Remember that scene in Die Hard, where Bruce Willis drops a huge pile of explosives down an elevator shaft, blowing up the lobby of the building and killing a few terrorists, but also shattering the building’s huge glass windows? You might recall that right after he does that the officious deputy police chief says to him, angrily, “I got a hundred people down here and they’re all covered in glass!” And Bruce Willis replies, “Glass? Who gives a sh*t about glass?”
I was reminded of that scene upon reading this article, by Tom Bartlett, in the current issue of The Chronicle Review. Here’s the set-up:
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.
Standard stuff, at least for anyone who follows this issue. But now let’s have a look at the evidence adduced by this loosely affiliated group of scholars to make us rethink whether religion strengthens societies:
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.”
Religion can elicit behavior that is good for society—sometimes.
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.
Now, I’m afraid I don’t understand either of those first two examples. With regard to the first, why is it admirable to give any of my ten dollars to the stranger? Surely I need to know something about the stranger, and about my own needs, to make such determinations. Does he need the money, or is he someone like Mitt Romney? What will he do with the money if I give it to him? I think something got left out of the story.
The second scenario is also confusing. Did each participant know that he would get nothing if the sum of the two amounts was greater than one hundred shekels? Do the participants know the size of the bonus? Was their goal to maximize the amount of money they receive? This all sounds like a problem in game theory and strategic thinking, and not as any sort of test of admirable conduct.
But that is beside the point, because mostly my reaction is the same one Bruce Willis gave to the officious deputy police chief. If the goal is to understand the role religion plays in society, then why on earth are you wasting your time with these rinky-dink, artificial, contrived, social science scenarios? Is there not an obvious natural experiment we can do? If we are worried that a lack of religious belief leads to greed and selfishness, then let’s investigate societies where free non-believers predominate. It turns out there are quite a few, in Scandanavia and Western Europe, and they utterly refute any notion that religious belief is necessary for a decent, moral society. Meanwhile, we can look to the most religious countries and ask if they show evidence of being unusually charitable and generous. Anyone care to defend the affirmative in that debate?
Bartlett himself makes this point elsewhere in the article:
Of course, you can hardly blame the New Atheists for their own success. They’ve been speaking out against religious extremism in all its malicious forms, whether it’s states permitting pseudoscience in school curricula or suicide bombers angling for a post-mortem harem. By comparison, humble studies of who takes the most money from an envelope can feel trivial.
Bingo! Bartlett continues:
But it’s not the criticism of ecclesiastical overreach that bothers Wilson and Atran; it’s the conflation of science and advocacy. Wilson supports efforts to destigmatize atheism, like the running feature “Why I Am an Atheist” on Pharyngula, and said so in his anti-Dawkins posts. Atran believes that “attacking obscurantic, cruel, lunatic ideas is always a good idea.” It’s proclaiming that religion is rotten to the core that they think is misguided.
To which a New Atheist would reply that after removing the obscurantic, cruel and lunatic ideas, very little of religion remains.
Reading Bartlett’s article really made my inner anti-intellectual wake up and say hello. Consider this exchange:
He responded to Wilson by maintaining that only one word was required to prove that religion is more destructive than beneficial: women. “Those with eyes to see,” Myers wrote, “can see for themselves that religion has for thousands of years perpetuated the oppression of half of our species,” which is “reason enough to tear down our cathedrals.” Some commenters were even more disdainful, like the one who branded Wilson a “hypocrite quisling.”
Going tit for tat, though with a touch less venom, Wilson accused Myers of “not functioning as a scientist” on the subject of religion. “It’s absurd for Myers to say that the impact of religion on human welfare can be understood merely by opening one’s eyes,” he wrote. Myers says that Wilson is advancing an overly benign portrait of faith in support of his pet idea. Wilson contends that Myers and the rest are fabricating a cartoon version of religion, one that doesn’t grapple with the science, and deciding on the outcome (religion is bad) before the evidence is in.
I’m with Myers. How on earth can Wilson talk so blithely about deciding outcomes before the evidence is in? Is Myers wrong about the oppression of women? Am I hallucinating the cruelty of so many prominent religious groups towards homosexuals? Or their pernicious effect not just on science education but on history as well? Or the tremendous support for right-wing politicians among religious voters, with all the harm that entails? And those, mind you, are just a few of the problems religion causes in the United States, a pretty civilized place in spite of all its problems. When we survey the world’s theocracies the situation gets far worse.
For heaven’s sake, we’re drowning in evidence for the harmfulness of religion. Open your eyes!
Against this litany we have a handful of social science experiments that are beset by so many variables for which it is impossible to control that it is not at all clear what they prove, and whose conclusion, as summarized by Bartlett, is:
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.
In certain circumstances. In some people. I feel deeply chastened.
So much of the criticism directed towards the New Atheists seem based on missing the forest for the trees. It’s based on cherry-picking their most incendiary statements to distract from the major points. Yes, fine, Hitchens was being hyperbolic when he subtitled his book, “How Religion Poisons Everything.” So let’s posthumously resubtitle it with the more accurate, “How Religion Poisons So Many Important Things That It’s Hardly Worth Bothering About The Few Things It Doesn’t Poison,” and move on. And yes, Dawkins’s Neville Chamberlain comparison was ill-considered and he should not have been quite so dismissive of the cosmological argument. Happy now? Is that really what I’m supposed to focus on here?
Time to wrap this up. Bartlett writes:
Homework or no, [Daniel Dennett's book] Breaking the Spell was a best seller, while [David Sloan Wilson's book] Darwin’s Cathedral was not. If the conflict over the best scientific approach to religion is measured in popularity, the New Atheists would win with ease. As of this writing, PZ Myers has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and Wilson has around 500. A YouTube clip of Dawkins tying Bill O’Reilly into knots has over four million views, while Wilson interviewing a fellow scholar, Michael Blume, on his findings about religion and fertility has around 300. Skewering God makes for better box office.
There’s a lot more to Bartlett’s article, and while it is clearly a bit slanted against the New Atheists it is actually quite a bit better than most essays in this genre. So go have a look!