Evolution for Everyone

Wine connoisseurs on a budget often have a bottle of “the good stuff” that they reserve for special occasions. I feel like celebrating the conclusion of my Stealth series by breaking out the equivalent of a fine bottle of wine: a book that actually does use science to shed light on the nature of religion.

The book that I have decided to open for you is Sacred and Secular, written by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in 2004, a very good year. The authors are political scientists who don’t use the E-word, but their results are highly interpretable from an evolutionary perspective. Their goal is to evaluate the hypothesis that religion can be replaced by secular society. All of the major social theorists of the 19th century, such as Comte, Spencer, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and Freud, believed that this would be the case. Yet, here we are in the 21st century and religion seems to be stronger than ever. Does this mean that religion will always be with us? Norris and Inglehart think not. They propose that religion can indeed yield to secularization, but only under certain environmental conditions. That is why they are thinking like evolutionists, even if they don’t use the E-word.

They identify existential security as the key environmental factor that determines whether society will become religious or secular. If your life is likely to be disrupted by famine, war, disease, and major dislocations of all sorts, then you live in an environment that is low in existential security. Religion thrives in this kind of environment because it provides actual security (basic social services, including protection against other human groups) and also a psychological sense of security. If you confidently expect to go to college, start a family in your late 20s, have a job with health care, and live to a ripe old age, then you live in an environment that is high in existential security. Secularization thrives in this environment because religion isn’t required to provide basic services and the psychological comforts aren’t worth the costs imposed by religious membership. Religion stays with us because so much of the world remains wracked by existential insecurity. If we take a closer look, we should be able to see religion and secularization expanding and contracting, like biological species shifting their ranges in response to environmental change.

How might one test such a hypothesis? Whenever I dive into a new subject area, I am often astonished at the sheer volume of research and the effort that was required to gather and analyze the data. Norris and Inglehart base their analysis on The World Values Survey (WVS), a global investigation of political and societal change that includes dozens of nations in four separate waves, beginning in 1981 and most recently in 1999-2001. This massive database allows three different kinds of comparison: 1) between nations at any particular point in time; 2) between time intervals for any particular nation; and 3) between age cohorts for any particular nation. The WVS includes questions that measure religious participation (e.g., “How often to you attend religious services?”), religious values (e.g., “How important Is God in your life?”), and religious beliefs (e.g., “Do you believe in life after death?” It and other international databases also contain voluminous information on the factors that comprise existential security for each nation.

Here are a few of the many results reported in Sacred and Secular:

• Variation in religiosity across nations is strongly correlated with indicators of existential security, regardless of the region of the world or specific religious tradition. Here is how Norris and Inglehart put it (p 63):

The extent to which sacred or secular orientations are present in a society can be predicted by any of these basic indicators of human development with a remarkable degree of accuracy, even if we know nothing further about the country. To explain or predict the strength and popularity of religion in any country we do not need to understand specific factors such as the activities and role of Pentecostal evangelism in Guatemala and Presbyterian missionaries in South Korea, the specific belief-systems in Buddhism, the impact of madrassa teaching Wahhabism in Pakistan, the fund-raising capacity and organizational strength of the Christian Right in the U.S. South, the philanthropic efforts of Catholic missionaries in West Africa, the crackdown of freedom on worship in China, or divisions over the endorsement of women and homosexual clergy within the Anglican church. What we do need to know, however, are the basic characteristics of a vulnerable society that generate the demand for religion, including factors far removed from the spiritual, exemplified by levels of medical immunization, cases of AIDS/HIV, and access to an improved water source.

• Within nations, religiosity is stronger in the more vulnerable segments of the population, such as women, poorer households, the less educated, and the unskilled working class.

• Longitudinal data is available for 22 industrial and post-industrial nations. Religiosity has declined in every one over the last few decades, with the exception of the USA, Ireland, and Italy.

• Religious values are learned primarily early in life, so that the religiosity of a given age cohort should be determined by the existential security during the period when the cohort was young. There is a strong cohort effect in post-industrial nations with the older cohort (born between the two world wars) more religious than the younger cohorts. There is no cohort effect in the poorest nations and if anything the youngest cohorts are more religious.

