Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Religion and Artificial Selection

In recent years, there have been several attempts to explain the phenomenon of religion by referring to human nature.  It is claimed that people "need" religion in some fashion, and that this need is some inherent, unchanging part of our makeup.  In fact, one often sees references to attempts to find the "god gene" that makes us "need" religion.  In addition, ordinary believers often refer to the fact that "a lot of people believe" as if this were proof that belief is logical.

As someone who has spent a lot of time studying the phenomenon of religion as well as human history, I think these explanations and research projects into the possible existence of a "god gene" seem terribly misguided.  They are misguided because they fail to take into account the effects of religion and history on the human population.

I think it is fair to say that the human population has been changed by religion.  The average person today is not the same as the average person would have been had religion not dominated human affairs for thousands of years. This is because religion has led to the systematic extermination of skeptics and critical thinkers.

Most, if not all, religions encourage the herd to attack those who don't conform.  Of course, they don't explicitly tell their members to do this.  They achieve the result by teaching their members that those who don't believe are necessarily bad people--immoral, untrustworthy, hostile, full of evil intent, etc.

In effect this means that religion causes societies to weed out those individuals who think for themselves.  Those individuals are necessarily the most intelligent and innovative members of the populace.  The less intelligent and innovative make up the compliant herd of sheep that the clergy use as a power base.  These less intelligent individuals receive the full benefit of membership in the church, which effectively acts like a society wide union protecting the herd members and their interests.  As a consequence, even those skeptics who manage to survive the persecution are less likely to be successful members of society and therefore less likely to have children and pass on their traits.

The result is a process of artificial selection that has been at work in the human population in many societies for millennia.  This artificial selection process culls out the most intelligent (and encourages the less intelligent to breed).

This may explain why some populations tend to do better than others on tests of intelligence.  (I know that such tests are controversial.  I will discuss that at a later point.)  Populations that have less of a tendency to persecute their most intelligent members but instead revere intellectual achievement will eventually see such improved performance when compared to populations that persecute their intelligent members.  Many Asian populations tend to reflect this phenomenon.  A reverence for intellectual achievement eventually leading to higher average scores on intelligence tests.  I think it is no accident that those societies are also less religious in many ways.  Many of them are dominated by religions that don't really have a "god" (such as Buddhism) and by Western standards might even be more properly called philosophies.

The net result for the more religious societies is a population in which the majority is simply not equipped to think for themselves.  Looking solely at that population and neglecting to take into account the effects of millennia of artificial selection can, indeed, result in the facile conclusion that belief in god reflects some natural, inherent need.

A study of those who were not brought up to believe in god or gods, however, shows rather quickly that belief is not automatic or necessarily inherent in human nature.  Studies of such populations show that people who were not taught to believe in gods as children rarely ever feel the need to believe.  Only in cases of severe emotional need do such persons suddenly convert to belief in the supernatural.  (I refer readers once again to a very insightful book called "Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers".)

The religious are quite aware of the role played by extreme emotional need in the conversion process.  They often deliberately try to create such severe emotional need in non-believers in order to convert them--or prey on them when such need arises on its own.  I have touched on this despicable tactic of theirs before and will discuss it at length in a later post.

For now, suffice it to say that humans do have a demonstrable need to belong to a group--we have a herding instinct, which is not surprising given the evolutionary history of life on this planet.  (For example, see this study.)  This desire to belong helps explain why so many otherwise sensible people believe.  The desire to belong combined with religious indoctrination vilifying non-believers explains the prevalence of religious belief in some populations.  This desire to belong, however, is not the same as a need to believe in god.

Evidence for the need to belong is compelling, but the evidence for a need to believe in a god is simply not there.  There are millions of people--entire societies as well--that get along just fine without a god belief.  Only those who have spent their lives in societies dominated by a religion with a god at its center seem to think that there might be a universal need to believe in a god.  This is because such individuals have not studied other societies without such god beliefs and assume his or her experience is universally applicable.

So, the next time someone alleges a universal human need to believe in a god, you can say something like:

"You religious people have spent thousands of years systematically exterminating those who don't believe, so it may well seem that way to you."

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