Jul 07 2010

The origin of religion-1: Superstitions

I think we can all agree that, looked at objectively, religious beliefs result in a colossal consumption of time and resources that, to anyone outside that particular religion, seems like an enormous waste. As Richard Dawkins says:

As a Darwinian, the aspect of religion that catches my attention is its profligate wastefulness, its extravagant display of baroque uselessness.

Religious behavior in bipedal apes occupies large quantities of time. It devours huge resources. A medieval cathedral consumed hundreds of man-centuries in its building. Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolized medieval and Renaissance talent. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people have died, often accepting torture first, for loyalty to one religion against a scarcely distinguishable alternative. Devout people have died for their gods, killed for them, fasted for them, endured whipping, undertaken a lifetime of celibacy, and sworn themselves to asocial silence for the sake of religion.

Though the details differ across cultures, no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking, fecundity-forfeiting rituals of religion.

So with all these disadvantages, and with science showing that most of the claims for religion are either false or lacking any evidentiary support, why do we still have religion? Why would such useless belief structures be so widespread and durable? Why are they able to command such a significant number of adherents? The ubiquity and longevity of religious practices cries out for explanation.

Since religious beliefs are supported by no empirical evidence, one has to look for other reasons to explain both their origin and continuation, and a good place to start is with superstitions, which are also irrational and yet they too are durable beliefs that can grab hold of people, spread widely quickly, and new ones appear all the time. So studying the origins of superstitions may give us clues as to the origin of religion.

Before every presidential election, for example, you find the media paying attention to some ‘predictor’ of the outcome. They will point to some state or county or precinct that has in the past always had a majority for the winning candidate and then focus on what that indicator might predict for the current contest. Sometimes the ‘predictors’ are something as unrelated as the winning team in the Super Bowl or stock market indices. Of course, rational people are aware that there can be no causal connection between the two events.

It is always possible to find, after the fact, some indicator that seems to correlate with some major event. For example, suppose I tell you that you should give me all your money to invest because I have an uncanny knack of predicting whether a given stock will go up or down the next day. You naturally will want some evidence of my predictive power before you give me your money. If I guarantee to do it correctly four times in a row, would you be willing to give me your money to invest? If you say yes, you are a sucker. The reason is that all I need is 16 people to agree to the same deal, each of whom does not know about the other 15. Then I give 8 of them a prediction that the stock will go up the next day and 8 that the stock will go down. I then forget about the eight who got the wrong prediction, and give four of the others the prediction that it will again go up, and the other four that it will go down. The next time, I deal with only the four who got both earlier predictions right and give two up and two down. This leaves me with two who got all three right predictions. I repeat the process and of those two, I will finally end up with one person who got all four predictions right and is now a believer that I have this amazing skill at picking stocks.

It is because of this tendency of people to not use their reasoning abilities or seek underlying mechanisms that causes superstitions to originate and conmen to flourish. When something unexpectedly good (or bad) happens, people tend to remember some of the circumstances surrounding that event. Then if another similar good (or bad) event occurs, and they recall that both occasions had some common feature, then that feature can become seen as an omen, as a good or bad luck talisman. Thus superstitious people end up wearing ‘lucky’ clothes or carrying some ‘lucky’ items or doing some ritual before an important event, based on whatever it was that happened to catch their notice. Athletes and sports fans can carry this to ridiculous extremes. Faith healers particularly exploit this to con people because people will note and remember their few alleged successes and ignore the vast number of failures.

People seem to be very susceptible to this kind of magical thinking. The latest superstition is the ‘psychic octopus‘ in Germany that has apparently picked the winner in every match involving Germany in the current soccer World Cup. (It predicted that Germany will lose to Spain today.) The need of people to seek out patterns and correlations, and think that they arise out of some underlying causal agency, seems to be innate. Because of it, it is extremely easy for superstitions to originate and for crooks to scam people into thinking that they have secret powers.

This tendency to ascribe causal relationships, and even a causal agency, to unrelated events is, as we will see in the next post, not simply a cultural trait developed in the last few thousand years in humans. It goes back quite far.

Next: The power of religion and other superstitions.

POST SCRIPT: Last word on flags

I received this cartoon from a reader following my post on the flag fetish and the next day’s photo album of celebrities wearing the flag design on bikinis and underwear.

