Does the Irrationality of Religion Even Matter?

In Jared Diamond‘s new book The World Until Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author writes about how our species’ past practices and traditions can give us insight into the present and future.

Salon excerpted a particular chapter dealing with religion and offers an explanation as to why religion is still such a powerful force today (spoiler: It strengthens community ties):

A recent interpretation among some scholars of religion is that belief in religious superstitions serves to display one’s commitment to one’s religion. All long-lasting human groups — Boston Red Sox fans (like me), devoted Catholics, patriotic Japanese, and others — face the same basic problem of identifying who can be trusted to remain as a group member. The more of one’s life is wrapped up with one’s group, the more crucial it is to be able to identify group members correctly and not to be deceived by someone who seeks temporary advantage by claiming to share your ideals but who really doesn’t. If that man carrying a Boston Red Sox banner, whom you had accepted as a fellow Red Sox fan, suddenly cheers when the New York Yankees hit a home run, you’ll find it humiliating but not life-threatening. But if he’s a soldier next to you in the front line and he drops his gun (or turns it on you) when the enemy attacks, your misreading of him may cost you your life.

That’s why religious affiliation involves so many overt displays to demonstrate the sincerity of your commitment: sacrifices of time and resources, enduring of hardships, and other costly displays that I’ll discuss later. One such display might be to espouse some irrational belief that contradicts the evidence of our senses, and that people outside our religion would never believe. If you claim that the founder of your church had been conceived by normal sexual intercourse between his mother and father, anyone else would believe that too, and you’ve done nothing to demonstrate your commitment to your church. But if you insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he was born of a virgin birth, and nobody has been able to shake you of that irrational belief after many decades of your life, then your fellow believers will feel much more confident that you’ll persist in your belief and can be trusted not to abandon your group.

This is an argument we’ve heard before and it makes a lot of sense. Religious beliefs themselves are irrelevant, since all religious myths are equally false, but each religion has a unique mix of lies that help identify who’s “in” and who’s “out.” By adhering to a certain set of beliefs — or detaching from them altogether — we know who we can “automatically” trust and work with. In other words, the beliefs themselves never have to be true. People just have to think they’re true for religion to thrive. That’s also why it’s so difficult to defeat.

On a side note, don’t ever let your girlfriend see your web browser with the words “Jared” and “Diamond” in the search bar. Trust me on this one.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Machintelligence

    The problem is the other side of the coin. The increased in group loyalty usually comes at the cost of out group hostility and xenophobia.

    I had never noticed that about Jared’s name. :-)

    • Machintelligence

      Delete the final d in increased.

  • sunburned

    I would say it does matter. Actions based on those beliefs are not detached from society at large and have a overwhelming effect on interpersonal interactions as well as political ramifications.

    Equating irrational beliefs with secret handshakes seems a bit disingenuous.

    • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

      No, I don’t think that’s the point he’s making. When it comes to people identifying in-group members by their shared devotion to religious myths, any set of myths is as good as any other for the purpose. One group might use fanatical devotion to Pikkiwoki as an in-group marker, and another might use fanatical devotion to Jeebus. Any set of crazy myths can serve this purpose, as long as they are sufficiently irrational. Secret handshakes are too easy, and don’t display real group loyalty.
      Now what the group members DO as a result of those beliefs is a whole different issue. But the point here is that the specific content of a set of irrational beliefs is not relevant to how well those myths fuction as social glue.

      • sunburned

        >Secret handshakes are too easy, and don’t display real group loyalty.

        Just as feigning absurd beliefs isn’t particularly difficult, I should know I did it for quite a long time in my youth.

        • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

          Feigning absurd beliefs can be easy, but putting in the time, energy and resources required to persuade others in your group that you are a “true believer” might not be, especially for myths and rituals that make no sense.

          • sunburned

            Huh. My wife put in nearly 25 years of feigning belief. It’s done almost every day by many people.

  • Art_Vandelay

    I think for most religious people, it’s even easier than that to be part of the group. You don’t even have to actually think they’re true…you just have to say that you think they’re true. I mean…nobody really “thinks” crackers can turn into the flesh of a 2000 year old carpenter. They say they believe it specifically because they don’t think about it.

    • Gerry

      I think you’re absolutely right. I have a very educated co-worker who is so conflicted about the belief system she grew up with and cherishes the social/ritualistic aspect of but, actually is self-delusional when I ask her to apply her intellect to the issue. “She knows what she believes” which is her way of avoiding this discussion in an intellectual way (Faith). For me to believe in imaginary beings I would have to turn my intellect off which is about the same as someone reverting to the “Faith” argument.

      • Nox

        Belief and practice are incidental to religion. They are the
        trappings, but not usually what the religion is about to the practitioners. Religion is about identity first. It is about how a person sees themselves.

    • J-Rex

      And then as long as everyone is saying they believe, you feel like you’re the only one who has doubts. And if you’re someone who never has doubts, it’s because everyone else you know is so sure about it, how could you all be wrong?

