“And God and the Economy
 Have Blessed Me with Equality”

A couple of papers on the nature of religious belief came down the pike last week. One was high-tech, analytically complex, and neurological. The other was low-tech, analytically naïve, and all evo-psych handwavey. It also claimed to rebut the whole school of thought embodied in the first paper, although I don’t think it did— yet oddly enough, it was this latter paper that turned my crank the greater number of revolutions.

Start with Harris et al‘s “The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief“. It’s a study after my own heart: stick equal numbers of Christians and nonbelievers into an MRI and watch their brains light up when exposed to statements like “Santa Claus is a myth”, or “The Biblical God really exists”. Things got interesting even before they started collecting results— like f’rinstance, they had to exclude about a quarter of their participants prior to testing due to “sociopathic tendencies”, which makes you wonder where they went for recruits1— but the results themselves contained a couple of interesting nuggets. Among both Christians and nonbelievers, the same parts of the brain light up when parsing true/false beliefs regardless of whether those beliefs are religious (“The Biblical God exists”) or nonreligious (“Alexander the Great was real”). That is, a Christian pondering “God exists” and an Atheist pondering “God is a myth” invoke the same circuitry, since both believe in the truth of their respective statements (assuming I’m reading these arcane difference-contrast results correctly). However, other parts of the brain do respond differently to religious vs. nonreligious thoughts. Religious statements kicked the anterior insula, the ventral striatum, the posterior medial cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex (is there anything the ACC doesn’t dip its tendrils into?). Basically we’re talking about the parts that process emotion, cognitive planning, and self-referential tasks. Non-religious statements, on the other hand, get the attention of the hippocampus, the parahippocampal gyrus, middle temporal gyrus, temporal pole, and retrosplenial cortex— memory retrieval, in other words. In my own inimitably-unbiased words, I would describe religious processing as that which invokes the navel-gazing parts of the brain while nonreligious statements call up actual data.

Harris and his buds are coming from the religion-is-hardwired school of thought here. Their findings don’t speak to origins one way or another— these circuits could have been built into the firmware or wired up on the fly, for all we know— but their discussion is rife with talk of “common-sense dualism”, prehistoric “inference machinery”, and the unlikelihood that anything as irrational as religion could be so universal if it wasn’t encoded on some deep level. And yet, over here in a journal called Evolutionary Psychology, Gregory Paul calls bullshit. He points out that religious beliefs are not universal, that in fact secularism has been on the rise ever since the rise of a comfortable and secure middle class. The only real exception to this is the USA, and according to Paul, that is the exception that proves the rule.

There’s a lot to criticize in Paul’s paper. Typos abound. Sentences grow convoluted enough to extend into some higher dimension. (Can anyone tell me what’s meant by “… it is the presence of absence of strong rates of religiosity versus their absence that are widely seen as having, and probably have, a major influence upon national conditions”?) The stats are rudimentary, consisting of a series of Pearson correlations which, as far as I can tell, aren’t even corrected for multiple passes (i.e., the more tests you run, the greater the odds you’ll get a false positive through sheer chance); and even that analysis was done by some third party who got thanked in the acknowledgments. The “two socioeconomic hypotheses” being tested don’t actually reflect the variables they purport to. Correlation is confused with causation (which you might expect from a guy who outsourced his stats). And you gotta wonder about any paper that cites Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh with a straight face.

And yet. And yet.

The man does have a point. There’s no reason to believe that the French have evolved significantly different brain structures than the Americans, and yet two thirds of France is either atheist or agnostic. Spain has moved from a Catholic state to a secular democracy in less than four decades. The Aussies put their faith mainly in beer. Even in the US, the proportion of the population reporting no religious affiliation has doubled in twenty years. Surely, Paul argues, if religious impulses were hardwired they would be as resistant to extinction as our propensity for language and tool use. Surely, if imaginary friends were necessary to help us deal with our own mortality, the French would be right up to their necks in denial along with the rest of us? And yet religion tends to wither in prosperous, developed nations; it only flourishes in lands where life is still stressful and insecure, as it has been throughout most of human history. And, of course, the USA.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

In figure after figure, Paul racks up the numbers. Homicide rates. Infant mortality. Abortions among teenagers. Divorce and marital-longevity. Life expectancy, venereal disease rates, poverty, income-disparity, length of work week, efficiency of resource exploitation, incarceration rates… the list goes on. Amongst the seventeen developed nations for which data were available, the USA ranks at or near the bottom in pretty much every scale of dysfunction, and is so far above the others in terms of religiosity that you can barely see it from the ground. The US isn’t the only developed nation with problems, of course: religious Ireland and secular Denmark have lower life expectancies, while Japan, ironically, has both the highest life expectancy and the lowest life satisfaction (the C-3POs of the developed world, the Japanese seem to have been made to suffer). But those are hiccoughs in the pattern. By virtually all metrics, the US is both the most religious and the most stressful place to live in the developed world.