Bizarro flag.gif

Another reader also reminded me of this Eddie Izzard sketch about flags.


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  1. 1

    Hi Mano,

    I’ve been out of the country for three weeks and I clearly have a lot of catching up to do as your posts have continued unabated. But I feel obliged to comment on your initial statement in this one:

    “I think we can all agree that, looked at objectively, religious beliefs result in a colossal consumption of time and resources that, to anyone outside that particular religion, seems like an enormous waste.”

    What would those talented people have been doing otherwise? Is it nobler to spend time creating art only in the image of nature or something non-religious? Or is art (architecture, music, dance) just a waste of time? I am an atheist and yet I do not consider the artistic work of centuries of believers “an enormous waste.” Their belief was sometimes what inspired them to do their best work as artists, and I can appreciate that as a human achievement without lamenting the horrible waste of time spent on a religious subject.

    Anyway, this seems to me to touch on more fundamental issues like the meaning of life and the essence of art as a human pursuit. But denigrating all religious art as a colossal waste seems a bit over the top to me. Perhaps a series of posts on art …?


  2. 2

    Hi Ross,

    Actually, both my comments and Dawkins’s were not looking at art and music from the sense of its value as we perceive it now but at the wastefulness of religious practices from a natural selection perspective.

    While music and art are undoubtedly pleasing and we are glad for it, it does not provide any obvious survival advantage. They are like the peacock’s elaborate and colorful plumage, being something that seems to defy the standard model and thus calls for an explanation, which is what this series is about.

  3. 3

    I think everyone at sometime in their life has questioned the existence of religion. We as humans have a need to believe, for whatever reason, and so we do. It gives us comfort.

  4. 4

    Hi Mano,

    I’m not sure your peacock analogy holds water. Surely the plumes of the peacock are meant to attract the best mates and therefore lend an advantage in the natural selection process.

    But art and music hold no such significance for humans. If you are saying that time spent creating art is time wasted for survival, I suppose I would have to agree, but it is one of the things that distinguishes humans from all other species and, along with language, makes us special. I know you and Dawkins are trying to equate humans with all living organisms, but really, we are not peacocks.

    Since Dawkins links religious art and religious killing in the same paragraph, he seems to be attributing such negative qualities to the arts as well. I doubt that the pursuit of religious art was the cause of any conflict in history — “If only they hadn’t wasted so much time creating paintings, sculpture, and music, think what good they could have done for the species, and what suffering might have been prevented!”

    This is the implication of Dawkins argument, and it’s one that I reject, even as an atheist. “Baroque uselessness” might be a way of describing elaborate religious art and the survival resources wasted in creating it, but Bach’s B-minor Mass deserves better than that. There is something essentially human about art like that — something that tells us about ourselves and perhaps even makes us better as a species. I wouldn’t call that a waste of time, even if its inspiration comes from religion.

  5. 5

    …the octopus was right

  6. 6
    Claude Edwin Theriault

    Great content on Religious behavior, and the flag. Keep it up.

  7. 7
    Alex London

    Thoughtful content on many levels! We all know that anyone can predict the future *with words and not as a prophesy,* but what are those predictions based on?

    Remember the book 1984? Well, the predicted events didn’t happen, did they?

    I agree with you that after an event occurs anyone can go into the past and say something about it. But studying the percentages, what are the odds of getting something right by guessing? Yet that’s how thousands of people make their money every day.

    Flags and religious behavior are defintely topics that generate discussion.


  8. 8

    Predictions are questionable but most are coincidence. Predictions in history can seem accurate but are also full of interpretation. It seems that it is easy to work backward to find a prediction, rather than a prediction proving itself after it was predicted.

    “So with all these disadvantages and with science showing that most of the claims for religion are either false or lacking any evidentiary support, why do we still have religion? Why would such useless belief structures be so widespread and durable? Why are they able to command such a significant number of adherents? The ubiquity and longevity of religious practices cries out for explanation. “
    To me this seems that it is not prediction or superstition that encourages people to follow a religion but people and their movements that assist religion in success. This is what human kind does, we do not completely examine anything, we go by what we are told, or by what is familiar and this goes around and around, over thousands of years. There are many people out there that are in no way like this or live like this, but the majority of people unfortunately do.

  9. 9
    jason chen

    I totally agree with you about why people have religion. Thanks for the read.

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