Is God Here To Stay?

According to a new cross-cultural study, … people living in communities most like those of Stone Age hunter-gatherers — small in numbers and lacking a “moralizing god” — made the most unfair offers to strangers and were least likely to punish stingy partners.

More here.  This confirms that moralizing Gods function to encourage cooperation in large societies, and adds moralizing gods, and fairness to strangers, to the many innovations that came with farming, such as war, slavery, marriage as property, class hierarchies and large wealth inequalities.

The strength of modern attachment to moralizing gods was emphasized to me twice recently.  First, I was reminded the [US] public hates atheists:

Mosaic Project researchers asked survey questions to determine Americans’ reactions to situations involving members of various out-groups (e.g. a person’s feeling about one their children marrying a Jewish or Muslim or Catholic or atheist person). … ‘Atheist’ was by far the ‘lightning rod’ category on multiple queries and atheists were even described as “evil and immoral”.

Second, I attended a lecture by famed philosopher of science Philip Kitcher, on “Militant Modern Atheism”:

Religious scholars who criticize the militant atheists often view religion as centered in social practices that inform and enrich human lives. … Doctrines that atheists might subject to epistemic evaluation … are … pieces of scaffolding, that are, in principle, dispensable. … Militant modern atheism is incomplete (and likely counter-productive) so long as it fails to attend systematically to the roles religion fulfills in human lives. … The challenge is to develop a well-articulated and convincing version of secular humanism.

Kitcher was vague on how religion “enriches,” mentioning identity, community, and “giving meaning.”  He likes folks to start from core values and pick a religion to match, and not take anything transcendent beings say too literally.  I asked the last question of the evening: what if we can’t reform religion much; which would he choose between atheism and the today’s distribution of religious styles?  He refused to answer that question, insisting we can reform religion.  Apparently some choices are morally repugnant to consider, and even to a famed analytic philosopher, “what if we can’t take crazy beliefs out of religion?” is one of them.

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  • Surely the much more plausible explanation for the first experimental result is the one given in the article, that the ‘small communities’ effect is more important than the ‘lacking a moralizing god’ effect – people in small Stone Age-like communities just don’t trade with strangers very often, so they don’t have time to develop sensible strategies in the IPD that is trading with strangers (and their culture doesn’t bother to teach them such strategies).

    This would also explain why subscribers of Christianity and Islam are ‘nicer’ than those of local religions: they live in bigger, more market-based, communities. Unless this is properly controlled for (which I can’t find suggested anywhere in the article) I can’t see how religion does anything other than serve as a proxy for ‘society type’ in this experiment.

    • They did a multiple regression; both effects are observed.

  • Edward Gaffney

    “morally repugnant”? That’s jumping to conclusions. It sounds like he was simply advocating his position against what he thought was yours (remember why people ask questions at these events).

  • First, I was reminded the public hates atheists

    There’s this place called Europe, you don’t seem to have heard about it, but you might want to take a look. (and to greater or lesser extent also every other developed country in the world except United States)

    • botogol

      plus one – Americans are much more suspicious of atheists than europeans.

      (I wonder why)

    • Violet

      EU. Japan. etc

      From wikipedia:

      Between 64% and 65% of Japanese describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or non-believers, and to 48% in Russia. The percentage of such persons in European Union member states ranges as low as single digits in Italy and some other countries, and up to 85% in Sweden.

  • Rob

    A recent bit of research on one of those innovations.

  • anon

    Kitcher was vague on how religion “enriches,” mentioning identity, community, and “giving meaning.” He likes folks to start from core values and pick a religion to match, and not take anything transcendent beings say too literally.

    Confucianism does all of these things, and yet it lacks a cosmology or belief in a “moralized god”. To the extent that Confucians do in fact follow a “religion” (as opposed to a philosophy and moral code), it seems clear that religion can in fact be reformed.

  • Matt C

    Would your (or Kitcher’s) hypothetical atheist society have other social groups that served almost exactly the same function as religious ones do now?

