(pic from NY Times, showing a re-creation of our dearly beloved great-ancestors, Nechama and Yekutiel Ben Dag Gadol)
Interesting review by H. Allen Orr, an evolutionary geneticist, in the New Yorker of Daniel Dennett’s (get a load of this guy’s CV) new book, â€œBreaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.â€ Dennett is a philosopher and considers Darwin’s theory of natural selection to be â€œthe single best idea anyone has ever had.â€
With that in mind, he set out to apply the rigors of scientific investigation into understanding why religions succeed and survive over time, bearing in mind that some religions disappear. The book seems to offer a survey of the state of the field as well as Dennett’s own ideas about religion, ideas that he hopes to use, perhaps, to enlighten those with firm religious convictions, â€œMany readers . . . will see me as just another liberal professor trying to cajole them out of some of their convictions, and they are dead right about thatâ€”that’s what I am and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.â€
Explaining the emergence of real religion requires a different kind of approach, and here things get complicated. A mind-boggling number of explanations, some biological and some economic, have been introduced over the past decade or so. One was championed by the evolutionary theorist David Sloan Wilson in his 2002 book, â€œDarwin’s Cathedral.â€ Wilson suggested that religion is a kind of adaptation that evolved by â€œmultilevel selection.â€ Most biologists think that evolution is propelled by natural selection at one level only: among competing individuals. A polar bear that was whiter than its peers, say, could sneak up undetected on potential prey more often than darker bears could, and was thus likelier to survive and leave more progeny. Assuming that the difference between whiter and darker bears was due to a difference in genes, the genes for whiter bears would grow more common and those for darker bears less so.
According to Wilson, though, evolution sometimes involves natural selection among competing groups of individuals. Consider â€œpredator inspectionâ€ in guppies. If a potential predator approaches a school of guppies, one or two fish may peel away from the group, inspect the intruder, and then (if their luck holds) return to the school, reporting on the danger. Predator inspection is paradoxical. Why would a guppy take on such a risky assignment? Why be an altruist? Group selection provides a possible answer. Predator inspection might evolve not because inspectors leave more progeny than non-inspectors within a groupâ€”traditional individual selectionâ€”but because groups that include inspectors survive better than groups that don’t. Although Wilson doesn’t think that all evolution involves group selection, he thinks that group selection plays a big enough role that a realistic theory of evolution must allow for both individual and group selection.
Applying this theory to our own species, Wilson argued that religion is an adaptation of human groups in the same way that the heart is an adaptation of human individuals. Religion is, in his account, a collection of beliefs and behaviors that brings people together, coÃ¶rdinates their activities, and, in the end, allows groups to accomplish tasks that would otherwise be impossible. If my group’s religion is better at this than yours, my group and its religion will spread and yours will recede. Wilson suggested, for instance, that the early Christian Church succeeded against all odds because its creed of selflessness provided its adherents with a sort of welfare state. Christians banded together, aiding each other through illness, famine, and war. The resulting biological edge, he thinks, played a part in the unexpected success of this once obscure mystery cult.
In â€œBreaking the Spell,â€ Dennett tentatively proposes another theory that, like Wilson’s, involves natural selection with a twist. Under Wilson’s theory, the beneficiaries of natural selection are groups of human beings. Under Dennett’s, the beneficiaries are religious â€œmemes.â€ A meme, a term introduced by Richard Dawkins, is any idea or practiceâ€”any thought, song, or ritualâ€”that can replicate from one brain to another. When you whistle a jingle from a commercial, it’s because the jingle meme has successfully replicated and now resides in a new brain, yours. According to Dennett, memes let us lift Darwinism from its historical base in biology to the realm of human culture. The meme, he says, may underlie cultural evolution in the same way the gene underlies biological evolution. Just as some genes grow more common and others less common, so some memes grow more common (â€œYou’re fired!â€) and others less common (â€œIs that your final answer?â€). Dawkins often thought of memes as mental viruses, selfish parasites on human minds; Dennett, by contrast, emphasizes that they can be benign, or even good for their hosts.
Bringing the nascent science of â€œmemeticsâ€ to bear on religion, Dennett goes on to argue that religious memes that encourage group solidarity might outcompete memes that are less adept at encouraging solidarity, especially when human survival depends on coÃ¶peration. His reasoning is that the success of a coÃ¶perative group is great advertising for that group’s memes. To take a secular example, liberal Western ideas like democracy and free markets might spread not because other nations are persuaded by principled arguments in favor of these ideas but because Western nations survive and prosper, which prompts others to emulate them. If you find it hard to believe that the beneficiaries of religion aren’t human beings but the memes they carry, Dennett asks you to consider what Christians themselves claim to value more than their lives: the Word. â€œSpreading the Word of God is their summum bonum, and if they are called to forgo having children and grandchildren for the sake of spreading the Word, that is the command they will try hard to obey.â€ Dennett also argues that you can help a religion grow even if you don’t believe in God. People can become conscious stewards of memes they happen to consider benevolent, and, in the case of religion, the result might be a bloodless â€œbelief in belief.â€ People who aren’t sure about God may nonetheless be sure that religion is good for society and so encourage its spread.
Finally, Dennett describes a recent theory according to which the spread of religions reflects the action not of Charles Darwin’s natural selection but of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. As the rational-choice theorists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argued in their book â€œActs of Faithâ€ (2000), human beings, when confronted with imperfect information, behave in a way that is generally rational. So if you believe (rightly or wrongly) that there is a God, it can be perfectly rational for you to engage in exchange with this well-heeled partner (even if the commodity you most desire can be delivered only post mortem). Stark and Finke are not, then, so much concerned with why people believe in God as with how believers act and why religious institutions spread. Their key claim is that churches mediate the complex exchanges between mortals and their gods. People go to church, in other words, for much the same reason they hire a real-estate agent: when something important is at stake in a complex transaction, it pays to get professional help.
This theory may explain, as a corollary, why a larger percentage of Americans attend church than do, say, Western Europeans. The reason, according to Stark and Finke, is that Americans enjoy a free market in religion. While we have more than a thousand denominations, Europeans often have centrally planned state religions that put barriers in the way of competition and provide little in the way of diverse religious products. â€œThe American religious economy,â€ Stark and Finke conclude, â€œsurpasses Adam Smith’s wildest dreams about the creative forces of a free market.â€
At a later point, Orr notes that,
Any honest Christian or Jew must admit that, had he been born half a world away, he’d be an honest Hindu or Buddhist. This finding suggests at least some adjustment to more innocent views of the inevitability of one’s faith. But believers often seem happy to make these sorts of adjustments and remain perfectly faithful. For some people, the spell cast by religion seems to have less to do with the particular claims made by a particular tradition than with larger metaphysical claims: the universe has a purpose, God exists, or life is sacred. So the more serious question is whether a science of religionâ€”indeed, whether science in generalâ€”can undermine these sorts of beliefs.
Darned good point.
Just wanted to point out that I love our meme.
I mean, those Orthodox Jews who spit on women who wear t-shirts notwithstanding. Or those Reform Jews who bring their kids to Temple only to have them declare that they have a Christmas tree at home. Or those wimpy Conservative Jews who can’t bring themselves to choose whether they accept or reject homosexuality. Or those wacky Reconstructionists who will accept just about anybody as Jewish if the person even hints at their being a Jew. Or those insane secular Jews who claim to be atheists but feel deeply rooted in their culture and forget that after all, that culture is a religion. Or those Jews who want to appear “good” to non-Jews and do it by screaming “war crimes!!!” with respect to Israel. Or those Jews who don’t care what the non-Jews think and attack them as if they were all anti-Semites…
Yup, I love our meme.