Gene Expression

The multilevels of religion

I read Evolution for Everyone, and I was struck by how much David S. Wilson discussed religion. First, he seems to praise The Templeton Foundation quite a bit, in part because of their generous funding of his research. This isn’t to say that he has any illusions about the nature of their interests, but he isn’t an idealist about taking money to explore the questions which interest him. Wilson has to know that this is going to be come in for some scrutiny and no doubt some will denounce him for cavorting with the religious. That being said, Wilson is definitely not a Richard Dawkins style atheist. He promotes a functionalist theory about the nature of religion, that is, he believes that religion serve a useful evolutionary ends (e.g., a “social glue”). Wilson reports without any apology data he has collected which suggests that anti-social people are less religious than the highly social. He also reprises his work from Darwin’s Cathedral, giving some space to alternative viewpoints about the nature of religion. In particular he focuses on the the “byproduct theories,” the economically oriented “rational choice” model of Rodney Stark & William Bainbridge, and the cognitive anthropological hypotheses of Pascal Boyer & Scott Atran.

Though he gives some nod to the byproduct hypotheses as being orthogonal, or subsidiary, to his functional theory, I was struck by Wilson’s tendency to implicitly posit a zero-sum game where his functionalism was competing for space on the same ground as the other models. In Unto Others Wilson chides many thinkers for not viewing group selection as a just one way to look at a particular dynamic process, but he doesn’t seem to want to take his own advice in regards to religion. For example, he asks why ancient conceptions of the afterlife were not glorious if there has always been a tendency posit a life after death. Wilson offers that he has a nice functionalist argument for why there was evolution in regards to this idea over time, so that today most major religions posit a happy and rewarding afterlife for righteous believers. The problem is that those who work in cognitive anthropology never stipulated that the nature of the afterlife has to be good. Rather, they contend that humans have an innate tendency to believe that mind and body are separate and that the mind will persist after the body dies. This does not entail a heaven or anything so felicitous, and in fact it is close to the model that many ancient and tribal peoples have of a “shade” being an echo or shadow of one’s “real self,” which consisted of the integrated whole of the mind & body. It seems that a study of cultural history (which Wilson has no doubt done) will show that there has been selection and evolution on top of these basic evoked motifs to arrive at the modal cultural expressions which we see around us. Cognitive anthropologist Dan Sperber would say that Boyer & Atran are dealing in the evoked aspects of culture, while Wilson is focusing on the epidemiological ones. Similarly, the “rational choice” model posited by Stark & Bainbridge also implies cultural evolution over time. I would not be surprised if David S. Wilson agreed with all of this, but the nature of a 350 page general book written for the public did not allow for this exposition. So be it, to the lay reader there will remain the impression that the various schools in regards to the origin of religion exist as alternatives instead of natural complements.

Comments

  1. #1 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 12, 2007

    suggests that anti-social people are less religious than the highly social.

    Not terribly surprising since religion has a social function. But hard data is good.

    And not that evolutionary psychology (which I assume this is) seems terribly predictive and supportable for a non-expert. But is it problematic or beneficial for Wilson’s hypothesis that religion seems to be associated with lower intelligence and some mental disorders?

    The former could go either way, one would need to understand if and why “social glue” is more important for that group.

    The later seems to say that religion is either an epiphenomena or it is perhaps a direct problem for Wilson. But I see that “motifs” and “modal expressions” are allowed.

  2. #2 Roy
    April 12, 2007

    The ‘social glue’ argument is bogus.

    In the early 70s I lived in DuBois, Pennsylvania, which then had the largest volunteer fire department in the country. They raised money with bake sales, where the best recipes in town would compete, and held carnivals, and other events. Firemen volunteered their time for teaching fire safety to anyone, anywhere. Their dances and socials were the places young men would meet the girls they would later marry (and whose cooking they’d sample at the bake sales). They had various sporting events that drew people, and modest revenue. The fire department was a large presence at every seasonal function. The fire department borrowed on what churches have always done, but they did it city-wide, on a grander scale, and without threats of hellfire and damnation, and with no secret agenda. They brought people together, shunning no one.

    I found it hilarious that the churches kept trying to compete with the fire department and all of them came up short all of the time.

    The community got real value from the fire department. In the few years I lived there, the biggest fire they had — which ran in the Courier-Express above the fold for a week and a half — was in a department store in ladies lingerie, where there was over $150 in smoke damage. Which means the fire was out before any merchandise got burned, but smoke tainted some frilly underthings which made them unsellable. That was it, the big fire, the only one that made the front page in the years I was there.

    A working community gives the ‘social glue’ which holds it together. Churches undermine the community by dividing it into factions which glue together by shunning outsiders. Like I said, bogus.

    Also, the idea that humans innately believe that the mind somehow persists after the body dies is emphatically false. It is taken to be a universal, but it is a minority position, worldwide. More people are bothered by the notion that a mind can spring into being out of nothing, and so they prefer that it must have existed before the body came into being, which of course leads to the idea of minds cycling through different bodies, or reincarnation.

    And then there are those who were never bothered with the idea that birth and death are the temporal bounds of the mind. This multitude proves the presumed universality of belief in an afterlife to be wrong on its face.

  3. #3 Caledonian
    April 12, 2007

    So, let’s accept for a moment the claim that the more social a person is, the more religious that person.

    Which way does the causation operate?

  4. #4 Oran Kelley
    April 12, 2007

    Thanks for the review.

    One thing about functionalist arguments is that they tend to inspire kneejerk counter arguments.

    For instance, the idea that religious acts as a “social glue” immediately gets translated into the idea that self-identified religiosity should correspond to some measure of “sociability” that we come up with in an offhand manner.

    I don’t, for instance, think that the claim being made is necessarily that the more religious a person is the more social they are.

    For one thing, I think asking this question in present-day multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies with competing exclusionary universalist religions would be a mistake, as the context in which religion first arose was quite different.

    The question wouldn’t (at first) be “What good is religion to us today,” but “What good might religion have been to, say, very early human groups?”

  5. #5 Andrew Brown
    April 12, 2007

    These discussions would get a little further if everyone could agree that “religion” is not something whose essential characteristics are found in twentieth century American protestantism.

    I’m not sure that Boyer, Atran and Wilson regard their explanations as complementary. I have talked to all three of them about it. My feeling is that while all three of them understand that the explanations might be complementary, they prefer to believe that all the work is done by their preferred model. It’s not clear to me how one could decide this point in principle.

  6. #6 razib
    April 12, 2007

    And then there are those who were never bothered with the idea that birth and death are the temporal bounds of the mind. This multitude proves the presumed universality of belief in an afterlife to be wrong on its face.

    a modal belief need not be universal. you’re grasping at strawmen.

    My feeling is that while all three of them understand that the explanations might be complementary, they prefer to believe that all the work is done by their preferred model.

    since wilson’s is a higher level one i think he has the bigger task.

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