We’ve been here before.  We know that both religious belief and the tendency to see patterns in noise increase among the stressed and the fearful. Paul goes a bit further, observing that the political positions of the religious right actually work to increase the dysfunction of these metrics right across the board. The right’s opposition to contraception and sex ed leads to higher rates of teen pregnancy and venereal disease; their opposition to universal health care worsens national health and increases economic vulnerability; opposition to gun control increases murder rates; opposition to environmental regulation increases pollution-related disorders. And let’s not forget their traditional opposition to gay rights and the social safety net. Let’s not forget their opposition to unfettered scientific research. As Paul puts it:

“These conservative forces have favored the deregulated, reduced taxation especially for the wealthy, free market economy that raises personal risk; as a result the religious right that is the main opponent to Darwinian science has become a leading proponent of what has been labeled socioeconomic Darwinism.”

I would go further. I don’t think it’s mere ironic coincidence that the actions of the religious right intensify the very conditions that promote subservience to religious authorities. It might not be a conscious strategy— it would be remarkably subtle and far-sighted for anyone as dumb as Jim Bakker or Oral Roberts seem to be— but then again, natural selection doesn’t require intelligence. All it needs is variation, propagation, and time. If strategies that keep us scared and hungry work better than those which bring us out of the cold, those will be the strategies that ultimately prevail through sheer dumb trial and error.

Even God needs Darwin.

——

1It also makes me wonder if the sociopaths they weeded out hailed disproportionately from either the Christian or Nonbeliever camps.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday October 05 2009at 11:10 am , filed under ass-hamsters, evolution, just putting it out there..., neuro, sociobiology . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

15 Responses to ““And God and the Economy
 Have Blessed Me with Equality””

  1. This post was quite timely; I’m a Religious Studies major in Alberta, taking a course suitably titled ‘What is Religion?’. Harris et al and your own musings will give me something to talk about in class tomorrow. Really interesting stuff.
    Although I’m not sure I buy the idea that the entirety of the right wing of American politics is acting from a desire to perpetuate religious belief. You talked about the religious right wanting private health care, oppression of homosexuality and all those good things, but we have to remember that not every member of the Republican party can be equated with religious nutjobery.

  2. Newsweek‘s popularisation of Harris paper said that “When a committed Christian says he believes in the Second Coming of Christ, he believes it the way he believes that Michael Jordan was a basketball player.” This was an interesting contrast to anthropologists like Boyer and Atran, who according to Andrew Brown at the Guardian, seem to say that it’s a mistake to view religious beliefs as propositions about the world (see also Atran over at Edge.org). I got into this with Brown a bit in the comments on his blog, and talked about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s adaption of Carl Sagan’s invisible dragon metaphor to talk about what’s going on when religious believers know what excuses to make for the absence of gods.

    Is Newsweek’s statement actually warranted by the paper, I wondered? Wouldn’t be the first time popularisations have got things wrong.

  3. I think the Newsweek popularization oversimplified; while it’s certainly true that some parts of the brain reacted identically to things believed to be “true”, whether religious or otherwise, other parts of the brain showed a bit more variability. (The Newsweek column admits this belatedly, in the very last paragraph, but even then it doesn’t mention the hippocampal/memory-access elements.)

    I liked the pleasure-center Blasphemy Response, btw, even though I didn’t mention it in my original posting: we athiests actually enjoy stating our disbelief in Christian tenets, while Christians enjoy affirming their acceptance thereof. There is pleasure in conflict.

