Proof from Popularity (1)

Proof from Popularity

Some things never go out of style.

The Sun always rises in the East and sets in the West. The seasons come and go in an orderly manner. Tides rise and fall; there’s never a miscommunication.

We always seem to have a god around. The vast majority of human beings, living or dead, believe or believed in one or more gods. The details differ, of course, but not the desire.

Nothing else in our cultures has been as permanent. Traditions get created, changed, lost, and revived all the time. In the United States, an ancient fertility festival has become an excuse to eat chocolate. In Japan the tradition of Seppuku, or ritual suicide by slicing open one’s stomach, has died out. Norway has largely given up blót, which consisted of hanging various animals (including humans) and creating a feast from their flesh. Fondue was revived by Swiss wine and cheese producers, to encourage people to buy more wine and cheese. Something similar happened in the United States in the 1930’s; diamond producers had an excess of diamonds, so they hired marketers to create more demand by linking marriage proposals to the gift of a diamond ring.

Doesn’t the continuous popularity of religion speak to the existence of a higher power?

Bridge Jumping

Many of us were taught at a young age that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s right. Humans, like other social creatures, tend to form packs or tribes with a hierarchy of power. We reinforce these groupings through shared behaviour, by grooming one another or parcelling out food.

So if a high-ranking member does something notable, like harass someone not in the clan, there’s an incredible amount of pressure to imitate them. Our culture has decided that this instinct should be resisted,[146] so we try to teach children to think of the greater good instead. Wrong is wrong, no matter how popular it is.

This idea persists into adulthood. Think of the people you consider moral heroes. I’m willing to bet that while their neighbours cried yes, they said no. Oscar Schindler is praised for saving a thousand Jews while his peers were hunting them down. From the opposite end, the Neurumberg trials sent out a clear message that “I’m just following orders” is not an excuse; if a superior commands you to do something amoral, or everyone else in your unit is committing vile acts, you must refuse to go with the crowd. Otherwise, you are as guilty as them.

Therefore, we try not to judge the truth of things based on popularity. Adding a special exemption for religion is a poor idea. The non-religious[147] are currently the third most popular “religion,” after Islam and Christianity, and have never held a larger proportion of the world’s population. Does this mean a god is less likely to exist as time goes on? If Europe were hit by a giant meteor, wiping out a large chunk of the non-religious, does this mean religion is now more truthful?

Judgement Day

So if we can’t judge religion to be useful by how popular it is, how can we judge it?

No, wait, we have another question to answer first: can we judge religion? The religious claim to be above the fray, after all, pulling from a divine mandate of some sort that secular people lack. Doesn’t this make them impossible to judge?

I’d be more swayed by this argument if there was only one religion in the world. Instead we find thousands of religions, many of them splintered into various sects. How will you decide which religion to follow, without judging one against the other? If you dodge that by saying you worship all faiths, even though you don’t follow all of their must-follow rules, then I have some bad news:

Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites! Be harsh with them. Their ultimate abode is hell, a hapless journey’s end.

(Quoran, verse 9:73)

He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto Jehovah only, shall be utterly destroyed.

(Old Testament, Exodus 22:20, American Standard translation)

If you worship any religion other than Islam, you will suffer eternally. If you worship any religion other than Judaism,[148] you’ll be killed. Worship both Islam and Judaism, or neither religion, and you’ll have both fates. Ignore one or both of these lines and you’ve placed your moral judgement above god’s, since both of these sources are divinely-inspired words from a god.

Before reading this book, you were forced to make a judgement on religion. Since I presume you’re still alive and in reasonably good health, I think that signals it’s A-OK to judge religion in general.

What criterion should we use for judgement? I’d argue that the best way is through behaviour. All religions tell their adherents how to live a moral, just life. We should expect the religious to live better than their godless counterparts, perhaps by having to deal with less crime or consistently coming up happier in surveys.

In the Pragmatic Argument I consider this, and reject it.

The Ascent of Religion

If you agree with my assessment in Pragmatic, though, we’re left with an unsettling conclusion. If religion is not that useful, why do so many people insist on being religious? Couldn’t that imply we must believe in something, or that we’re being compelled to join religion by something external?

I think I can answer this by sharing my theory of how religion got started in the first place.

