The Functions Of Faith

Lyrics from 3 of the most popular Christian songs of 2012:

I fall into Your arms, Right where I belong, Your everlasting arms. And where would I be Without You. I’d be packin’ my bags when I need to stay.

I want to live like that. Am I proof That You are who you say. You are That grace can really change a heart.

Bless the Lord, O my soul. O my soul. Worship His holy name. Sing like never before. O my soul. I’ll worship Your holy name. (more)

Lyrics from 3 of the most popular Christian hymns ever:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see.

Thou canst hear though from the wild, Thou canst save amid despair. Safe may we sleep beneath thy care, Though banish’d, outcast and reviled.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee; Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty! (more)

A few weeks ago I attended a Christian church service, where my dad gave the sermon, and my brother ran the music. My other brother gave a sermon at an evening service, and my mom continues to write and publish Christian novels for tween girls. Yeah, we are a pretty religious family.

I’m an atheist, and atheists usually emphasize their reasons for disagreeing with religious dogma. But attending the service, I was reminded that church is mostly not about dogma. Church services, and religion more generally, serve many useful functions for their participants. Browsing the song lyrics above helps one see such functions:

  • Acceptance – With unusual eagerness and sincerity, churches adopt the classic forager norm of heart-felt acceptance and inclusion, on nominally equal terms, of anyone who supports their community and its norms. Its ok to violate such norms sometimes, as long as you try not to. People really do deeply crave belonging somewhere.
  • High Status Ally – We are truly stressed by our conflicts with higher status others. We’d rather have even higher status allies, so we can say “He told me to do this; if you don’t like it, take it up with him.” God can be such a comforting high status ally. Christians affirm this ally relationship by showing their eagerness to submit to God’s dominance. They praise the nice things he’s done, and apologize for ways they may have disappointed him. We humans don’t just enjoy dominating others – we also sincerely enjoy submitting, at least if our target seems worthy. Especially if such an ally has a reputation for severely punishing those who oppose him.
  • Self-Control – Religion evolved from forager spirituality to help farmers resist temptations to forager-natural behaviors. Church highlights such temptations, assures folks that everyone suffers them, and offers concrete suggestions for resisting. A balance is struck between celebrating those who succeed and not overly rejecting those who fail. Gratitude toward, and a reluctance to disappoint, one’s high status ally and community, helps with self-control. Atheists often seem surprisingly lacking in such self-control.
  • Ritual – While we don’t understand how exactly rituals help and comfort it us, it seems pretty clear that they do.

When atheists try to make substitutes for religion, they often do pretty well on acceptance, and on collecting specific self-control mechanisms. But they find it hard to substitute for the high-status ally, the added comfort and self-control this allows, and the rituals this makes more powerful. Yes, if there isn’t a God, and you don’t believe in him, you win points for having more true beliefs. But you may well lose in your ability to get things done that you want done. There is simply no general guarantee that humans will get more done when they believe more truths.

I’d like to know more about how industry era religion differs from farmer era religion. This might help me to project how em era religion might differ yet again.

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  • lump1

    In an attempt to vindicate false but potentially useful beliefs, isn’t it weird to completely ignore the social and personal downsides of those beliefs? Actual faith in Abrahamic religions may be a source of comfort and confidence, but then again, so can alcohol. Both are problematic exactly because they bias our judgment in many important decisions, and the source of that bias is unconnected to reality. For example, consider how religions and alcohol distort our view of women, or of science, or of the impact of our actions on the future. Are these misconceptions not dangerous to ourselves and others?

    A case can be made that the comfort of religion is available without a commitment to its most dangerous and anti-social tenants, and I deeply support the efforts of religious people who encourage this decoupling. But it’s easy to underestimate how many of the comforts of religion are available without any religion. Alain de Botton has a good book about this. Anyway, I consider an imaginary friend to be a rather low-status ally. The feeling of superiority and righteousness that this friend provides is simply harmful, even if it’s comforting.

    • The “high status ally” function sounds like a good hypothesis about one reason religion is harmful. 

      Sure, if Alice has a high status ally, even an imaginary one, that may be great for Alice, but Bob having to deal with Alice justifying her actions by appeal to her imaginary high status ally sounds like a nightmare for Bob.Furthermore, by loudly proclaiming his atheism, Bob can signal to Carl that he won’t cause Carl any of the headaches that come from someone else having an imaginary high status ally.

