detriment in order to serve the needs of the religious community, even for months or years.

    Human animals are rigged so that we are highly social and we can find many excuses and situations for being social. As I suggest above, however, there is something about the "cocktail" served up by some religions that causes their members to go way beyond the sorts of commitments typically tolerated by members of sewing clubs. I think you're right, that much of this ability to get the group to fall in line has to do with the physical presence of religious communities. They work hard to make sure that the members spend time with each other, week after week, inside church and outside of church. This provides (as you suggest) a ready network for those who wish to find help or need help, complete with a wide audience of other church members ready to applaud or express disapproval based upon the conduct displayed by individual church members. I don't think any of this can be over-emphasized when comparing the power of some religious organizations with the relative lack of commitment of many other social organizations.

    I think you're also correct to point out that there are unsettled issues raised by claims that religious people are more charitable. Many of these issues have been batted around by the writers who responded to Jonathon Haidt's original article. I would like to go back to the studies and look at the data more carefully; I'm not completely sold on the claim that religious people are generally more charitable. Based upon Haidt's writings, however, it appears that many religious folks are, at least in some ways, more willing to give to others than nonreligious folks. One reason that I give some credence to this claim (that religious people are more generous) is that it is my general experience, although I realize that this is all anecdotal. I do have some things I am tempted to say about the types of charity done by fundamentalists versus political liberals, but I need to do some more research before I commit to those positions.

    Thank you for taking the time to write. Your thoughtful comments have helped me to focus better on these fascinating issues.

  11. Alison says:

    Yes, it looks like you understand where I'm coming from. One of the reasons a religious organization might seem more of a beneficial community is that it has a structure, defined positions, and expectations of people in those positions. There are groups that handle outreach (sometimes sub-groups within that depending on the size of the congregation and the number of activities), there will be a group that is assigned to specific members to call and check up, keep people informed of events, pass on their needs to the rest of the congregation, and so on. In a group organized around something less structured, nobody will have duties like these, and a member may or may not step up to the plate to take charge. However, a person who is inclined to reach out and help will do so no matter where. In a congregation of over a thousand people, you could draw a Venn diagram of the various functions people participated in, and it would almost be an ordinary circle. Most of these people, in addition to doing something for the church every day and night of the week, would also be involved in helping outside of it. It's just the personality type.

    I haven't looked to see if Haidt is using the study that came out a couple of years ago, but the one that first got my dander up was indeed a flawed methodology. The definition of charitable giving included a broad swath of financial donations that went to the churches and their upkeep, and no apparent tracking of the religious denomination or lack thereof of contributors. It relied mostly on reported numbers, and had an extremely small sampling of actual individual interviews. The study immediately was used by certain theists to further demonize non-theists (and non-monotheists, and non-Christian-monotheists, for that matter). It was more of a sound bite they could use rather than a valuable piece of information, and since I was actively engaged in many hours of volunteer work every week, and was also a contributor to a number of charities (often anonymously), I took umbrage at being called a heartless, selfish atheist.

    It did, however, provide impetus to a number of nonreligious groups to organize and donate time and money so that their contributions would be more visible, though. I'm not sure that there will ever be communities of the nonreligious with the organization and structure of a church or temple, because nonbelief alone isn't enough to unite people, but every little bit helps.

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