    I think a lot of people in the U.S. satisfy their group bonding needs through politics rather than religion.

    For me the answer to your hypothetical depends on what becomes of those “attachments to moralizing gods” in the new atheist society. I am not at all excited about a world where all the resources currently spent on religion are instead diverted to political activism.

  • Marcus

    The choice of Philip Kitcher to use the term “militant” several times is telling. Does he justify the use of this term? Is he actually referring to militarism? Or is this a crass and cynical attempt to associate atheism with the militarism that the iconography and writings of actual major religions.

    • Proper Dave

      They are probably referring to “militants” like Richard Dawkins and Dennett, Dennett has a famous phrase “they are wrong” no BS just the facts if you are still deluded it is your problem not mine.
      I can see how BS peddlers hate this, it cuts of any tactics at the knees.

      • Proper Dave

        OK I actually clicked through to the Kirchner abstract. Basically they are “militant” for asserting religious doctrines is false at least that is what the abstract basically says. Interesting this is the first time I heard about “famed” Philosopher of science Philip Kirchner.
        Ironically the heavy weight and most “famous” philosopher of science is … Daniel Dennett in America and probably the world.

  • The problem with atheism is that it doesn’t appeal to our emotional side.

  • Curt Adams

    people living in communities most like those of Stone Age hunter-gatherers — small in numbers and lacking a “moralizing god” — made the most unfair offers to strangers and were least likely to punish stingy partners.

    More here. This confirms that moralizing Gods function to encourage cooperation in large societies

    Um – have you ever hear of “confounding factors”, Robin? As several upthread posters have pointed out, the correlation runs in reverse in developed societies – more atheistic societies have lower crime rates. Also, atheists are substantially less likely to be in jail.

    • confounding factors

      I would say that more scientifically developed nations are more likely to have access to materials that support a worldview of atheism. Also, a person in a faith who reads large amounts of outside materials would also be more likely to not be a firm believer(maybe)

      People, and societies, who fulfill those criteria have many factors that reduce their crime rate. There is an inverse correlation between intelligence and probability of going to jail, and there is a positive relation between intelligence and lack of belief in god. That may explain what you are looking for.

      I don’t think that contradicts the statement that “religious social institution improves society as a whole” even though within in group the “better” people are more likely to be atheist.

      This is a confusing issue. Does anyone have some relevant and enlightening information on this?

      • confounding factors

        those scientifically developed nations also have other institutions, prison, social support, ability to track cheaters and murderers, that reduce the crime rate.

        There are many confounding factors for the “atheism makes society better”

  • David C

    I think most people think of strong explicit atheists when they think of atheism. All non-religious secularists and many other religions such as Buddhists and Confucianists could be defined as implicit atheists because they have not specifically decided on a belief in a higher deity. You could put all newborns into this category too.

    This group of implicit atheists represents a little more than 10% of the population, but people who actually call themselves atheists represent only 2% of the population.

    And atheists are very popular once you get to know them, at least among the young.

    Anon already mentioned Confucianism, but don’t Buddhism and Unitarianism also include all the traits Phillip Kitcher was seeking in a religious organization?

    • Psychohistorian

      While interesting, OKCupid is not a random sample. It tends to be frequented by people who find the idea of matching via large sample size of personality questions, plus personality testing, appealing. Consumers are therefore, on average, probably more intellectual and thus atheist-friendly.

  • Microbiologist

    > Kitcher was vague on how religion “enriches,” mentioning identity, community, and “giving meaning.”

    Come on, you’re posing as quite the positivist. I’ll be the first to join you in making fun of soft-nosed, trackless philoso-schlock, but this here is really not all that ill-defined. Meaning. Like art, like music – a richness of emotion – feelings of power, fulfillment, and celebration, but here particularly linked to the pursuit of a goal, and/or linked to having a role in a world-order and social order where things make sense and give assurance. In this context the goal is to please god and certainly also to obtain eternal life. I suspect that the pain and problem of mortality figures much more in peoples’ thinking than they like to let on. They underplay it because the hankering for eternal life is a sort of ‘greed’: it shows and signals acquisitiveness, greed – and also that one is too weak to scoff or even half-scoff at death.