      • Agrajag

        True, but that coin has two sides. It also means that though it appears “everyone” agrees with this, there’s a unknown part of the group that are really just playing along, and a unknown group who are deliberately faking it.

        The risk is that once a few defect, those will see: “Hi, it’s now okay to defect!” and it’ll appear that suddenly tons of people are defecting.

        In reality, many of those where never on board to begin with, they just pretended to be aslong as the social cost of defecting was high enough.

        I always laugh when I read things like “98% of the people in Iran are muslims” — yeah *of course* they are, as long as the social cost of defection includes potential death-penalty.

        The real number of non-muslims is unknown, of course, but it’s certainly MUCH higher than 2%.

        You see this in USA these days: the social cost of saying: “I’m not religious” has dropped, and consequently many more say so. Does anyone believe that the nones that exist today actually believed a decade ago ? Or is it more likely that back then they -claimed- to believe?

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    Thanks for mentioning the book! I haven’t read it yet, but I’m on the hold list at the library.

    I think Diamond has a point. A lot of religion seems to be based on tribalism, in group/out group dynamics, etc. Get people to feel a sense of loyalty to the religion, and it’s much harder for them to consider shedding the label and leaving.

  • DKeane123

    Ask millions of AIDS victims if irrational religious beliefs aren’t relevant.

  • aoscott

    Hahaha I loved the disclaimer at the end!

    • allein

      something else for me to google when i get home. i have a feeling i don’t really want to know…

      • allein

        ah, never mind. i’m slow. :p

        • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

          If it makes you feel better, I’d never heard of it, either.

          • allein

            I can’t stand those commercials; I guess I block them out. ;)

            • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

              I don’t think we have them where I am, or maybe we do, and I just haven’t paid any attention. I have absolutely no interest in diamonds and don’t care whether or not my boyfriend and I are married, LOL.

              • allein

                I’ve always said I’d rather get a puppy than an engagement ring. People think I’m kidding…

                • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

                  Oh, I’d much rather have a puppy. Puppies rule! It does seem like people have a hard time conceiving of women who don’t conform to the stereotypes, probably because everything you see in the media promotes the idea that all women want certain things. If a woman isn’t interested in those things (especially if she’s a heterosexual woman), society doesn’t know where to place her.

                • allein

                  One of these days I will have a dog again (whether or not it comes with a guy)…I’m not all that interested in “the wedding” either…if I weren’t the only daughter and it wouldn’t break my mother’s heart I’d elope. I hate being the center of attention…If I ever do get married I’d want to do the “short short version” from Spaceballs and just move right on to the party. :)

  • Randomfactor

    Sounds a lot like the costliness theory of such things as the peacock’s tail: the harder it is to sustain a signal, the more valid it must be.

  • Gerry

    Something that most rational people can agree with is religion tends to contribute to humans not advancing due to this irrationality. When we believe in imaginary beings when there is no rational basis or proof we are just stunting our progress as a species.

  • David

    Hmmm… That’s an interesting way to look at it! (And LOL @ ‘Jared’ & ‘Diamond’)
    I think that it makes sense that the increased cost of wrong or irrational beliefs can be outweighed by ingroup benefits, though. After all, we form perhaps the biggest ‘environmental’ influence on each other.
    Sure, you have a wrong belief about the physical world (lightning is god’s wrath, disease is evil spirits) but on the bright side you get the assistance of your fellow human beings when your house gets struck by lighning or you fall sick, and that’s certainly more important for survival.

    • David

      (Not saying that’s a particularly good idea today, though.)

  • SeekerLancer

    When that irrationality leads to decisions or acts that harm other people, yes it matters.

  • J-Rex

    Lol. When I see “Jared” and “Diamond,” “Jared Diamond” is the first thing that pops in my head. I guess the documentaries we watched in 9th grade history stick with me better than jewelry commercials…

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    not really a fan of him, myself. i was getting a masters in anthro when GGS came out and i found myself having the most annoying arguments with people who’d read it and were making similarly semi-informed and sweeping generalizations he does in that book.

    and i don’t really find this a terribly momentous point, either. religion persists for many reasons, including and not limited to issues that relate to wealth, fear, oppression, deliberate suppression of science and other ideas that run counter to faith based claims, racism, sexism, government endorsement… that’s just off the top of my head.

    the *only* way a religion will survive/thrive is by overt displays. if people always “prayed in secret” like some traditions occasionally claim they should, it would die out in a generation. far too many people personally and directly benefit from the social capital that comes from religious display. belief is secondary, and in my opinion religion persists because it is a proven way to advance on the social ladder and control people and take their resources/women/whatever in exchange for next to no work.

    • cipher

      I agree that he generalizes, but I don’t think his arguments are entirely invalid. I think the mechanisms he suggests in GGS are part of the mix, but I agree they don’t comprise the whole story.

      As far as this latest attempt is concerned, it’s been my repeated observation over a period of decades that communal identification is an extremely important factor in determining ideological orientation. I’ve seen it over and over; someone joins a group, feels comfortable with the people and decides to remain, then convinces him/herself that s/he believes the same things everyone else in the group does.