      • Oops, that wasn’t mean to be a reply to lump1, that was meant to be a reply to the OP.

      • V V

         Indeed. It even gets worse when you have conflict between people of different religions:

        Alice and Bob disagree on something, and Alice tries to leverage the authority of her imaginary high-status ally, but she is frustrated that Bob doesn’t pay due respect to him. Bob, on the other hand, is frustrated because Alice doesn’t pay due respect to the authority of his own imaginary high-status ally.
        I suppose that’s how holy wars and pogroms get started.

        I think that the imaginary high-status ally only works within a religious community, not among peers (they are equally allied with him hence they can’t leverage his authority), but among social unequals that can claim different levels of allegiance (priest and layman, man and woman, white and black, etc.). Hence it’s essentially a tool to justify and reinforce social inequality.

      • adrianratnapala

        I agree that the “high status ally” doesn’t make sense until people can agree on who It is.  But after, It is the great leveller.  The slave and his tyrant are both under the rule of God.  Equally.

      • V V

         I don’t think so, the tyrants always claim that they rule “by the grace of God”, and this position is generally supported by religious authorities.
        More generally, religion tends to support social differences.

    • In an attempt to vindicate false but potentially useful beliefs, isn’t it weird to completely ignore the social and personal downsides of those beliefs?

      I think it’s an example of “near mode” bias. ( The benefits of religion can be seen up close; you can observe the effect a service has on believers or empathize with them. (Of course, religion carries immediate subjective advantages; how else would it persist?) The harms require a far view.

      • lump1

        This is an interesting point. And I suppose that atheists like me might be tempted by the far-mode bias. Robin prefaced his analysis with descriptions of how, despite his atheism, he gets to see the consoling effects of religion close up and personally. The typical atheists lacks this kind of intimate and positive insight into the religious life, so we undervalue the near mode and mainly see is the far mode.

      •  But in the end, I think far mode is the correct primary mode for evaluating the effects of social institutions. It’s inherently a far-mode question.

    • Robin Hanson

      Your examples of distorting views of women or science seem to me to mostly be hypothetical distortions you imagine must exist, rather than actual distortions you’ve clearly seen. The concrete benefits I see are, in contrast, must more clearly visible.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Not sure I understand: isn’t the opposition of some Christian churches to abortion rights, for example, clearly visible?

  • Sociologist Robert Bellah had some interesting thoughts related to the closing question in his recent book Religion in Human Evolution.  He posed that as human cultures have progressed from the paleolithic age to the more established, city oriented axial age, religious practice has evolved in tandem, shifting from being primarily ritual and practice oriented, to focusing on myths and established narrative, to adopting a “theoretic” approach, where analysis of the nature of mythology is adopted into religious practice (e.g., Jewish Midrash).  This all draws from his broader thesis that religious practice is a form of serious play, and the way humans interact with religious phenomena has evolved from a prehistoric interaction between narrative and play.  He doesn’t address how things might continue to progress, though my understanding is that if he weren’t so old he would like to expand with additional volumes.  It’s a fascinating text even aside from the thesis; the four case studies on Israel, Greece, China, and India are each on the scale of Max Weber’s works.

    • I strongly second Wesley’s recommendation. Religion in Human Evolution is masterful and would help you make progress on some of your core questions.

    • Robin Hanson

      I ordered that Bellah book; will read it when it arrives.

  • manwhoisthursday

    1. Communities tend to be more about in-group love than out-group hostility.  See the summaries of Haidt.  There are also a couple of other studies he didn’t mention that I may did up.

    1a. Having a supernatural being as the raison d’etre for a community does not seem to make that community more hostile to outsiders.

    2. Intuitive thinking tends to be much more accurate than has been emphasized.  So, religious people, who rely more in intuitive modes of thought, will often make better decisions. 

    2a. Intuitive thinking mostly tends to go wrong in dealing with evolutionarily novel things, like science.

    3. There have really been very few (any?) examples of atheist communities that provide the kind of things that religions do.  Botton’s suggestions seem Quixotic.

    3a. Smaller ethnic communities might do as secular examples, but they seem to have the same sort of parochial social customs as religions do.

    4. Women have somewhat lower status in some ways in traditional religious communities.

    4a. But the women don’t seems to mind much, they get higher status in other ways, and are far from powerless.