    So again, the two great problems (that one has without faith): firstly that life is arbitrary. Man is an arbitrary species developed by a contingent and mindless evolutionary process, with arbitrary (“random”) feelings, instincts, and drives. There’s no inherent meaning, and one has to posit values and standards oneself – or else someone has to do it – which, either way, can be confusing and require harsh discipline. Second, the sense that death is terrifying and is possibly an infinite loss, the loss of everything.

    This is not really so vague at all. It came alive extraordinarily in history. “No god – need other goal – need other meaning” was the primary impetus for fascism. The Duce appeared as a sort of Nietzschean overman who posited “strength,” the passionate brotherhood of Italians, and the restoration of classical Roman grandeur as great goals that would substitute for Christian faith, Christian belonging, and Christian assurance. (And would also substitute for the faith in the Belle Epoque “European civilization,” as a meaningful culture and a workable practical way of life, a faith which was itself partially substituting for Christianity, until it went dramatically reeling during and ever after the Great War.)

    That was the core of the whole fascist thing. Other ingredients were added, such as a frank communal struggle against enemies – which, of course, even when it becomes grim, is still fun even though that’s not the word that usually springs to mind. And filled with “meaning,” much of which is covered by the term camaraderie. (Similarly, being a gangster is probably kind of fun for certain psychological types, even at the cost of a big risk of death. To an evolutionary psychologist, it’s obvious why this is so – men used to do it constantly, and have to do it, and have to contend for status through it, so they evolved to desire and enjoy it.)

    There’s no way one can understand the 20th century without grasping this stuff – though I realize of course that there are other interesting things to study – this is part of what fascism and WWII were made of, and the two world wars created the world we are in.

    • Christopher_T.

      If I’m understanding you correctly, humans need a mission? (Not being contentious, I find the idea intriguing).

  • You might want to read Kitcher’s Vaulting Ambition, an attack on sociobiology and early evolutionary psych, before you confuse him with an honest philosopher.

    • John 4

      Huh? ‘Kitcher criticizes sociobiology therefore Kitcher is not an honest philosopher’ is a patently invalid inference. Or perhaps you think his particular arguments are garbage. If so, please do tell why.

      In any case, sociobiology is (mostly) a bunch of bull, as plenty of honest philosophers have been tediously pointing out for decades (Peter Singer, Jerry Fodor, David Stove…). This isn’t to say there is a philosophical consensus, but then, there never is. In any case, I’m a third rate hack, and I’m pretty sure I can hold my own in an argument about the merits of (most) sociobiology. For example, most of what is said here:

      is sensationalistic bull.

      • It isn’t that he criticized sociobiology, it was how he did. Which is why I specifically suggested reading the book. Unfortunately, I read it so long ago that I can’t remember any specific details well just my general impression of the book.

      • John 4

        Ok…sorry I had such a strong/touchy response. As is perhaps obvious, I think that a lot of the claims made by sociobiologists are shaky at best – and are used in pernicious ways to boot. In any case, I would be interested in knowing which arguments you found dishonest or unconvincing, but you certainly shouldn’t waste any time looking at the book again if you don’t remember.

  • Everyone should be Mormon except for me.

    • michael vassar

      I’d guess that Mormon stability benefits significantly from selection effects. People really do differ in personalities a great deal. If I’m wrong, maybe everyone should be Japanese or French instead.

  • Lord

    If you can’t take crazy beliefs out of religion, you start your own, the market is open, it is freedom of religion. It would be quite arrogant to think you can do that to all religion, but silly to think it impossible to do with any religion since you can design your own. Atheism is just the religion of the “no god”, and more tedious than most.

