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The New Science of Religion

8/17/2012 9:41:04 AM

Tags: Evolution, Charles Darwin, New Atheists, Richard Dawkins, Religion, Science, Culture Wars, Chronicle Review, Tom Bartlett.

Church Light

This post originally appeared at  

When a moth flies at night, it uses the moon and the stars to steer a straight path. Those light sources are fixed and distant, so the rays always strike the moth's multilensed eyes at the same angle, making them reliable for nocturnal navigation. But introduce something else bright—a candle, say, or a campfire—and there will be trouble. The light radiates outward, confusing the moth and causing it to spiral ever closer to the blaze until the insect meets a fiery end.

For years Richard Dawkins has used the self-immolation of moths to explain religion. The example can be found in his 2006 best seller, The God Delusion, and it's been repeated in speeches and debates, interviews and blog posts. Moths didn't evolve to commit suicide; that's an unfortunate byproduct of other adaptations. In much the same way, the thinking goes, human beings embrace religion for unrelated cognitive reasons. We evolved to search for patterns in nature, so perhaps that's why we imagine patterns in religious texts. Instead of being guided by the light, we fly into the flames.

The implication—that religion is basically malevolent, that it "poisons everything," in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens—is a standard assertion of the New Atheists. Their argument isn't just that there probably is no God, or that intelligent design is laughable bunk, or that the Bible is far from inerrant. It's that religion is obviously bad for human beings, condemning them to ignorance, subservience, and endless conflict, and we would be better off without it.

But would we?

Before you can know for sure, you have to figure out what religion does for us in the first place. That's exactly what a loosely affiliated group of scholars in fields including biology, anthropology, and psychology are working on. They're applying evolutionary theory to the study of religion in order to discover whether or not it strengthens societies, makes them more successful, more cooperative, kinder. The scholars, many of them atheists themselves, generally look askance at the rise of New Atheism, calling its proponents ignorant, fundamentalist, and worst of all, unscientific. Dawkins and company have been no more charitable in return.

While the field is still young and fairly small—those involved haven't settled on a name yet, though "evolutionary religious studies" gets thrown around—its findings could reshape a very old debate. Maybe we should stop asking whether God exists and start asking whether it's useful to believe that he does.

Let's say someone gives you $10. Not a king's ransom, but enough for lunch. You're then told that you can share your modest wealth with a stranger, if you like, or keep it. You're assured that your identity will be protected, so there's no need to worry about being thought miserly. How much would you give?

If you're like most people who play the so-called dictator game, which has been used in numerous experiments, you will keep most of the money. In a recent study from a paper with the ominous title "God Is Watching You," the average subject gave $1.84. Meanwhile, another group of subjects was presented with the same choice but was first asked to unscramble a sentence that contained words like "divine," "spirit," and "sacred."

The second group of subjects gave an average of $4.22, with a solid majority (64 percent) giving more than five bucks. A heavenly reminder seemed to make subjects significantly more magnanimous. In another study, researchers found that prompting subjects with the same vocabulary made some more likely to volunteer for community projects. Intriguingly, not all of them: Only those who had a specific dopamine receptor variant volunteered more, raising the possibility that religion doesn't work for everybody.

A similar experiment was conducted on two Israeli kibbutzes. The scenario was more complicated: Subjects were shown an envelope containing 100 shekels (currently about $25). They were told that they could choose to keep as much of the money as they wished, but that another member of the kibbutz was being given the identical option. If the total requested by the participants (who were kept separated) exceeded 100 shekels, they walked away with nothing. If the total was less than or equal to 100, they were given the money plus a bonus based on what was left over.

The kicker is that one of the kibbutzes was secular and one was religious. Turns out, the more-devout members of the religious kibbutz, as measured by synagogue attendance, requested significantly fewer shekels and expected others to do the same. The researchers, Richard Sosis and Bradley Ruffle, ventured that "collective ritual has a significant impact on cooperative decisions."

See also a study that found that religious people were, in some instances, more likely to treat strangers fairly. Or the multiple studies suggesting that people who were prompted to think about an all-seeing supernatural agent were less likely to cheat. Or the study of 300 young adults in Belgium that found that those who were religious were considered more empathetic by their friends.

The results of other studies are less straightforward. A Harvard Business School researcher discovered that religious people were more likely to give to charity, but only on the days they worshiped, a phenomenon he dubbed the "Sunday Effect." Then there's the survey of how belief in the afterlife affected crime rates in 67 countries. Researchers determined that countries with high rates of belief in hell had less crime, while in those where the belief in hell was low and the belief in heaven high, there was more crime. A vengeful deity is better for public safety than a merciful one.