• The USA is the most religious of all the post-industrial nations, which makes it seem anomalous. However, the USA also has the highest income inequality of all the post-industrial nations. When these two variables are plotted against each other on a graph, they fall into a neat line (a strong correlation) with the USA at the top. Thus, the USA is not anomalous when it comes to the relationship between religiosity and existential security. Increase existential security and religiosity will probably decrease, in the USA no less than Nigeria. Here is how Norris and Inglehart put it (p 108):

Many American families, even in the professional middle classes, face risks of unemployment , the dangers of sudden ill health without adequate private medical insurance, vulnerability to becoming a victim of crime, and the problems of paying for long-term care of the elderly. Americans face greater anxieties than citizens in other advanced industrialized countries about whether they will be covered by health insurance, whether they will be fired arbitrarily, or whether they will be forced to choose between losing their job and devoting themselves to their newborn child.

• Religiosity and secularization are shifting their geographical distributions, exactly like biological species shifting their ranges in response to environmental change. Secularization is spreading in the postindustrial nations (as noted above), but religiosity is spreading worldwide, in part because the least secure (and most religious) nations also have a much higher rate of population growth than the most secure nations.

For me, reading Sacred and Secular in comparison to books such as The God Delusion or God is Not Great is like a fine Merlot compared to kerosene. True, the Merlot must be sipped slowly to be savored. Sacred and Secular describes the scientific process in detail, but this has the same fascination as watching the construction of a skyscraper, something that can become mesmerizing even if we are not the architect. And when it is finished, look at what has been built!

In contrast, take a slug of the new atheism and the primitive centers of your brain are immediately jolted into senseless action. That’s exciting in a way, like gathering around a barroom brawl, but it leads only to injury and calling it science and reason is, well, sacrilege.

The new atheists defend their lack of scholarship by saying that their purpose is to raise consciousness and goad people into action. I would therefore like to end my Stealth series by issuing a call to action of my own. Science and reason are every bit as important for solving the problems of modern existence as the new atheists say, but they are not making their way into popular intellectual discourse or public policy. We justly disapprove of politicians when they manipulate the primitive centers of our brains, jolting us into senseless action that harms everyone over the long run. Yet, popular intellectual discourse is not much better, as we have seen in the case of the new atheists.

What books such as Sacred and Secular tell us is that the central problem of modern existence is how to increase existential security. That is something that everyone wants and the raison d’etre of religion, but achieving it in modern life on a worldwide scale is very much like building a skyscraper — a collective and consensus effort, careful and methodical, based on scientific knowledge. Somehow, intellectuals and policy makers of all stripes need to focus on this fact. Everyone needs to swear off kerosene and learn to savor good wine. Fortunately, there is an entire wine cellar of books like Sacred and Secular, waiting to be opened. When it comes to the wine of science, we can all live like kings


  1. #1 John Scanlon FCD
    October 21, 2009

    the central problem of modern existence is how to increase existential security. That is something that everyone wants and the raison d’etre of religion

    What is the connection between this claim for religion’s reason for existing (a ‘final cause’), and the discussion in previous entries of proximate and evolutionary causes? It seems to be a leap of faith, unsupported by the rest of your argument.
    I don’t think that’s what religion does; it only provides security for priveleged members (if any), while often ruthlessly exploiting ordinary members (as a financial pyramid scheme) and usually promoting violent opposition to non-members. This makes it a very interesting context for investigation of group selection and ‘memetics’, but it’s also evil. You seem to skip over that last bit.

  2. #2 Sigmund
    October 22, 2009

    Would it be rude to suggest that there may be occasions when a little kerosene might be the most appropriate prescription?
    It is, after all, useful in preventing malarial mosquitoes from breeding, as an antiseptic following cuts or bites and as a light and fuel source in many developing countries. Perhaps a little metaphorical kerosene could likewise do some good.
    Your fine wine metaphor is appreciated but I would suggest that such wine is best enjoyed in a an environment with adequate heating and lighting and simply popping a cork, no matter how fine the vintage, is rather unreliable in guaranteeing these factors. Surely the answer is to appreciate the potential benefits of both fine wine and kerosene, rather than simply choosing one or the other.

  3. #3 abb3w
    October 22, 2009

    One obvious difficulty presents itself.

    One of the most effective means for increasing individuals’ “existential security” is effective education.