  4. Peter wrote: “In my own inimitably-unbiased words, I would describe religious processing as that which invokes the navel-gazing parts of the brain while nonreligious statements call up actual data.” I don’t think that it is any surprise that religious thoughts tend to be emotional and non-religious thoughts tend to be rational. It seems to me that killing abortionists is an emotional act, as is belief in the tooth fairy and Easter bunny. And what can be more emotional than using a tool of torture and execution (the cross) as the symbol for your belief.

  5. Evolution doesn’t know what religion is, because evolution does not know anything. Thus the brain is not hardwired for “religion” in the common-sense of the term, but rather is hard-wired for some kind of meaning-system which provides a settling answer to the discomforting questions of existence that arrive in as complex a brain as ours.

    This explains why a non-religious person who explains the world with science has similar parts of the brain activated as a religious person who explains the world with god/dogma (godma?). The root of these explanations comes from different places (rationality and evidence for science—actual data, emotion and experience for religion—navel gazing), but they are both activating a metaphysical explanation for the world around them. This is not to say that scientific explanation is a religion, but rather that it is satisfying similar questions that arise in the brain to those that are answered by religion.

    Far too often I find that analysis of issues like this rely far too heavily on anthropocentric meanings of concepts, rather than what the brain and natural selection are actually influenced by.

  6. Anony mouse: It seems to me that killing abortionists is an emotional act, as is belief in the tooth fairy and Easter bunny.

    I agree that killing abortionists would be a fairly emotional act, and while I cannot speak to the tooth fairy or the Easter Bunny, I can say that I believe in Santa Claus in pretty much the same way, and pretty much on the same total level of evidence, as I believe in Former President Jimmy Carter. So I have to say some beliefs which are “rational” aren’t as tied to the truth as commonsense would decree.

    Mattan Ingram is onto something the brain is not hardwired for “religion” in the common-sense of the term, but rather is hard-wired for some kind of meaning-system

    This is spot-on, imho. Evolution should have selected for mental systems and structures that helped you survive, or at least didn’t hinder you, and the key thing you notice in humans and other beings who have large cognitive capacities is that they are flexible and variable – that is what is being selected for, in a global sense.

    If you think about it that way, it makes perfect sense that people would have different parallel modes of thought for deciding what is real, true, or discerning how something works, and that different members of a community would be able to think better in some modes than others.

    That would increase the group problem-solving capacity, allow for specialization, let related individuals survive better as a unit. If my family group can only think in one mode, maybe it’s not a problem, but maybe when there’s a crisis, we miss the vital solution because the alternate mode of analysis was absent. The family a few miles away lives because they had more solutions from which to draw.

    I find that analysis of issues like this rely far too heavily on anthropocentric meanings of concepts, rather than what the brain and natural selection are actually influenced by.

    Too true. Maybe it’s because we are talking in abstractions.

  7. I got a chuckle out of “the C-3POs of the developed world.”

    I think you are essentially making a case for memetics here. My personal experience from inside the type of Christianity that atheists usually focus on provides anecdotal support for the view that religious beliefs are held for all sorts of complicated reasons, most of which serve to reinforce each other. When a system encompasses the whole of life, or at least appears to do so, seriously considering alternatives becomes very difficult. Christian fundamentalist’s objections to science often focus on its limited scope; science does not do prescriptive morality, therefore it is not a valid worldview, therefore I can mostly ignore it. The objection to humanism is basically that it is different, untested, appears wrong, etc. Fundamentalists do not see much of a connection between empirical science and humanist ethics, and, although most of them aren’t aware of the connections that are there and couldn’t argue convincingly about their weaknesses even if they were, I’m not convinced that their instincts are completely wrong.

    It’s easy to focus on the negative effects of religion when viewing it from the outside, to see it as primarily driven by fear and so on, but from the inside the picture is different. Religious thought is not so much navel-gazing in my view as it is a tight loop of information flow in the individual and the culture which supports a complete system for organizing individuals in society, providing everything from rules for behavior to guidelines for thinking about the world and one’s place in it, to a sense of belonging to a diverse community of like-minded people with fully integrated lives. What it loses in freedom of thought it gains in simplicity, efficiency, and cohesiveness. Western Christianity in particular seems to have hit on a potent combination of enabling the individual without greatly compromising group cohesion. The Enlightenment has taken this emphasis on the individual and run with it, producing great successes in knowledge produced, but conscious attempts at cohesion have resulted in world wars, terrible atrocities of non religious nationalism, and a paranoid global superpower formed from the religious castoffs of the old West, every bit as dysfunctional as you describe. (I’ll conveniently ignore the successes for now.)