None of that research settles the value of belief, and much of it is based on assuming that certain correlations are meaningful or that particular techniques (like the one used in the dictator-game study) actually prime what researchers think they prime. And questions remain: How effective is religious belief, really, if it needs to be prompted with certain words? And is the only thing stopping you from robbing a liquor store really the prospect of eternal hellfire?

Still, a growing body of research suggests that religion or religious ideas, in certain circumstances, in some people, can elicit the kind of behavior that is generally good for society: fairness, generosity, honesty. At the very least, when you read the literature, it becomes difficult to confidently assert that religion, despite the undeniable evil it has sometimes inspired, is entirely toxic.

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Image by Vinoth Chandar, licensed under Creative Commons.  


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8/23/2012 3:27:10 PM
Religion does good, yet how many "love their neighbor ~ instead of loving money"? How many churches take billions of $ to do so little. Science does good, yet we still live unhealthy lives {me included} and want a scientific fix. They both evolve, as computers have done, yet super-slowly. All could improve, as computer do at exponential speed. Religion and science both have the answers and refuse to use them. Does anyone follow the words of Jesus? Science has cures in the form of ancient medicine, yet spends billions of $ to find a "cure". I want to incorporate the best of all of them, for a better me. My religious training has damaged me, and science cannot cure me, so I am disabled, broken, and dangerous to society. Unconditional love would help. Simple fix and cure. No labels, names, groups, we are all one, for the better. The end result is below, well put, our every action brings about our results. I am the start, the genesis of a new world by Zen, the simple ~ seek good .

Bob Bennett
8/22/2012 4:55:52 PM
Perhaps I'm biased, but religions tend to over-complicate matters - which often gets people annoyed to the point that they don't want anything to do with religion. In science we are taught that everything has an equal and opposite reaction. Cut away all the dogmas, and this is essentially the basis of all religions. The universe does care - or perhaps just reacts - to what you say, do, or even think. The thoughts, actions, sounds - and in case of humans -words - become the basis of whatever reactions result. In spite of the shouts of the various elites -moneyed or not, perhaps the silent voices are being heard the most.

Gerald Ward
8/19/2012 7:32:12 AM
Before I even start, no. I’ll start with ‘New Atheism’. A term invented to be refuted. It’s a new, more virulent strain. Describe the ‘Old Atheism’ and it’s guard. Was Ayn Rand of the old or new variety? From the examples given I guess the new guard, the likes of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens are different because they don’t concede any moral or intellectual athority to theologens. I’ve seen them both at work and it does sometimes come down to ‘your ideas are stupid’. For full disclosure I sometimes agree with them. If you ask me “New” as opposed to ‘Old’ Atheism is a distinction without a difference. Tom Bartlett starts with the anecdote about a moth and a flame but gets it wrong. Dawkins doesn’t try to explain religion with the story but instead humans apparend need for it, more in the sense of ‘why do we do thinks that seem to make no sense. Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” wants to say ‘god makes no sense’. Anyway, Christopher Hitchens is the one that says the religion poisons everythng not Richard Dawkins. O.K. to the meat of it... the nitty gritty so to speak... “a loosely affiliated group of scholars... applying evolutionary theory to discover whether or not it strengthens societies...”“The scholars, many of them atheists, generally look askance at the rise of New Atheism, calling its proponents ignorant, fundamentalist, and worst of all, unscientific.” “Maybe we should stop asking whether God exists and start asking whether it's useful to believe that he[sic] does.”And right there is the crux of the matter. It doesn”t really matter if god exist or not as long as you believe. So its about science proving that religion is good or something like that. Firstly there is no such thing as ‘New Atheism’. The new boss is same as the old boss it’s just that you won’t get your head chopped off or burned at the stake or stoned to death for say you don’t believe in god or worse still ”There is no god”. I don’t need to list the atrocities comitted in the name of religion but I will say that the list is long. The two often mentioned in rebuttal are the Nazis and Stalin both said to be atheist though Hitler talked about god and religion and considered himself catholic. Why so many people died under the Nazis and Communist has more to do with moderm weapons and methods than intent. So, no. Religion doesn’t make you nicer. I was expecting more so that’s as much rebuttal as “The New Science Of Religion” deserves. Ad Hominem attacks by ”A group of scholars”, in group giving studies and ‘what harm can it really do’ reasoning. It comes down to the same thing, Atheist are meanies and religious peolpe are nice and by the way a ‘group of scholars’ proved it. O.K. so it doesn’t really say that. The artical’s conclusion is laughable. “a growing body of research suggests that religion... in certain some people, can elicit the kind of behavior that is generally good for society. I hazard a guess that old style communism used the same logic. A vengeful Ruler is better for public safety than a merciful one... I mean deity.

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