The origin of religion-9: Real and fictive kinship

For the last post in this series, I want to look at the strategies that religions use to both grow and retain their members. Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson in their article The Evolution of Religion suggest that the growth of religion could have been aided by the idea of ‘fictive kinship’. To understand this, we need to bear in mind that what evolution selects for are individual genes, not the full organism. The full organism (a human or chimpanzee or bird or plant) is simply a vehicle for carrying and reproducing genes.

The early research of W. D. Hamilton and R. Trivers showed how it can be evolutionary advantageous for a gene for the organism that contains it to nurture, protect, and even sacrifice itself for a relative because of its shared genes, and that this could form the basis for what we call altruism. As the mathematical biologist J. B. S. Haldane replied when asked if he would give his life to save his drowning brother, “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins”, which reflects when the number of his own genes that he loses by dying breaks even with the ones he saves in others.

(For the foundational papers in this area of research, see The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior I and II by W. D. Hamilton (1964) Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol. 7, p. 1-52, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism by Robert L. Trivers, (March 1971) The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 46, no. 1, p. 36-57, and The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton, (March 27, 1981), Science, vol. 211, p. 1390-1396. For a clear summary of the research on how evolution can provide an explanation of the biological basis of altruism and cooperative behavior, see Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1989).)

This drive to perpetuate a gene by aiding the survival and reproductive success of those who share that same gene, our ‘kin’, is evolutionarily advantageous and is thus likely deeply embedded in our primal brain.

Farmers know this and take advantage of this altruism towards actual kin by tricking animals into creating a false sense of genetic connection, a ‘fictive kinship’, in order to make an animal help another not related to it. For example, sheep and lambs can die during the birthing process and although it would help the farmer if an ewe that had lost its own lamb allowed an orphaned lamb to suckle it, ewes are reluctant to allow a lamb not its own to do so. This is understandable behavior in Darwinian terms because the ewe’s genes do not benefit from spending its resources on an unrelated animal. But by skinning the dead lamb of an ewe and using it to cover the body of a lamb whose mother has died, the ewe can be fooled into thinking that the lamb is her own and allow it to suckle.

Cornwell and Thomson suggest that the perpetuation and growth of religion is aided by this idea of fictive kinship. In primitive societies, we recognized as kin those who lived with us or very close to us. As societies grew larger and more complex, other devices had to be created to keep track of who was kin and who was not. Family names were one such device but in even larger groups we find ways to trick people into thinking in terms of kin by using labels such as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, ‘fatherland’ and ‘motherland’, and so on. These terms are targeted to appeal to the primal brain that has evolved to instinctively rally to help kin, and are exploited by armies and religions and politicians in order to get people to band together as fictive families to fight against other fictive families.

Christianity, especially Catholicism, exploits the fictive kinship aspects extensively. It speaks of ‘god the father’ and ‘Mother Mary’, their priests are referred to as father or brother, their nuns as sister or mother, and the liturgy constantly invokes the idea of the congregants as brothers and sisters.

Another explanation for the origin of religion is the idea that belief in an afterlife is a precursor to belief in god. This view suggests that in primitive societies, older adults may have found it advantageous to themselves to initiate and propagate the idea that there is an afterlife in which they still wielded influence over events in this life. It enabled them to command respect and good treatment from the young in this life even when they were old and decrepit and of little practical use. It is not a big step from believing in a world of the afterlife to believe in some sort of hierarchy existing there, with the ruler of that after-world transmuting into a god-concept.

It is unlikely that we will definitively answer questions about the origins of religion since those events lie in deep evolutionary time and beliefs don’t leave fossil remains or their imprint in DNA.

Those of us who wonder why religions still exist in the face of modern understanding of how the world works tend to underestimate the determination of believers to hold on to their beliefs. A Pew poll finds that while the public may say that they respect and understand science, “much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.”

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion. Only 28% of respondents in the same Time poll say that scientific advancements threaten their religious beliefs. These poll results also show that more than four-fifths of respondents (81%) say that “recent discoveries and advances” in science have not significantly impacted their religious views. In fact, 14% say that these discoveries have actually made them more religious. Only 4% say that science has made them less religious.

These data once again show that, in the minds of most people in the United States, there is no real clash between science and religion. And when the two realms offer seemingly contradictory explanations (as in the case of evolution), religious people, who make up a majority of Americans, may rely primarily upon their faith for answers. (my italics)

But whether we treat religion as a mental illness (as argued by Albert Ellis) or understand its origins and presence in any number of other ways, we clearly have our work cut out in trying to expose it because of its deep evolutionary origins that can make people choose to believe in illusions over reality.