    Thomas Sowell has written about how African-Americans were influenced by redneck culture in the south, which originated in the poorer parts of Ireland among other places. It’s a decent microcosm of the United States, I think. We got all the malcontents, many of them religious fringers. They made a sort of peace with each other, rooted in mutual ambition, and created a secular government that produced an ideal breeding ground for religious experimentation. Religious diversity in America was and is pretty amazing, incorporating elements from pretty much everything; a sort of fetid tide pool of memetic promiscuity, if you like. It is brewing up a successful Charismatic/Pentecostal type of Christianity that is very similar to what is developing in Africa and may come to be the majority in Catholicism. You caught a glimpse of what this looks like when the video of the African pastor praying for Sarah Palin hit the mainstream press. The authority on this seems to be Philip Jenkins; the Atlantic has a nice article.

    Atheists/agnostics and the more liberal religious types all seem to believe that their side is necessarily winning, the forces of ignorance and superstition are necessarily losing, and therefore the latter are irrelevant. The ignorant are so obviously ignorant that it is impossible to take them seriously. As a consequence, we educated first worlders lose track of just how different the rest of the world really is. In our world it’s all about education and science and humanism and logical arguments, and we forget that it is possible to live successfully and sustainably without much of these. But of course it is. It’s been done for thousands of years. Religion has become the lizard brain of the species.

    Education is slow, science is slow, and translating it into policy in the current system is slow; the information loops that we rely upon to sustain our freedom of thought are huge in both time and space. Religion is fast because for the most part it doesn’t have to think. Mostly it does so in reaction to intellectual threats, but these are diversions and religion typically wastes little energy on them (you aren’t going to take it down with an intellectual DoS attack). Atheism is a philosophical reaction to specific aspects of Christian theology, and derives much of its strength from the fact that it doesn’t attempt to be a complete worldview. It is therefore not a significant threat to Christianity, except in parts of the most developed and liberal countries where Christianity has become an almost entirely intellectual exercise. Rational attempts to understand and order economies and societies have (so far) all failed in dramatic and often violent fashions; we have only very general theories which are pretty much impossible to properly test. We rely on variations of capitalism because they seem to work better than the alternatives that have been tried, and we argue about whether it is just, or sustainable, or stable in the long term, with no real way to know except by plunging ahead. Attempts to broaden the status quo by spreading democracy or literacy or ending world hunger or whatever have been relatively unsuccessful. Most of the world remains relatively un-Enlightened. There is no real unifying principle in the first world beyond keeping a good thing going (and it is a very good thing for the people in it, and arguably not so bad for everyone else either), but no lack of ambition. Our signature accomplishment has been to increase the human population and average standard of living (in a roughly power law distribution) to the point where we are pushing hard against the biosphere’s ability to process carbon, and to increase the number of layers between the average person and nature. Most high level thinking revolves around some form of internal communication: transferring information, and occasionally goods and services, from one place to another. There are no real cultural guards against the growth of this internal complexity; nearly all training is focused on managing and adding to it. Some people who have thought about it a lot (OK, mostly Gwynne Dyer) have become a bit pessimistic about our ability to react to our environment fast enough to avoid some really nasty shocks.

    Anything can happen, and probably will. But I’m pretty sure that religion is a lot more robust to large shocks to the system than atheism, the scientific establishment, or liberalism in general. Religious people don’t really want to see the world burn, but religion itself stands to benefit relative to the alternatives. Charismatic/Pentecostal churches are keenly aware of the U.S. government’s response to Katrina, and have decided that the government cannot be counted on to provide for people (even as they continue to argue that it mostly should not). They have the necessary mentality for organizing comprehensive alternatives, have already begun making plans to do so, and plan to provide for their unsaved neighbors as well. It could be a pretty effective form of evangelism if things get bad. Where else are you going to turn? Your family? Your neighborhood association? Your employer? Your “tribe?” Some international NGO? These groups either don’t care about you, or don’t have the capacity to deal with really large shocks. Religious groups in the U.S. may be less effective at providing services than, say, Hamas, at least at first, but I would bet on them ahead of most alternatives.

