Sunday, January 23, 2005

On the Persistence of Religion, part III

This is the third part of a multi-part essay on the persistence of religion.

In the first installment of the essay, I raised the question of the persistence of religion in individuals and sought to demonstrate that this persistence was not, as many unbelievers would like to think, genuinely akin to belief in such entities as Santa Clause. I explored a number of possibilities to account for the difference, without reaching any conclusions, and ended by suggesting that in order to explain the individual persistence of religion, we may need to consider its cultural persistence.

In the second installment I noted that religion was one of a small number of true human universals that transcends times and cultures. I also introduced and examined the hypothesis that the reason for this may be that religious beliefs persist because most humans have some sort of sense that the brain interprets as evidence of (for lack of a better word) a spiritual reality.

Before I precede to the next hypothesis, I think that I should address something that we may be tempted to take as an a priori rejection of any naturalistic attempt to explain religious persistence: the existence of atheists. Although the historical record for atheism isn't at consistent as the historical record for religion, it does appear that whenever societies strictures against atheism become sufficiently relaxed that people can declare their atheism without fear of bodily harm or undue reprisal, atheists appear on the scene. I think that it is a safe assumption that even when atheism isn't a safe option, atheists never the less do exist.

The biological term to describe variations in a trait in a species is polymorphism (meaning "many shapes"). One of the most obvious examples of polymorphism in our species is handedness. Most humans are right handed, a relatively small percentage are left handed and a very small percentage are ambidextrous. Clearly polymorphisms do exist and, therefore, do not automatically rule out adaptive explanations for a given trait although it should be noted that evolutionary biologists do consider such to be cases which need to be accounted for given that the general trend, over evolutionary time, is for the trait with the best adaptive fitness to become the only trait in a population. It must be stressed that there are exceptions to this rule (hence the existence of polymorphisms in the first place) but it is generally the case that when there are multiple traits in a population, there is some other factor in the environment that keeps the minority trait from disappearing altogether.

What this means for atheism is that the existence of atheism can not be used to rule out a natural explanation for the persistence of religion. It does mean that there is an additional factor which should require explanation in order to get a complete picture of the subject. However, this essay is not about the persistence of atheism, so I'm going to continue seeking ways to account for the persistence of religious beliefs while offering the caveat that whatever conclusions we reach are likely to be somewhat incomplete.

Now, if we may return to the central subject of this essay, I would like to consider another adaptive explanation. This one is going to be weaker (in the technical sense of the term) than the first adaptive hypothesis which sought to explain religious belief by positing some sort of undiscovered sensory organ that causes people to directly experience something that the brain interprets as a spiritual realm. 1 I shall call this first hypothesis the Strong Adaptive Hypothesis. Naturally, what I about to propose will be called the Weak Adaptive Hypothesis.

The Weak Adaptive Hypothesis is that although our perception of religion isn't a literal perception of an external reality, religion persists because there is something about religious belief that enhances the reproductive fitness of those who are religious.

Reproductive fitness is a term used in evolutionary biology to describe an organisms chances at successfully reproducing before it dies. Some traits tend to enhance reproductive fitness (e.g., stronger leg muscles in a gazelle which helps to prevent it from being eaten long enough to bear children) while others tend to compromise it (e.g., near sightedness in an eagle which prevents it from successfully hunting). It should be noted that when we are discussing the reproductive impact of a given trait, we are talking about its statistical impact upon those creatures that have the trait. This is an important consideration to keep in mind because a particular trait that has positive adaptive value for the population as a whole may be maladaptive for any given individual. The reason I note this is to forestall objections that religion can't represent a reproductive advantage because it occasionally leads to a state where an individual embraces a lifelong celibacy or a rather short career as a suicide bomber.2 I should also note that a reproductive advantage doesn't necessarily need to be directly about reproduction. Per the example above, a gazelle's leg muscles don't have anything to do with a gazelle's reproductive system except that they help the gazelle survive long enough to employ it.

So, what sort of reproductive advantage might religion confer? In strict terms, the Weak Adaptive Hypothesis does not need to commit itself to any specifics (nor, in a strict sense, shall I attempt to have it do so). It is sufficient for the hypothesis to suppose that there is something about religion that does so without having to make any specific claims (which is one of the reasons that I'm labeling this a "weak" hypothesis in contrast to the Strong Adaptive Hypothesis which does make a particular claim). Be that as it may, it does behoove me to offer at least one example of how religion could fulfill this role.

One possibility is that religion serves as a stress alleviation mechanism. Doctors Kathleen A. Lawler and Jarred W. Younger recently conducted a study (circa 2002) in which they subjected a series of volunteers to a stressful situation (known as a betrayal interview) while measuring their blood pressure and heart rate. Their results indicated that those individuals who were more religious exhibited less stress than those who were less religious.

