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Comments on Nolan Dalla's rant on religion -- we can't forget evolution. Go to to read it. 

What follows is a commentary on a long and passionate blog entry by my old friend Nolan Dalla. This is the next in what we hope will become a series of point-counterpoint on religion, society, morality and all that cool stuff. Feel free to join in.

Okay Nolan, I’m about to bore you to tears … can’t help myself. It’s the ol’ perfesser in me…. Of course, what follows doesn’t negate anything you said in your blogs. It’s just a different framework for viewing religion. Try it on …. see if it fits. The central idea is that this atheism thing that you find attractive is not about to become dominant. Not by any stretch of the imagination, not till the world has undergone significant changes.

The psychology of religion is a hot topic these days. It no longer focuses on the old lines about moral codes or the social impact of authoritarian hierarchies or whatthefuckever…. Those approaches couldn’t explain the universality, the fact that every society ever encountered has some form of religion. Universality is a red flag to a social or biological scientist, it suggests that there is something very deep here.

The approach that’s beginning to make sense goes back to very basic, primitive, biological mechanisms that have ancient roots. This theory makes it clear that for us Homo saps, religion is natural and easy and the reasons are found in evolutionary theory. Note: many of these arguments come from the work of a friend, Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia. Go here to take a look at what he’s up to these days. 

It isn’t that religion per se is embedded in our DNA. What’s encoded in our genes are ancient, primitive, perceptual tendencies and more recently evolved social schemas and these form the foundation for religious belief systems. Let’s talk a walk through time.

It starts with a very old mechanism, “agency detection” or the capacity to realize that there is something “out there.” If you’re a prey species you better be able to detect predators; if you’re a predator you need the same system to detect prey. Importantly, you want to make mistakes but they have to be “false positives.” You’re far better off overdetecting agents out there than under – for reasons screamingly obvious. Every species has some version of this mechanism and every one has developed the “hypersensitive” strategy.

Now, as eons spun by and brains grew, earlier forms of us started getting smart. We began to “detect” agents in symbolic forms; we saw them in clouds, heard them in the rustling of the wind in the trees, caught them out of the corner of an eye in the movements of the heavens, on burnt toast.

As cognitive functions matured the capacity to understand causality kicked. Events, our ancestors realized, have causes. We learned that we can make things and make things happen. When things occurred outside our ken, where we could not understand or find the causes (fires, death, food, famine), our agency detectors kicked in again. Now these beings were in the clouds, the earth, water, the movements of the heavens.

The final step was the establishment of social systems as families were bound together into larger groups, then into tribes and villages. This “socialness” allowed (indeed invited) the emergence of leaders, priests and shamans, authorities and, most important of all, rituals that cemented the system.

Those who did not conform were ostracized, socially condemned, not because they were heretics (that’s just an excuse) but because they threatened the fabric of the social system itself – which may help understand why atheists are the single most distrusted and hated group in the country, maybe the world.

You said it’s not natural to believe in Jesus or Angels, that these notions have to be planted. This is true but we are biologically predisposed to make it very easy to plant them and watch them take root. Even in authoritarian secular states like China and North Korea (and the old Soviet Union), it turned out to be impossible to eradicate religion. In North Korea the Juche movement is turning into a religion in which the Kim family become gods with hints of immortality and rituals are developing that have all the hallmarks of a religion.

You’re also right that since the Enlightenment there has been a drift toward secularism but it isn’t as fast or as successful as you’re making it out to be — and it tends to be concentrated in places like Northern Europe with stable cultures and, importantly, governments with well-established support systems. As Ara’s research shows, stability and support allow science to flourish and make myth and superstition less attractive. A couple of years back there was a study of two South Pacific islands whose economies are based on fishing. The ones who fished in lagoons had relatively few religious beliefs and essentially none concerning their commercial activities. Those that fished in the open seas had deeper religious beliefs, especially about fishing.