But the big weakness of religion, the one that works against it and will ultimately lead to its demise, is that it is a false belief with zero evidentiary support and such beliefs, however strongly held, eventually crumble.

POST SCRIPT: Trying to discredit science to preserve religion

Following up on the above Pew poll, you can see the comical lengths that religious people will go to in their attempt to show that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Incidentally, the creationist Kent Hovind (aka ‘Dr. Dino’) who is featured in the video is now serving a ten year prison sentence for tax fraud.

The origin of religion-8: Religious observance as obsessive-compulsive behavior

In the previous post in this series, I discussed neurologist Robert Sapolsky’s theory that the charismatic founders of religious cults had schizotypal personalities. He then goes further and tries to identify what traits might be at work amongst the followers of religion. What is it that makes them adopt ritualistic practices that serve no useful purpose? He suggests that the conscientious observance of time-wasting rituals that characterize devout followers of religions is a milder manifestation of what we now call obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD).

There’s a remarkable parallelism between religious ritualism and the ritualism of OCD. In OCD, the most common rituals are the rituals of self-cleansing, of food preparation, of entering and leaving holy places of emotional significance, and rituals of numerology. You look in every major religion, and those are the four most common ritual forms that you see.

You could look at any of these organized religions — though we’re very accustomed by now that, when we think of religion, it’s often interspersed with good works or a sense of community — and see that religion in its orthodoxy is about rules: how you do every single thing all throughout the day. You look at orthodox versions of any of these religions, and there are rules for which direction you face after you defecate, which hand you wash, how many swallowings of water, which nostril you breathe in with, which nostril you breathe out — these are all rules that Brahmans have in order to get into heaven. Numerological rules: how many times you have to say a certain prayer in a lifetime.

Orthodox Judaism has this amazing set of rules: every day there’s a bunch of strictures of things you’re supposed to do, a bunch you’re not supposed to do, and the number you’re supposed to do is the same number as the number of bones in the body. The number that you’re not supposed to do is the same number as the number of days in the year. The amazing thing is, nobody knows what the rules are! Talmudic rabbis have been scratching each others’ eyes out for centuries arguing over which rules go into the 613. The numbers are more important than the content. It is sheer numerology.

Then, obviously getting closer to home for most people here, there is the realm of the number of rosaries and the number of Hail Mary’s. Religious ritualism is shot through with the exact same obsessive qualities.

Once again, these rules are time wasting and maladaptive for most people. But not for all, because if so they would have disappeared over time. They work to the benefit of those who make the rules. Sapolsky suggests that religious rituals originate with people who have OCD-type symptoms because it provides them with a livelihood. The rabbis and imams whose job is to perform the rituals that ensure that animals are slaughtered correctly, the priests who hear confessions and conduct services, the pope, are all people would have to get real jobs if there weren’t these structures that provided a perfect match, a socially approved outlet, that allows them to benefit from what is essentially a disability. As Sapolsky says, “Outside of the realm of religion, OCD destroys people’s lives. It is incompatible with functioning. Not only can you function with those rituals in the religious context: you can make a living doing it. People make a living doing rituals ritualistically in the context of religion.”

So according to Sapolsky, schizotypals are the kinds of people who originate religions and people with OCDs make up the ritualistic rules that surround them and are its most ardent followers, who form the core fundamentalists who take the magical claims of the originators literally.

But protecting them and their beliefs are those with milder versions of this trait, the average person in the church, synagogue, mosque, and temple who are more modernist believers who kinda-sorta believe and kinda-sorta obey the rituals but not ‘religiously’. (It is interesting that the metaphor of doing something religiously is used to characterize someone who never fails to perform a specific action at the requisite time and place.) Such people construct a protective belt of metaphor and obfuscating language to create the illusion that the beliefs make sense and that the rituals have a rational basis. They deflect attention away from the fact that at it core, the beliefs are factually false and unsupportable. The need for the existence of this group to allow religion to flourish ties in with the computer modeling work of James Dow that I wrote about earlier in this series.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

So perhaps the schizotypal personalities of Jesus and Mohammed and other cult leaders have features that attract even non-believers (many atheists have nice things to say about Jesus and Buddha as persons, Mohammed and Joseph Smith not so much), and this is sufficient to give the unreal message they propagate survival value.