One of the things that religions do is to provide a framework of meaning to our interactions with others and with the universe as a whole. Even when bad things happen, a believer can appeal to the conviction that when things seem arbitrary, or even awful, they are, never the less, part of a greater plan. One of the most striking features of the Old Testament is that the Hebrew tribes not only kept their faith from calamity to calamity but that in times of crisis, they clung to their faith that much more firmly. One sees this recapitulated in modern tragic circumstances all the time. The typical pattern is that a small percentage of people will lose their religious convictions in the face of overwhelming events but the majority will seek solace and shelter in their beliefs no matter how difficult their circumstances. If religion does, indeed, serve as a coping mechanism for dealing with stress, this makes perfect sense (while undercutting the naïve view that embracing one's religion when bad things happen is an example of mere ignorance and irrationality).

One potentially tantalizing corollary to this is the observation that scientists, especially physical scientists, are much more likely to be atheists or relatively areligious than the general populace.3 Contrary to the (erroneous) view that science is a religion, it may be that science, by providing its own explanatory framework, reduces the need for the explanatory framework provided by religion. Of course, I should hasten to note that the explanation could easily go the other way: perhaps people who aren't religious by nature are more inclined to take up a career in the sciences.4 Never the less, it is a tantalizing speculation.5

Before I make too much of this particular notion, I need to reemphasize that this is just an example of one possible instance of the Weak Adaptive Hypothesis. In order to illustrate this, let me briefly sketch another possibility.

Some have suggested that because religion helps people to suppress their fear of death, warriors with religious beliefs are less likely to be paralyzed by their fears and, paradoxically, would therefore be expected to do better in battle. Over the history of the species where the majority of conflicts were inter-tribal, face to face and all too common, the ability to survive such conflicts would have been of paramount important. Not only would survival allow one to reproduce but the more successful one was as a warrior, the more attractive he would be considered by the women of his tribe and, therefore, he would have that many more options to reproduce.

Or so it has been hypothesized. At any rate, I think that we are in a position to add our second bullet-point:

  • Religious beliefs persist because they provide some function which directly promotes reproductive fitness among those who embrace religious beliefs.
As you may well have guessed, the essay is not over. You may, indeed, be wondering whether or not it's ever going to end (I know I have). At this point, I have two more hypotheses I'd like to develop before making any attempt at drawing a conclusion. I fully expect that each point may require its own mini-essay and the conclusion may, or may not, require one of its own as well. As such, I think that, at the very most, you can expect three more entries… unless I come up with more points that I'd like to discuss.

I hope that you will continue to bear with me.

1 Indeed, the hypothesis can include the proposition that what is being experienced is a spiritual realm. As noted in the previous installment, however, the degree of variation in experience precludes us from draw any firm conclusions about what people with "spiritual sense" are, in fact, actually experiencing.

2 I expect that some are going to object to this last example. I've heard various people claim that suicidal martyrdom isn't "genuinely" religious because religion promotes generosity and cooperation. Such claims are little more than special pleading of the No True Scotsman variety. The fact of the matter is that while religion can inspire individuals to acts of nobility, it can also inspire them to acts of infamy.

3 Unfortunately I can't find a good online reference for this. The studies I have seen, however, show not only dramatic numbers but numbers that are consistent over a broad range of years. Scientists in the early 20's were just as prone to embrace atheism as scientists in the 90's which is very remarkable considering that the 20's were not a time that was particularly friendly towards atheism.

4 In point of fact, the null hypothesis (which is to be preferred in the absence of direct evidence one way or the other) would be that there is no correlation at all. If this were an academic paper, I would give the null hypothesis its rightful due; however, since this is an informal analysis, I think that it's fair to suggest a potential correlation. I would go so far as to suggest that it would be rather remarkable if there were no meaningful correlation what so ever.

5 Another suggestive corollary might be found in the high incidence of superstitious behavior among gamblers. Gambling is the epitome of randomness (especially in such games a slots where one seems to find the most examples of superstitious actions). B.F. Skinner suggested that such behaviors as crossing as tapping a slot machine three times before pulling the lever is nothing than the product of operant conditioning in the face of rewards provided at random intervals. He did some interesting studies with mice using random food rewards when they pulled levers. His mice would invariably develop really strange actions, such as spinning around before pulling their levers, in a very short amount of time. Perhaps, however, there's something more going on in humans. Could it be that superstitious gambling behavior is an example where people adopt an explanatory frame to negate the anxiety of dealing with a random system thereby allowing them to spend more time and money gambling? (Please also note that I am not attempting to draw a one-to-one correspondence between religion and common superstition.)

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