I’m not the first to come up with a theory, not by a long shot: for instance, Edward Burnett Tyler had a reasonable one back in 1871. Modern theories tend to fall into a few categories, such as those that invoke evolution:

Perhaps the most basic question is whether the trait is an adaptation that evolved by a process of selection. Does a given element of religion exist because it helps an entity (such as an individual or a group) survive and reproduce better than competing entities? If so, then we need to determine the relevant entity. Does the given element of religion increase the fitness of whole groups, compared to other groups (between-group selection), or by increasing the fitness of individuals compared to other individuals within the same group (within-group selection)? With cultural evolution there is an interesting third possibility. A cultural trait can spread by benefiting whole groups or individuals within groups, but it can also spread by enhancing its own transmission at the expense of human individuals and groups, as if it were a parasitic organism in its own right (Dawkins 2006, Dennett 2006). The concept of religion as a disease is highly novel against the background of traditional religious scholarship.

If a trait it not an adaptation, it can nevertheless persist in the population for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it was adaptive in the past but no longer in the present. For example, our eating habits make excellent sense in a world of food scarcity but have become a major cause of death in modern fast-food environments. Perhaps some elements of religion are like obesity—adaptive in the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not in modern mega-societies (Alexander 1987).

Alternatively, a trait can be a non-adaptive byproduct of another trait. An architectural example made famous by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin (1979) is a spandrel, the triangular space that inevitably forms when two arches are placed next to each other. Arches have a function but spandrels do not, although they can acquire a secondary function such as a decorative space. As a biological example, moths use celestial light sources to navigate (an adaptation) but this causes them to spiral inward toward earthly light sources such as a streetlamp or flame—a highly destructive byproduct. Perhaps some elements of religion are like a moth to flame (Dawkins 2006).

Finally, a trait can have no effect whatsoever on survival and reproduction and simply drift into the population. Many genetic mutations are selectively neutral, enabling them to be used as a molecular “clock” for measuring the amount of time that species have been genetically isolated from each other. Some elements of religion might similarly have no rhyme or reason, other than the vagaries of chance.

        (“Evolutionary Religious Studies (ERS): A Beginner’s Guide ,” David Sloan Wilson and William Scott Green, draft copy dated September 12th, 2007)

Others point to psychology. Religion could be a cultural system to ease our fears, or a proto-science that satisfied our curiosity and need for explanations before we thought up science proper.

Religion is primarily a search for security and not a search for truth. Religion is what we so often use to bank the fires of our anxiety. That is why religion tends toward becoming excessive, neurotic, controlling and even evil. That is why a religious government is always a cruel government. People need to understand that questioning and doubting are healthy, human activities to be encouraged not to be feared. Certainty is a vice not a virtue. Insecurity is something to be grasped and treasured. A true and healthy religious system will encourage each of these activities. A sick and fearful religious system will seek to remove them.

(“Q&A on biblical criticism,” John Shelby Spong, a weekly mailing dated June 15th, 2005)

The idea that religion is an early form of science is found in many Enlightenment authors, usually with the implication that it has now been replaced by science. Moderate versions of this thesis are found in Auguste Comte and Émile Durkheim. Primarily, however, it was the British anthropologists of religion Edward B. Tylor and James Frazer who defended this view. On the basis of a cognitively oriented associationist psychology, they identified religion with early forms of rational and, especially, scientific thought. For them, religion represented an insufficient answer to cognitive problems such as the explanation of dreams or death. Religion and magic were related in the same way as theory and proctice or science and technology. This tradition is represented today by anthropologists such as Robin Horton, who maintains that “primitive” religion is primarily a rational attempt to interpret the world.

(“The promise of salvation: a theory of religion,” pg 56-57, Martin Riesebrodt and Steven Rendal, 2010)

My own theory is primarily evolutionary, but borrows freely from both branches. Religion likely emerged from five separate elements, two of which are optional.

[146]  I agree. We have other, less destructive ways to define and foster groups. Our tendency to live close to each other and our toolmaking skills can fan small flares into big fires.

[147]  This category lumps people who are “spiritual but not religious” in with atheists and agnostics. If you only consider the latter two to be truly non-religious, then the atheist/agnostic stance becomes the fifth most popular “religion” in the world.

[148]  Christianity includes the Old Testament in its bible. Does this mean Christians would kill Jews for refusing to worship the same god, even though they wrote that rule?