    In the US, a significant fraction of the religious element are concentrating on eroding the effectiveness of education. EG, the efforts of the Texas Board of Education (and not only in science).


    At least in PZ’s case, this is one of the major reasons he is so vehement in his opposition to religion. And by his vehement opposition, he may shift the Overton Window thereby… making his view at least potentially a practical truth.

    However, if you have a better practical suggestion as to how to get Religion to stop meddling in Education, I’m certain PZ might be interested.

  4. #4 Rudy
    October 22, 2009

    “Sacred and Secular” might be using a rather narrow defintion of religion: what to do, for example, with secular but highly ideological societies like Stalinist states? Or the free market ideology of the religious right in the US, a fact which surprises many Christians visiting from the Third World.

    That being said, their research sounds fascinating.

    I wonder if similar trends could be found for interest in, say, science. Think of the interest in science in the 50s and 60s in the US, which could be “correlated” with the Cold War. Does the popularity of science trend up and down with nationalist or wartime passions? Think of the amount of artistic energy being poured into warlike video games in West at the moment.

    I point this out just to suggest that we not take these kinds of social correlations as indicators of the truth or falsity of religion.

  5. #5 Emily
    October 22, 2009

    @Sigmund: To take the wine-kerosene analogy a bit further, wine may be nice to drink, but having too much can lead to fuzzy thinking. (I am aware of the saying “in vino veritas”, but I don’t think that’s what Erin had in mind when he praises Sacred and Secular as wine-like.)

  6. #6 Dave W.
    October 22, 2009

    Well, I’m confused. Sacred and Secular seems to be a description of how things are right now and how they got that way, while the “New Atheist” books, as “calls to action,” seem to be descriptions of the way the authors want things to be. As such, they’re not on opposite ends of the same scale (like kerosene and merlot).

    I mean, the best human male reproductive strategy might be to have sex with as many women as possible by any means (including rape), but do we really need to address that seriously when discussing what sexual mores should be in our modern, liberal societies?

    In other words, this seems to be an example of the is/ought fallacy.

  7. #7 Douglas Watts
    October 22, 2009

    Last night I read Mr. Sloan’s entire multi-part essay and thought it well worth the time. It is an excellent counterpoint to PZ Myers and Dawkins et al. The best distinction I can make is that the “new atheists” have essentially taken on a political viewpoint and advocate for it (often quite well, other times not so well). It is one thing to argue for the acceptance of biological evolution as scientific fact (which it is), it is quite another to use this argument broadly to say that if you go to church, you’re dumb, stupid, delusional etc. And referring to religion of any type and religious belief of any degree as being no different than mental illness 8 year old playground behavior. The language, cant and behaviors of “new atheists” is practically indistinguishable from Bible Belt fundamentalists or Wahabi extremists. I steer clear of anyone who tells me how I must think and calls me “delusional” if I fall one iota out of step with their self-imposed standard of what is right-thinking, whatever that is, according to them. Turning empirical science into deism is just another argument by authority and contains the same trapdoors and pitfalls.

  8. #8 Michael Blume
    October 24, 2009

    Hi David,

    I completely agree with that post! I was captivated by Sacred and Secular because of it’s research on the interrelation of religiosity and fertility, too. Norris & Inglehart did it on a societal level, Eric Kaufmann and others in studies within societies. Tom Rees did a recent post on “Why do atheists have fewer kids?”

    There’s not that much “new” about the scientifc abuse of science by some ideological atheists. The socialist regime here in (Eastern) Germany was proud to insist on its “scientific worldview”, heavily discriminating against religious people. But in the end, they were toppled from theists, agnostics and atheists, joining in polish-catholic solidarnosc and Eastern German Churches to jointly fight for their freedom. So, let them rant, I am quite optimistic! 🙂

  9. #9 Oran Kelley
    October 25, 2009

    My main concern with this thesis is it’s slipperiness– a quality it shares with a lot of social science.

    On the one hand it tries hard to present a solid quantitative front, but it ultimately depends on special pleading to make it work–the case for the US which tells us that it is not any objective measure of insecurity that we have to worry about, but *perceptions* of insecurity which a) are hard to measure and b) are probably not easily disentangled from religious feeling itself.

