L7 with lytic virus. Magnified 400x. Photo by Mr D Logan Not to be confused with Buddhism.
I see that Daniel Dennett has a book out imminently treating religion as a natural phenomenon. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s happened, but rather that it’s taken so long for someone to do this. I’m interested in the function of religion, but some debates get bogged down in specific content. This is a problem because adherents to a particular religion get upset at being analysed, as would most people. But if you do believe in a god or gods, then it would seem reasonable to conclude that 99% of humans who have existed have worshipped false gods. Nevertheless, seeing as we lack a unified world religion, it seems that the actual existence of a god is unnecessary for a religion to work. There is perhaps little puzzle about how a religion with a genuine god would survive, but isn’t it a fascinating social process that others can build whole societies on gods that have never existed?
Most stridently Richard Dawkins has argued that religion persists because it is a virus of the mind. This has upset Alister McGrath who notes “As everyone knows viruses are bad things; they are contagious parasitic entities which exploit their hosts.” (Dawkins’ God 2005 p135). Some of McGrath’s opposition seems to be that Dawkins is being mean. I’d agree that describing religious instruction as child-abuse isn’t going to win any awards for diplomacy, but that alone isn’t going to aid the argument. He is better when regarding the persistence of religions:
“If religion is reported as having a positive impact on human well-being by 79 percent of recent studies in the field, how can it conceivably be analogous to a virus? Viruses are meant to be bad for you. So just how many viruses have a positive impact on their hosts? Far from being something which reduces the survival value of the host, belief in God is something that enhances psychic survival.”
There are holes in the argument but there are two big hits in here. One is the positive effect of religion. It is possible to argue over the relevance of the benefits being studied to religion but combined with the sentence “, belief in God is something that enhances
psychic survival” (I’ve scratched ‘psychic’ because there’s no reason to use it) you have a problem. Of the ancient human societies, the ones that survived were all societies with a concept of the divine and of those at least all but one were mistaken in that belief. If religion is maladaptive then how can you explain the survival of erroneous religions?
There must be many reasons, but one I want to look at is reproduction. It’s going to be a simple and flawed model of society I use. If you like you can add comments at the bottom saying “that doesn’t work because you haven’t allowed for…” You’ll probably be right, this isn’t a final theory of religious reproduction. There are a couple of foundations for my model.
1. The model society I’m considering is an archaic society.
I’d be tempted to say it’s in biblical times, except I’d like to make this clear, it isn’t directly analogous to Christianity or Judaism any more than it is to Olympian religion. It’s a generic religious belief and hence unrealistic. You may or may not be able to extrapolate beliefs of this society to the modern world.
2. The society is pretty much male. Women exist, but only in relation to males.
This may annoy you. The reason I’m making this assumption is that major religions do seem to be more onerous on woman than men. If we were talking about a genuine religion one reason for that could be that the Gods are less tolerant of women. But this society stands for one of the many with false beliefs. You may be aware of an ancient religion with a female head and proto-feminist believes. I know the earth goddess cult which is popular among some modern pagans might be an example of this. Personally I’m not sure that depictions of women necessary show that they were in control. Quite a few Mediterranean civilisations were big on depicting bulls or calves. I’m pretty certain the head priest wasn’t bovine. Even if some religions were gynocentric, I’m afraid that the written evidence would suggest that it was more often a man’s world.
I’m not writing off the whole of ancient female experience, but for the purposes of a simple model I’m not including it. Adding in a feminine perspective would be an interesting task for later, because it’s hard to build up a convincing argument while ignoring 50% of humanity.
So consider the married man in the ancient world. His wife has children, but how does he know they are his? Belief in a divinity that watches over moral behaviour would provide support for the belief they are his. Such a man may provide more diligently for the children than one who harboured doubts*. As for the woman it is necessary, from the male point of view, that she beliefs that transgressions are observed as this adds a further likelihood that infidelities will be discovered.
This becomes an issue at marriage. In the ancient world marriage was in some ways a commercial deal between two families. Part of the family’s wealth was to be invested in strangers with the intention that offspring would be produced. If you are looking for a wife, who is the more attractive proposition? To take two extreme examples, the pious woman or the faithless woman? To provide the best household for a son, father would do best to marry his sons to women who appear to be pious. To make his own daughters attractive to potential mates then a father should instil the appearance of piety in his own daughters, and the easiest way to do this is for them to believe in the local religion and observe it.
