The evolution of religion: god, or the group?

In The New York Times Opinion Pages this morning, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about the evolution of religion. This is a topic I’m really interested in, and I encourage others to check out work by Jesse Bering, such as his book The Belief Instinct or this controversial Salon essay.

Sacks, though, misrepresents some science and draws a few bad conclusions from data I like. Misusing science to forward an agenda irks me quite a bit, so while I think there’s a lot of good to glean from Sack’s writing, allow me a few quibbles.

In the first half of the piece, Sacks seems to endorse group selection, or at least suggests that it has shaped our social cognition. He writes:

The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.

Other than the obviously false last-sentence (unfortunately, we are bested by ants and naked mole rats), it’s a bit off to suggest that individual and group selection somehow resulted in two competing brain processes. It might be a nice metaphor but isn’t really true. We can explain human behavior just fine without group selection.

That aside, Sacks points to research by sociologist Robert Putnam to explain why religion is valuable. He writes:

Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.

This is completely true, and I love these data. They speak not to the importance of religion but to the importance of communities. We’re social animals, and we’re at our best in social groups. Religion just happens to be a really accessible group.

Chris points to this in his MSNBC interview to justify the importance of humanist communities. James Croft pointed to these same findings in his article in The Humanist. And in a similar vein Paul Bloom, one of my professors while I was at Yale, wrote in a Slate article a few years ago:

The positive effect of religion in the real world, to my mind, is tied to this last, community component—rather than a belief in constant surveillance by a higher power. Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others. This is the moral of sociologist Robert Putnam’s work on American life. In Bowling Alone, he argues that voluntary association with other people is integral to a fulfilled and productive existence—it makes us “smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.”

The Danes and the Swedes, despite being godless, have strong communities. In fact, Zuckerman points out that most Danes and Swedes identify themselves as Christian. They get married in church, have their babies baptized, give some of their income to the church, and feel attached to their religious community—they just don’t believe in God. Zuckerman suggests that Scandinavian Christians are a lot like American Jews, who are also highly secularized in belief and practice, have strong communal feelings, and tend to be well-behaved.

But Sacks seems to take these findings and come to the exact opposite conclusion. It’s not community that matters, but religion. He writes:
Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.
But, as Bloom noted, that’s not what any of this shows at all. Losing their sense of God is what happened with the Danes and the Swedes. That’s what has happened with many secular Jews in the United States. That’s what happens to nonbelievers who go to church because of their spouses and are just as civically engaged as the believers in the community. Communities are important, not their theological commitments. And there’s no reason that humanists can’t create just as successful moral communities themselves.

So I encourage readers to join communities and be civically engaged. It doesn’t necessarily mean join the Unitarian Universalists or even a local humanist group. Bowling leagues and charities and clubs all seem to work just fine. But just because religion has been the largest source of our social capital doesn’t mean it has to be the only one. And it doesn’t mean we can’t do without it.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

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About Vlad Chituc

Vlad Chituc edits NonProphet Status. He's a researcher at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and sometimes economics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He likes the South very much and lives with his dog, Toad, who is great. In 2012, he graduated with a B.S. in psychology from Yale University, where he spent a lot of time reading philosophy and learning to write.