    Deliciously pessimistic visions, all stemming from a fetish for self-criticism and a strange fascination with optimizing decision loops across entire autonomous agents. I’m obviously biased and no expert, so why worry? Things will continue as they have in the past. We beat nukes (for now); we’ll beat global warming. Too much is at stake for too many powerful people, and ignorance always loses in the end. We talk about this stuff for fun; ghost stories around the campfire. Our investments in our frontal lobes are safe.

    Probably. Boo!

  8. Hljóðlegur – I hadn’t thought of the diversity of meaning-systems providing a wider range of flexibility in the changing human environment. Very cool, and makes perfect sense. Greater variety is always a good thing when it comes to survivability. Interestingly our societal systems mean that the variety of meaning systems are not as much from individual to individual, as it is from social-group to social-group. Although our modern societies today do allow for far more individual expression, particularly in urban centers.

    I particularly like to think of the meaning-system being a selected defense mechanism against the existential dread that naturally arises in any self-conscious system.

  9. I particularly like to think of the meaning-system being a selected defense mechanism against the existential dread that naturally arises in any self-conscious system.

    Richard Beck’s stuff on Terror Management Theory provides some experiemental evidence for that idea. It’s not just religion, of course: things like nationalism can also be used to give us meaning. Beck’s entire series on The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience is well worth reading.

  10. Great summary, Peter. Thanks. And just in time, since tomorrow I’m pitching my project services to the most anally conservative curmudgeon I’ve ever met. Nice guy, loves God, loves telling friends about how God loves them, hates Obama with hissing, snarling, demonically possessed violence in his eyes. Gotta love him. I’m sure his wife does.

    Anyway, I’ll be thinking about the points you wrote about as I sit down for a friendly dinner with him tomorrow.

    Hehe. Cheers!

  11. “These conservative forces have favored the deregulated, reduced taxation especially for the wealthy, free market economy that raises personal risk; as a result the religious right that is the main opponent to Darwinian science has become a leading proponent of what has been labeled socioeconomic Darwinism.”

    Yep. Makes perfect sense. That’s probably why atheistic communism was such a low stress affair. Furthermore, highly regulated Africa has become so secure and prosperous due to their reasoned opposition to Laissez-Faire capitalism that they’ve become secular atheists. Yep. That sounds right.

    Of course, that also explains why arch-capitalist hellholes like Singapore, Switzerland, and Hong-Kong are so mired in extreme religious belief.

    But hey, wouldn’t this predict that there would be a negative correlation between religious belief and happiness. Does it bother you at all that this is the opposite of the truth?

    http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a781000768~db=all~jumptype=rss

    But hey, why let facts get in the way of a good theory, right?

  12. Mattan Ingram said:

    Evolution doesn’t know what religion is, because evolution does not know anything. Thus the brain is not hardwired for “religion” in the common-sense of the term, but rather is hard-wired for some kind of meaning-system which provides a settling answer to the discomforting questions of existence that arrive in as complex a brain as ours.

    Yes. Much more precisely put. Although I would add that the “answering the discomforting questions of existence” part is probably just extant, more basic pattern-matching wetware being stretched past its limits, rather than being any kind of separate dedicated subroutine.

    Hljóðlegur said:

    … it makes perfect sense that people would have different parallel modes of thought for deciding what is real, true, or discerning how something works, and that different members of a community would be able to think better in some modes than others. That would increase the group problem-solving capacity, allow for specialization, let related individuals survive better as a unit. If my family group can only think in one mode, maybe it’s not a problem, but maybe when there’s a crisis, we miss the vital solution because the alternate mode of analysis was absent.

    This also makes sense, with the caveat that “difference” is not by definition advantageous. One can imagine a mode of thinking in which all problems are solved by divining shapes in the laying of human feces; it’s certainly an alternate mode of analysis, but I’d be surprised if it conferred any actual advantage to the tribe that supported its practice.

    Tim, whose very thoughtful post is too meaty to quote at length, said a lot of good things, most of which I can only agree with, a couple of which I’d tweak:

    I think you are essentially making a case for memetics here.

    I agree. If there’s a “God gene complex” anywhere in the system I haven’t heard of it, and natural selection is generally regarded as the genetic kind. Memetics still qualifies though, in the purely Darwinian sense: Darwin himself didn’t know about genes, and could only speak of some unknown “mechanism of inheritance”. Social transmission is way faster (and more error-prone) than the genetic kind, but you still get variability, competition, limited resources, and the other essentials.