The father of daughters is also taking a risk. He is investing a substantial dowry in the new family. Again which males would be the more attractive? Faithless males or pious males? A man who is willing to have affairs may spread his support for his children amongst the mothers too. The dowry no only funds the genes of the wife’s family but also the genes of the husbands and his mistress(es). Therefore piety would also be attractive in a male. If belief is genuine you would also expect the children to inherit the religion of the parents. Richard Dawkins points out in the same Viruses of the Mind “…it is a telling fact that, the world over, the vast majority of children follow the religion of their parents rather than any of the other available religions.” It was at this point I half-remembered that vertically transmitted parasites tend to be more benign than horizontally transmitted parasites. This was far too good an idea to be one of my own so I did a quick search and found the late Ben Cullen’s paper: “Parasite Ecology and the Evolution of Religion” which is both well written and short.
The model works in that adhering to the local religion would pass on a reproductive advantage. Fail to get married by the local priest and you won’t be reproducing anywhere around here. If false religions are parasites then they would be ones that, as Cullen describes, have evolved towards symbiosis with their human hosts. Regardless of its veracity a religion could be an evolutionary advantage in the ancient world. I’m not sure that you can transfer this to the modern world.
This model only works if belief is endemic in the society. If you’re uncertain whether or not your partner is a believer then life is different. A religious worldview only helps if your partner is religious, else you may be committing more to the relationship than your partner. A secular person on the other hand has the benefit of not accepting the platitudes of a god who (in this religion) doesn’t exist. If the partner is religious, then that’s a bonus, but if they’re not then you don’t stand a much to lose as a person who relies more on a non-existent being to guarantee the relationship. In such an environment then it becomes better to raise children in a secular way to ensure they are not taken advantage of.
This paints a pretty grim picture of marriage, but until recent times marriage was not a union of equals. The man was usually much older than the woman, and this stretches the definition of woman to include girls of fourteen. Modern marriage in contrast is a union of equals bound by mutual respect, trust and love. Some of my married friends find it hilarious when I say that, but refuse to explain why. Is a god, acting as a moral enforcer, necessary in this? Personally I think not, but others disagree. It would appear to be a common question to ask an atheist “What stops you from killing/stealing/becoming the sixth Village Person etc.?” The question would indicate that questioner’s belief in a god is an enforcer of their moral behaviour. The uniformity of response from various religious groups would indicate that it is the belief rather than the existence of god as the enforcer, as there’s no theological argument that would reconcile Christian and Hindu claims on the nature of the divine. If you have a more pessimistic view of humanity than me, then it may a justifiable position. Obviously there’s more to religion than reproduction, so even if this particular benefit were negated the net effect of religion might arguably be positive.
I appreciate that this approach might appear to be irredeemably atheistic as it’s a godless approach. On the subject of Mirecki, Brenda Landwehr of Kansas said: “It’s hard to teach religion if you don’t believe in it.” However, as Jim Davila makes clear, you simply cannot be a sincere believer in all religions and so study of them must be something which can work where belief isn’t necessary nor forbidden.
I don’t think that any of the above is ground-breaking. What is does show that you could take Dawkins’ methods without necessarily coming to the same conclusions. It is possible to take memes or cultural viruses and apply them to religion without necessarily arguing that religion is a Very Bad Thing. I’d say that would suggest that evolution by selection is no more hostile to the concept of religion than any other scientific paradigm. Equally this evolutionary model isn’t an advocate for the desirability of religion in the current world either. It may have been successful in the past but for a million years sitting on the African savannah chipping bits of rock was a successful strategy.
Anyhow feel free to point out where my reasoning is far too simplistic. I spotted an embarrassing oversight noted below, so I’m sure there must be others.
* Putting this into WordPress it’s just occurred to me that a male non-believer might spend his energies creating more offspring rather than tending to the ones he’s got which could be a reproductive advantage. That simply hadn’t occurred to me — and ladies I’m single.