Monday, July 2, 2012

David Sloan Wilson on the Power of Religion

Dr. Wilson
I was recently rereading David Sloan Wilson’s  research on the  power of religion, group and mate selection, social harmony and evolution.  Dr. Wilson is an anthropologist and faculty member at Binghamton University of the State University of New York.  The good doctor is sometimes at odds with Richard Dawkins and other atheists, as he believes that religion is actually a possible force for good in terms of our evolution as well as group and mate selection.

Wilson believes that Dawkins and atheists in general are missing the point regarding the role religion plays in joining a group or in selecting a mate.  He postulates that like any social contrivance, religion plays an important role in not only our evolution but in the maintenance of our species.  

One should note that Wilson’s ideas, while they may be a counter-point to Dawkins, et al, are not be fully unbiased. Dr. Wilson has taken grants from the Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation is an organization that gives grants to academics and scientists who attempt to link science and faith and provides money to those who would suggest in the academic press that both science and faith are equal.

While there is certain merit to Wilson’s argument, I don’t think that if religion were to evaporate, that humans would become extinct or not continue to evolve.  In fact, we can make the argument that groups of people choose mates and each other for many reasons.  While one’s faith could be one significant choice in this selection, so could other social likes and dislikes.  

For instance, replace “Religion” with “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” and you get the same resulting logic.  We find large groups of people who form a community around a particular philosophy, ritual or physical space. The difference being that I know of no Star Wars fan or Trekkie who’d be happy to deny people their fundamental human and civil rights, begin global wars, enact laws which stop the teaching of science or kill in the name of a mythical or fictional source for goodness, like a Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Mr. Spock, or Jean-Luc Picard.

What I do find interesting in Wilson’s work is the research which he’s done related to stress and social cohesion.  What he found is that when people have less social stress in their lives the less religious their community becomes.   And this is BIG, not only do they have less stress and less religious belief, but they help each other more and become more altruistic. Alternatively, when people are under the stress of war, terror, economic uncertainly, or other violence, they will maintain or become more religious than those who live in nations where these stresses are minimal.

He notes that one reason churches in Europe, which are massive structures created centuries ago when King and faith were synonymous, are now empty of adherents is because the stress level of formally religious nations has diminished substantially.  In fact, if one were to go to Italy, you’d find most of the people in the churches aren’t praying; they’re taking photos because they’re tourists. This is correlated in other research as well, and in particular Phil Zuckerman’s work in the Northern European nations Denmark, Sweden and Norway. 

On the micro level, faith and stress offer each other a fine combination. This may be why people find god in prison, leave their addiction to drugs and alcohol for the addiction to the bible, replace their fear of death with the acceptance of religion, accept faith based on authority or for some other reason refuse to change their social circumstances because they feel disconnected from their own power to choose a destiny.  Not only does faith allow one to buffer their anxiety, but it also provides a cover for the future through prayer and exempts people who will not change their present by promising a better life in the next world.

At the macro level, faith allows a limited number of people to control resources, assets and the future of a group by claiming that their power is god given.  At the same time, those who accept this idea and the incumbent, are then in collective agreement.  Thus, these select people have the supernatural right to lead or interpret ancient texts for their followers.  What is interesting is that in most faiths, these leaders then have substantial access to economic resources and can have greater access to mates, which then reinforces their social power. Marrying off a female to a rabbi, shaman, preacher, Imam or pastor is considered a plus in terms of the social status of a family in many cultures. 

The modern exception to the mate selection rule is Roman Catholicism.  Here, Popes and priests, who are of the highest social order in terms of authority, are not allowed to take mates and must remain celibate. But this is a relative recent change in policy and celibacy is a rather late contrivance for the Church.  In addition, we know that many times that priest celibacy doesn’t work and in fact creates mal-adaptive behaviors. This falling from grace – i.e. temptation, is for a priest a real and constant threat to their oath. Hence, better to blame the devil on urges than act naturally and have intercourse.  Blaming devils, demons or an underdeveloped soul is the ultimate deflection and get out of jail free card, psychologically, metaphorically and sometimes socially and legally.

So where does this lead us?  Right at the tip of the point made by Hitchens’ in the title of his book, “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”  While religion and spiritual belief may have had a positive role in our antecedence (which I doubt based on the lack of evidence), I conclude that modern religious faith is the most corrupting, insensitive and unfair social contrivance so far created by humanity.  It blocks truth, personal growth, is incompatible with naturalistic science, and encumbers adherents to forsake humanity for the sake of their specific group.  Not only is this counter-intuitive for local and global peace, but it will one day, if we don’t snap out of it as humans, lead to a terrible end for our species.    

1 comment:

  1. I think religions began as answers to questions there was no other ways of answering as the scientific method did not really develop until the Middle Ages/Renaissance. They are now an anachronism that need to die out.

    OTOH I'm wondering if anthropologists know of any primitive peoples who did NOT have creation myths or is this a universal stage in our cultural evolution?