    4b. People in religious communities, as opposed more secular people, are actually good at producing new people and existence would seem to be a good thing overall, so they are arguably doing a good thing.

    4c. Women seem to get a lot of enjoyment out of having partners that are at least somewhat above them in status.

    4d. The attitudes of religious people towards women seem to be much less hostile than some non-religious others: 


    Overall, the moral case against religion, on a ultilitarian level, seems very weak, especially when it comes to allegations of violence and oppression.

    • Chris

      Just as atheists have to confront evidence about well-being and religion within a country, defenders of religion (even those who are not actually believers, which if I recall correctly includes you) have to confront the cross-national evidence that secular nations are richer, healthier, longer-lived, and happier, and the time-series evidence that secularization has correlated quite well with better living standards.

      One tack people take to avoid looking at that evidence is worrying about fertility. But secular countries manage to have perfectly adequate fertility rates (Sweden and Norway, for example, have fertility rates of over 1.9, which is hardly cause for concern despite being below the allegedly crucial replacement level). 

       producing new people and existence would seem to be a good thing overall

      Even if existence is a good thing, it most certainly does not follow that creating new people is a good thing. I know Robin likes to conflate the two because he has an unsupported (and very strange) belief that not creating new is morally equivalent to killing, but we need not fall into that trap. 

      • manwhoisthursday

        Let me reiterate the main point at the bottom: the moral case against religion, on a ultilitarian level, seems very weak.

      • Chris

        And my point is, if you look at cross-sectional and time-series evidence, it may be stronger. (I personally think the cross-section evidence is largely reverse causality, in that better off societies have less need of religion, but the facts are what they are.

      • It would be weak if really women didn’t mind ;).
        But I have nothing against religion and spiritual research in itself, but just against as an instrument (one out of many others) in the hand of the ruling power, in there we can see intolerance and restriction of freedom based on supposed religious fact and high level ally.

      • Robin Hanson

        There seems to be a causal effect from more wealth to less religion. Not clear if that leaves much room in the data for a big reverse effect.

    • Dremora

      “4b. People in religious communities, as opposed more secular people, are actually good at producing new people and existence would seem to be a good thing overall, so they are arguably doing a good thing.”

      Uh, no. Remember right-to-die issues and how they are ready to torture even people who don’t share their beliefs? In the name of an invisible man in the sky? Yes, they cause more existence (through coercive means), but no, they are not doing a good thing. They maximize torture and suffering on purpose.

      • “…torture…
        …invisible man in the sky…”

        I admire the way you dispassionately reach out to those you disagree with to convince them with logic.


        a  theist

      • Dremora

        Thank you.

        Considering that historically, people were routinely tortured literally in the name of god, and contemporarily, they are indirectly tortured in the name of god by being forced to be alive in a state of sickness and suffering against their explicit will (the true villain being government that gives in to religious lobbying to do the actual coercing, banning drugs and criminalizing those who participate in euthanasia), the torture label is completely accurate. Theists are currently torturing people.

        Considering also that, semantically and psychologically, god is in fact an alpha male (a man), not personally apparent in an obvious way (invisible), and that heaven is a construct derived from fantastic projections of the sky (remember that the sun used to literally be worshipped as a god as well, and that hell is a fantastic projection of underground volcanism and was literally assumed to be underground), all my statements are accurate.

        That you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s false. And if you stopped lobbying against human rights as if you owned everyone, maybe we could stop “debating” with each other once and for all. It’s funny that a theist would even use the words “convinced by logic” as if that phenomenon could ever even brush their religion.

      • manwhoisthursday

        You assume they are coercive means, but it seems more like these women (and men) just really like reproducing.  Human beings can be quite different and like different things.

      • As usual it depends on how religion is lived, in fact.
        But I think reproduction is not so dependento on religion promoting it via sexual discipline (more typical of abramitic religion, though not only them), but rather on economical issues/superstructures, more than religious one, who undoubtedly have their influence.
        I’d keep religion into individual/group level, rather than at a state/identity level, which could perceive as anti state – anti patriottic who begs to differ.
        (sorry for errors, no native English)

      • Dremora

        I wasn’t actually referring to reproductive rules like the rejection of contraceptives. While it’s true that they have an influence, at least that is usually a voluntary influence, even though anti-abortion laws and forced marriage customs do indeed inflict pro-reproductive coercion on people.