  • http://twitter.com/yjmbobllns Zach, or: YB

    “On a side note, don’t ever let your girlfriend see your web browser with the words “Jared” and “Diamond” in the search bar. Trust me on this one.” Ha ha ha. Made my day, sir.

    As for the content, this seems to adequately represent my experiences, and explains those types of people who seem to bask rapturously in their most illogical beliefs and proclaim that the more nonsense a belief, the more true the belief held.

  • http://twitter.com/yjmbobllns Zach, or: YB

    “On a side note, don’t ever let your girlfriend see your web browser with the words “Jared” and “Diamond” in the search bar. Trust me on this one.” Ha ha ha. Made my day, sir.

    As for the content, this seems to adequately represent my experiences, and explains those types of people who seem to bask rapturously in their most illogical beliefs and proclaim that the more nonsense a belief, the more true the belief held.

  • Blacksheep

    “The irrationality of a thing is no argument against its existence, rather a condition of it.”

    – Friedrich Nietzsche

    (not a fan of Jared Diamond either)

    • jdhuey

      Nietzsche wasn’t a fan of Diamond!? I didn’t know that. :^)

  • allein

    I don’t know if it’s just his writing style or what, but I can never seem to get into his books, even though the topics are always ones that generally interest me. I still have the bookmark right where I left off in Collapse, which I borrowed from my ex who I broke up with 6 years ago (just for lols I should send it back to him, since I’m probably the last person he’d want to get mail from :b). But I’ll add this one to my long list of Books I Want To Read Someday and see if I feel like tackling at some point.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    On a side note, don’t ever let your girlfriend see your web browser with the words “Jared” and “Diamond” in the search bar. Trust me on this one.

    You ever run any more 5Ks?

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I think irrational always has the potential to be very dangerous. I mean, by definition no? I somehow got a real conspiracy nut FB friend a while back, Kennedy assassination ordered by the black pope, new world order, the Illuminati, the whole thing. And then I read this- http://www.salon.com/2013/01/15/this_man_helped_save_six_children_is_now_getting_harassed_for_it/ and realized it’s the same thing. We have tendency to believe stuff in contradiction to the overwhelming evidence. And then we can’t pull a Mark-whatever-that-Jets-football-player’s-name-was and stop investing good time and energy on a wrong idea. And it hurts people.

  • Pseudonym

    “Your girlfriend”? Male gaze, much?

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      Yup, and not all straight girls are interested in diamonds and marriage proposals! That’s a stereotype if I ever saw one.

  • Ronlawhouston

    You’ve just hit on the fundamental problem with the fractures in the secular community. Are you “in” the atheist community or “out?” Are you a “dictionary atheist” or one of those evil “accomodationists.” Should we trust you or shun you?

    Before we get on our high horse and say look at those idiot believers and their tribalism, perhaps we should do a bit more introspection.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eukota Darrell Ross

    Or don’t leave a ring sizing chart in your coat pocket if you think your girlfriend might go through it! :P

  • ola

    Wow! So happy to find out the answer is sooo simple:D I’m Catholic, serious about my faith and because of that I’m an outsider. It does not strengthen my community ties, trust me. Haven’t you ever come up with the idea that we believe what we believe in because we are convinced it is true? If I listen to God’s commandments and find out that living according to them makes me more and more free, then why should I doubt His words about the transubstantiation? God doesn’t need to be tied by His own creation. If you think that you could accept the idea that God exists only if it were free of the irrational – as you call it – elements, you would reduce Him to an ordinary thing and thus, He could not be God anymore.

    P.S. Have you ever thought that you are atheists because you’re a nice group?:)

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      P.S. Have you ever thought that you are atheists because you’re a nice group?:)

      Nah, because some of us are assholes.

    • Ed Oster the Rogue Theologian

      Amen Brother! “Religion”is a totally repugnant word. You have a real faith–a totally different matter. We’d disagree on a few things, but you found the key to Truth. Pray for me? Ed

      • ola

        Sure I will:) But when it comes to the opposition you make (religion vs.faith), I’d say these two terms aren’t opposite. Religion is like a body, a frame, which must be filled with faith and love or it turns out into some degenerated forms.

  • Ed Oster the Rogue Theologian

    A somewhat limiting arguement. The existence of God has not yet been disproven. Perhaps I’m wrong and He doesn’t–fine. The alternative is that He (or they) do. Since most of the alternative possibilitie for God are fruitless(watchmaker-the hateful) to seek, I’ll opt for a loving creator. Now if He is God he is by definition at least three things:Omnipotent,, Omniscient and Omnipresrnt—-or He isn’t God. Six day creation and virgin birth are a snap. But the thought is unpopular becaquse we all hate to be told what to do. If God did create the universe, it’s his, and He has thge right AND the power to enforce whatever laws He wishes. So by all means deny bHis existence out of hand. With affec tion


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