  • Microbiologist

    John 4,
    Kanazawa is the one evo psych guy most often disowned by other evo psych guys. It’s not like he is never interesting, but no one visible is less reliable. (I wouldn’t read him, except that I have the background to be able to easily perceive when he’s off base.) Therefore you’ve set up a bit of a straw man (perhaps unintentionally).

    I suspect that probably most biologists, out of those that have bothered with it, find Fodor not to be a legitimate critic of evolutionary theories like sociobiology. Fodor does not appear to have a good grasp of the theory of evolution, though his attacks have a philosophical rather than a biological nature anyway. Scientists don’t care about those philosophical things. Science – at least outside fundamental physics – is not a radical epistemological effort. Instead, like the US Army, it is built upon commonsense naturalism, accepted as an unexamined assumption. Its theory of meaning is simply that scientists agree on whether a sample of fluid has changed color or whether a fluorescing band is present in an agarose gel. If 99 scientists agree that the fluid changed color, and the 100th one disagrees, there is no philosophical crisis, rather, that 100th scientist needs to go home and take a nap, maybe get some sunshine. Basic sociobiology is accepted by all biologists: Hamilton’s rule, sibling conflict, mate conflict, parent-offspring conflict (gestational and otherwise), mating strategies/infidelity, you name it.

    • John 4

      Thanks for the reply, Microbiologist. Perhaps philosophers and biologists are talking past one another, to some extent. My interest in sociobiology was spurred by students showing up in my ethics and metaphysics classes telling me that biology had answered various perennial philosophical questions. I thought the suggestion was outlandish – ethics is about what should be the case, not what is the case, and science can only tell us about what is – but indeed my students were not misquoting their teachers: many sociobiologists make just this claim. In particular, my students had read Ridley’s The Red Queen, which contains a number of claims that are dubious at best. (Let me know if you disagree, and I’ll reproduce some of them for discussion.)

      In any case, one central and (if true) damning critique of sociobiology is that it is hostage to various empirical facts about our natural history, “facts” that don’t seem to actually be the case. In particular, if there are a lot of “spandrels”, then many sociobiological explanations will be bunk. In general, I take it, sociobiology explains various human traits and practices by showing how those traits are fitness conductive, or were fitness conducive in the environment in which they evolved. But if there are a lot of spandrels, then (many) such arguments will be spurious. But there ARE a lot of spandrels. Hence, many sociobiological explanations are bunk.

      Secondly, the sociobiological writings with which I’m acquainted seem to deny the individual much, if any, influence over her own behavior – sociobiologists seem to think of us as slaves to our genes/biological heritage. (Wilson, I think, calls altruism the “central theoretical problem of sociobiology”. But if he didn’t think that biology explained all human behavior, it would be hard to see why this would be a problem.) But I have never seen anything close to a compelling argument that this is the case.

      Do you think that these two concerns are wide of the mark? (I.e., do they not touch “basic sociobiology”?) Or do you think that they’re just not serious concerns? In either case, I’d be interested in hearing why, if you feel like explaining. If not, of course I understand.

      • anon

        Wilson, I think, calls altruism the “central theoretical problem of sociobiology”.

        Um, Wilson is tooting his own horn here. There is a cottage industry of sociobiological models which aim to explain ‘altruism’ by various combinations of kin selection, group selection, strong reciprocity, signaling and lots of other things which I’m not mentioning here. But sociobiology and other disciplines are a long way from grounding all human behavior in our biological makeup.

  • Mike

    I wonder to what extent the mass of interesting information in a modern society tends to “crowd out” religion. Reading the comments above, we could all be “monks” in a scientific “monastery” devoting our lives to sorting through the minutia of our “science,” which is of course not a religion, heaven forbid! We certainly get the bonding and even the moralizing, with our morals aligned to overcoming human bias in order to get the science right. By contrast, the religious bond and discuss with their moralizing aligned to overcoming human bias in order to get the religion right!

    Are there any interesting comparisons between science and religion as institutions that fill a gigantically overlapping set of human and cultural needs? And how this might be behind modern atheism?

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