        But there are two additional levels of coercion: The child is coerced to come into existence and suffer all the unpleasantness and harassments of life without consent, and the religion-driven ban on voluntary euthanasia and good suicide methods is direct coercion against already existing people to continue existing and enduring the additional suffering of a longer involuntary life. This is serious harm, directly caused by the physically violent political manifestations of religious ideology.

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  • Michael Caton

    Not long ago I had a similar experience.  I went to a Protestant service and noticed that there are almost no arguments being made, just statements of affirmation and protection.

    • gjm

      Being surprised at finding hardly any arguments made in a church service seems like being surprised at finding hardly any scientific experiments performed at a concert, or being surprised at finding hardly anyone having sex at a tennis match.

      I was a Christian for many years, and I (being that sort of person) made plenty of arguments in religious contexts. But hardly ever in church services.

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  • Maximum Liberty

    Religion has positive externalities.


    • To me it’s good as long as they are compatible with the concept of maximum liberty, simply sometimes they don’t.
      They may have positive outcomes, right, I grant it but maybe if they are the same mind patterns that promotes the afore mentioned negative outcomes, it becomes relative.

    • Dremora

      Religion has negative externalities.


  • manwhoisthursday

    There is a good book out on how religious people decide what the high status ally wants: 
    It usually involves a conversation among community members.

    The author does a bloggingheads here: 

  • There is simply no general guarantee that humans will get more done when they believe more truths.

    True. It might be disconcerting to extreme rationalists to learn, for example, that a measure of optimistic illusion is psychologically beneficial. But you underestimate the baneful effects of accepting and rehearsing outrageously irrational propositions. Here’s two consequences:

    1. Intellectual habits generalize. When you’re committed to upholding an indefensible view, you become tolerant of your other indefensible views. I notice that fundamentalists tend to be particularly stubborn about all sorts of beliefs unrelated to religion.

    2. Religious hopes for an afterlife prevent people from mastering their fear of death, which fear is the source of compensatory efforts often manifested as greed. Religion perhaps once obviated the fear of death, but today, few can truly accept afterlife doctrines, yet they accept them enough so they never confront death and extinguish their anxieties.

    3. Religions are committed to moral realism, in fact, to a particularly rigid moral realism. But it’s personally maladaptive to treat “moral values” as terminal. Viewing them as terminal leads people to stress “getting more [good] done,” without evaluating whether it’s fundamentally worth doing; it freezes them in their conceptions of the “good.” (See the “Different moral strokes for different moral folks” section of

    • Kytael

      your last link is broken, where does it point to?

    • AspiringRationalist

      “When you’re committed to upholding an indefensible view, you become tolerant of your other indefensible views. I notice that fundamentalists tend to be particularly stubborn about all sorts of beliefs unrelated to religion.”

      Does being a fundamentalist make you more stubborn about non-religious beliefs, or does being stubborn about believes in general cause you to become / remain a fundamentalist?

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  • DanW

    Peter Harrison, a scholar of science and religion, makes three distinctions of “Christianity.” People usually don’t untangle them.

    1. Christendom — the political institution with its history. 

    2. Christianity — the doctrine and the set of rituals.

    3. Christianness — a desire to emulate Christ, e.g. charity, forgiveness, love.

    There’s undoubtedly much to criticize with Christendom. The Church has committed some pretty grievous wrongs in history. And Christianness is almost certainly a force for good personally and for communities. I notice that atheists are almost always criticizing religion on the grounds of 1, while believers defend from 3. They’re not usually talking about the same things!

  • weareastrangemonkey

    ” But they find it hard to substitute for the high-status ally, the added
    comfort and self-control this allows, and the rituals this makes more

    It would be good to see some hard evidence on
    this. Some classic substitutes for the high status ally are: a
    profession; a political ideology or organisation; a race; or a nation. I
    know mainly atheists back in the UK, I’m from a largely Atheist
    society, and I would not characterise them as being in general weak of
    will compared to the many Christians I have met over in the US.

    I wonder if Robin has a little selection bias going on in his anecdotal evidence.

    • manwhoisthursday

      Controlling for other factors, atheists tend to score lower on the personality trait of conscientiousness.

      • weareastrangemonkey

        That is interesting. Could you tell me which paper you are referring to. Thanks.

