Sunday, January 30, 2005

On the Persistence of Religion, part IV

This is the forth 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.

In the third installment I addressed a potential a priori objection to natural explanations for the persistence of religion in the form of the existence of atheists. I noted that polymorphistic features in biological organisms are permitted although they do require additional layers of explanation. I then proceeded to introduce the conjecture that religion may have adaptive value even if we don't posit that it is an adaptation whose function is to directly perceive some other sort of reality. I called this the Weak Adaptive Hypothesis and provided a few potential adaptive scenarios.

At this point, both hypotheses on the table can be described as directly adaptive, which is to say that they postulate that we have evolved a predisposition to religion and that the reasons we have done so are because religious belief is either the result of a specific adaptive function (i.e., some sort of undiscovered sensory organ) or because belief in religion has positive survival value (e.g., by providing a means of reducing stress). The next hypothesis I would like to examine would best be described as an non-adaptive hypothesis that, never the less, depends on adaptive forces. In order to explain what that means and to illustrate the hypothesis, I first need to introduce the concept of spandrels.

In architecture, a spandrel is the space between a curved body (or bodies) and a boundary. The classical example of a spandrel is the roughly triangular space that exists when two arches are set side by side. One common feature of spandrels is that they tend to have a lot of ornamentation. Someone who was architecturally naïve might even go so far as to conclude that spandrels exist in order to provide nice little spaces for artwork and engraving when, in fact, they are only they as an unintended consequence: the by-products of other, necessary architectural elements.

In 1979 the biologists Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin wrote a paper called "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme". In the paper, they used the metaphor of architectural spandrels to hypothesize that some features of biological organisms were not the result of direct biological adaptations but were, instead, the non-adaptive consequence of other traits. They suggested, appropriately enough, that such features (should they be proven to exist) ought to be called spandrels.

Gould and Lewontin, frankly, had an axe to grind when it came to adaptationism. They felt that the adaptationist paradigm had gone too far in seeking to describe every last feature of every last organism in terms of selective adaptations. As such, their use of the word spandrel was a deliberate attempt to use a word with absolutely no adaptationistic language what-so-ever; however, it must be noted that in order for biological spandrels to exist, there must be some adaptive interplay going on in other features of a given organism, which is why I indicated that I would be presenting a hypothesis that was non-adaptive but dependant upon adaptation.

A spandrel hypothesis for the persistence of religion would suggest that even though natural selection doesn't favor a predisposition towards religion in populace, there are other characteristics in humans which have the indirect consequence of resulting in such a predisposition. The advantage of such a hypothesis is that it is no longer necessary to presume that religion has any positive value in order for it to persist. In fact, religion can even represent a negative reproductive advantage so long as that disadvantage doesn't outweigh the selective advantages of whatever trait or traits are resulting the spandrel.

In the first installment of this essay, one of my readers1 suggested that our tendency to be religious might be a result of a fundamental need for pack leader (i.e., an alpha) which we then project into a kind of ultimate alpha. Although I have certain issues with Ron's specific idea, this is a good example of a spandrel hypothesis.2 If I were to restructure it in spandrel form, I would rewrite the hypothesis as, "It is postulated that there exists adaptive traits in humans such that we have a desire for an alpha and that we have also evolved a sense of imagination. It is further hypothesized that the intersection between our desire for an alpha and our imaginations results in a non-adaptive predisposition towards imagining the existence of an ultimate-alpha being (i.e., a god) and a predisposition to worship said imagined being."

Before I go ahead and put down The Spandrel Hypothesis as a bullet I feel that I must point out that the very idea of spandrels in biology is controversial. Many biologists either reject Gould and Lewontin's idea of spandrels outright or believe that they have overstated their case. In order to validate the hypothesis, it would be necessary to find an unequivocal example of biological feature that would require us to resort to the conclusion that the feature is a spandrel. Numerous possible cases for spandrels have been advanced but, to date, none of them have achieved the level of consensus.

With that caveat, let us present our next bullet:
  • Religious beliefs persist because they are the indirect result of some other biological feature or features which directly promote reproductive fitness among those who have said features; however, the capacity for religion and predisposition towards religion is not, itself, reproductively advantageous.
If you have been reading these installments up to this point (and thank you very much!) you may well suspect that I'm about to conclude this installment. However, I would like to introduce one more brief hypothesis before rounding this out.

You may have noticed that we've progressed from a hypothesis which has a strong adaptive component, to one with a weaker adaptive component, to one which has a quasi-adaptive component. Thus far, every hypothesis has assumed that religion is, in some sense, in our genes.3 I think that it's time to introduce a proposition that doesn't require us to assume that humans have any innate genetic predisposition towards religion.

