Chris Allen
If it works for you...?

    I took the Potato Quiz for the first time yesterday.  Boy, I was embarrassed at how many of those I missed.  My education is getting rusty.

    I really skewed things on one question, "Does religion have value?".  I answered YES.   My perspective may be a bit different from that of a lot of atheists.  It doesn't have any value
to me either as a guide to truth or even as an adequate "moral" guide for society, which I guess is the way most people would look at the question, whether they are  religious or atheists.  But if religion didn't have some value to people generally, it wouldn't exist, in an evolutionary sense, in the environment of social ideas.

    This is pretty much the thought that led me to atheism in the first place in 1969.  Ideas commonly exist because they are in some way a good model or reflection of reality.  This leads to the argument that, if religious belief is so widespread throughout the world, there must be some truth to it, or there must be a god.   I didn't see any way to answer this argument, short of a personal encounter with God, until I came to realize that religion had other values to people that were so strong that it exists IN SPITE of being a bad model of reality.

    One important value is illustrated by the old saying, "Religion is regarded by the common folk as true, by the educated as false, and by the rulers as useful."  Religion is very useful to every type of dictator and tyrant, grand or petty, from Bill Clinton and Pat Robertson, down to your classic Mormon patriarch next door.

    Another important value is hinted at by another old saying, "If God didn't exist, we would have to invent Him."  In one sense, religion is entertainment.  In another it is crude psychotherapy, providing illusions that allow people to function in spite of their fears.  Afraid of dying?  Come to Jesus and you will live again after you die.  Is the world too complex for you?  Lean on the Bible and forget all that difficult school and education stuff.  Is the world too unfair, too oppressive?  Forget all that risky revolution and democracy stuff, and just believe that God will provide justice in the afterlife, punishing the wicked and rewarding the "good" but oppressed.  In this sense religion really is, "the opiate of the masses."

    This is why I try to discourage atheists from believing that science will triumph over religion in the end, because "truth will eventually triumph."   We can't be so sure and complacent about that.  Religion has a lot of "value" to people, so we can't just wait for religion to die.
We will have to come out and kill it, and then stand guard over its grave, doing our best to inoculate society against its resurgence.


Atheist Pages       Jesus: The Evidence - YouTube (10 clips)

Although some aspects of religion appear maladaptive, the near universal prevalence of religion suggests that there's got to be some adaptive value..."

Prosocial Behavior And The Need For Moral High Gods - What Birds And Linguistics Tell Us

The need for a moral higher power may have been as necessary for adapting to a dangerous world as physical adaptations, according to a new paper.

The authors suggest that societies with less access to food and water are more likely to believe in such deities. They believe there is a strong correlation between belief in high gods who enforce a moral code and other societal characteristics. Political complexity - namely a social hierarchy beyond the local community - and the practice of animal husbandry were both strongly associated with a belief in moralizing gods, though how raising livestock factored in is a mystery, since everyone did it.

Religion has been explained as a result of either culture or environmental factors but not both.  The new paper implies that complex practices and characteristics thought to be exclusive to humans arise from a medley of ecological, historical, and cultural variables.  

 "When life is tough or when it's uncertain, people believe in big gods," says Russell Gray, a professor who studies psychology and linguistics at the University of Auckland. "Prosocial behavior maybe helps people do well in harsh or unpredictable environments." 

"When researchers discuss the forces that shaped human history, there is considerable disagreement as to whether our behavior is primarily determined by culture or by the environment," says first author Carlos Botero, an ecologist who studies birds at North Carolina State University. "We wanted to throw away all preconceived notions regarding these processes and look at all the potential drivers together to see how different aspects of the human experience may have contributed to the behavioral patterns we see today."

They drew their conclusions in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science by collating the beliefs of people in biology, ecology, linguistics, anthropology, and religious studies. 

On a whim, Botero plotted ethnographic data of societies that believe in moralizing, high gods and found that their global distribution is quite similar to a map of cooperative breeding in birds. The parallels between the two suggested that ecological factors might play a part. They also accept anthropological claims about a connection between a belief in moralizing gods and group cooperation.  

"A lot of evolutionists have been busy trying to bang religion on the head. I think the challenge is to explain it," Gray says. "Although some aspects of religion appear maladaptive, the near universal prevalence of religion suggests that there's got to be some adaptive value and by looking at how these things vary ecologically, we get some insight."

The authors examined historical, social, and ecological data for 583 societies to try and match belief in moralizing, high gods and external variables. Other anthropology claims relied on rough estimates of ecological conditions and this paper included global datasets for variables like plant growth, precipitation, and temperature. The team also mined the Ethnographic Atlas-- an electronic database of more than a thousand societies from the 20th century-- for geographic coordinates and sociological data including the presence of religious beliefs, agriculture, and animal husbandry.

"The goal became not just to look at the ecological variables, but to look at the whole thing. Once we accounted for as many other factors as we could, we wanted to see if we could still detect an environmental effect," Botero says. "The overall picture is that these beliefs are ultimately shaped by a combination of historical, ecological, and social factors."

The team plans to further this study by exploring the processes that have influenced the evolution of other human behaviors including taboos, circumcision, and the modification of natural habitats.

"We are at an unprecedented time in history," Botero says. "Now we're able to harness both data and a combination of multidisciplinary expertise to explore these kinds of questions in an empirical way."

Source: Prosocial Behavior And The Need For Moral High Gods - What Birds And Linguistics Tell Us

Page updated   2014-11-16