The New Science of Religion

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This post originally
appeared at Chronicle.com.

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.

Visit Chronicle.com
to read the rest.

Image by Vinoth Chandar,
licensed under Creative
Commons
.

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