    It’s easy to focus on the negative effects of religion when viewing it from the outside, to see it as primarily driven by fear and so on, but from the inside the picture is different.

    And in fact, Paul’s study is compatible with this: in terms of “life satisfaction” US residents are pretty much in the middle of the pack, even though the metrics of dysfunction look pretty abysmal; it’s not a reach to suggest that the comfort imparted by religious community helps compensate for an otherwise-shitty environment. A number of studies have shown that those with religious beliefs are significantly happier than those without, and it’s not difficult to understand why: I myself would give almost anything to be able to believe that when this life ends another, better one begins, that I don’t just stop and fade forever into the background noise of a cold and indifferent universe. (A fundamental question running through Cory Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe is “Would you rather be happy or smart?”, which is by no means a no-brainer.) And how many time have we heard the story of people turning to God when they were at absolute rock bottom, when they had no other source of comfort in the world?

    Atheists/agnostics and the more liberal religious types all seem to believe that their side is necessarily winning…

    I really disagree with this. It is heartening to learn that the proportion of US citizens with no religious affiliation has doubled over the past decade or so, but those folks are still a pretty despised minority in the eyes of most Americans, and they know it. Read the Science blogs: they’re full of cases where this or that school board shoehorning creationism into science class or penalizing atheist students in one way or another. To put a Darwin-fish bumper-sticker on your car in Texas is to invite vandalism.

    We believe that our side should be winning. Most of us are astonished and perplexed that religious paradigms are so damn persistent. Which explains why there are so many attempts to pop the hood of that particular clunker and try and figure out how it keeps on running.

    Atheism is a philosophical reaction to specific aspects of Christian theology, and derives much of its strength from the fact that it doesn’t attempt to be a complete worldview.

    I don’t think I agree with this. Atheism, as I understand it, is simply a refusal to accept certain beliefs that are unsupported by evidence; I forget the attribution but the quote that comes to mind is “Atheism is a belief the way that not playing chess is a hobby.” It is not a belief system, either in an extant God or a nonexistent one: it is an absence of belief. It is a choice to not engage in that game at all, and if you’re not engaging you can’t really react to something, at least in the sense I understand it.

    Which is not to say, admittedly, that I don’t have very strong emotional reactions about certain practitioners of theology..

    Some people who have thought about it a lot (OK, mostly Gwynne Dyer) have become a bit pessimistic about our ability to react to our environment fast enough to avoid some really nasty shocks.

    Is he still around? Tim, you must be Canadian. Thanks for your post.

    Mattan Ingram said:

    I particularly like to think of the meaning-system being a selected defense mechanism against the existential dread that naturally arises in any self-conscious system.

    …and I’m gonna disagree with that too. Maybe existential dread arises naturally in any self-conscious system known to date, but that’s just because all those systems have brain stems attached. I suspect that it’s perfectly possible to build an AI without any of that evolutionary baggage, and thus without any desires, fears, or agendas either.

    Hell, we could do that to ourselves, just by burning out the right circuits. Anyone here read “reasons to be Cheerful”, by Greg Egan?

    Jeff B said:

    Nice guy, loves God, loves telling friends about how God loves them, hates Obama with hissing, snarling, demonically possessed violence in his eyes. Gotta love him. I’m sure his wife does. Anyway, I’ll be thinking about the points you wrote about as I sit down for a friendly dinner with him tomorrow.

    So, how did that work out?

    kevin said:

    Yep. Makes perfect sense. That’s probably why atheistic communism was such a low stress affair. Furthermore, highly regulated Africa has become so secure and prosperous due to their reasoned opposition to Laissez-Faire capitalism that they’ve become secular atheists. Yep. That sounds right.

    Uh, kev. Read the paper. They’re talking exclusively about developed countries with a comfortable and secure middle class. The whole point is that more stressful places (like Africa) are affiliated with greater religious belief — and that the US tends towards third-world status in certain relevant metrics.

    This is about the relationship between prosperity/security vs. religious inclination. Paul cited the “city on the hill” capitalism promoted by other sources in his introduction, and contrasted regulated vs. laissez-faire capitalism as correlates in his discussion of the results— but economic policy was never a variable in the results themselves. The dependent variable was religiosity.

