The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study this February revealed that less than one fifth of all American adults under 30 report regular church attendance. But they still also overwhelmingly claim belief in God. Tom Rees thinks that despite their beliefs, their abandonment of the pews may indicate that a multi-generational secularization process is underway.
Acts that increase the credibility of an individual’s beliefs rejoice in the label “credibility enhancing displays” (CREDs for short) and, though the idea sounds superficially similar to costly signaling, it differs in one crucial way: there’s nothing in it for me if I persuade you to believe me. As a result, there’s no incentive for me to cheat. The only reason for me to do these things is if I genuinely believe that they will benefit me in some way. If you’re smart, you’ll pick up on this and start to believe the same things.
Joe Heinrich, an anthropologist at the Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture at the University of British Columbia who has studied the CRED phenomenon, thinks that it can explain why seemingly useless ideas can take hold. Using a model of how ideas are transmitted, he found that a belief that carries no tangible benefit but only a cost can out-compete a cost-free belief so long as the cost is linked to a CRED. Heinrich’s theory gives a radical perspective on why the pope and other religious self-harmers do what they do. It’s because they have each been infected by a particularly virulent meme—one that subverts the way we learn from others and uses it to self-propagate ruthlessly, despite the damage to its host.
CREDs aren’t just relevant to extreme varieties of religious belief. We also use CREDs to decide whether to adopt more conventional doctrines, and this has important implications for the future of religion. Take Sweden, one of the most godless nations on Earth. Recent work by Jonathan Lanman, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, has described Sweden’s path to secularization as a two-stage process. Improved living standards and social security in the postwar period combined to reduce the importance of church-going in the lives of Swedes. Members of this generation retained their religious beliefs but simply found they had better things to on a Sunday morning. They believed but did not belong.
Then came the problem of passing on their beliefs to their children. They told their children all about their god and how important their beliefs were to them. But something was missing. With no tangible evidence for the existence of God, each new generation looks to CREDs to see whether they should accept what they are being told, and church-going is a classic CRED. If I simply tell you that an invisible being exists who wants you to go to church, you might not take me too seriously. However, if you see me going to church regularly, you might be more receptive to the idea. Once most members of Sweden’s older generations abandoned church-going, their efforts to pass on their beliefs to the younger generation were fatally undermined.
Rees cautiously extrapolates that possibly Americans are undergoing a comparable loss of faith through stages, given young people’s disconnect from church life.
Tom Rees regularly blogs about scientific research germane to understanding religion at Epiphenom, the latest updates to which now automatically feed straight to the brand new Camels With Hammers blogroll on the right side of every page of the site.