      • weareastrangemonkey

        This result is an improvement as its not anecdotal. However, it is compatible with several stories. I think the story you and Robin are inclined towards is one in which religion helps people with self-control.

        Another story is that people with low self-control find it difficult to live in accordance with a particular set of religious rules. I find this equally plausible. In which case we see the same result that you cite but religion doesn’t have any effect on self-control.

  • lightreadingguide

    The closest equivalent we currently have to (the first, mostly human-designed generation of) ems are the developed world’s five percent lowest-sexual market place-value people in their 20s and 30s (not needed for reproduction, not valued for physical aspects, more spectators than participants with respect to the grand display of the pleasures of life).  My anecdotal impressions (having known many of them well) are that they have (like oncologists) very low religiosity, (like geriatrics) a deep revulsion to voluntary discomfort and displacement, and (like people who are intellectually gregaroius but not too ambitious) a strong fondness for collections where the goal of being a completist is reachable.  If I try to imagine the first generation of ems, I would think they would have almost a metaphysical horror of direct contact with something divine that rules their creators (like the oncologists as I imagine them to be), a deep revulsion for being forced to re-experience too similar combinations of sensory/info inputs (like old people who experience, I think,  much more than young people a dislike for the uncanny abyss of all those semi-human animations that Hollywood has spent billions on), and  would be attracted like bugs to light to those aspects of religion that allow for near-infinite recombinations of inspiring story-lines (i.e., Gothic cathedrals, which can cover thousands of pages of Wikipedia trivia listings, not Athenian temples, which much more quickly evolve into metaphysics ).  

  • the devil made me post this

    Oh, just quit while you’re ahead and go join your happy clappy family of all-singing all-dancing fundies.  It’s obvious that’s where you belong.

  • Bill

    Those interested in the comforting aspects of religious rituals might also be interested in Stanford biologists Robert Saplosky’s view that such rituals have their origins in OCD behavior: 

    Essentially, his idea is that even those who do not suffer from OCD can find genuine comfort in repetitive chants, etc. So developing rituals that offered such comfort became an outlet and indeed a career for those with strong OCD tendencies.

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  • “But they find it hard to substitute for the high-status ally”

    I disagree completely.  Most atheists I talk to seem to be all about the high-status ally — “the scientist.”  That is some non-specific archetype that they claim agrees with them.

  • Asdf

    Ok, I’ll bite.  Why is there no God?  Are we taking this as given?

    It seems to me the whole talk falls apart unless a 100% proof of atheism is proposed.

  • I
    believe that Jesus wanted social justice for the world. I have
    discovered a new book that shows how His message was covered up by
    His Gentile followers. The church has blinkered its past. It’s no
    secret that Jesus strove to bring in the kingdom of justice here on
    earth and his followers implemented it in the communal society we
    read about in Acts 2:44-47. The church’s dirty secret is that the
    Jewish followers of Jesus continued to hold his vision dear, later
    influencing such sects as the Bogomils and even, according to their
    own oral traditions, the Doukhobors. After exterminating the Jewish
    followers of Jesus, the church’s historians buried this history of
    justice-seeking but an author by the name of Lawrence Goudge has
    exhumed their story and presented it in ‘Cover-Up:
    How the Church Silenced Jesus’s True Heirs.’
    This book does the world a great service by illuminating for the
    first time this vital part of the history of social justice. I found
    it at

  • rationalist

    “Em-era religion”?

    It seems that brain emulations would have to engage in some pretty fanciful apologetics to believe any current religion.

    Do you think they will invent new religions? Or will uploaded minds come to believe that they have iSouls that get uploaded to the big computing cloud in the sky when they die?

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  • brendan_r

    “When atheists try to make substitutes for religion, they often do pretty well on acceptance, and on collecting specific self-control mechanisms. But they find it hard to substitute for the high-status ally, the added comfort and self-control this allows, and the rituals this makes more powerful.”

    I (an atheist) read C.S. Lewis’ classic “Mere Christianity” over the weekend. Powerful. I attempt to “try on” an author’s frame when I read their stuff, suspend criticism til I’m done to really let it sink in, and, man, if I could find a way to believe in God, that is the highest octane self-help (self-control) stuff around.

    It’s an odd experience to emerge from that book convinced that IF I could buy it, I’d be a better, happier, more productive person. But I simply can’t.