People constantly ask why we new/unapologetic atheists argue against all religion and not just ‘bad’ religion consisting of the extremists, the fundamentalists, and the blatantly crazy and murderous. In this passage from an audio clip that I linked to recently, comedian Marcus Brigstocke explains why he thinks all religion is bad. After listing the crazy things that religious extremists do, he says:

I know that most religious folk are moderate and nice and reasonable and wear tidy jumpers and eat cheese like real people. And on hearing this, they’ll mainly feel pity for me rather than issue a death sentence. But they have to accept that they are the power base for the nutters. Without their passive support the loonies in charge of these faiths would just be loonies safely locked away and medicated, somewhere nice, you know with a view of some trees, where they can claim they have a direct channel to god between sessions making tapestry drinks coasters, watching Teletubbies, and talking about their days in the Hitler youth. The ordinary faithful make these vicious tyrannical thugs what they are… Without the audience to prop it up… fundamentalist religious fanaticism goes away. (my italics)

I am not sure if Brigstocke is familiar with the work of Sapolsky, Dow, and others about the neurological bases of religious leaders and their followers, but his words do seem to be perfectly consistent with it.

We will not be able to get rid of religious extremists as long as ‘moderate’ religion continues to exist.

Next: Strategies used by religions to grow.

POST SCRIPT: Marcus Brigstocke on living according to the Bible

The origin of religion-7: Messiahs and prophets as schizotypal personalities

What has been discussed so far is the origin of prototypical religions, the early forms that consist of vague beliefs in supernatural forces and the afterlife. At various points in time, these became crystallized into concrete religions some of which are still extant, each distinguished from the others by their rituals and the specific forms that their beliefs take. This post will look at the originators of those religions. What distinguishes those who create specific religions (and those who follow them) from the rest of us?
Religions like Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, and Buddhism all seem to have had charismatic leaders, as do the more modern cults. This suggests that an important factor in the creation of relatively modern religions (by which I mean those that originated within the last three or four thousand years) lies in the qualities of the founders and this is the angle that neurologist Robert Sapolsky has investigated. He looks at the people who started these religions and what made them so effective at convincing others to adopt and propagate their ideas. He takes a Darwinian view and suggests that religious leaders had traits that enabled them to succeed that arose as a byproduct of selection for other features. It also explains why even now we have charismatic cult leaders regularly springing up (like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, and Charles Manson are some names that immediately come to mind) who are able to persuade others to follow them even to death.
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The origin of religion-6: Religion as a by-product of evolution

As with other features in evolution, there are two possible ways that evolution can give rise to some phenomenon. One is that it is an adaptation that came about because it was directly advantageous in itself at some point in time. The other is that it is an accidental by-product of natural selection for some other trait that was advantageous. These two pathways are not mutually exclusive and it is likely that religion developed along both lines.

Richard Dawkins thinks that religion is largely the product of the second process. He thinks that asking what the survival value is for religion is the wrong question because it likely has none. His hypothesis is that belief in god and the afterlife is a by-product of a genetic pre-disposition to believe one’s parents. It is not hard to see why having the genes that tend to predispose one to obey one’s parents has a selective advantage over those that are either neutral or advocate disobeying them. Human infants in particular are very vulnerable and depend on the adults around them to enable them to grow to adulthood. Not listening to them could be disastrous, causing them to do life-threatening acts. But at the same time they lack the capacity to discriminate between the information fed to them. So young children believe both the useful and the useless, those supported by evidence and those that are simply unverifiable folklore, and over time the latter can morph into religious rituals and belief. As Dawkins says:

On this model, we should expect that, in different geographical regions, different arbitrary beliefs having no factual basis will be handed down, to be believed with the same conviction as useful pieces of traditional wisdom such as the belief that manure is good for the crops. We should also expect that these nonfactual beliefs will evolve over generations, either by random drift or following some sort of analogue of Darwinian selection, eventually showing a pattern of significant divergence from common ancestry. Languages drift apart from a common parent given sufficient time in geographical separation. The same is true of traditional beliefs and injunctions, handed down the generations, initially because of the programmability of the child brain.

This theory would explain why most children adopt the beliefs of their parents and dismiss as absurd and unbelievable other religions, even though they both have that same lack of any evidentiary support. Since children tend to be surrounded by similar believers, they hold on to those beliefs into adulthood. And once these beliefs are firmly entrenched, people are reluctant to let go of them. This is why now, despite their obvious disadvantages such as wasted time and effort and resources propitiating an imaginary figure, religion can still endure.