You noted that we (collectively) are more enlightened, less burdened with ritual and more progressive than ever. This is true but the shift is mainly due to the success of science and the growing acceptance of the scientific method for it’s been giving people a better sense of how those “agents” actually work. FWIW, the cohort that has the lowest proportion of believers is the National Academy of Science. It’s somewhere around 5% compared with some 70% of the population — many of whom regard scientists as “heretics” (see above….).

The truth is that it’s hard to become an atheist and, interestingly, many atheists are members of groups of like-minded non-believers. Buddhism, which started as a philosophy stripped of the features and belief systems of religions, has morphed into one. The vast majority of the world’s Buddhists now treat Siddartha as a god. The Chinese did the same with Confucious. Scientology began with L. Ron Hubbard creating an (admittedly crazy) self-help program and it too became a cult-like religious movement in which Hubbard’s writings are treated like Christians treat the bible or Mormons the insane scribblings of Joseph Smith.

The atheists, the Buddhists, the North Koreans still need the social bonding, the connectedness and the emotional and intellectual support. They’re embedded in millions of years of evolutionary pressure.

Personally I think that the very idea of a supreme being is idiotic, ontologically ridiculous. But I don’t use the label “atheist” because the label has been co-opted to reflect a belief-system, one that insists there is no God (and, for example, criticizes people who write “God” rather than “god”). And, as nutty as this sounds, several atheistic groups have applied to the IRS for tax-free status as a religion. For me, it’s just not relevant. I don’t believe in God in the same way that I don’t believe in purple unicorns.

Slamming religion for its myriad ills and evil deeds won’t work either. No matter how many horrible and ugly things we can trace to organized religion, you have to acknowledge the powerful role it plays in people’s lives. It is the embracing of religion that gets life-long criminals to reform; it’s the glue that holds AA and other groups of “recoverers” together. Nothing else works as well. It is belief in the supernatural that gets people through their desperate lives. It wouldn’t work to strip away this crutch. It is the defining feature for who they are.

And, of course, horrible acts can be carried out without a God. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot slaughtered millions under secular banners. This tendency too is deeply embedded in our genes.

The angry atheists like Dawkins, Hitchins and my old friend Daniel Dennett often miss these points, particularly the ones that link religions with evolutionary mechanisms.

Done now …. looking forward to the riposte on


Reader Comments (3)

Very interesting subject you and Nolan have picked there.
I am interested to hear about one aspect I've always thought to further our tendencies to become religious: The human ability to take something on faith. The way I see it, humans have become successful in evolution, due to their ability to copy behavior, which leads ultimately to the ability to listen to somebody's statement and accepting it without requiring proof. The scientific requirement for proof looks rather unnatural that way.

April 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterE.Dieter Martin

Hi Arthur ~ good column, but [there's always a but]

The "angry atheists" that you mention here have all written about the points that you say they often miss. All of them.

Go to Youtube & you will find Dennett [far example] has a one hour talk on this very subject "Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" [hosted by Edinburgh University, March 14, 2006]

Also can you please strike "angry atheist" from your lexicon of phrases? It cheapens the conversation & it's the sort of description favoured by the creationists who have a tendency to scatter such emotive phrasing throughout their argumentation. Furthermore Hitchens didn't like to apply the term *atheist* to himself ~ he stated that it's not ruled out that a non-interfering creator might exist. A better description of Hitchens would be "angry anti-theist".

April 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Fisher

Michael: Good point. Perhaps I overstated matters. Indeed, those supporting atheism have acknowledged these evolutionary elements. The problem, however, is that they seem not to completely grasp how refractory religiosity is and will continue to be. Speaking of Dennett, I see a parallel here with his desire to define consciousness out of existence. Again, I think his effort fails because he doesn't quite see what he's up against. As for "angry" -- I've been at lectures where annoyance and anger more than just leak out (Dawkins a few years ago). I've also watched as the points to be made are lost because the anger is infectious. Point on Hitchens taken (glad you left the "angry" in)..

Dieter: We (and several other species) have "mirror neurons" that are likely the basis for mimicry. Wiki's entry is useful here.

April 30, 2013 | Registered CommenterArthur S. Reber

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