    And how is Ireland proper less secure than England, say?

    Agreed, though, that this is at least worthy of serious discussion. Thanks for starting it.

    I’m afraid you’re going to have a tough slog with those who are zealously attached to the idea that religion can be good for nothing.

  10. #10 Uncephalized
    October 25, 2009

    I am very skeptical of your claim that religion’s raison d’etre is to increase the existential security of its adherents–I think it could just as easily be explained as a way to increase the physical security (wealth, etc.) of those at the top of the hierarchy. The fact that people who are uncertain about their futures are more vulnerable to religion does not support the idea that the deception is good for them; that would be like using the fact that immunocompromized people are more likely to get the flu as evidence that the virus is boosting their immune system. It just doesn’t follow. Now, it may in fact be true. I don’t know. But it’s certainly not evident from the correlations you showed.

    It’s certainly interesting, though. I didn’t know about the correlation between income inequality and religiosity before. This has been a pet peeve of mine for a while (I’m only 22 so I haven’t had opinions on this sort of thing for all that long). Large income inequality is bad for everybody, not just for the poor people (it increases psychosocial stress in everyone and reduces life span). Yet we have a not-so-stealth religion of free market capitalism in this country that just serves to increase the gap ever further. It’s totally counterproductive to the goal of a better life for everybody and it’s intensely frustrating.

    Good blog. I’m enjoying reading it so far despite disagreeing with you strongly regarding Dawkins et al and their place in the puublic discourse.

  11. #11 Jun Yoon
    January 16, 2010

    Hi there David I really enjoy reading your blogs and admire your work, but I think I must point out what may be (if I understood you correctly) a discord in your reasoning.

    I would like to just point out two facets at different (but connected) levels, presented from your own arguments which I believe are contradictory at worst, and starting an argument regarding morals at best.

    Your practical versus factual realisms are facets (distinctions you have made) at one level and at another level you have made the distinction between your own stance on studying (as well as socially engineering) religions (and the social structures it stems from) compared to Dennett, Dawkins etc (accusing them of becoming political) which resorts to “popular intellectual discourse” as if being popular per se is bad. So what does it mean to be bad or good?

    Now using your own distinctions you have set up at the level of studying evolutionary trade-offs (and of course everything undergoes evolution) lets use this same analysis on the raising public awareness issue. You say that “practical realism is a good thing”, so taking this notion, how could you say raising public awareness (about naturalism or atheism) although the science may be not up-to-date, is not a good thing? In fact where is the “optimal trade-off” and how does one go about deciding this? I guess this is the dilemma most highly specialised people of all disciplines face when writing to the general public or have intentions of “social engineering” (which for me seems to be pretty much analogous to being political).

    To put this another way from the meme perspective, how should a learned person filled with “good memes” go about spreading these “good memes” which are more accurate reflections of truths? How much should these memes be “spiced up” to enable more ready transmission at the loss of being better reflections of truth?

    Before I conclude this post, I would further like to add that may be the division of (and hence also the relationship between) practical/factual realisms is not an easy relationship to understand (or may be the division itself may not reflect the true nature of “realisms”). It is definitely not a mutual exclusive set, as in: Why can’t really good “factual realisms” be also “practical realisms”? Are these two different (not trading off) scales that measure two independent variables of “realisms”? And because humans have acquired some set of “factual realisms” having these may be of some long-term practical benefit too, but I guess only for highly structured societies which have easy storage mechanisms as well as dispersal mechanisms and can afford to have specialists searching for truths which may benefit that society. Spreading the truth (almost sounds like spreading the gospel) is another matter (practical) but may be with greater accumulation of “factual realisms” about “practical realisms” (or even vice-versa, who is to say which is superior?) these two distinctions may merge which I guess shows that they are not related in a trade-off way or that they are completely independent of each other. All this is speculation but nonetheless I’d like to point out the complexity which arises from the practical/factual realisms distinction.

    Sorry I think I may not have been as concise or as precise as I want but I am merely pointing out (may be due to my lack of understanding) my own hesitations from taking your stance/arguments whole-heartedly.