But this only explains why children are willing to believe their parents. But why did their parents develop their beliefs in the first place? In some ways, this is a chicken-and-egg problem, and the resolution in likely the same, that they both co-evolved.

As I said in a previous post, there is evidence to suggest that our brains are hardwired to believe in the magical. It is similar to the way that our brains are evolved for language. Language has many commonalities with religion. It is ubiquitous and universal. While there is a huge variety in the number of languages around the globe, at least superficially, at the same time, the deep grammatical structures of languages reveal common structures, which has led to the idea that our brains are hardwired for language and that the process of learning a particular language involves superimposing the local vocabulary and other superficial features onto a universal and common foundation. In other words, what a child learns from the speech of others are cues that throw certain switches in the pre-existing brain’s circuitry that corresponds to the local language structure.

It is known, for example, that if you put children together who do not speak a common language, or speak only pidgin versions of a language or, in the case of deaf children, do not speak at all, they will together spontaneously develop a creole language that has many of the grammatical features of ordinary language, suggesting that the ability for language is innate. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, p. 24)

It is suggested that religion is like that. Due to evolution, we all have hardwired in our brains the propensity to see patterns that may not be there and to assign supernatural agency to natural events. What the many varieties of religions do is build upon this common base to create local religions, just the way local languages emerged around the globe while having a universal grammatical structure.

The suggestion has been made (but would be impossible to test) that if you put children who have no prior religious beliefs together for an extended period of time, they would spontaneously develop some form of religious belief that would have generic features that correspond to the kinds of religions that we see around us, because their brains have a similar predisposition to do so. If true, this would suggest that religion will always be with us, a sad future to contemplate.

But I am not so sure that this particular parallelism holds because there are key differences between language and religion. Language provides unquestionable benefits for any group of people and is always advantageous. While religion may have provided benefits in primitive societies, nowadays children are able to obtain scientific explanations for puzzling phenomena that were not available for their ancient ancestors, and so are less likely to build elaborate god-based theories. Few parents nowadays are likely to tell their children that thunder is a sign of god’s anger, even if they do not understand the science of it. Somewhat more people are likely to see god’s hand in major natural catastrophes (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods) and in disease epidemics but these will also surely decline. As the number of things that seem inexplicable shrink, the switches in the brain that trigger belief in the supernatural are less likely to be tripped.

At least, I hope so.

Next: Messiahs and prophets as schizotypal personalities

POST SCRIPT: Global warming or biblical Armageddon?

The Onion News Network reports that Kansas has decided that in the interests of fairness, both theories concerning the end of the world should be taught to school children.

Christian Groups: Biblical Armageddon Must Be Taught Alongside Global Warming

The origin of religion-5: The struggle between the primal and thinking brains

In an article in The New Scientist titled Born believers: How your brain creates God (subscription required), Michael Brooks says:

There is plenty of evidence that thinking about disembodied minds comes naturally. People readily form relationships with non-existent others: roughly half of all 4-year-olds have had an imaginary friend, and adults often form and maintain relationships with dead relatives, fictional characters and fantasy partners. As [University of Oxford anthropologist Justin] Barrett points out, this is an evolutionarily useful skill. Without it we would be unable to maintain large social hierarchies and alliances or anticipate what an unseen enemy might be planning. “Requiring a body around to think about its mind would be a great liability,” he says.

Useful as it is, common-sense dualism also appears to prime the brain for supernatural concepts such as life after death.

[Queens University, Belfast’s Jesse] Bering considers a belief in some form of life apart from that experienced in the body to be the default setting of the human brain. Education and experience teach us to override it, but it never truly leaves us, he says. From there it is only a short step to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and, of course, gods, says Pascal Boyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Boyer points out that people expect their gods’ minds to work very much like human minds, suggesting they spring from the same brain system that enables us to think about absent or non-existent people. (my italics)

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The origin of religion-4: Religion as an evolutionary adaptation

While the growth and perpetuation of religious beliefs is an interesting question, we also need to explain how they originated in the first place. How did such unreal information arise at all?