    So I think you’re confusing capitalism with religion. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest this probably isn’t the first time you’ve done that

    Of course, that also explains why arch-capitalist hellholes like Singapore, Switzerland, and Hong-Kong are so mired in extreme religious belief.

    Say it after me, Kevin, slowly: Prosperity. Security. Religiosity. Arch-capitalism just ain’t in there as a variable. (Switzerland is, though. Like the other countries considered in that study, be they socialist or capitalist, they kick the US’s ass in the Quality-of Life department.)

    But hey, wouldn’t this predict that there would be a negative correlation between religious belief and happiness. Does it bother you at all that this is the opposite of the truth?

    No, Kevin, it would predict a negative correlation between homicides, STDs, teen abortions, poverty, and income disparity against happiness. The paper states explicitly that “life satisfaction” is just fine in the US, probably due to the positive impact of religion on happiness. After all, something‘s cheering up the US population and it’s probably not the high murder, syphilis, and divorce rates.

    But hey, why let facts get in the way of a good theory, right?

    That does seem to be your attitude. Next time, you might want to read the paper a bit more carefully. I think Sarah Palin’s already got the unprepared-and-proud-of-it market pretty much sewn up.

  13. One point: it seems to me to make sense that the brain would have a positive feedback mechanism to reinforce summarizations (expressed or merely as internal reflections) of what it believes to be true. Yet that it would (in some people) reinforce summarizations which aren’t based in demonstrable facts or solid logic, that’s a strange thing. Perhaps we can think of it as some evolved predeliction to favor internalization of what society might see as a “works for me” sort of “lucky guess”. While the rationales for social cooperation strategies might be based in myth, legend, or even fantasy/hallucination (“the burning bush told me so”), if the ideals transmitted with the story let society and the members’ progenity flourish better, then this might be selected for as time went on. Thus, the willingness to accept and to nurture — at a deep neurological level — silly stories that predispose people to “decent” or “functional” behavior could perhaps be seen by Father Darwin as “more valuable than not”. If “be kind to strangers because Jesus says so” causes me to pull my future wife out of a pit, and she feels the same way, our own kids might raise their grandkids to get mates (and progenate) through the same mode. If they feel good expressing this strategy, and pass that on, whether or not it’s Jesus who says “be kind to strangers” the strategy seems to have worked. Thus, “lucky guess” and “works for me”. And it could be totally wrong on all levels, but so far, so good. And so the trait survives.

    Point Two: Gregory Paul notes that the brains of the secular French aren’t different from those of religious Americans, and that may be a side point not totally germane to the debate. Perhaps that’s because both the secular and the religious may in fact be parsing logic in the same way and just as well, for the most part… it’s just that the secular and the religious are parsing logic well enough but with totally different sets of premises accepted as axiomatic. I’ve seen religious people use quite excellent logic so long as it didn’t lead them to the point where they had to demote axioms to the level of revisable premises. To me, the difference between the secular who were raised secular, and the religious who were raised religious, is their education, their inculcation of “what is truth”… not neurology.

    The interesting bit, of course, would be anything that could show the mechanism of either religious conversion from secular to devout, or the apostasy where the formerly religious become atheistic or agnostic enough to question their faith and perhaps abandon axioms.

    That this would have a profound effect on the subject that is ordinarily only seen in brainwashing, I’ll leave to the debates on morals and ethics. And of course this has been taken up before in science-fiction, “what if you had a drug/process that would turn people religious” or “what if you had a drug/process that would turn religious people atheist”. Usually the authors feel obliged to characterize anyone actually doing such things outside of raw research as psychopaths and tyrants. Yet one has to wonder whether or not this sort of thing would fall into the class of science done by Mengele et al., bloody fascinating if more than a bit inhuman.

    Point Three: I think the conservatives in the US are doing a fine job of discrediting themselves; we’ll not likely be voting a theocracy into office anytime soon. Besides, the “free markets” mavens painted themselves into the same corner as Bernie Madoff and people won’t be believing them much for a long time to come. Especially when their arguments seem to boil down to “g_d will provide” and “trust me with your money and freedom and all will be well” with ample evidence all around that neither statement is true.

  14. Working John, Working Joe.

  15. “opposition to gun control increases murder rates”

    Science is a beautiful thing, and, obviously, an infallible guide.