    Thanks for listening 🙂

  12. #12 J. A. Le Fevre
    May 28, 2010

    Prof. Daniel Dennett, in his ‘Breaking the Spell’ called for an evaluation of religion as an evolutionary adaptation, which I did some time ago. I took the ‘long view’, over the 2.5 million years of Homo, rather than the broad but only a couple decades deep approach of Norris and Inglehart in Sacred and Secular (2004), but was delighted to see some correlation of the results. Dennett’s viral analogy was testing the wrong competition, and the result may make for a humorous lecture, but nonsense science: Flawed tests give bad results. For the record, I recognize the joke Dr. Wilson is making of the title, but side with all who object to it. Any definition of religion that allows in atheism in is not one I would enjoin.

    To asses the adaptive influence of religion, I settled on three variants of man: Atheists, ‘with spiritual beliefs’ and ‘exercise religious practices’. For simplicity, I accepted the statements of the anthropologists’ record on prehistoric settlements as to whether religion or spiritual artifacts were apparent absent any other declared evidence, but would prefer to see prepared burials and artifacts consistent with historic tribes for spiritual beliefs and temples or ritual buildings/structures and priestly burials for religion. Any human organization or social order can tell people how to behave. Spirituality or religion, in the common usage of such terms, requires some sort of deference to a supernatural agent, and I think that is demonstrated in the historic records of spiritual and religious peoples and by extension, to the pre-historic relics as well.

    How would a visitor to this planet assess these variants?
    Homo Habilis, generally considered the first ‘man’, appears with his tools, about 2.5 million years ago, and the first prepared burials appear about 100,000 years ago in Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal sites. The habitat of homo through this period grew from southern Africa to include parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and the population peaked at (very roughly) 50,000 individuals.

    Humans with the spiritual variant began expanding very rapidly about 50,000 years ago, displacing all ‘archaic’ varieties. By 30,000 years ago, spiritual humans (referred to in archeological texts as ‘modern’ humans although there is nothing in the bones to distinguish them from ‘archaic’ Cro-Magnon) had significantly larger social groups, longer life spans and greater population densities. The total human population may have been approaching a million by this time, estimates stretch to two million by 10,000 years ago, and habitat has expanded to include nearly all land masses of the planet save Antarctica.

    With the spiritual variant, the habitat more than doubled, and the population increased over ten fold. Natural born atheist populations had gone extinct by 30,000 years ago, only those with the spiritual variant surviving the competition.

    Religion appears about 10,000 years back, and wherever it appeared, cities were built. The religious variant quickly displaced the spiritual adapted humans in all of the prime habitats, wherever food production could be increased to support the population densities of cities. As food production technologies improved, their habitat expanded to included increasingly diverse climates, and population into the billions. A reasonably successful adaptation by most standards.

    What of exceptions? At the group level, I have found no exceptions. No tribes without spirituality, no cities without religion. At an individual level, I have seen no data for tribal peoples, very little for historic cities and expect there to be no meaningful data for prehistoric communities. Socrates, 470 – 399 BC is the ancients’ most cited atheist and corruptor of Greek youth. Born during the Athenian (Delian) League (478 to 404 BC); kept the Aegean safe for Greek trading ships and large tribute payments flowing into Athens’ coffers. The greatest period of power and prosperity in the history of independent Athens. While Athens prospered, Socrates was free to mock the religious traditions that had allowed Athens to grow to greatness. Once this prosperity was shattered by the armies of Sparta (and the league disbanded), he was invited to pack his sacrilege and exit Athens. It is not likely this change of fortune changed the mind of Socrates, but it changed the indifference and tolerance of the Athenians. Later, at the roll of the millennium (by the common count) in Rome (central at first, greater upon his exile), the poet Publius Ovidius Naso, aka: Ovid, made a very successful living mocking the religious and moral traditions of the highly successful, powerful and prosperous empire in the early days of the Pax Romana, the great peace (and prosperity) of Rome. The indifference of the Roman people to their moral and religious traditions was loudly lamented by Emperor Augustus, but it looks likely, in retrospect, that it was his effectiveness in leading Rome to order and prosperity that encouraged such behavior. Jump ahead two thousand years and the peoples enjoying prosperity in the economies rebuilt by the Marshal Plan and basking in the Pax Americana are the most eager to step away from their religious traditions. The Middle East, by contrast, was proffered petty dictators rather than economic stimulus at the close of the last big war.

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