Some have argued in favor of the direct adaptation model, based on Darwinian natural selection principles, that says that the tendency to assign causation and agency to natural events is an evolutionary advantageous strategy. In more primitive times, assigning a conscious agency to natural events may have provided survival benefits that did not accrue to those who did not, since the benefits of a false positive outweighs the disadvantages of a false negative. i.e., having genes that predisposed one to assume that lightning was caused by the anger of some powerful supernatural agency (aka ‘god’) and taking evasive action by cowering in shelters was better in terms of survival value than assuming that lightning was harmless and wandering around in the open, even if the reasoning behind it was faulty. It was only much later that we realized that lightning was dangerous for non-religious reasons and could avoid its hazards using mechanisms that did not involve rituals to appease an angry supernatural power.

In an article in The New Scientist titled Born believers: How your brain creates God (subscription required), Michael Brooks elaborates on this:

The ability to conceive of gods, however, is not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none. “You see bushes rustle, you assume there’s somebody or something there,” [Yale psychologist Paul] Bloom says.

This over-attribution of cause and effect probably evolved for survival. If there are predators around, it is no good spotting them 9 times out of 10. Running away when you don’t have to is a small price to pay for avoiding danger when the threat is real.

Another report in the New Scientist (no subscription required for this one) about a computer model by James Dow provides some support for direct adaptation. (The original paper by Dow can be read here.)

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

The interesting conclusion here is that believers in the unreal require the support of nonbelievers in order to have their numbers grow. In other words, the ‘respect for religion’ trope that says that we should treat with respect, and even admire, the faith of sincere religious people, is actually part of the problem. This conclusion supports the strategy of the new/unapologetic atheists who seek diligently to undermine false beliefs such as god and the afterlife.

Brooks also writes that the reason our brains are so susceptible to superstitions is that they are hardwired to do so, which suggests deep evolutionary origins.

It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world.

What psychologists have found is that during hard times or times when people feel they are losing control of their lives, they are more prone to adopt religious beliefs and superstitions. During the great depression of 1929, for instance, the most authoritarian churches saw a rise in attendance. If this hardwired aspect of the brain is true, then adopting religious beliefs uncritically is the path of least resistance. It takes conscious effort and will to resist religious beliefs, which explains why atheism is a harder sell than religion.

POST SCRIPT: Waiting for Elmo

Have I said how much I love the Muppets comedy sketches on Sesame Street?

The origin of religion-3: Do people have a ‘god gene’?

It seems clear that people want to believe in religious ideas or at last have a propensity to believe in supernatural phenomena. Is religion a social belief that developed only after complex societies formed or is a predisposition towards religion hardwired in our brains? Those who argue the former think that religious beliefs emerged late in evolutionary history as a cultural artifact, a ‘meme’ if you will, that appeared only after language and social structures appeared, and spread widely because of its utility.

Others argue that the ubiquity and durability of religious beliefs suggests (though does not conclusively establish) that they might have evolutionary advantages and that a propensity to believe in gods and the afterlife developed early on and became hardwired in our brains and spread throughout the species the same way (through natural selection) that other genetic features spread, thus providing us with what one might call a ‘religious gene’.

If so, then that raises two more questions. The first question concerns time. Did the hard-wired propensity to believe in supernatural agencies arise after the human species appeared or has it an even earlier genesis? Advocates of the former view suggest that religious beliefs are an evolutionary adaptation that appeared after humans and spread because they provide a survival advantage, by being a kind of glue that helped form tightly knit groups of early humans that provided greater success in hunting and foraging. This idea of properties selected for the benefits it confers on a group (known as ‘group selection’) is controversial because strictly speaking natural selection only works on the level of individual genes, not even a whole organism, except in so far as the organism is a vehicle that propagates the genes. Group selection seems to be possible only under very limited conditions. (See Evolution “for the Good of the Group”, David Sloan Wilson and E. O. Wilson, American Scientist, vol. 96, September-October 2008, p. 380-389.)
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The origin of religion-2: The power of religion and other superstitions

When investigating the origin of religion and other superstitions, an important fact to bear in mind is that it is not just humans that base their behavior on imputing meaning to meaningless correlations. There is evidence that even animals do this, suggesting that this instinct comes from a fairly primitive part of the brain, and developed early in our evolutionary history before we branched off from those species that share this trait. We all have heard of Pavlov’s experiments with conditioning responses in animals. Behaviorist B. F. Skinner did an interesting experiment with pigeons. After the usual ones where pigeons were trained to peck at a button in order to obtain a food reward, he then did an experiment where the rewards were given out randomly. What he found was that after awhile the pigeons started going through what seemed like rituals, specific repeated behaviors. It seemed as if they were trying to figure out which pattern of actions had caused the rewards to appear in the past and were repeating them in order to ’cause’ the rewards to appear.
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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.