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.