A while back, I wrote an essay titled "Towards a Theory of Architectural Morality". In the essay, I considered the controversy between theories of absolute morality and relativistic morality and concluded that both sides of the controversy were missing the point, which was that the reason we have morals is because morals serve a functional purpose. Specifically, societies require moral frameworks in order to provide the necessary stability for them to exist in the first place (and the existence of societies is, furthermore, preferable to the alternative). I also argued that, for these purposes, a society can be something as small as two individuals.

Might it be possible that religion serves a similar role? Certainly we find religion serving a great many social functions. In the majority of societies religion is responsible for legitimizing births, providing a focus point for the community, setting the framework for civil law, marriage ceremonies, funeral ceremonies, and so on. In most societies, religion has also provided legitimization for the head of state (or the ruling house). Many have viewed this trend as a natural attempt for religions to co-opt civil and secular power to themselves; however, it is possible to speculate that the reason these functions tend to fall to religion is that religion does a better job than its secular counterparts.

Even if we don't suppose that it is necessary for a society to embrace religion in order to provide civil functions, perhaps we may hypothesize that religion is necessary in order to prevent social collapse. Newt Gingrich once summarized this by saying that a society that tolerated atheists was fine but that a society of atheists couldn't survive.4

One particularly cynical variant of this is Plato's concept of The Noble Lie that says that the rules of the idea society (Plato's republic) must tell the populace that the structure of society is ordained by God. Others have extended the concept of The Noble Lie to the proposition that even if there is no God, a good society must promote belief in God in order to ensure that the people remain obedient to the law.

A less cynical variant rests on the proposition that people have a natural tendency to break rules (including laws) when two conditions are met: 1) the rule-breaking results in some perceived advantage for the rule breaker and 2) the rule breaker believes that he can break the rule with little or no consequence. Given this, laws are only effective to the degree that those who would break them fear being caught and punished. In this view, a god is sort of an ultimate cop who will, without fail, punish those who succumb to the temptation to break the rules. Those who do not believe in an ultimate cop are required to fall back on ethical injunctions and self-control which are weaker than the simple fear of being punished for doing wrong.

Does this not, however, lead us back to the Santa Claus dilemma that I outlined in the first installment? Not necessarily. Since Santa-belief does not serve a necessary social function, those societies that have a tradition of Santa belief have no vested interest in preventing people from losing their beliefs. Under this conjecture, since religion does serve a positive social function, it is more vital that societies strive to promote religious belief in their citizens and, consequently, we can expect that more energy and creativity will be devoted to ensuring this.5

It is possible to phrase this proposition in a negative form. If we suppose that societies without a strong religious tradition are inherently instable then the natural tendency, over time, will be for societies with religious traditions to become dominant and, in fact, ubiquitous since those societies which aren't will automatically remove themselves from consideration.

We can call this the Social Preservation Hypothesis. As such, let us add the bullet:
  • Religion positively enhances the stability of those societies that embrace it. Consequently, those societies that fail to instill religious beliefs in a majority of their populations will have a tendency to collapse leaving behind only those societies which do instill such beliefs.
This shall conclude this week's installment. In next week's installment I will introduce one final hypothesis and, space permitting, reach the essay's conclusion.

1 Ron Smith.

2 The problem I have with the alpha theory is that I am not convinced that all religions, or even the majority of religions in our history, have the hierarchical structure necessary to support the conjecture. Buddhism, as a case in point, does not clearly have anything at the top of the chain of deity. Be that as it may, something like this may well help to reinforce those religious beliefs that do have an alpha arrangement.

3 Please do not make the mistake that any of these hypotheses are examples of so-called "genetic determinism". Each of them should be understood in terms of genetic predispositions. Even if we go all the way and assume that there is some kind of "god gene" which accounts for religion in humans, there is no cause to assume that because person X has the gene that said person would, therefore, believe in any gods (to say nothing of specific gods). For more on this topic, see my essay titled "A Rebuttal to the A Priori Argument Against a Genetic Basis for Homosexuality".

4 The obvious objection to this is to note the existence of Communist governments such as China and the USSR; however, although atheism tends to be the official state creed of Communist governments, it is not clear that the populous of such governments, in general, actually reject their religious beliefs. It has also been conjectured that the goal of Communism was to set itself up as a sort of state quasi-religion, much in the same way that artificially constructed Cult of the Supreme Being was briefly made the state religion of France.

5 How a given society might accomplish this goal is open to speculation. One possibility might be found in the Jesuit maxim that if you give them a child for seven years, the child will be theirs for life. All that is required, for the hypothesis, however is the presumption that there does exist some technique or techniques whereby a culture could accomplish this general goal.

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