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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An evolutionary benefit to theism?

Does belief in God help our survival?
Photo: Altered from photo
(cc) Brent Danley,
Yesterday, NPR published an article on its program, All Things Considered, called, "Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?". Here, psychologist and atheist Jesse Bering conducted some tests of three groups of childred. Each were given a game to play involving landing a ball in a very difficult position, and then believed themselves to be left unattended, but with an exception in the second and third group. In the third group someone sat and watched them, and in the second group, an empty chair was left. The children were told an invisible woman was watching them. Cheating was high in the unwatched group, and lower in the other two groups (which were about equal). Bering hypothesized that such beliefs had an evolutionary advantage because they encouraged us to behave and cooperate better. I have two main problems with Bering's endeavor here, and both relate to my belief he's trying to explain why something came to be, that I don't really think even 'came to be' in the first place[1].

The first problem I see with Bering's hypothesis regards how typical a judging-God is in human culture. I don't think this "overseeing judging God" is as common as Bering seems to think it is. First of all, consider that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all Abrahamic religions, sharing close inspiration from one another, and them having been influenced by the Zoroastrianism of Persia before that (in terms of god/s and the universe seen through a lens of Good/Evil). Many other traditions of the supernatural do not feature gods in those roles, such as the Greek gods, whose follies may have provided lessons on 'what not to do', and who may have had desires and actions against mortals, but who rarely served as moral guides themselves. Other supernatural views involve things like spirit guides and great mothers, such as with Native Americans, or karma and cycles of rebirth rather than gods, as with many Eastern views. Here too, the referee-god doesn't hold.

So, although Abrahamic religions grew to have great numbers and influence, their nucleus began in one small geographic region and relatively short span of time. It is therefore not a good indication of 'overall human nature' regarding belief. Like the Good/Evil dichotomy, the puritanism, and the "our way or the highway" exclusionary traits of Abrahamic religions, the God-judge may be another aspect that has been over-magnified by the happenstance of Western guns, germs, and steel, along with the fortuitous marketing made possible by being on the good side of a major world Emperor at the right time. This often leads people into imagining the peculiarities of the Abrahamic stream to be more indicative of the human religious norm than they really are. In fact, there's good reason to believe that many traits of some of our largest religions are anomalies of the human religious impulse.

The second problem is that supernaturalism is not as common as Bering and many others think. In fact, it may be only one of a few examples, coming about as late as the 2nd Century C.E. We hear and read about a lot of things in ancient philosophy and traditions and automatically interpret them in 'supernatural' terms today, but this was often not the case. Rather, ancient peoples were theorizing about how their One, holistic Natural universe operated. Their notion of souls and entities, and even the gods were often naturalistic. It may not have been until Jesus' failure to return from the dead that early Christians began to conceive of a supernatural realm separate from the natural, as an explanation of what was meant by the Kingdom of God. Today, with our modern Christian-colored glasses, when we look back and read many of the concepts before that time, we tend to cast them in a supernatural context when that wasn't the original conception.

But, alas, the essential question remains as to whether or not people can be good without direct oversight, or the belief of direct oversight. We know for a fact this is possible anecdotally, so it's a question of degrees and proportions. Rather than comparison with undisciplined children, I would like to see the cheating behavior of groups of believers compared with groups of people who had been trained in enlightened ethical principles that go beyond direct punishment/reward, which is the lowest level of ethical education. Consider psychologist Barry Schwartz's criticism of incentive based systems in a talk last year at TED on our Loss of Wisdom, where he said, "...excessive reliance on incentives demoralizes professional activity". The same is true throughout all morality.

There's no question that this kind of advanced ethical education requires more societal energy than enforcement through incentive based dogma; but then, it is also more reliable and stable than good behavior based on faith. In other words, you get what you pay for. 


Many thanks to Rick Bamford for making me aware of this article, and thanks to Nate Custer for drawing my attention to Barry Schwartz's talk! 

[1] I also had a minor quibble with Bering's comment, "I've always said that I don't believe in God, but I don't really believe in atheists either... Everybody experiences the illusion that God — or some type of supernatural agent — is watching them or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private everyday moral lives." I think again, Bering has made a larger claim than he can support. I have never had this feeling, even momentarily, since becoming an atheist. But I admit I have a considerable degree of philosophical underpinning to my natural worldview, which many atheists who merely lack theism do not have. Such occasional suspicions would not be surprising for them.

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